Sunday, August 3, 2014

Watching, waiting and thinking small

I haven't been posting much lately, partly because I've been preoccupied with other matters and partly because I'm a bit more uncertain these days, not about my basic values so much as how those values might relate to current political realities and options.

As I have explained in the past, my kind of conservatism is pragmatic and responsive to changing circumstances. Any intelligent strategy must be responsive in this way.

And circumstances are changing. In terms of global institutions, power relations and general culture, the post-World War II order is fading or failing and it is unclear what kind of order – or disorder – is going to take its place. One thing which is clear is that the more or less continuous economic progress which has underpinned stability in Western democracies seems to be coming to an end.

Continuing financial and economic troubles portend social and ultimately political crises in Europe and perhaps in the US and other developed countries.

As geo-political and economic realities change, political ideas must change. The basic principles and themes may remain the same but the way individuals interpret them and align themselves doesn't.

Sometimes old ideas gain new relevance, or standard assumptions are exposed as inadequate in the light of current events.

I'm not sure if the political center is shifting in Western countries or if we are simply losing that space which has allowed the center-left and the center-right to cooperate and compete and dominate the political landscape since World War II.

Nor is it clear whether the Chinese model of state capitalism or other possible alternatives to liberal democracy will continue to look viable. Corporatism seems to be making a comeback as well as various forms of economic nationalism. Patriotic protectionism is one of the key policies of many far-right Western European parties (the Front National in France, for example).

I am by nature an observer rather than a player, a political quietist rather than an activist. The distinction between watcher and participator is not a clear one, however. There is no neutral place from which one can watch history unfold; what happens inevitably has ramifying consequences, sometimes very significant consequences. And, if we are talking about epochal changes, everyone will be affected in one way or another.

Could what we are currently witnessing be described as epochal change? I think so. There is certainly a lot going on at the moment.

And, though these changes are driven more by economic realities than anything else, ideas play a part too: the crude, emotion-driven ideas that motivate ordinary people to support this or that leader, to protest or not to protest; as well as the more sophisticated ideas promoted by ideologues and intellectuals.

As I have argued elsewhere, these latter kinds of ideas – the more elaborated and intellectualized ones – are often merely post hoc rationalizations or justifications, attempts to make courses of action decided on for other reasons appear morally or intellectually respectable. But ideological structures also play an active role in recruitment and in defining and sustaining political groupings.

Ideological structures, however sophisticated they may appear, are always inadequate as models of social and political reality. They are merely useful (or dangerous) abstractions, attempts to impose some kind of value-based order on an immensely complex social and political landscape.

When we move from the personal to the political, from the particular to the general, there is always some distortion and loss of meaning. The concepts become thinner and more abstract and run the risk of losing touch with psychological and social realities altogether. At least in the social sciences quantifiable measurements are made which guarantee some kind of link to the real world (tenuous though that link all too often is).

I try to keep my orientation empirical and my main focus on the particular rather than the general, on psychology rather than on political or social theory, on cultures and customs rather than on universalizing ideologies, on particular languages rather than on language.*

In line with this way of thinking, the basic values that I cleave to manifest themselves at the level of individual experience, at smaller rather than at larger scales.

This is reality. This is where we truly live.

* Even the notion of a language is at several removes from reality. There are, of course, dialects and regional and social variations. And, as Noam Chomsky has emphasized, in the end there are only idiolects which change over time: the linguistic structures or sets of structures which each of us has internalized are in the final analysis quite individual and unique.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Time capsule

This smoke-permeated Canadian TV discussion program – an episode of CBC's Fighting Words! – was recorded in May 1960.* Paul Raymont of Philosophy, lit etc. unearthed and posted it last month. It represents the only known (to him, at least) video footage of two interesting but very different mid-century thinkers, George Grant and Max Black.** The other panelists are Toby Robins, an actress, and Michael Barkway, a newspaper editor.

I have come across Max Black's writings from time to time: his interests happen to coincide with mine at certain points, and I admire his clarity, his pragmatism and his restrained and unpretentious intellectualism. (I may have more to say about him at Language, Life and Logic sometime.)

Notice how Black, a logician at heart but one who understood limits of logic, seems to relate better to the newspaper editor than to the other philosopher. This may have more to do with general cultural background than with intellectual or ideological matters, however. Though Barkway was a clergyman's son from Yorkshire and Black was born in Azerbaijan to Russian-Jewish parents, Black's parents emigrated when Max was still an infant, ending up in England where he was raised and educated. Both Black and Barkway were graduates of Cambridge University.

Barkway lights a cigarette for Black after Black's initial cigar has mercifully (it seemed to produce an inordinate amount of smoke) run its course.

Grant is also an interesting character. He was clearly a more emotional and politically engaged thinker than Black, and his take on the nature of philosophy is also very different. He was a Canadian nationalist and 'Red Tory'. His deep religious (Christian-Platonist) and metaphysical (Hegelian) commitments informed both his politics and his view of the nature of philosophy. He doesn't mention metaphysics and only makes a brief allusion to religion in the discussion program but his strong moral views are clearly evident. He was particularly scornful of the view that charm has any importance.

Although Michael Barkway also expressed reservations about charm (seeing it as merely superficial) he clearly saw himself as a charmer. But his patronizing and spectacularly unsuccessful attempt to charm the actress Toby Robins ("...all this and brains too.") put me off him somewhat.

Robins, though her political views were naïve, comes across as a very open, warm and intelligent person. She saved the program from greyness. That's what she was there for, of course.

"Toby, very nice having you, dear," says the host Nathan Cohen at the end of the program. Not quite as bad as Barkway's remark, but close.

* Reference is made to the U-2 scandal which had just played out, and which involved the downing of a U.S. U-2 spy plane in Russia. The elaborate story which the American administration put out was exposed as a complete fiction by the Soviets when they revealed that they had captured the pilot alive. This incident was a turning-point in the Cold War, leading to increased tensions.

** Both men had previously appeared on the program but whether those tapes still exist I don't know.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

At Scientia Salon

Massimo Pigliucci recently published an essay of mine ('Does philosophy have a future?') at his new site, Scientia Salon. I knew beforehand something which Massimo recently confirmed in a personal communication and reiterated in a long comment on my post: that he "couldn't disagree more" with my take on philosophy.

Just to give a bit of background, Massimo recently wrote a piece taking Neil deGrasse Tyson to task for making dismissive remarks about philosophy, so I was a bit surprised when he went ahead and published my essay on the heels of that controversy. And controversy it was because Massimo's piece got huge exposure as it was picked up by the Huffington Post (see the Twitter and Facebook numbers for that post).

Anyway here is a link to Scientia Salon: scroll down for my essay and Massimo's challenge to Tyson.

My piece was designed as a discussion-starter and it seems to have achieved its objective. The social media numbers were relatively good and it prompted a lively and long comment thread.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Gloomy about Europe

Borrowing costs may have come down across Europe – even in Greece – but the underlying economic situation in many euro zone countries is still grim. And it may well be that the political consequences are only just starting to emerge.

In a recent piece in the Financial Times Gideon Rachman suggests that the euro crisis hasn't gone away: it has simply moved from the periphery to the core.

Italy, for example, has lost 25% of its industrial capacity since 2008, and the real level of unemployment is about 15%. The country's ratio of debt to GDP is more than 130%. France too has double-digit unemployment and the national debt is rising towards 100% of GDP.

Tension between European Central Bank president Mario Draghi and the German economic establishment including finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble seems to be increasing. And Rachman fears that Europe is very vulnerable to an external shock – such as higher energy prices as a result of any standoff with Russia over Ukraine.

Europe's fragile economy is in danger of being tipped into a deep recession. "And," writes Rachman, "a return to deep recession would favour the radical fringes in Europe."

Anyone who has witnessed Marine Le Pen's unequivocal and outspoken but brilliantly controlled television interview performances will be only too aware of the dangers.

But though she has made the Front National far more respectable than it was under her father and has achieved impressive electoral successes (such as in recent mayoral elections) with the prospect of more to come, she has not moved her party into the political – and certainly not into the economic – mainstream. She appeals directly (and effectively) to the French people and scorns the institutional status quo. And her protectionist economic policies are quite at odds with the economic thinking of both the centre left and the centre right.

The situation in other European countries, of course, is different but groups supporting policies similar to those of the FN are now a common feature of the political landscape.

In Asia, by contrast, despite rising nationalism and real threats to the continuing growth of trade and prosperity, bilateral free trade deals and other new arrangements to facilitate international trade and financial transactions are somehow continuing to happen. (Deals between Australia and Japan and Australia and South Korea have been finalized in recent days, for example, and a suite of new arrangements between Australia and China is expected to be concluded this year.)

Despite problems in some regions – like poor air or water quality, or food contamination – much of East Asia (and South and South-East Asia and Australasia) continues to benefit from strong levels of economic activity, with most countries still firmly committed to further lowering barriers to increased trade and investment.

Meanwhile Europe, driven by long-term historical, economic and demographic trends as well as more contingent cultural factors, is moving slowly (but apparently inexorably) to the periphery of global politics and trade. It doesn't help that, under an ineffective President and an increasingly dysfunctional political system, the United States seems to be drifting into a long, drawn-out and perhaps inevitable decline.

Such prognostications, I know, are not worth much. But as more people come to see things in this way – and they will if nothing happens to suddenly render this narrative implausible – these expectations will affect behaviour, feeding and consolidating deep, underlying economic and social trends. Even now, many Asian cities (like Singapore, for example) are booming and attracting some of Europe's and America's best talent.

I don't know that it makes sense to talk about Europe as a single entity. It has always been a patchwork of nations and regions with very different cultures and levels of prosperity. And – despite attempts over recent decades to create a more unified and homogeneous union – it remains something of a patchwork, more interdependent, certainly, but also more divided in new and complex ways.

Some regions, no doubt, will prosper; others will languish, relatively speaking. Given the overall economic situation, however, the best one can hope for, I think, is that the countries of Europe will maintain social harmony and hold at least to the general levels of prosperity which currently exist.

This would not be so bad. But such an outcome is far from guaranteed.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

A path not taken – twice

Reminiscing is a dubious business, sometimes indicative of a failing life, a fading brain (or both).

In fact, I have sometimes wondered whether Marcel Proust suffered from premature aging of his brain, as the past typically looms largest for dementia sufferers as old memories rise again eclipsing more recent and shallower ones. If he was in the early stages of dementia, he certainly made good use of his affliction.

For myself, I look to the past by and large only to try to make sense of the present, strongly believing that people (and organizations and societies) can only be properly understood when seen in the light of their development and history.

So for the individual, say, dwelling on past experiences or decisions need not be an entirely futile exercise and may even provide a better understanding of oneself and what it is one is really looking for (if indeed one is looking for anything at all).

In this regard, mistakes and bad decisions are particularly worth scrutinizing. Though what is lost is lost, critical scrutiny of past errors makes it less likely that similar patterns of behaviour will be repeated. (This is the essence of human intelligence, as I see it. Forget about cleverness.)

Though I'm skeptical about history as a discipline and the stories that historians tell, a sense of history gleaned from reading contemporary sources is undoubtedly valuable in understanding why things are as they are. Likewise, having a sense of an organization's history is a necessary prerequisite to understanding its culture. Learning from one's personal (and family) history is also possible, so long as one is able to remain sufficiently detached.

I've been thinking about the medical profession and doctors lately because I have had some recent dealings with them (concerning some minor but nagging symptoms which were bothering me*).

If I have regrets about paths not taken, not having taken a medical degree is not one of them. [A careful reader will be justifiably suspicious of the triple negative here. Does it indicate subconscious rationalization, a mind playing tricks on itself, I wonder?]

I tell myself that practising medicine would only have exacerbated my hypochondriacal propensities, because if one is constantly dealing with the health problems of others it is virtually impossible not to see potential parallels with the operations of one's own body.

And – have you noticed? – doctors seem all too often to die before their time. Statistics I have seen support this observation, and I think there is little doubt that the stress of dealing constantly with disease and death and being responsible day in, day out for making crucial decisions and giving advice to patients is largely the cause. (Also, easy access to benignantly lethal drugs has contributed to a relatively high suicide rate amongst doctors, I believe.)

Interestingly, two (at least) of my favorite writers were medically trained – William Somerset Maugham, whose early literary success allowed him to forego a medical career (and live to a grand age); and Anton Chekhov, who did practice (and died young). Another notable literary doctor was Céline (whom I haven't got around to reading).

My father had had thoughts of going to medical school. His mother was very keen on the idea (as mothers all too often are**).

At that time you needed a foreign language to get in, but his attempt at mastering French over a summer break with the aid of a linguistically-inclined college friend ended in failure.

Though he maintained a strong interest in science and medicine and (especially) genetics throughout his life, most of his reading – and he was a voracious reader*** – was non-scientific: history and (mid-20th-century) fiction.

He also maintained an exaggerated respect for the French language which he was very keen for me to keep up in high school.

He meant well but he was ineffective in steering his children in sensible directions, partly because he was increasingly out of touch with them and partly because he was out of touch with the times in which he lived. He remained only vaguely cognizant of the radical social and cultural changes that had occurred in the course of the four decades which separated his own high school years from those of his eldest child.

* The symptoms had nothing to do with my heart, but my general practitioner heard a murmur (which I have had from childhood and which has never caused problems) and he wanted it checked out. So I was booked in to have an echocardiogram. I was expecting something easy and quick like an ECG, and was surprised not only at how long it took but also at the physicality of it: all that poking and prodding and breathing out and holding one's breath and so on. To make matters worse, a couple of times during this process a terrible sloshing and gurgling noise – quite chaotic-sounding, actually – became briefly and alarmingly audible. I referred to this as I was getting dressed and the doctor was tapping away on the computer, trying to finish off whatever she had to finish off regarding my test. She said that that noise still bothered her and she was only now, after a number of years, starting to get used to it. I took some comfort in her remarks, as nervous airline passengers sometimes take comfort in the reactions – or non-reactions – of flight attendants to sudden turbulence or strange bumps or noises. Clearly my chaotic gurglings were not dramatically different from anyone else's...

** Jewish mothers especially? I rarely remember jokes; I tell them badly so what's the point? This one stuck however... From the shore, a Jewish mother sees her adult son in serious trouble in the water. "Help! Help!" she cries. "My son (the doctor) is drowning!"

*** Before there were any children, my parents went to a beach cottage together for a holiday. After they arrived, my father immediately got out a pile of books and settled into a comfortable chair. (Needless to say, this didn't do my mother's confidence any good. She was very young and naïve and starting to wonder about this time what she had got herself into.)

Friday, March 14, 2014

Michael Walzer on anti-Judaism

There is something about Michael Walzer's sympathetic presentation of David Nirenberg's ideas on the history of what he (following Nirenberg) calls anti-Judaism which seems – at least to me – to strike a false note. I am focussing here entirely on Walzer's essay and make no judgment about Nirenberg's book.

Part of the problem is that the term 'anti-Judaism' – which one naturally takes to refer specifically to the religion – is being stretched to encompass broader cultural and other factors.

For example, in his essay – the main point of which seems to be to promote the view that the Jews and Judaism of the Christian and post-Christian imagination bear no relationship to actual Jews and Judaism – Walzer writes:

"No doubt, Jews sometimes act out the roles that anti-Judaism assigns them – but so do the members of all the other national and religious groups, and in much greater numbers. The theory does not depend on the behavior of real Jews." [Emphasis mine.]

But, leaving that specific issue aside, consider this passage in which Walzer sums up (and endorses) David Nirenberg's core thesis about 'anti-Judaism':

"… [A]nti-Judaism claims to be explanatory. What is being explained is the social world; the explanatory tools are certain supposed features of Judaism; and the enemies are mostly not Jews but 'Judaizing' non-Jews who take on these features and are denounced for doing so. I will deal with only a few of Judaism’s negative characteristics: its hyperintellectualism; its predilection for tyranny; its equal and opposite predilection for subversive radicalism; and its this-worldly materialism, invoked […] by both Burke and Marx. None of this is actually descriptive; there certainly are examples of hyper-intellectual, tyrannical, subversive, and materialist Jews (and of dumb, powerless, conformist, and idealistic Jews), but Nirenberg insists, rightly, that real Jews have remarkably little to do with anti-Judaism." [My emphasis again.]

"None of this," Walzer wrote, "is actually descriptive." Just to be clear, he means that none of those listed characteristics is actually descriptive of Judaism.

The listed characteristics are descriptive of something, however, insofar as they are exemplified in the social world. This is important because, clearly, ideas can only be seen as explanatory (even if they are only in fact pseudo-explanatory) if the things they purport to explain are there to be explained (or mis-explained).

The question is, then, whether the characteristics in question have any correlation with Judaism or Judaic culture.

Walzer claims here that they do not, pure and simple.

But a strong case can be made that the Hebrew scriptures are characterized by a certain earthiness or 'embodiedness' or this-worldliness which is absent from many other religions. This is not materialism, certainly, but it does reflect a certain orientation which is very different from Platonistic idealism, for example.

There is also evidence of moral and political radicalism in various prophetic and apocalyptic texts.

Even Walzer admits in the course of his essay that the revolutionary Puritans at the time of the English civil war were actual Judaizers (and not just 'Judaizers') in that they focussed more on the Old than the New Testament. He also admits that many of the Bolsheviks were in fact Jewish – "though of the sort that Isaac Deutscher called 'non-Jewish Jews'."

As to hyperintellectualism, there is ample evidence for this in the Talmudic tradition, is there not?

Why not just admit these facts? I don't see the problem.

The issue is complicated and compounded – rather than clarified and resolved (which presumably was the intention) – by the introduction of the inevitably vague distinction between "real Jews" and "'Judaizing' non-Jews".

The basic thesis seems to run as follows...

Non-Jewish (and Jewish, like Marx) thinkers criticized certain forms of thought and action which they characterized as Judaic. But these forms of thought and action were in fact exemplified not so much by real Jews but rather by non-Jewish 'Judaizers'.

Real Jews have remarkably little to do with anti-Judaism precisely because the 'Judaism' of anti-Judaism has remarkably little to do with real Judaism (or indeed with anything Judaic). So the Judaizing non-Jews (or non-Jewish Judaizers) are not really Judaizing (or Judaizers) at all. (Except the Puritans, apparently.)

Got it?

Finally, let me address directly my concern about Walzer's use of the concept 'real Jews' and the substantive distinction which that concept entails between Jews and non-Jews. Making or assuming such a distinction leads inevitably to the sorts of odd dichotomies I was making fun of above and more generally to definitional dilemmas and arbitrary judgements which a more secular and pragmatic approach could easily avoid.

How would Isaac Deutscher's "non-Jewish Jews" fit in here, for example? Presumably they would be seen by Walzer as real Jews who had made some unfortunate choices!

And indeed, according to Philip Weiss who attended a talk Walzer gave to a Jewish audience in 2007, Walzer does seem to take this view (or something like it). Citing Exodus, Walzer allowed that there have always been irreligious Jews. He also accepted that there are Buddhist Jews. But Jews cease to be Jews by active conversion to, for example, Islam or Christianity. (Just in case you were wondering.)

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Another thought on Wittgenstein's masked theatre remark

I want to follow up on some comments I made the other day concerning Wittgenstein's remark about Jews being attracted to masked theatre by looking at a passage from Michael Walzer's recent essay on anti-Judaism.

Walzer writes:

"The critique of Jewish cleverness is fairly continuous over time, but it appears with special force among German idealist philosophers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, who repeat many of the supersessionist arguments of the early Christians. [That is, the idea that a new arrangement based on new and deeper values supersedes the old.] Kant understood the heteronomy he sought to overcome – action according to moral law externally imposed rather than freely accepted by the agent – in Jewish terms, but he was himself considered too Jewish by the philosophers who came next, most importantly by Hegel. Kantianism, Hegel claimed, was simply a new version of 'the Jewish principle of opposing thought to reality, reason to sense; this principle involves the rending of life and a lifeless connection between God and the world.' According to Hegel, Abraham had made a fateful choice: his rejection of the world in favor of a sublime God had alienated the Jews forever from the beauty of nature and made them the prisoners of law, incapable of love... [And] Schopenhauer, in the next generation, thought that the academic Hegelians of his time were 'Jews' and followers of 'the Jewish God'..."

Perhaps these notions of a certain kind of thought or intellectuality or cleverness leading to false perceptions and alienation – to being cut off from some supposedly deeper nature – may help to explain Wittgenstein's curious remark about masked theatre.

Originally I took Wittgenstein to be saying that masked theatre was an inferior form of theatre and its putative attraction for Jewish audiences was indicative merely of their lack of depth or artistic understanding.

But you could look at it another way. Perhaps Wittgenstein was thinking that masked theatre was ideally suited to expressing the alienation or cut-offness which Jews (or perhaps 'Jews') have supposedly inflicted on themselves by their intellectualism, etc.. This type of theatre would therefore be particularly meaningful to them (i.e. to intellectualizing Jews or 'Jews'*) – and possibly cathartic.

Belle Waring suggested (in response to my comment on her blog post in which I first raised this issue) that Wittgenstein can't have been referring to classical Greek theatre in his apparently disparaging remark. But this would no longer be the case if the remark was not (as I am now suggesting) intended to be disparaging at all.

* I may have something to say about this distinction and some other matters arising out of Walzer's article in a day or two – and then perhaps will give these Jewish themes a rest!