I discuss my new paper on polarization and the rise of ethno-nationalist populism as overlooked side-effects of urbanization in this free-wheeling live chat.
Shut Up and Listen: Intersectional Identity and the Value of Multi-Perspectival Diversity
That identity is complex is obviously true. And it’s obviously true that individuals with different “intersectional” identities are treated differently in certain respects, have different advantages, and face different challenges. It’s true, too, that these differences in treatment, advantage, and disadvantage create different experiences of the social world.
These differences in perspective are valuable, because each perspective tends to be blind to some things and have special insight about other things (especially about what it is like to inhabit that perspective), and by combining and reconciling perspectives we can achieve a more objective, impartial picture of the world.
We ought to be able to acknowledge that individuals, and groups of people who share particular overlap identities, have a certain authority on the character of their own experience. To enjoy the fruits of perspectival diversity, it’s necessary to let others speak about how things look from where they stand, to listen carefully, and seriously consider whether conflicts between their perspectives and ours are at least in part due to our own biases and the partiality and limitations of our identities.
This is at worst a very weak form of epistemic relativism—our evidence depends on what we experience and our identities put us in a position to experience, or not experience, certain things. So differences in identity can lead to conflicting rational beliefs. But it doesn’t begin to imply the relativity of truth. There is a one world and we’re all in it looking at it from slightly different angles. And the more angles we’ve got covered, the more complete our picture of world will be—but only as long as we’re open to reports from other vantages, and reconcile conflicting reports with truth-conducive methods.
The whole point of taking diversity seriously is to broaden one’s own perspective, to make it less constrained by the restricted vision of our own contingent identities. We should be curious about other perspectives, and encourage others to be curious. We should accept invitations to listen, invite others into our point of view, and not be assholes about it when they try and fail. We should thank them for trying, explain what they missed, and encourage them to try again.
That’s what really bothers me about “You don’t have this identity, so you don’t get to talk about it” power moves. I think most people are decent and sincere and usually mean this as, “Please, we haven’t had the right or the power or the status to offer a full report from our angle of vision, but you always have, and tend to dominate these discussions, leaving so little time and space for anyone else, so please, just listen for once.”
And that’s how I personally choose to take it when I’m told to “shut up, you’re not Latina,” or whatever. And I think I’ve come to have a less biased and partial view of the world because of that policy. And this has helped me better understand the frustration and hostility behind those kinds of comments.
For example, shutting up and listening has helped me better understand why white guys don’t have a legitimate “gotcha!” mirror-image complaint about others talking about us. Ours really is the dominant perspective, and everybody else has to basically grasp how things look to us if they want to survive and get ahead. There is so much white guy art and white guy commentary and white guy news that if you’re alive and can read or have a television, you’ve probably got the basic picture. What you don’t get, and don’t understand, is what’s it’s like from the inside to be so thoroughly oblivious to such an abundance of advantage, because we can’t see it well enough to usefully talk about it. That’s the inscrutable mystery of us.
Still, hostile “Shut up, you can’t possibly know” comments are hostile, and it’s hard not to react defensively to hostility. And those comments communicate that other perspectives are inaccessible and can’t be imagined into, because they assume that people with other identities can’t have already tried to see things from the point of view in question and so can’t have already achieved some valid insight by having done so. It’s bad and wrong to simply assume that. The point of asking somebody to stop talking and listen is to invite them inside. That’s obviously undermined by suggesting that, really, they can’t.
The much more radical relativistic view that says rational methods for reconciling disagreement and approaching objectivity and truth are merely a figment of one identity-bound perspective is worse. It deprives perspectival diversity of all it’s epistemic value, and leaves you with little reason to care about other perspectives at all. It turns disagreement into war. And the worst possible strategy for rectifying unjust inequalities of power is to go to war against groups experienced in unjustly applying unequal power.
Thankfully, this view is actually really, really rare. If I encounter it, I just try to explain why it is counterproductive and dangerous. But if somebody seriously won’t listen to you because you’re a white guy, what can you do? Well, here’s something to try: give them the benefit of the doubt, assume that the error they are making is a distortion of a valid insight, driven by valid worries, invite them to say more, and listen.
Authority! How the #@%$! Does It Work?
I’ve been thinking a lot about authority for a number of reasons. I’m the father of a toddler. Donald Trump. I’ve found myself in management. I’ve been reading Andy Sabl’s Hume’s Politics: Coordination and Crisis in the “History of England”. And I recently reread and was pretty much convinced by this insightful paper by Christopher Morris (my former grad school advisor), which argues that contemporary liberal political theory’s nearly universal uptake of the Weberian notion of state power as fundamentally coercive is really pretty baffling and seems to be based on some sort of confusion about how authority actually works. So how does it work? Please, tell me.
Thomas Christiano’s SEP entry isn’t giving me what I want. It seems to embody the problem that Morris points out. Philosophers are obsessed with the legitimacy of political authority. That’s cool. But it seems like you first need to know how authority works, as general descriptive matter, and then move on to how specifically political authority works as a descriptive matter. Then you can ask about when it’s legitimate, such that the law ought to be regarded as a truly authoritative source of obligation. Though he doesn’t go too far into it, I think Morris is suggesting that political authority works a lot more like authority generally works, and authority often doesn’t work through the threat of sanctions, and rarely works through the threat of coercive sanctions.
Authority mostly works through buy-in, seems to me. Authority is incredibly important to humans because humanity’s ONE GREAT TRICK is learned hyper-social cooperation, but it’s a super-hard problem to solve, which is why we’re the only species that can do it. Complicated collective enterprises can’t possibly work unless everybody’s on the same page. We solve this problem by first coordinating on norms and figures of authority. That’s what keeps complex coordinated collective action from constantly falling apart from the “problem of private reason”–the problem of everybody acting on their own, idiosyncratic ideas about what they ought to be doing at any given moment. If everyone’s marching to the beat of a different drummer, you don’t get a parade and you don’t get music. You get pointless noise.
If the Golden State Warriors’ starting five had never met, but you threw them on a court against pretty much any five random guys, they’ll almost certainly destroy them. But if you throw them on a court against a well-coached Cleveland Cavaliers team, they’ll get absolutely throttled. They won’t be able to coordinate with the level of planning and precision needed to compete. Steve Kerr and Tyronn Lue are there (and are lavishly compensated) for a reason and the reason is authority. You may think it’s just that the Warriors need a strategy. It’s true, but it’s not just that. Who decides on the strategy? Who gets everyone on the same page? Who decides when the strategy needs to change? How do you get the sort of tightly-knit, well-oiled (oiled fabric is a thing!) collective compliance that makes strategy effective? Authority. There has to be someone whose judgments are decisive, and whose judgments are treated as decisive. There needs to be someone who occupies a role that obliges them to issue commands and that obliges the members of the collective enterprise to comply with them simply because they were issued. If doesn’t necessarily have to be a person. It might be a set of rules or norms, the authority of which we’ve coordinated around in advance, which provide coordinating guidance. Even if they’re strangers, the Warriors’ starting five will do pretty well—probably crush any college team—because they’ve all internalized authoritative norms about basketball strategy. But they’ve internalized those coordinating norms so deeply and well because they’ve all have effectively authoritative coaches for decades. In the possible world in which those five guys had never seen a basketball, their raw, uncoached physical talent would leave them helpless against well-coached high-school team.
Coaches have authority and it works mostly because team member simply agree that they have it. The threat of sanctions reinforces it and shores it up. But it’s really almost totally irrelevant to the question of what their authority is. If a coach benches a player and the player just stays on the court, what can he do? If the referee ejects him, and he sits down at half-court, then what? It never happens because the coach’s authority, and the referee’s authority, comes from the fact that everybody involved agrees that they have it, which means that they agree that they really are duty-bound to treat their commands as authoritative, which actually does generally elicit compliance. If coach tells you to do 10 killers in practice, you can just walk out of the gym and not come back. The threat of sanction is effective, and can be enforced, only because you already accept the legitimacy of the coach’s authority.
Philosophers generally draw a sharp line between de facto and legitimate authority, but it can be a confusing distinction because it’s not really a distinction between the descriptive and prescriptive or positive and normative. De facto authority is already normative. Normativity is built in at the ground floor. Authority supplies binding reasons for action. THAT’S HOW IT WORKS. That’s how it coordinates. So when we’re asking about the legitimacy of authority, we can’t be asking about what gives authority its normative force. If it’s de facto authority, it already has it. So we must be asking for some sort of higher-order moral validation of authority’s reason-giving power. De facto authority does produce obligations, but do we really have reason to really do what authority supplies us with reasons to do.
The problem of political authority, as it’s generally understood, really only arises if you assume that political authority, unlike the authority of basketball coaches, functions through the threat of sanctions, and coercive ones at that. But why think that? Why not think that people grant authority to rules for granting authority (like, “the person with authority on this set of questions is the person a majority of us vote to have authority on these questions”) in the same way they grant authority to coaches. They just sort of agree that it works this way. If the city requires you to get a permit to build, and you don’t get a permit, then they give you a piece of paper that tells you to cut it out, and mostly this is effective in just the same way a coach benching a player is effective. Sometimes people sit down at half court or keep building anyway, and in those cases, its often not actually clear at all what to do because the system isn’t really built around sanctions. The city may send you a fine, and if you keep building, send you more fines, and get a collection agency to collect them, hoping the sanction will elicit compliance with the authoritative command, but it’s actually just sort of confounding when people don’t consider them authoritative. They may put a fence around your property or condemn it or seize it or threaten to put you jail for not paying your fines, and now we’re getting to coercion, but it seems crazy to think that’s what makes the building code authoritative. It’s authoritative because the city council approved it, and we picked and conferred authority on the city council by rules we’ve coordinated around as authoritative.
It just seems to me that pretty much everybody, and not just libertarians (who are super wedded to the idea that political authority is essentially coercive) are fundamentally misdescribing the nature of politics and therefore the problem of political authority.
Anyway, who’s good on WHAT AUTHORITY REALLY IS and HOW IT REALLY WORKS? David Hume! Who else?
[Photo: That’s Fred Hoiberg coaching the Chicago Bulls. Fred Hoiberg completely humiliated me in the two minutes I played against him in junior high basketball. He’s a pretty good coach and makes a lot more money than I ever will.]
Social Justice as an Essentially Contested Political Concept
What is social justice anyway?
The only way to start is to admit straightaway that there’s no correct answer the question. Political terms such as “justice”, “freedom”, “equality”, and even “social” are famously “essentially contestable.” Words that express big political ideals crackle with motivating rhetorical electricity. They’re romantic and glamorous and people will die to defend them. That’s why words like “liberty” and “justice” are fated to be sites of semantic turf wars fought by rival political factions who want to pack the concept with a meaning favorable to their ideology’s aims.
Another way to put it is that there’s no determinate fact of the matter about the meaning of essentially contestable concepts. There are multiple and often incompatible accounts of the content of these concepts. Let’s call those accounts “conceptions.” So there are multiple conceptions of justice and liberty. But it’s not as though “justice” and “liberty” are empty shells that you can fill with whatever you like. A conception of justice isn’t really a conception of justice if it doesn’t have anything to do with what people are due or ought to get. A conception of liberty isn’t really a conception of liberty if it doesn’t have anything to do with the absence of limitations on action. But in virtue of what are people due, say, rights or, say, a cut of a business’ profits? What limitations on action count as restrictions on liberty? (I’m not free to go to El Paso because a tree fell on me? Because I don’t have enough money for a bus ticket? Because a guy with a gun won’t let me across the Mexico-U.S. border?) Different answers generate different conceptions that generate different ideas about what it means in political terms to realize an ideal of justice or liberty or whatever.
If you see someone pounding the table insisting that their conception of an essentially contested concept is the uniquely correct one, you’ve found an ideologue. That doesn’t mean they’re necessarily wrong. But generally you can be pretty sure that they’re rigging the game in a way that arbitrarily accuses millions of people of misusing words. Steven Pinker will tell you that language doesn’t work that way. Linguistic prescriptivism mainly functions to send a signal about what kind of person you are. There’s a lot of this in politics, which is, after all, a factional and solidaristic enterprise. If someone insists that “liberty” just means “negative liberty,” despite common usage to the contrary, the news you can use is that he’s a libertarian.
You may be worried about the implications of conceptual indeterminacy, but this example actually illustrates the fact that everything’s not simply up in the air. Some conceptions are better than others. It’s possible to offers reasons on their behalf. For example, some conceptions arbitrarily flout common usage without offering generally compelling compensating advantages. That’s the problem with most sectarian table-pounding about the meaning of political words. There’s more. Essentially contested concepts may be short on determinate, analytically unpackable contents, but they’re generally in a certain line of work. Some conceptions are better suited to that work. More than anything else, an essentially contested concept just is the history of its competing conceptions. This history is generally reflected in the usage of political terms in the wild. Close examination of the history of conceptions and the application of the concept in ordinary speech will reveal certain recurring ideas and themes. A satisfactory theoretical conception of a political term preserves these ideas and themes and gets them to hang together in a coherent way that is useful for the line of conceptual/normative work the concept happens to be in.
If you think this sounds a lot like how Aristotle said we’re supposed to do moral philosophy in the Nicomachean Ethics, then you’re right. Aristotle was smart. David Schmidtz is smart and his method in Elements of Justice is, I think, exemplary. He doesn’t insist that justice is one thing. He pays attention to history and discourse and insists that it’s not. He gets the various elements of justice to hang together as well as possible without torturing them, which leaves you with a conception of justice that’s still pretty indeterminate in some ways—nothing like the ONE CONCEPTION OF JUSTICE TO RULE THEM ALL—yet is nevertheless extremely illuminating for having explained the indeterminacy (too many jobs/contexts for a perfectly unified master conception) and for having explained what rival conceptions miss or unduly minimize or how they sometimes change the subject.
If it were possible to stop the train of history and jump off with a final and authoritative conception of an essentially contested concept, contestation wouldn’t be essential. But it is. Nevertheless, at any given time, some conceptions of big-ticket political ideals are more useful for present purposes, more adequate to history and usage, and less partial, ideologically rigged, and wrong. The ground is solid enough to build on.
Traditional libertarian and conservative opponents of social justice make the mistake of challenging the coherence, and thus the rhetorical and normative authority, of the concept itself—as if the concept was in a line of work not worth doing. This is a mistake, because they would have made more progress had they instead contested the meaning of social justice and offered a conception of it more compelling and adequate than the alternatives. As a matter of history, rejecting the concept has not much undermined its cultural and political currency. The main effect of right-leaning social justicitis has been to leave its meaning largely unchallenged, in effect giving those who don’t doubt it’s utility carte blanche to fill it in with their favored conception. So that left’s favored conception has prevailed for a very long time and, as a consequence, has done real and lasting damage to the prospects of classical liberal politics.
Some argue that offering a fresh classical liberal/libertarian take of social justice amounts to little more than an attempt to opportunistically “hijack” or “co-opt” a term with a settled anti-libertarian meaning. But this argument misunderstands the essentially contestable nature of political concepts (and thus misunderstands the nature of politics itself) and subtly begs the question by implicitly denying that the meaning of the concept seems so settled because of the same lack of contestation that is being advised. That is to say, a bad effect of the policy of non-contestation—the fact that most everybody agrees that social justice means what the social-democratic left says it does—is taken as a reason to maintain that policy and continuing attacking the coherence of the whole concept.
But, again, my claim is that rather than undermining the currency and political force of the concept of social justice, this policy has simply sharpened its political thrust by helping to lock in a socialist-flavored conception of it. My further claim is that classical liberal and libertarian thought has ready at hand the resources to supply a conception of social justice that really does count as a conception of social justice—it is in the right line of work—and that it is at least as morally attractive and intellectually credible as rival conceptions. Setting forth this conception in good faith lays claim to currently uncontested ground, which forces engagement from those who would defend the prevailing conception.
Some people in the market for a conception of social justice will adopt a neoclassical liberal conception wholesale. Others will modify their current conception of social justice to address weaknesses exposed by the neoclassical liberal challenge, drawing them nearer to it on this or that margin. Most importantly, offering a neoclassical liberal conception of social justice removes permission to simply ignore classical liberal and libertarian thinkers. The rejection of social justice is taken by many on the left as prima facie evidence that the argument that matters most has been won already—that libertarians have in effect conceded that they cannot compete in the terms decent people most care about. So there’s no reason to engage. All that remains is to diagnose why libertarians so vehemently insist that there’s a debate about liberty that is (a) worth having, that (b) they think they can win, but which (c) has nothing to do with social justice.
Classical liberals suffering from social justicistis tend to identify the concept of social justice so strongly with the technocratic-egalitarian conception of social justice that they can’t see how it’s possible to offer a classical liberal conception that doesn’t give away the store. I think they’re making a simple mistake about the fixity of moral concepts and underestimating the resources of their own ideas. In any case, refusing to offer a conception of social justice pretty clearly gives away the store most broadly liberal people want to patronize in exchange for a poorly trafficked, well-defended bodega. At least its ours, I guess. Who wants those customers anyway?
Why Trump Might Win
Yes, Trump is Worse
I agree with Ezra Klein here. And the insistence with which people attempt to draw moral equivalences between Trump’s transparent thuggery and Clinton’s totally mundane, corrupt-within-ordinary-parameters party machine politics strikes me as a dangerous symptom of a diseased political culture. I find it especially distressing when it comes from libertarians and worry that a movement that has spent decades advancing the indiscriminately delegitimatizing view that politics is inherently criminal, violent, and authoritarian has probably made it harder to see what ought to be vivid distinctions between acceptable and unacceptable political conduct. And that, in turn, has made it more likely that we will get politics that are criminal, violent, and authoritarian. I mean, Angela Merkel and Vladimir Putin: what’s the difference, right? Well, there’s a difference. And sooner or later unintended consequences come for everybody, even the people who think unintended consequences are for other people. The question is what you do with the cognitive dissonance. When it begins to become apparent that the way you’re pursuing your political goals is having the opposite effect, do you double down and make things worse? Or do you put away your pride, admit error, and modulate your approach in light of new facts?
Get Over Yourself and Support Hillary Clinton
This sort of brazen banana-republic goonishness is why I won’t even consider voting for, say, Gary Johnson, unless Hillary’s polling ahead by 20 points in my state, and why you shouldn’t either.
I’m picking up a troubling sense that decades of partisan slagging on Clinton have made it hard for a lot of people who care about freedom, on both the left and the right, to support her. Well, get over it, babies. You’ve been underestimating how well our democracy does in fact protect our freedom. Maybe you’re convinced that it hardly protects our rights at all. That’s understandable. Under normal circumstance, if you want things to get better, you’ve got to draw attention to how bad things are, not to how well our democracy does work, considering. But it does work pretty well, considering, and that’s a huge blessing that we take for granted at our peril. Just take a look at the way this would-be despot threatens to censor the political speech and expropriate the property of perceived political opponents. We’re as rich and free as we are because that kind of stuff happens here a lot less than it might, and a lot less than it does in some other place, and one of the reason that’s the case is that we’ve historically considered it WAY out of bounds for potentially powerful political figures to threaten to stomp the shit out of the rights of their rivals.
Decent institutions aren’t magic. Good black-letter rules help, but they don’t make institutions work like algorithms make computers work. People following the rules, even when nobody’s looking, is what makes institutions work. People sticking to the spirit of the norms that underpin the rules, even when the rules technically allow this or that sort of bad behavior, is what makes institutions work. Healthy political culture makes them work. Well, Donald Trump is waging an onslaught on that culture. The man’s straight ebola to the American body politic. And we’re the immune system, people. We have a job, as American T-cells, and that’s to reject this virulence, and protect our political culture, such as it is, with the greatest possible collective force. The best way to do that is to help Hillary Clinton win this November in a momentous landslide.
Don’t like her? Hate her? Get over it, babies. Fighting for freedom and justice right now means limiting the damage this thug is doing to the norms that make everything else possible. It means scrambling to preserve our sort-of-shitty but also pretty good institutions. Hillary Clinton is basically a living manifestation of America’s prevailing political culture. Plenty shitty—warmongering, more than a touch corrupt—but also a competent, reasonable, relatively decent, public-spirited creature of America’s one non-imploding establishment political party. If you like freedom or social justice, or anything else this side of satanic chaos, your job is not only to vote for Hillary Clinton, but to stand up and say that you’re going to, loud and proud, in a way that communicates that you expect other decent Americans to do the same.
Maybe you’re a libertarian and you’re really into just how outrageously dumb voters are, have recently unlocked the mysteries of the political universe with your iron grasp of the logic of diffuse costs and concentrated benefits, believe that voting is complicity with state violence, and that Hillary Clinton’s just the worst kind of transactional log-rolling technocrat. Awesome. You know what? You’re right. Vote for Hillary Clinton. Or maybe you’re a progressive who thinks Citizens United consolidated the grip of the oligarchs and everything’s rigged against the people and the powerless, millions of whom suffer as we speak, and that Hillary’s in the pocket of problem—that she is the problem. Correct. Hillary Clinton is the problem. Vote for Hillary Clinton. FoxNews devotee who would rather blind yourself with the sharp end of an anti-Planned Parenthood picket than vote for HilLIEry? I get it. You love America. So vote for Hillary Clinton.
There is no partisan or ideological divide on the urgent necessity to maintain a baseline level of decency in our political culture. At this point, a crushing landslide for Hillary Clinton is the best we can do to protect it. This isn’t just a practical act of political self-defense. It’s a symbolic act of cultural assertion. Now is not the time for tender conscience and expressive individual participation (or non-participation). Now is the time for grudging but resolute solidarity and powerfully expressive collective participation. We need to put our individually insignificant pebbles in a pile and build a mighty wall against comb-over authoritarianism. Heave your pebble with double-hot hatred at Hillary next time. We need to suck it up, come together, and do something for our country. Nobody said fighting ebola’s fun.
HILLARY CLINTON 2016!!!!! #imwithher
[NB: This is an entirely personal message and should not be construed as reflecting the views of the National Football League.]
Why David Bowie Is Important to Me
The sickness of my generation is a zealous attachment to “authenticity.” It is stultifying, oppressive, maybe even deadly, and premised on false assumptions about the nature of personal identity. Bowie is the antidote. He taught that persona is performance. If there is anything like authenticity, it is fidelity to a higher-order sensibility, a sort of governing taste, which is mutable but in some sense still coherent, which regulates the style in which you perform yourself, but leaves open the question, maybe even sets aside the question, of who you really are. Rather than demanding authenticity, which is inherently paradoxical–trying to be real is embarrassing and fake–Bowie-ism instead asks for playful imagination in the artful construction and performance of persona. You can’t aspire to Bowie’s level of virtuosity in this regard, but it is liberating, especially for a Gen X-er drawn toward the grimly earnest misguided intensity of the authenticity cult, to see life as a playful pageant of role-playing that can be done with more or less art. Bowie is why I tell my writing students that there is no “voice” to find, no voice that belongs to the true you, because there is no true you, only ever versions of yourself you have learned to perform, and the voice of the character you play on the page is up to you. The question is not who you are but what connects, how much courage you have, how much guile, what you can manage to get away with.
Libertarianism and the Politics of Everything
It is a precept of Athenian philosophy in the Socratic tradition that the impetus to philosophy begins with wonder at the heavens, but the attempt to actually philosophize begins with what is near to hand–with what is ordinarily said. The presocratics are in error when they attempt to begin with and build up from a speculative ontological basis. Theorizing human life with the materials of cosmic speculation tends to produce disdain for the norms of ordinary conduct and leads us to ignore or forget what we already implicitly know about how to live together. Good philosophy begins with the question of how to live and then builds from there out to the encompassing cosmos. Our most urgent ordinary questions are political questions. What should the rules of our common social life be? What should the laws be? To answer those questions we need to know what a good human life is, and how the rules of a community can help people live well. But to know these things we’ve got to ask what sort of thing a human being is and what sort of thing a human community is. And that pushes us out toward questions about how humans fit within the larger natural order and toward questions about how communities must function in order for people to live well within them. Which calls in turn for a grasp of general principles about the forces that explain observed patterns, beneficial and pathological, in human organization. And on and on.
Perhaps my favorite insight of Leo Strauss is that when we do philosophy like the presocratics, and put metaphysics first, our resulting theory risks failing to account for politics, leaving us to muddle through with untutored common sense, or, in the worst case, leads us to over-abstractly theorize politics in a way that does terrible violence to significant truths of untutored political common sense, setting us up for tyrrany. I think this is true and that overly abstract and idealized political theory is not to be much trusted. Good philosophy just is political philosophy in the sense that the implicit wisdom of ordinary social life is where we begin, and consistency with that wisdom is a standard against which to judge the adequacy of further efforts to theorize the world. Strauss thinks philosophy is inherently political in a different sense as well. Humans are political animals, and philosophy as a human practice devoted to the rational evaluation of the regime and its laws is, if the philosopher is doing it right, threatening to those with a vested interest in the status quo. In certain very common illiberal circumstances, the philosopher has to play a certain kind of politics–has to philosophize politically–just to survive. Strauss is correct about this, too. But that’s not what I mean here when I say that good philosophy is political from the start. I mean that philosophy ought to begin not with an inquiry into the basic furniture of the cosmos, but with common sense about everyday human life, which is political.
When you assume this stance and take the rules that govern ordinary life as the starting point of philosophy, the sense in which everything is political becomes clearer. By political I mean contested, negotiated, and normatively binding. Coercion is a limiting case of rule enforcement and not the essence of the political, in this sense.
So, I made coffee this morning. The exact way this came about reflects a vast set of rules that are political in my broad sense, but also political in a libertarian’s narrower sense. The coordination of the production and distribution of my coffee and my coffee maker depended on a system of property rights that is, in fact, politically defined. And the interface between different national regimes of property rights that got my beans from Guatemala to Chattanooga was probably mediated by politically negotiated trade agreements. And my coffee machine is what it is and cost what it did in part due to politically-determined patent law. And the coffee was processed, and my machine functions, in a manner in part determined by politically-implemented health and safety regulations. And so on and so on. Politics in every drop.
Let me now suggest that libertarianism, in its purer forms, is partially a result of going at politics a bit too much metaphysics first, rather than the other way around. I think one consequence of this is that libertarians generally don’t like the idea that politics pervades every sip of coffee. Libertarians tend to see this sort of insight as evidence of a lamentable and unnecessary over-politicization of everything. (But I, Pencil is a glorious story of apolitical complex market coordination!) Libertarians do not, however, deny that law and regulation structure our relationships or everyday interaction with the world. They agree that it does, and think it’s a problem. They tend to see life within the ubiquitous life-structuring matrix of state-backed legislation as a distortion of natural or ideal human relations in much the same way that Marxists see private property as a distortion of natural or ideal human relations. It’s interesting to contrast radical libertarians and Marxists on this score. Radical libertarians think that if you get rid of politics, you end up with only private property and “natural” and/or “ideal” market relations. But these “natural” market relations, according to Marxists, are what is inherently distorting, oppressive, and political. It’s only when we get rid of bad, distorting market relations, by getting rid of the politics of private ownership of capital, that we can have “natural” and/or “ideal” political community.
Anyway, what would undo the distortion, according to libertarians? Interestingly, the only answer is politics. Libertarian think tanks advise emendations to current public policy. These changes can only be implemented through the political system. Even to recommend them is a fundamentally political act. Free Staters coordinate to take over the state politics of New Hampshire. The seasteaders and champions of startup cities are directly involved in the very complicated geopolitical realities of founding new city-states. Founding a new sovereign or semi-sovereign polis is, of course, politics par excellence.
In practical effect, libertarianism is a force or tendency within the existing political order that creates pressure not for the abolition of the state, but for different laws within current states, or new states with new laws. The main libertarian argument is that people have certain rights, and certain current laws violate those rights. So new laws replacing those bad laws ought to be passed, or newly instituted. Of course, we all understand that the law constrains and enables behavior, so we worry about the effects of changing the law. Libertarians speak to these worries. Libertarianism is a voice in the public square constantly making the claim that changing this or that law so that it will better accord with the libertarian notion of rights will not harm the public good, but will probably enhance it. (There are libertarians who skip rights altogether and argue for these changes simply on the grounds that they will have good consequences, but these people count as libertarians rather than ideologically neutral, pragmatic utilitarians because their policy recommendations so closely track those implied by libertarian theories of rights.) The argument over what rights people have isn’t just a philosophical matter, and libertarians don’t treat it as simply philosophical, either. They want the law to reflect it. Public policy follows opinion, and opinion is largely a matter of what people think is wrong and right. Making arguments about what the laws ought to be is the fundamental political, and philosophical, task.
Yet libertarians tend to affect a disdain for practical politics, and tend to see themselves as criticizing politics from a politically untainted place of ideal community beyond politics. But this is a mistake–a mistake that hobbles the effectiveness of the libertarian program, which is thoroughly and comprehensively political. Libertarians qua libertarians do nothing but politics, arguing for the active political revision of current law, or the founding of new polities with new laws, on the basis of a philosophical theory about what the laws should be. The widespread libertarian idea that actively participating in politics lacks dignity, or, worse, involves an intolerable complicity with injustice, has probably helped libertarianism maintain a certain uncompromised ideological purity, but has also made it strangely self-neutralizing as an effective political force.
When libertarians do stumble into some political power, they tend to get confused about what to do with it, because they’ve spent most of their intellectual lives hammering away at the status quo with their ideal theory, and basically no time whatsoever thinking about the implications of that theory for practical governance in a smashmouth pluralistic democracy. What shall we do first? Audit the fed?
What does libertarianism look like when it takes seriously the fact that it is one ideological faction among others acting politically to renogotiate the terms of the pervasive matrix of political rules within which we are always already enmeshed and from which there can be no escape? Does it become finally effective as a political force? Or does it become something else altogether?
An Ideological Turing Simulation of Certain Straussian Ideas
My last post expressed some confusion over the Straussian identification of philosophy and reason with the practice of Socratic rationalism. On one interpretation of Strauss, the philosophical life, so conceived, is the best human life. The argument for the bestness of the Socratic life is elusive, to say that least. As I mentioned last time, Socratic reason is relatively weak and the grounds of its authority as a source of true belief are rather numinous. I suggested that the Athens vs. Jerusalem aspect of the theologico-political problem is not a problem with a more robust conception of reason and philosophy. In this post, I’m interested in why Strauss and his followers eschew a stronger form of reason, and I try to think it through. This is not scholarship. It’s an imaginative, psychologizing reconstruction of a certain syndrome of belief. Though I’m very interested in the scholarship of this stuff, my immediate purpose is to build a fictional character with a Straussian cast of mind. That said, the constraints of scholarly method can be an impediment to real understanding, and well-informed speculation can be more illuminating.
A Problem of Semi-Mystical Rationality
Strauss, like Heidegger, thinks the ancient Greeks knew something we have forgotten. Heidegger seems to think to think the forgetting begins with the abandonment of pre-Socratic metaphysics. Strauss seems to think the forgetting begins with Plato. The biggest oddity in Strauss’s many commentaries on Plato is his neglect of the theory of the forms. One gets a strong sense that Strauss thinks Plato projects the theory of the forms back onto Socrates, osbscuring the genuine Socratic conception of the nature of reason, and thereby the activity of philosophy. At the same time, Strauss seems to assume that the real Socrates is there in the dialogue, if you can abstract from the Platonic overlay. What Plato gives us that Socrates doesn’t is a theory of knowledge based in the apprehension of universals. Platonic rationalism is itself slightly mystical, because what are the forms exactly? Where are they? How do we grasp them? With souls that are, like the forms, incorporeal and eternal? Aristotle naturalizes the forms and the soul, if not all the way, and gives us immanent universals and souls as the functional principle of animals. We recognize pure Platonic reason. It is math. And we recognize Aristotelean pure reason. It’s syllogistic logic operating on premises established by apodictic induction or refined common sense. Philosophy 101.
The problem with Philosophy 101 is that it tends to unwittingly treat this trajectory in conceptions of reason as a sort of progress. Suppose however that real philosophic reason is the messier reason of the sort we get in Aristotle’s N. Ethics. We can’t always start from self-evident premises. In ethics and politics, we have to start from opinion, from the things people say, spot the internal inconsistencies, identify the unstated assumptions, and edge toward something more certain than mere opinion by a process of reflective equilibration. (Straussians obviously wouldn’t put it that way, but it’s the right way to interpret Aristotle.) This is pretty much what Socrates does. But this sort of philosophical method looks a lot different if you jettison both Platonic and Aristotelian universals as unduly speculative and metaphysical. (Can these theories really survive Socratic scrutiny?)
Strauss often mentions Socrates’ insight that knowledge of the “the whole” requires “noetic heterogeneity.” The world isn’t all air, or all fire, or all love and strife, or whatnot, but instead encompasses many fundamentally different kinds of things. To know something of the whole is therefore to know something of the nature of its various kinds. Theories of universals are theories that account for the fundamental ontological heterogenity of nature as well as the unified whatness of beings of the same natural kind. Crucially, universals are stable semantic anchors. With the right sort of complementary theory of mind, you can build theories of reference, truth, truth-preserving inference, causal regularity/law, induction, and so forth, on top of them. Which is to say, universals provide the metaphysical ground for a conception of reason as an authoritative means of arriving at truths about the world.
But what if you give that all up? Suppose you’re a mid-century German prone to standard mid-century German narratives about the history of philosophy. So you think Platonic rationalism leads to Aristotelian rationalism leads to Scholastic rationalism. And the Schoolmen lead, on the one hand, to Cartesian rationalism, which leads to the skepticism it fails to save us from, and, on the other hand, we get English empiricism and its fairly straightforward devolution into skepticism. Oh no! Skepticism everywhere! (You will have paid no attention to “common sense” non-Hume Scots who have diagnosed the common ground of empiricist and rationalist skepticisms. They are glib, and probably cheap.) So here comes Kant to save us from skepticism by putting the structure of the world inside the mind, so that it’s no problem for the mind to get to it. But then what accounts for the transcendantal stability of this structure? Huh? Nothing. Oh no! Which leads to Hegel historicizing the structure of mind, which is sort of worse than skepticism, and then we get disaster after disaster. Hegel and then Marx and … tyranny. Hegel and then Nietszche and … tyranny. Hegel and then Husserl, who really pays attention, but just can’t decide if he’s inside his head or outside his head. And then, in your lifetime, Heiddegger’s all, “Guys Nietzsche’s right and we have royally fucked this up! The terms of the game are rigged for failure. No more inside the head or out! No more subjective and objective. Back to the presocratics and poetry and BEING. Oh, and let’s all be Nazis.” And then Sartre’s all, “You just decide how to live, which might mean joining the Resistance, but also might not. It’s all cool. Just try keep it authentic, man. Freedom, dig? So, obvs, support the Soviets.” Meanwhile, the logic-chopping nouveau empiricists in Cambridge and Vienna aren’t really doing so great saving us from skepticism by rebuilding the world out of sense data and logically perfect languages. Moreover, they have nothing of use to say about all this tyranny, about all the incinerating of trainloads of people and all the revolutionary mass-starvation of the people for the people, except maybe for moving to America and noting that people use moral words to express their feelings.
Suppose all that. You might be tempted to think Heidegger was right and that there was some kind of giant mistake at the outset of the tradition. You will not sense the disreputable Hegelianism of a grand this-leads-inexorably-to-that reading of the history of ideas because you are a German philosopher trained by German philosophers. This means you will be tempted, just as Heidegger was, to go back to the beginning and attempt to rebuild. But you will implicitly assume a version of the historicism that you explicitly reject. So you will worry that you can’t simply deploy your highly-trained philosophical prowess to diagnose the problem, find a fix, and move forward. Your second-nature Hegelianism leads you to worry that your own operative conception of reason and philosophy has been corrupted by the very mistake you seek to diagnose. If you put your historicized philosophical reason to work uncritically, you risk not only missing but recapitulating the old errors. What to do!? What to do!?
Well, (1) Don’t try to philosophize your way out of it. (2) Form a hypothesis about the origin of the BIG MISTAKE. So then you’ve got to (3) Go back to the beginning. But you’ve also got to keep (1) in mind. You can’t simply pick apart old texts like the dumb Anglophone philosophers do, ridiculously assuming your inherited method of philosophizing is more authoritative or sound than the author’s. Stupid. Stupid. Stupid. Instead you’ve just got to try to (4) Understand the text as it was meant to be understood. It’s hard, but you can do it! Then you (5) Look out for PROFOUND INSIGHTS that appear to have been later dropped or forgotten. Heidegger is right. The forgetting of a PROFOUND INSIGHT is a good candidate for the BIG MISTAKE. But how to spot PROFOUND INSIGHTS having done one’s best to divest oneself of potentially tainted philosophical and methodological baggage?! Hmmm. Big problem. If you get it wrong, you might end up alonside Heidegger rooting on the Holocaust. Must be careful. Go back to (4). How do you do that? You keep yourself open. You make yourself receptive. You are not a radical skeptic or you wouldn’t think to try. You are simply wary of smuggling in the corrupt presuppositions of your genocidically tyrranical age. Very wary. You need to minimize your presuppositions. So, (6) Leave behind everything other than that which is strictly required to really understand a philophical text. One thing to keep in mind, which may help with the problem of presuppositionlessly intuiting which lost insights are PROFOUND, is the possibility to there may be something substantive and important implicit in philosophical method or form. So, (7) Pay close attention to these changes in form.
Let’s get to work! Well, the Presocratics are just too mystifying, and Heidegger’s got you scared. So on we go to the first post-pre-Socratic, Socrates. What do we really know about this fellow, anyway? It’s all hearsay, mostly Plato. Plato we know has his own funny neo-Pythagorean agenda, and all his business about the forms and the apprehension thereof is arguably the first domino in the standard this-leads-to-that cascade responsible for the present horror of mechanized genocidal tyranny and the looming nuclear annihilation of mankind. Okay, so what is Plato doing? Pay attention. Stay receptive. So much poetry bashing, for one thing. Doesn’t he protest rather too much about the superiority of philosophy? I mean, all he writes are queer plays, mostly starring Socrates.
Interesting to think about what it is to philosophize at this juncture? Two options. (a) To do what Socrates does. (b) To do what Plato does, which is to dramatize what Socrates does. These are not the same thing. But neither of them is (c) what Aristotle does, which is write didactic, closely-reasoned lectures and treatises. But that’s our prevailing model of philosophical reason. Maybe the BIG MISTAKE is philosophizing like Aristotle. Just an idea. Who taught Aristotle? Plato. Why does Plato philosophize as he does? Probably something he learned from Socrates? Why doesn’t Aristotle philosophize like Plato? Either he didn’t learn what Plato learned from Socrates or something he learned from Plato led him to disregard it. Seems like it might be important then to understand the teaching of Socrates that Aristotle either never learned or dismissed.
Here’s your mindspace, then. You don’t have ANY idea of what it is to reason philosophically, but you desperately want to know. You assume Aristotle has it wrong. Only Plato and Socrates can tell you. It’s just an assumption, but you’re taking it very seriously. Be wary of Plato, though. He’s responsible in one way or another for Aristotle going wrong. So you look askance at Platonic doctrine, but pay CLOSE attention to Plato’s method.
Why does Plato write dialogues? They are imitations of Socratic practice. He is sticking close to Socratic practice, so he must think it is important. Socratic practice is to go out among the people, among the aristocracy, at least, and reason with them, debunking their ideas though a distinctive method of rational cross-examination. Why does Plato write down dialogues rather than have them? Well, conversations are ephemeral. What Socrates taught deserves to be preserved. But if the teachings could be preserved by writing treatises, he would have written treatises. Doesn’t this by itself tell us something profound about philosophical reason? The method of the dialogues suggests that the teaching cannot be abstracted from the embodied human context of the conversation. Because mimesis requires abstraction, something might be lost in the dramatization. But something might be gained as well. No doubt Socrates’real conversations were often partial, and really took place over several meetings and long stretches of time. And no doubt much was lost in asides and irrelevances and interruptions. Plato’s literary art, in addition to preserving Socrates’ teachings, probably made them more intelligble by leaving out the inessential and perfecting and heightening the representation of those aspects of the dialectical situation that are essential to the overall meaning of the dialogue. Plato thinks that knowing is having the right relationship to a Platonic form. Who knows if Socrates did. But even Plato’s method seems to say that coming into that relationship isn’t a matter of reading theory out of a textbook. Philosophical reason puts us at the doorway of the forms through a fairly consuming form of intimate conversation, or at least through the imaginative reconstruction of such conversations.
So what is philosophical reason for Socrates? Inherently relational, inherently moral, inherently political. It exposes ignorance, opening the way for knowledge, but it does not claim to deliver new truths to fill the nooks it has emptied of false idols. Reason is a methodical form of applied logic, but it’s useless unless it’s motivated by the right sort of desire and will-to-virtue on all sides of the conversation. Philosophical reasoning is a sort of seduction! It’s rooted in eros. Philosophical eros is both a sort of immoderation and a sort of madness not too far from the divinatory madness of poets. The ongoing practice of Socratic reason, for Socrates, has an oracular impetus and stays on the rails through occasional semi-divine interventions of his daimon. Philosophy is not poetry, but it doesn’t work without it. Socrates tells stories and myths. Plato tells stories of Socrates. Philosophy is not revelation, but the stroke of rational insight, the capacity to see through a dense web of argumentation straight to the logical error, is revelatory. What you have, once all this debunking and myth-telling, all this erotic push and pull, has put you at the doorstep of truth, and you reach out, because you ache to know, and you open the door … what you have is a revelation.
This is Socratic rationalism. This is philosophy. If it’s not the big thing we forgot, then it’s a big thing. If you can convince yourself that the model of philosophical reason from Aristotle onward somehow leads to huge problems, and that this forgotten alternative is adequate to prevent those problems from arising, well, “big if true,” as they say on Twitter. And if this is the sort of reason at the heart of the authentically philosophical life, can philosophy rule out the possibility that revealed scripture tells the truth about how to live? Maybe! It’s actually impossible to say in the abstract without going through the whole embodied, erotic Socratic hurly burly. Strauss’s abstract arguments to this effect, offered in the standard Aristotelian mode, cannot possibly be dispostive if you buy in whole hog to Socratic rationalism. If you buy into Socratic rationalism, an abstract philosophical argument is just one of many available moves in the intimate game of reasoning erotically toward truth.
But you can vaguely imagine the whole Socratic hurly burly, without actually going through it. It does seem plausible that Socratic reason won’t be able to prove much for sure, much less its superiority to revelation or poetry, which it turns out to resemble more than one might expect. Socrates in the end is a lousy lover, all foreplay and no finish. He gets you hot to trot for truth but can’t deliver. He takes you to the threshold, and eagerly you open the door. You are bathed in a glorious warm light of insight. But what is this light the light of? If you read past Plato’s agenda, there’s no specifically Socratic account of what makes the resulting insight true. So how is the light of philosophical insight different from the light of poetic epiphany or religious inspiration? There are possible answers, but none really satisfy.
Plato couldn’t stand the Socratic blue balls. So Plato does not leave a guy hanging. He is a finisher. You want truth? Here’s truth. You open the door and that which makes beauties beautiful or the pious pious or circles circular – the ontic basis of predication, truth, and knowledge – activates the slumbering native knowledge built into your eternal soul, and then you know. Unnnf!
But no. This is a BIG MISTAKE. There is no such secure satisfaction of the erotic longing to know. At least, we can’t know for sure that there is. Not according to Strauss’s Socrates. There is something suspiciously metaphysical about universals. Maybe there are such things, but who knows? So we are left with the fact of “noetic heterogeneity” without any reliable method of coming to know the essences of kinds. If we had a true account of noetic heterogeneity in terms of universals, then a practice of reason, a philosophical life, grounded on knowable essences would be authoritative. Philosophy so construed would stand a good chance of ruling out the authority of revelation. But we don’t know for sure that there is such an authoritative reason, so we’re stuck with the undefeated possibility that revelation reveals the truth about how to live.