Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Hollywood's First Star listens to the ants scream in FLORENCE LAWRENCE, THE BIOGRAPH GIRL

My Epinions article on the life and fate of Hollywood's first movie star is now up for your reading pleasure.

Friday, April 22, 2005

VRWC's Cover Blown

Darn! A professor at Berkeley has gotten wise to right-wing mind control:
... the word fetus has been demonized, even though it is a technical, scientific term. The right is so successfully framing this issue that a term representing a political agenda is becoming the "neutral" or "objective" word that journalists are supposed to use in their stories.

The right has been on this for the last 40 years; they understand and pay attention to the way the mind works.... the right figured out how to physically change our brains, and the left is only beginning to recognize this very basic fact of cognitive science.

He's discovered what's really happening in Area 51! We'll have to relocate to our alternate site underneath the Kennedy compound, the one where we keep our Hitler clones.

On a lighter note, if journalists find "fetus" to no longer be a neutral term, perhaps they can start using the phrase "that thing--you know, that thing." On television, they can easily use body language to supplement "that thing--you know, that thing"--such as a knowing wink or sheepish mug. Of course, it's not possible to do this in print, but perhaps this will help print journalists: an unpronounceable symbol that everyone will read as "that thing--you know, that thing formerly known as a fetus."

Billy Beck vs. P

Some quick, desultory comments:

  • Sometimes speculative examples are helpful in philosophy, and they do actual work towards knowing something about the world.

  • Analytic philosophy has its merits but can go over the top and become mind-numbingly trivial or silly. The same is true of continental philosophy.

  • P's main problem, one by no means shared by all professional philosophers, is that he conceives of philosophy in purely formalistic terms, as if philosophers were geometers.

  • Philosophical jargon can be helpful at times, although I try to do without it when I can.

  • Roger Scruton is another philosopher critical of the analytic tradition.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

A Kind of Tragic

Billy Beck questions "P," a philosopher:

I have questions for you.

Why is it that people in your line of work insist on using terms like “rational agents” when the plain fact is that you’re talking about human beings?

Why don’t you guys speak plain English?

I’m serious. I’m not being facetious about this.

"P" responds: There could be rational agents who are not human beings, Billy. Aliens, for example. Not all humans are rational agents and not all rational agents are humans.

Billy: You know, I had really hoped that you weren't going to answer with something like that, although I've been around enough to know what to hope against.

Science-fiction has no place in philosophy, and the fact that acanemia harbors it now only consolidates my conviction that I'm living through The Endarkenment, being conducted by straight-up fucking idiots.


There is a place for hypothetical reasoning in philosophy, but it should be informed by reality. There is also every justification for the -distinction- between the proper structure of an argument (“validity,” in philosophical terms) and the truth value of the premises of an argument, the chief one being the utility of the machines and communication methods we are using right now.* The problem is that Billy’s correspondent “P” is blindly accepting the collapse of philosophical inquiry into logical formalism, which suggests that he’d be better off as a mathematics professor. Actually, -one- philosopher in the modern analytic tradition has noticed that Billy has fired him, Jerry Fodor:

Sometimes I wonder why nobody reads philosophy. It requires, to be sure, a degree of hyperbole to wonder this. Academics like me, who eke out their sustenance by writing and teaching the stuff, still browse in the journals; it's mainly the laity that seems to have lost interest. And it's mostly Anglophone analytic philosophy that it has lost interest in. As far as I can tell, 'Continental' philosophers (Derrida, Foucault, Habermas, Heidegger, Husserl, Kierkegaard, Sartre and the rest) continue to hold their market. Even Hegel has a vogue from time to time, though he is famous for being impossible to read. All this strikes me anew whenever I visit a bookstore. The place on the shelf where my stuff would be if they had it (but they don't) is just to the left of Foucault, of which there is always yards and yards. I'm huffy about that; I wish I had his royalties.

Royalties aside, what have they got that we haven't? It's not the texture of their prose I shouldn't think, since most of us write better than most of them. (I don't include Kierkegaard. He was a master and way out of the league that the rest of us play in.) Similarly, though many of the questions that Continental philosophy discusses are recognisably continuous with ones that philosophers have always cared about, so too, by and large, are many of the questions that we work on. For example, Kripke's metaphysical essentialism (of which more presently) has striking affinities with the metaphysical Realism of Aristotle and Augustine. True, we sometimes presuppose more logic than you're likely to come across on the omnibus to Clapham. But I'm told that an intelligent reading of Heidegger requires knowing more about Kant, Hegel and the Pre-Socratics than I, for one, am eager to learn. Anyhow, our arguments are better than theirs. So sometimes I wonder why nobody (except philosophers) reads (Anglophone, analytic) philosophy these days.

But, having just worked through Christopher Hughes's Kripke: Names, Necessity and Identity, I am no longer puzzled... (snip praise for Hughes)

And yet I can't shake off the sense that something has gone awfully wrong. Not so much with Hughes's book (though I'll presently have bones to pick with some of his main theses) as with the kind of philosophy that has recently taken shelter under Kripke's wing. There seems to be, to put it bluntly, a lot of earnest discussion of questions that strike my ear as frivolous. For example: 'I have never crossed the Himalayas, though I might have done. So there is a non-actual (or, if you prefer, a non-actualised) possible world (or possible state of the world) in which someone crosses some mountains. Is that person me, and are those mountains the Himalayas? Or are they (non-actual) individuals different from me and from the Himalayas?' Or: 'Water is the stuff that is in the Thames and comes out of the taps. The stuff that is in the Thames and comes out of the taps undeniably contains impurities (bits that are neither hydrogen nor oxygen nor constituents thereof). So how can water be H2O?' But how could it not? Is it that, chemistry having discovered the nature of water, philosophy proposes to undiscover it? In any case, could that really be the sort of thing that philosophy is about? Is that a way for grown-ups to spend their time? A brief sketch of how we got into this, and of Kripke's role in getting us here, is the burden of what follows. I offer a very condensed account of changes, over the last fifty years or so, in the way that analytic philosophers have explained to one another what it is that they're up to. It is, however, less historical than mythopoetic. The details aren't awfully reliable, but maybe the moral will edify.

Stage one: conceptual analysis. A revisionist account of the philosophical enterprise came into fashion just after World War Two. Whereas it used to be said that philosophy is about, for example, Goodness or Existence or Reality or How the Mind Works, or whether there is a Cat on the Mat, it appears, in retrospect, that that was just a loose way of talking. Strictly speaking, philosophy consists (or consists largely, or ought to consist largely) of the analysis of our concepts and/or of the analysis of the 'ordinary language' locutions that we use to express them. It's not the Good, the True or the Beautiful that a philosopher tries to understand, it's the corresponding concepts of 'good' 'beautiful' and 'true'.

This way of seeing things has tactical advantages. Being good is hard; few achieve it. But practically everybody has some grasp of the concept 'good', so practically everybody knows as much as he needs to start on its analysis. Scientists, historians and the like need to muck around in libraries and laboratories to achieve their results, but concepts can be analysed in the armchair. Better still, the conceptual truths philosophy delivers are 'a priori' because grasp of a concept is all that's required for their recognition. Better still, whereas the findings of historians and scientists are always revisable in principle, it's plausible that the truths conceptual analysis reveals are necessary. If you want to know how long the reign of George V lasted, you will probably need to look it up, and you're always in jeopardy of your sources being unreliable. (I'm told he reigned from 1910-36, but I wouldn't bet the farm.) But the philosopher's proposition that a reign must last some amount of time or other would seem to be a conceptual truth; being extended in time belongs to the concept of a reign. Historians might conceivably find out that George V reigned from, say, 1910-37. That would no doubt surprise them, but evidence might turn up that can't be gainsaid. Philosophy, however, knows beyond the possibility of doubt - beyond, indeed, the possibility of coherent denial - that if George V reigned at all, then he reigned for a while. The truths that conceptual analysis arrives at are thus apodictic, rather like the truths of geometry. Such a comfort. Ever since Plato, philosophers have envied geometers their certitudes. So it's not surprising that the story about philosophy being conceptual analysis was well received all the way from Oxford to Berkeley, with many intermediate stops.

Still, there was felt to be trouble pretty early on. For one thing, no concepts ever actually did get analysed, however hard philosophers tried. (Early in the century there was detectable optimism about the prospects for analysing 'the', but it faded). Worse, the arguments that analytic philosophers produced were often inadvertently hilarious. Examples are legion and some of them are legendary. Here are just two that will, I hope, suffice to give the feel of the thing. (Truly, I didn't make up either of them. The second comes from Hughes, and I've heard the first attributed to an otherwise perfectly respectable philosopher whose name charity forbids me to disclose.) First argument: the issue is whether there is survival after death, and the argument purports to show that there can't be. 'Suppose an airplane carrying ten passengers crashes and that seven of the ten die. Then what we would say is that three passengers survived, not that ten passengers survived. QED.' Second argument: the issue is whether people are identical with their bodies. 'Suppose you live with Bob . . . who went into a coma on Wednesday . . . Suppose that a friend calls on Thursday and says: "I need to talk to Bob: is he still in England?" You might naturally answer: "Yes, but he's in a coma." Now fill in the story as before, but suppose that Bob had died. When the friend says "I need to talk to Bob: is he still in England?" would you really answer, "Yes, but he's dead," even if you knew that Bob's (dead) body still exists and is still in England?' Presumably not, so QED once again. Now, I don't myself believe that there is survival after death; nor do I believe that persons are identical with their bodies. But, either way, these arguments strike me as risible; dialectics dissolves in giggles. If, as would appear, the view that philosophy is conceptual analysis sanctions this sort of carrying on, there must surely be something wrong with the view. So much for stage one. (Fodor goes on to discuss the analytic/synthetic dichotomy and Kripke, it is an interesting analysis)


Philosophy is about what's necessary, possible, and impossible, Billy, not about what is actual. Science is about what is actual. Think of it this way: Philosophy is about the logical structure of the world. Science is about the physical structure of the world. Philosophy is form; science is content. To test philosophical theories, we have to imagine alternative worlds. The real world doesn't furnish all the examples we need. For example, to test our intuition that it's rational agency rather than humanity that makes a moral difference, we have to imagine meeting aliens who are rational like us but not human. Would their being nonhuman matter? If not, then humanity is morally irrelevant.


You could get a job in any half-assed church with an outlook like that.

I have enormous problems with The Russian Rage (Ayn Rand), and she would not have stood my company for five minutes. But she's absolutely right about this. No "philosophy" that does not take its foundations from and address human life on earth is worthy of the name. And your final line above gives it all away.

This stuff is not a parlor game, and you people are doing enormous harm.

It's no bloody wonder that this culture is in the shape it's in.

I'm not kidding. It doesn't make me happy to tell you this, but there is just no way around it.

This is completely outrageous. And, as nothing more than a consumer at the street level, I'm here to tell you that you're all fired.

Fodor is the only one who has appeared to notice this. The problem, of course, is that if you are not “moralizing” about “rational actors,” you are really doing NOTHING.


Somebody needs to do the conceptual stuff we philosophers do. It has fallen to philosophers to do it. What do you expect us to be, preachers? Moralizers? But we have no moral authority. Our expertise is in logic, not living.


My god... I don't understand why the nearly schizophrenic dissociation in this stuff isn't obvious to you. Look at that last sentence of yours. If I heard someone saying something like that in ordinary everyday life -- at the supermarket, around the bar, or wherever -- I'd be getting ready with a butterfly net. No normal human being goes around propounding that sort of dichotomy. Certainly not out loud, anyway, although about a hundred twenty-five years of Pragmatism certainly have taken their toll. It really isn't terribly uncommon to find people piously holding forth on the difference between "theory" and "real life" in, say, politics, which doesn't really surprise me a great deal. Politics is where philosophy is mostly (semi)consciously applied these days.

It's curious that you should mention "authority". Let me tell you something, man: the work that you people do sooner or later filters down to the man in the street. He might not know where a lot of his thinking comes from, or even that others are leading him. This is mostly because he just about never examines critically what goes on around him. If, in a discussion around a bar, he says something like, "Well, that might be true for you but it's not true for me," it's a one in a thousand shot that he's going to be able to reach back a hundred years and cite someone like William James as his authority. And the fact that he can't do that doesn't matter. What matters is intellectual leadership.

You're probably never again in your life going to have some ex-biker and touring stage-lighting director stand up straight and tell you that "you're fired". Nearly none of them have sufficient brains in their heads for a move like that.

Whether they know it or not, a great deal of the quality of their whole life depends on what people like you teach them, mostly by long-distance osmosis.

And strictly speaking, very little of it is "conceptual[izing]" at this point. It's bloody fantasy on stilts. If you're not about "living", then what the hell good are you? Who needs you, and for what?

"Preachers"? C'mon, man: just about everybody in the field is preaching, all day long. It's the Church of the Space-Alien Control-Variables, preaching that symbols are more important than people. "Moralizers"? Don't think that people aren't getting moral messages from professional philosophy's Adjusted-Specs Examination With Zircon-Encrusted Tweezers routine. You don't care to "moralize"? Fine, then. Look around you. The reluctance to "moralize" is in nearly full effect, and fifteen year-old kids are summarily killing each other with baseball bats and semi-automatic weapons.

Who's going stop this or even slow it down? The Church? They're in worse shape. Parents? Hell, man; they're passive carriers of the rot that philosophy has been throwing down longer than they can see.

I say the second sentence of your paragraph above is presumptively backwards: philosophy has "fallen" to doing what it's doing. What philosophy "needs" to do is attend its original program, which is to teach people how to live. And dinking around with experimental laboratories in cosmic space doesn't qualify. (snip closing remarks)

What the learned philosopher is doing is collapsing all of philosophy into linguistic/logical analysis, the old sad addiction of the logical positivists. Ironically enough, my philosophy professors, from the Aristotle scholar, to the expert on Marx AND the Kantian have all noticed the horrible results of this “trickle down” nonsense that you notice. Prof. Bondeson, our Ancients specialist, has even had his teaching assistants threaten to split heads if he get warmed-over relativist vomit in his class papers...

in his Medical Ethics class. (be very frightened!)

Billy is quite correct to call "P" on his contradictions, the claim that "humanity is morally irrelevant" is definitely a "moralizing" one with important real-world consequences, as we have been so recently reminded by the Schiavo case.

Saturday, April 16, 2005

Dial "C" for "Compromise"

The whole "compromise" debate going on recently (summarized ably here) reminded me of the real compromise that put Hitler into power:

Schleicher, the mastermind behind many intrigues around the president, had always hoped to reduce Nazi influence by letting the Nazis share government responsibility. The enormous burden of political responsibility, Schleicher and many others believed, would tame the Nazis and split the party into a moderate and radical wing. Several times Schleicher tried to convince Hitler or somebody else to join the government under a non-Nazi as chancellor. Hitler always refused and insisted on being given the chancellorship himself. Papen planned for a coup d'état (dissolution of the Reichstag without setting a date for reelection; army rule), but Schleicher rejected this idea because he feared a Polish attack on Germany.

In December 1932 and January 1933 Schleicher, as the new chancellor, undertook some last efforts to split the NSDAP. He suddenly realized the danger of Hitler's chancellorship, even though he had been working for so long to get the Nazis into the government. But whatever Schleicher did, he became a powerless person in January. Behind his back a large intrigue led by Papen and some prominent German industrialists undermined Hindenburg's confidence in Schleicher. Without the president's emergency decrees, Schleicher stood no chance of success in front of an overwhelmingly hostile Reichstag. Papen had his way. On 30 January 1933 Hindenburg appointed a new cabinet with Hitler as chancellor, another Nazi as Interior Minister, and a third Nazi, Hermann Göring, as minister without portfolio. The nine other ministers all did not belong to the NSDAP, and Papen as vice-chancellor was confident that it would be possible to push Hitler to the sidelines within a few weeks. ("We will push Hitler into the corner until he squeaks.")

Papen's reasoning was profoundly wrong. To let the Nazis share power in order to tame them and to split their movement was foolhardy. First, the Nazis' electoral rise had been stopped at the Reichstag elections in November 1932. Shortly thereafter the SPD newspaper wrote with exaggerated but not unjustified pride: "It will be the everlasting merit of social democracy to have kept German fascism from power until it began to decline in popular favor. The decline will hardly be less rapid than its rise has been." Disputes within the NSDAP and between the SA and the party showed that the Nazi movement might break up if it was held in opposition for much longer. Hitler grew increasingly desperate, since neither his bid for the presidency in early 1932 nor his repeated attempts to become chancellor had succeeded. Hindenburg for a long time was unimpressed with Hitler and refused to appoint him, a mere common soldier, chancellor. There was no need for Papen and Hindenburg to make Hitler chancellor in order to break the momentum of his movement.

The author of the paragraphs above , Raffael Scheck, appears to be a typical acanemic leftie, but his expertise -is- in German right-wing politics of the period and what he says correlates with other histories of the time. The truth is that, with a little moral courage and disinclination to compromise, Germany might have been spared Naziism, a fact lost on the "compromise clan."

But, then again, most historical facts ARE lost on them.

Have we lost Bill to Lady Philosophy?

Bill Ramey just might devote more of his blogging time to this site.

Pop on over and give his posts a "look-see."

Friday, April 08, 2005

A Sadly-Needed History Lesson

"Let’s face it ... with the do-nothings in charge, we’d still be a colony of Great Britian."

(this is a more polite reiteration of what I wrote in comments at QandO)

I never thought that I would have to give Bruce McQuain AMERICAN HISTORY LESSONS...

Did the Founding Fathers VOTE King George out of office, Bruce?

No, they took up arms AGAINST the government and DESTROYED the colonial system. YOU would have been the "do-nothing, work within the system" pseudo-Loyalists in that context.

Likewise, the civil rights movement educated the PUBLIC, which is why the legislature went along with them. King was under no illusions about "working in the system" in the South, which is why he ADVOCATED BREAKING THE LAW NON-VIOLENTLY.

As for "reverse evolution," you are assuming that the starting point now and the starting point then are the same. They aren't. The statists started working on a basically healthy and free (save for the pathology of racism) society and gradually grew government to where it will grow on its own now even if Bush pulled a Harry Browne this very day. Only RADICAL change outside the system will work, period.

Secondly, the statists "evolved" us to this situation via lying parasitism. If you propose to do the same thing in pursuit of your goal, you'll wind up just like they are. John Lopez makes the point well here (the thread there also contains an excellent summation of the whole controversy, with links):

The electorate in general doesn't want truth, they want comforting lies. They want free lunches with ponies and ice cream, and they'll vote for whoever promises them the most goodies on everyone else's dime.

What do these NeoLibs propose to do when they're on camera and they get asked what their ultimate plan for Social Security is? Their opponent will be hand-waving about "fixing" and "ensuring" and "lockboxes", and the great mass of voters is (just like they always have) going to eat that shit up. The NeoLib saying "I'll abolish it" (the truth, let's assume) is suicide.

And they aren't about political suicide, their swipes at the LP are proof of that. So that means that they're going to lie. They're going to hand-wave about something too, something that the focus groups (they *will* have focus groups, right?) have said will appeal to the voters. Something like "lockbox" and "fix" and "ensure", because above all they want to get elected.

Now there may be some individuals in the NeoLib movement that would tell the truth, but no one in their right mind is going to let those types within a hundred yards of a teevee camera. "Just send in your check and we'll do the talking, m'kay?"

It's always sad when it happens to someone you know.