A Common Non Sequitur

It seems that in political/philosophical discussions, no matter what you’re talking about, someone will attempt to argue against your view by injecting “nuance” into the debate. Or at least, they’ll explain how the difficulty of the questions we’re discussing means that we should hesitate to claim confidence in our beliefs. The tricky thing about this is that it is, indeed, important for us to recognize our epistemic limitations. But it doesn’t follow from this that we ought to suspend belief whenever questions are too complex for us to be certain of our answers to them.

People on both sides of the political spectrum do this. For example, I believe that the Civil War was about slavery, at least for the parties who had the power to make decisions relevant to the waging of the war. Some people I know who are right-of-center on the political spectrum argue that other factors (usually states’ rights or economics) were significant enough that it would be inaccurate to say that the Civil War was about slavery. Which is fine. That’s something we can discuss. The problem is when people say my view lacks nuance as if that in itself is evidence against the truth of my view. It’s not. If my view is wrong, it’s wrong because it’s wrong, not because it lacks nuance.

Likewise, those on the far-left are not so enthusiastic about attempts to define human nature. An attempt to say what it is to be human is likely to be met with claims that humanity is far too complex for us to understand its essential features. I’ll be the first to say that I want to be careful when it comes to making bold claims about the nature of human existence. But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t make such claims at all. In fact, to dogmatically cling to the formula that human nature is indefinable is to make a dogmatic claim about human nature, viz. that it is indefinable. The argument that humanity is too complex for us to know its nature not only fails to present a substantive challenge to my views, but also includes a dogmatic claim about human nature that seems to be defeated by the argument itself.

Some things are nuanced. Some things are not. The merit of a view does not depend on the view’s nuance or lack thereof. It depends on whether the view is true. Just because a question is hard doesn’t mean it doesn’t have an answer, nor does it mean that my answer is wrong.

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Short Response to “X is a social construct” Arguments

The mere fact that something is a social construct does not mean that the thing has no essential features. Construction of all kinds is constrained by rules. For instance, the construction of a stable building requires taking into account the law of gravity. You can point at any given building and say “it could have been otherwise,” but you cannot say that “all ways of erecting a building in this spot are equally correct,” as many of the ways of building the structure will result in said structure collapsing.

Likewise, you can point to our understanding of gender and say “it could have been otherwise,” but you cannot say that “all ways of understanding gender are equally valid.” A good account of gender cannot ignore human sexual dimorphism or the reproductive function of sex, which is why a binary understanding of gender has been so common across cultures. It has prevailed because it has been useful.

Language is another example of something socially constructed that is bound by rules. Just as an understanding of gender which does not meaningfully account for sexual dimorphism is unlikely to be useful, so is a language without some sort of grammar unlikely to be useful. There are differences between the grammars of different languages, but they all have grammars, because the grammar is necessary for the language to serve its function, i.e., facilitating communication.

The fact that buildings, gender roles, and language are made by humans does not imply that the construction of buildings, gender roles, and language is constrained by nothing except the boundaries of our creativity. There are rules that we can’t just wish away unless we plan on doing away with the things themselves. The constraint of being useful for communication is constitutive for language, for example. Without such a constraint, there would be no language. And insofar as the things themselves are useful, as buildings, gender roles, and language certainly are, we should not discard the constraints from which those things derive their being.

 

Past and Future in Augustine and Heidegger

I recently read through Augustine’s Confessions in its entirety for the first time. While in school, I read excerpts, but there were parts of it that I never got to. The part that most struck me was the part during which Augustine discusses time. In particular, reading Heidegger at the same time led me to question Augustine’s analysis differently than I otherwise would have.

Augustine argues that only the present exists. The past was, and the future is not yet, according to Augustine. When we think of past or future, what we are really thinking about is our memories of the past and expectations of the future, both of which are present to us in our minds. In this way, Augustine equates being with presence, effectively defining the past and future out of existence.

What made this striking to me is how it makes such a good example of what Heidegger criticizes in Being and Time. Because Augustine’s definition of being is too narrow (i.e. he equates being with presence), he has to claim that certain things which clearly are, in at least some sense, are not. Instead, we end up with a purely psychological account of past and future, which is hardly satisfying.

I’m not okay with saying that the past exists only in memory. Likewise, I’m not okay with saying that the future exists only in expectation. Both past and future seem to have some kind of phenomenal reality that does not depend on memory or expectation. While it is true to say that past states of affairs no longer are and future states of affairs are not yet, the past and future are not equivalent to the sum total of all past or future states of affairs. Phenomenologically, they are something entirely different.

To use Heideggerian language, I think past and future are existentiales. This means that the past and the future are essential features of Dasein’s being, which can vary in their character but are always “there” in some form. Other existentiales include the World and Being-in. Every Dasein has a past and a future, otherwise it is not Dasein at all. I’d say that the past is related closely to Dasein’s facticity, while the future is tied to Dasein’s potential for being.

“Facticity” is a somewhat obscure Heideggerian term. As such, it is hard to provide a definition for it. But I will try. Heidegger uses the term specifically to describe Dasein’s being, and not other kinds of being. The merely factual does not demand action, as facts are not always relevant to what one does. But the factical does demand action; its very existence is necessarily of some concern. Dasein’s being is factical. By the very fact that Dasein exists, Dasein is required to act, and he is required to act within the factical World in which he exists.

The past is connected to facticity in that the past has a partial role in producing the World in which Dasein is. The particular factical conditions that demand Dasein to act at any given moment are products of the past, even if that past is unremembered by Dasein. Moreover, Dasein’s own response to the factical situation in which it always is must always be shaped by the past, as well. This, too, does not depend on memory, however. Much of what Dasein does is habituated; we incorporate skills into our being until we exercise those skills unconsciously. I do not remember learning how to speak English, and yet I speak.

The future, on the other hand, is that upon which Dasein projects its possibilities for being. Heidegger is fond of saying that Dasein is its own possibilities. Thus, Dasein has a peculiar relationship with the future such that the future as such exists for Dasein, even if future states of affairs themselves have no being. Whereas the past partially creates the factical conditions of Dasein’s being, the future is what allows Dasein’s possibility to be realized. A possibility which cannot be realized is no true possibility. Thus, without the future, Dasein can have no possibilities for being, and thus cannot be Dasein.

As the future conditions of the World will always be relevant to Dasein’s being, the future has a bearing on the World’s possibilities, as well. However, the World does not project its own possibilities in the way that Dasein does. Rather, when Dasein projects its possibilities, it always projects the possibilities of its World as well. Dasein needs its World in order to be Dasein. While the possibilities for Dasein’s being, along with the possibilities for the being of its World, are not present, they certainly are, in some way. And the future is a necessary condition for the being of possibilities.

I like my Heideggerian account of past and future above better than Augustine’s account, mostly because it avoids Augustine’s psychologism. Because Augustine claims that there is no such thing as the past or the future, he has to offer an account of why it seems that such things exist. And his account relies purely on memory and expectation, which I take to be insufficient to explain our experience. The past conditions our existence even when we are not consciously aware of the past. Likewise, even unexpected future possibilities are possibilities which have implications for our being. A phenomenological-existential account allows us to say that past and future exist without making the clearly false claim that past states of affairs and future states of affairs are present.

The Anti-Thrasymachus

In Plato’s Republic, Socrates and his interlocutors discuss the meaning of Justice. What is it? According to one character, Polemarchus, Justice is giving to each what he is owed. This probably sounds about right, to most people. Another character has a much more controversial opinion. Thrasymachus believes that Justice is the advantage of the stronger. In other words, might makes right.

It’s easy to see why we might not want to adopt Thrasymachus’s view. But I think another view of Justice has become pervasive in our day which is just as pernicious—we instinctively regard Justice as the advantage of the weaker; conversely, we regard Injustice as the advantage of the stronger. Whatever benefits the weak is good, and whatever benefits the strong is bad. Nietzsche referred to this kind of morality as slave morality, and he hated it because it rewards weakness and hobbles mankind’s potential for self-improvement. I hate it because it’s wrong.

You shall do no injustice in court. You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but in righteousness shall you judge your neighbor.

– Leviticus 19:15

Lisbeth Salander is the Übermensch

Today I bought a copy of The Girl who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest. It’s the third book in a series by the late Stieg Larsson, of which I have read the first two. The first book is The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I’m not sure if I can recommend the books. There’s lots of sex and violence. But it’s a really good story, one of those books that’s hard to put down, and the main character (the girl referred to in the titles) is compelling because of her dark past, her cunning, and her unrestrained goodness.

(Spoiler alert)

Her name is Lisbeth Salander. She’s very small. But she can fend for herself. She doesn’t hesitate to lie, kill, or steal if it’s in her interest to do so. But she always pursues ends that are good when she does these things. She completely disregards the rules, but she is still bound by her own sense of morality, and she follows it without fail.

I see Salander as a literary instantiation of the Nietzschean übermensch because of this. The übermensch does not need to cling to the dead values of those who have already passed. Instead, she can create her own values to live by. This is exactly what Salander does. She decides what she thinks is good, and she does not let anything or anyone get in her way. Her pursuit of the good is relentless, and cannot be stopped by social norms and customs or even laws.

Characters like this are fascinating because the idea of an übermensch is kind of appealing, in some ways. What if we could pursue the good without being constrained by all these burdensome societal expectations? What if we could do evil that good may follow without a guilty conscience? It’s interesting to think about. I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t make the world a better place. But what I appreciate about the idea of the übermensch is the idea that you have to own your values. Otherwise they’re not really yours. And if they’re not yours, then you’re not likely to care that much about them. Of course, you’re not free to create your values, because we can’t do that. But we must actively commit ourselves to the good, and not just passively acquiesce to it. Salander does that.

Mixed Motivations

Sometimes it’s hard to tell why I’m doing what I’m doing. Am I reading all these difficult books because I actually want to, or because I want to be able to say that I’ve read them and impress other people? To some degree, it’s both. I want knowledge for its own sake. But I also want it because more knowledge might make others think more highly of me. And I’d like that. There are multiple sources of motivation pushing me toward the same actions.

I think it would be better if I were motivated solely by the pursuit of excellence. Intrinsic motivation is generally more reliable than extrinsic motivation, as it need not change when your external circumstances change. But if the two line up and encourage you to do the same things, I consider that to be a good reason to give thanks. My surroundings are such that I am encouraged to do the things that I know I ought to by those around me. That’s great.

The primary motivation, however, should be the intrinsic one. Extrinsic motivators can complement intrinsic motivation, but they cannot replace it. When your sole motivation is extrinsic, you end up accomplishing something very different from what you otherwise would. For instance, if I were solely motivated by the prospect of impressing people about the breadth and depth of my reading, I would have little reason to actually engage with difficult texts like Being and Time. A surface-level understanding would be sufficient to make it look like I know what I’m talking about, especially to people who aren’t familiar with Martin Heidegger.

That excellence is often rewarded with honor is a good thing indeed. But excellence should be the goal, and not merely the means to the end of honor, which is a pleasant by-product of excellence, and not a worthy end in itself.

While I don’t think much of Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism, I do think that she gets this particular point exactly right. In her novel The Fountainhead, the main character is absolutely unwilling to compromise his vision of architectural excellence, no matter what the client or the architectural community may say. Public opinion is easily malleable, and does not necessarily correlate with the truth. Thus, it should not derail your pursuit of excellence when others think less of you for it. It is lamentable that excellence might not receive praise, and even more lamentable that mediocrity might receive it, but excellence is not worth pursuing for the sake of praise, but for its own sake.

When Rand extols the virtue of selfishness, this is what she means: When you act, act in pursuit of excellence, and not for the purpose of appearing excellent to your peers. It is the thing itself, and not the accolades that come with it, that are relevant. The Good is not determined by what the masses think is good. Therefore, orient yourself toward the Good, and not toward the masses.

Equality and Mediocrity

There’s a scene in Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead in which a mediocre playwright, Ike, reads a mediocre play to the fictional Council of American Writers. The initial feedback is strongly negative. The consensus seems to be that the play is trash. But then one listener, a well-regarded theater critic, says that it’s great, and that he’s going to make a success out of it.

What made the play great, according to this critic?

It was so perfectly mediocre that praising it would annihilate the meaning of praise entirely. When we treat the shallow as if it were profound, we blind ourselves to profundity. We dull our aesthetic and moral sense. From the novel:

“Ibsen is good,” said Ike.

“Sure he’s good, but suppose I didn’t like him. Suppose I wanted to stop people from seeing his plays. It would do me no good whatever to tell them so. But if I sold them the idea that you’re just as great as Ibsen—pretty soon they wouldn’t be able to tell the difference.”

“Jesus, can you?”

“It’s only an example, Ike.”

“But it would be wonderful!”

“Yes, it would be wonderful. And then it wouldn’t matter what they went to see at all. Then nothing would matter—neither the writers nor those for whom they wrote.”

I’m still trying to figure out what to make of Ayn Rand. From what I understand, her philosophy is naively rationalistic. She hates philosophers that attempt to criticize reason, such as Nietzsche or Kant. But at the same time, The Fountainhead has a lot of Nietzschean themes, one of which is that cultures that hold equality as the highest value inevitably lose their ability to appreciate beauty and excellence.

Indeed, in a dogmatically egalitarian society, beauty and excellence are threats. Beauty and excellence imply inequality, that there is something else which is less beautiful and less excellent. If we commit ourselves fully to equality as the highest value, then there is no room for any other values. This is the egalitarian nihilism that Nietzsche warned against. Rand does a good job describing the moral and aesthetic emptiness of such a state of affairs. The characters in her novel praise mediocrity for the sole reason that everyone else is praising it. They have no thoughts of their own. They have been reduced to generic, interchangeable instances of the collective. They fail to be themselves.

My problem with Ayn Rand is that she seems to think that a fresh commitment to reason is the antidote to this egalitarian nihilism. But reason itself cannot teach us what is beautiful. Reason is a tool which can be put to good ends or bad ones. The revitalization of a culture that’s been hijacked by egalitarianism requires something more than reason. Rand seems to understand this implicitly, based on the fact that she wrote novels in addition to works of philosophy. There’s a part of the human soul that loves what is good and hates what is bad, and that part of the soul must be cultivated and brought to maturity. If this part of the soul is neglected, then reason does us no good. It just becomes another tool with which the Good can be dismantled.

This is why I think that studying great literature, art, and music is of paramount importance. When we come face-to-face with the sublime, our soul begins to awaken. We begin to develop a thirst for the Good, the True, and the Beautiful. At the risk of sounding overtly Platonic, I capitalize these words, because I believe that they correlate with fundamental desires that we have as humans. There is a longing for goodness, truth, and beauty ingrained in the fiber of our being. To refuse to serve this longing is a grave sin, to extinguish it an even graver one.

But the destruction of these noble desires (which I consider to be parts of the imago dei) is a necessary part of creating an egalitarian society. To desire the Good, the True, and the Beautiful is unfair to the mediocre, so let’s pretend that there is no Good, True, or Beautiful. Let’s pretend further that life is still worth living, even better, without the Good, the True, and the Beautiful. And then let’s tell people when they’re unhappy with the vapid life we’ve given them to live that they’re unhappy because they’re too selfish, that they need to subordinate their own ego to the common good, that they must effectively cease to be in order to be content. And after we have thus sacrificed our souls to the false god of equality, we will feel a vague sense of contentment, because you need a soul to desire and to love, and we, being soulless, will want nothing.

Faith and the Pursuit of Truth

There was an op-ed in the Daily News yesterday that had harsh things to say about Bill Cosby. Of course, he deserves it. The op-ed also referred to Cosby’s lawyers as “soulless.” What did they do to merit such criticism? They’re defending Bill Cosby.

It’s understandable that people don’t care much for criminal defense lawyers, especially those who are defending the alleged perpetrators of horrible crimes. But the criminal defense lawyer is an important part of the criminal justice system. There are certain rights that you never forfeit, even when you’ve committed a heinous crime, and it is the role of the criminal defense lawyer to protect those rights for you. And if you’re not sold on due process, then just wait until you or someone you know is accused of a crime you didn’t commit. It happens.

In the adversarial system, each side puts forward as a strong a case as possible, and then after both sides have been heard, a decision is made. If you’re an attorney for one of the parties, it is your duty to fight on behalf of your client. The system collapses if you don’t. The idea is that the stronger case should win, and that if both cases are well-argued, the truth should come out on top. Obviously, it doesn’t always work this way, but we don’t have a better alternative. The only thing worse than the system is everything else.

We need the adversarial system and criminal defense lawyers for the same reason that we need free speech. If we impose restrictions on what can and cannot be said, then we limit the ability of society as a whole to work out what is true. Discourse is a battleground for ideas. Our goal in discourse should be to find which ideas are the best. The only way we can do that is by making sure they’re all included in the ring. We have to trust that the weak ones will be killed off, and that the strong will prosper. Of course, there’s no guarantee of this. We need to accept it on faith.

But the alternative to having faith in the effectiveness of discourse is to have faith in those individuals or groups who act as censors, deciding what ideas are allowed to be shared. We would effectively be trusting people to rig the game in a way we find unobjectionable. Perhaps this round’s game-masters will be favorable to us, but the next round’s might not.

What’s a Postmodernist?

I’ve written before about postmodernism. There is some ambiguity about what postmodernists are, which is why I like to be precise in condemning postmodern dogmatism rather than postmodernism generally. Most people who condemn postmodernism, however, condemn the philosophical turn away from objective truth. In some ways, I don’t think this turn is a bad thing, but in other ways, it certainly is.

Friedrich Nietzsche, who can reasonably be considered a precursor to postmodern thought, called all of philosophy into question by pointing out that the commitment that philosophers have to objective truth is a prejudice. Examined objectively, this prejudice is no different from any other prejudice. It has happened, however, to be an exceedingly useful and powerful prejudice. Likewise, Martin Heidegger pointed out that the question of the meaning of Being had been taken for granted ever since Plato. Just as the will to truth was taken as axiomatic, so was the understanding of Being as presence-at-hand.

Neither Nietzsche nor Heidegger was advocating relativism. Truth was still a concern for Nietzsche, and Being was still a concern for Heidegger. The two thinkers wanted to revise the categories, not destroy them. And the way they did so was by attacking modern philosophy’s obsession with the objective. Our accounts of truth and Being must deal with the fact of subjectivity in a satisfactory manner, otherwise they will be dreadfully limited.

I consider the thought of Nietzsche and Heidegger (and others like them) to be a positive contribution to philosophy. They helped to free philosophy from some of its long-held presuppositions in order to revise those presuppositions, not to discard them. The trouble came in when later thinkers like Foucault threw the baby out with the bathwater and attempted to relativize everything.

There is a huge difference between saying that our pursuit of truth must be justified on non-rational grounds and saying that the very notion of truth is a means of preserving the dominance of oppressive groups over oppressed groups. This is the jump from Nietzsche’s thought to that of Foucault, as far as I can tell, the jump from postmodernism to postmodern dogmatism.

The Danger of Idle Talk

Martin Heidegger is one of my favorite philosophers. Had he not been a Nazi, he would probably be my favorite philosopher. I’m currently working through Being and Time, which is a remarkable book, albeit one that’s extremely hard to read. Heidegger coins new terms left and right, because he’s trying to free philosophy from ancient metaphysical assumptions, the content of which we don’t bother to articulate, because we take them to be self-evident.

One of the terms he uses in Being and Time is “idle talk.” For Heidegger, idle talk is the discourse in which we engage in our “everydayness.” In our “everydayness,” our being is the being of “das Man” (usually translated “the They,” but “Man” in German literally means “one,” as in “one does not simply walk into Mordor.”). When our being is that of das Man, our being is undifferentiated from the conglomerate being of all those who are around us. None of us are truly ourselves; our being is inauthentic.

Idle talk, then, is a kind of inauthentic discourse. What does inauthentic discourse look like? According to Heidegger, in idle talk, “[w]e do not so much understand the entities which are talked about; we already are listening only to what is said-in-the-talk as such. What is said-in-the-talk gets understood; but what the talk is about is understood only approximately and superficially.” For Heidegger, discourse articulates an understanding of being. Idle talk articulates the understanding of being held by the impersonal cultural totality, i.e. das Man. This understanding is already available to all members of a cultural community, so as long as people engage only in idle talk, the community’s understanding will only continue to reinforce and reproduce itself. As this process continues, those engaging in idle talk distance themselves further and further existentially from that which the discourse is about. They no longer discuss that which is; instead, they discuss das Man‘s interpretation of what is.

Idle talk, then, creates conditions that are ideal for cultural stagnation. If we content ourselves with such talk instead of interacting meaningfully with the world in ways hitherto unknown to us, then our understanding of the world will quickly go out-of-date—if it’s not out-of-date from the start. In Heidegger’s words, “Das Man prescribes one’s state-of-mind, and determines what and how one ‘sees’.”

There are two kinds of idle talk that I find particularly troubling, and seek at all times to avoid. The first is Christianese. The second is SJW-ese.

Christianese is a way of speaking practiced by many evangelical Christians. We use ready-made phrases like “ask Jesus into your heart,” “set our hearts on fire,” and “I feel called to do [X, Y, and Z].” The meaning of these phrases is rarely questioned. They are taken as self-evident, without need for clarification, even though we have no idea what we’re saying. We assume that our evangelical culture is identical with what the Bible prescribes, freeing us from the difficult task of figuring out what the Bible means. In so doing, we insulate ourselves from meaningful encounter with the world and with Scripture. Needless to say, this is bad.

I often hear evangelicals say that we should avoid using Christianese because outsiders will not understand us. In response, I say that insiders are just as oblivious to what we are actually saying when we use Christianese, if not more so, because we have grown accustomed to the strangeness of the meaningless phrases we throw around. We don’t think to ask, “what does that mean?” because we think we already know.

Likewise, SJW-ese consists of a handful of ready-made phrases used mostly by angry college students who think they’re oppressed. Some examples: “stop invalidating my experience,” “hegemonic system of oppression,” “trans rights are human rights,” “my pronouns aren’t up for debate,” etc. Each of these phrases has a little kernel of meaning in the middle, but the purpose of the phrases is not to express those kernels of meaning so much as to weaponize them against infidels. In the SJW worldview, there is no point in seeking truth beyond the central tenet of the worldview: “everything bad that happens is because of oppression.” The above phrases, as part of the SJW linguistic totality, do no more than restate this proposition and drive away any knowledge that might threaten the integrity of the SJW worldview.

I have discussed two communities whose versions of idle talk I am familiar with. There are certainly countless more, as idle talk is the rule for human discourse, not the exception. So I’ll describe what I think are some features of idle talk wherever it occurs.

Predictability

You can easily tell idle talk from genuine discourse by idle talk’s predictability. You only need to read one angry letter from SJWs to their university administration to know how to write one. They all say the same thing and use the same empty phrases. Likewise, I’m pretty sure you could jump into an evangelical Christian community and pick up Christianese without too much effort. After all, you don’t need to understand the words; you just need to use them.

Dogmatism

If you question the content of the ready-made phrases used in idle talk, then you’ll usually be met with fierce resistance from true believers. For instance, if you question the use of words like “cisgender” or the multitude of artificial gender-neutral pronouns, you will quickly be denounced as a hateful bigot by SJWs, even if you’re basically on their side.

Uncharacteristic Verbal Fluency

Most people can’t speak well. But they can fake it if they have a large enough body of ready-made phrases to draw from whenever they run out of thoughts or words. When people who usually have trouble expressing their thoughts suddenly start speaking fluently, they’ve probably stopped thinking and started throwing out idle talk. If you challenge such a person’s use of his favorite phrases and ask him to clarify, he won’t be able to do so. Thinking is hard, and most people suck at it. Always test people who give the impression of being careful thinkers, because they might just be a really good faker.

 

Of course, you need to pay just as close attention to yourself as you do to other people. When you’re engaged in idle talk, you often don’t know it. Our inauthenticity is opaque to us when our being is inauthentic. But if you do your best to critically evaluate the assumptions that underlie your thoughts and favorite phrases, you can get a better idea of the extent to which you’re a mere mouthpiece of das Man instead of a thinker and speaker of original thoughts.