Monday, January 08, 2018

The Principles of Charity and Humane Sensibility in Philosophy

The following from the “Overture” to Raymond Tallis’s The Explicit Animal: A Defence of Human Consciousness (St. Martin’s Press, 1999; first edition, 1991) strikes me as an insufficiently recognized example of one dimension of the “principle of charity” in philosophy. As such, it is a more “globalized” conception of the principle, which is usually in reference to a “localized” application entailing the “maximization” of coherence, rationality, or truth of the specific arguments of one’s interlocutors (and of course the ‘global’ and ‘local’ dimensions are complementary), particularly if they are ambiguous, vague, or open to interpretation; thus one formulates the “best” or most generous construal of the argument” of one’s interlocutor before criticizing it or assessing its plausibility, soundness, or persuasiveness:

“In the pages that follow, several books are subjected to repeated criticism. They include The Computer and the Mind by P.N. Johnson-Laird, Mindwaves edited by Colin Blakemore and Susan Greenfield, and Paul Churchland’s Matter and Consciousness. They have been singled out for their merits, not their deficiencies: they seem to me to provide the clearest, the most lucid, the most comprehensive and the most honest accounts of the current state of play in the philosophy of mind and cognitive neurobiology presently available.* I have found them immensely helpful and am grateful to their progenitors. My enormous debt to these books is in no wise diminished by my disagreement with pretty well everything of theoretical substance that is contained in them.”

Tallis (in the Preface to the 1999 edition of The Explicit Animal), an intellectual polymath, also exemplifies what we might term the principle of humane sensibility in philosophical discussion and debate when he praises the prominent philosophers and psychologists bewitched by neurophilosophy for being exemplary prose stylists well-versed in the rhetorical arts of exposition and persuasion, despite the conclusion that their “ingenious” arguments contain “daft ideas” rife with “deceptions and self-deceptions:”

“Materialist, computational, Darwinian [used here primarily in reference to the field of ‘evolutionary psychology’] accounts of mind seem to attract the most gifted and witty expositors resourceful in their use of metaphor and are extremely skilled at assuming the appropriate linguistic register to communicate their ideas in a user-friendly and non-patronising manner [this is quite rare in the halls of professional philosophy, although increased acknowledgment of this from both inside and outside the profession, as well as an apparent uptick in the literary styles and modes of exposition in philosophy, may indicate welcome changes are afoot]. It is always a pleasure to read Daniel Dennett; and, even when his in the throes of conceptual confusion concealed by the most cunning use of transferred epithets, the impression is always one of lucidity. And the same is true of Pinker, the Churchlands [Patricia and Paul] and many other expositors of what has (to expropriate the term used by Gilbert Ryle of Cartesian dualism) become The Official Doctrine.

* This was written in 1991, hence the books cited were published prior to that (in 1987 and 1988).

Sunday, January 07, 2018

Raymond Tallis on the sterility of neuroaesthetics

“An extreme expression of the faith of neuroscientism is the emergence of a so-called neuroaesthetics that looks to neuroscience to explain aesthetic experience. Neuroaesthetics has attracted adherents from many disciplines. Certain literary critics, musicologists, and art critics are excited by the idea that examination of the brain of a person enjoying a work of art will throw light on what art does, is, and means. Artists, they believe, are unconscious manipulators of our nervous systems, awakening particular regions of the cortex, or particular types of neurons, singly or in combination.

I first became aware of neurological approaches to literature when I read a Commentary in the Times Literary Supplement by the novelist A.S. Byatt (TLS, Sept. 22, 2006). She argued, on the basis of theories advanced by the neuroscientist Pierre Changeux, that the particular pleasure associated with John Donne’s poems was due to syntactic structures which made them especially effective in stimulating certain kinds of neurons; especially those associated with ‘reinforced link ages of memory, concepts, and learned formal structures like geometry, algebra, and language.’ When I researched the background to her article, I realised that Byatt was speaking for a vast congregation of practitioners of “neuroliterary criticism.” There is an equally thriving academic industry using neuroscience to explain why certain paintings give us pleasure. Many art critics have been inspired by the eminent neuroscientist Semir Zeki who, in Inner Vision: An Exploration of Art and the Brain (1999), attributed the distinctive effects of the paintings of Piet Mondrian, Kazimir Malevich, and the Fauves to their acting on different kinds of neurons in the visual pathways. Mondrian, apparently, speaks preferentially to cells in regions V1 and V4, whereas the Fauves stimulate V4 plus the middle frontal convolutions.

John Onians in Neuroarthistory takes neuroaesthetics further. He explains the propensity of art historians to espouse certain theories on the basis of the kinds of experiences they themselves may have had. These, he argues, will have shaped their ‘neural formations’ during their period of development. John Ruskin’s skill as an art critic and his emphasis on the relation of art to its environment is connected with his being driven around England in a specially adapted cart by his father who was a wine merchant: as a result ‘his neural networks will have increasingly predisposed him to reflect on the relation between art and the environment.’ The self-observation that made Ernst Gombrich’s art criticism so thoughtful was triggered by ‘the amount of time he would have spent in London waiting for and traveling on buses and underground trains’ during the Second World War ‘while the city was being destroyed around him,’ which would have reinforced certain connections in his brain. Onians grades art theorists of the past according to the extent to which they anticipate the theories that he and his fellow neuro aestheticians espouse. Aristotle, for example, is praised for seeing the importance of neural plasticity induced by repeated similar experiences. Appollonius of Tyana gets a pat on the back for ‘acknowledging the way in which the imagination, the emotions and the body are all linked’ which is, apparently, a discovery of modern neuroscience. The 19th-century German professor of architecture Adolf Goller is admired because Onians can link Goller’s observations on the effect of new styles of architecture with more recent research on the reinforcement of behaviour in pigeons and rats. Rarely can the past have been condescended to so comprehensively. It is disturbing that these often ludicrously tendentious ideas—the reductio ad absurdum of neuroscientism—are being advanced not by some mad autodidact on a park bench but by a serious academic. [….] — From a short article by Raymond Tallis, “The limitations of a neurological approach to art,” The Lancet, vol. 372, no. 9632 (July 5, 2008): 19-20. The full article is here.

*           *           *

I have the temerity (or perhaps it’s impertinence) to suggest that neuroaesthetics (including neuro-art history and neuro-evolutionary aesthetics) is a field of study (a ‘relatively recent sub-discipline of empirical aesthetics’) that should disappear, as it has virtually nothing of significance or value to teach us should we have an abiding interest in or passion for (the) art(s), aesthetics, or the psychology and philosophy of art. This view is supported, in part, by examples from its literature alongside supporting arguments proffered by Raymond Tallis which starkly illustrate the “findings,” crudity, and faddish hype that render neuroaesthetics, in the beginning and end, a “sterile exercise.” Please see, in addition to the above, the material in his chapter, “Defending the Humanities” (the section, ‘Repairing the Canvas: Art on the Brain’), in Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis and the Misrepresentation of Humanity (Acumen, 2011): 284-396.

Lest the reader unfamiliar with Tallis’s book be tempted to draw premature inferences from the title as to his general views on either the neurosciences or Darwin’s theory of evolution, I should note that Tallis was elected Fellow of the Academy of Medical Sciences for his research on clinical neuroscience, describing the knowledge gained and the “panoply of techniques that go under the name of ‘neuroscience’ … [as] some of the greatest intellectual achievements of mankind.” As for Charles Darwin and his scientific accomplishments, he has “no quarrel with Darwinism,” indeed, he writes that Darwin ”is the Newton and Einstein of biology rolled into one,” and while it is “astonishing” that Darwin was able to “arrive[] at his theory on the basis of comparatively little evidence,” “[t]he mass of information [in the natural sciences] that has been gathered since 1859 justifies [Richard] Dawkins’s assertion that Darwin’s theory should now be upgraded to a ‘theorum.’”

Saturday, January 06, 2018

The “informationalization” of the universe ( … and the dire need for philosophical anthropology)

“ … [T]he illegitimately, and at times insanely, extended misuse of the term ‘information’ is absolutely pivotal to establishing the conceptual confusions necessary to the seeming fruitfulness and explanatory power of much modern thought about the mind and the brain [in philosophy, evolutionary psychology, and cognitive science, for example]—and ourselves. This converges in the computational theory of mind [which can be traced back to the early work of Hilary Putnam, becomes particularly influential with the philosophical work of the late Jerry Fodor and the writings of the philosopher and cognitive scientist, Daniel Dennett, and is well popularized by the linguist and cognitive psychologist, Stephen Pinker]. By playing on different meanings of ‘information’ and transferring epithets like a volleyball [across several nets!], it is possible to argue that minds, brains, organisms, various artefacts such as computers and even non-living thermodynamic systems are all information-processing devices. Because they are deemed to be essentially the same in this vitally important respect, they can be used to model each other; homology and analogy can run riot. Once the concept of information is liberated from the idea of a conscious someone being informed and from that of a conscious someone doing the informing, anything is possible.”—Raymond Tallis, Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis and the Misrepresentation of Humanity (Acumen, 2011): 208

Tallis demonstrates the manner in which this slippery slope ends with a logical conclusion postulating the “informationalization” of the universe itself (among both computer scientists and physicists, with some individuals, like Edward Fredkin and Stephen Wolfram, possessing expertise in both fields). 

Image: Ella Bergmann-Michel, Untitled, 1918

Friday, January 05, 2018

Mental illness is, in the first instance, a disturbance of the mind (and thus not the brain)

Apologia:

“It has in recent years become fashionable to conceive of ourselves as the helpless products of our genes; free will and responsibility are commonly thought an illusion, to be displaced by genetic and neural determinism; and the theory of evolution in invoked to explain morality and altruism in terms of natural selection. Our affinity with other hominidae has become a subject of extensive research, often aimed at cutting us down to size. The prowess of the great apes is exaggerated, often in order to narrow the perceived gap between animals and us. This development in the Zeitgeist is sadly understandable, but unwarranted [Lest somebody is tempted to draw the wrong inference: this is not, however, the principal motivation of animal ethicists or those hoping to widen and extend our sense of care and concern for our animal brothers and sisters … or cousins. There need be no necessary connection between the extension of our moral compass to embrace nonhuman animals (which may include highlighting aspects of our animal nature we hold in common: like consciousness, the capacity for suffering, proto- and basic emotions, etc.) and the project of diminishing or failing to distinguish the distinctive features, attributes, and powers of human beings or persons.]. We are, to be sure, hominidae—but the only language using ones. No other creature has eaten of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. We are animals, but the only animals who can aspire to live under the rule of law [or simply, and especially, moral norms], and who can achieve happiness [or eudaimonia, flourishing, or self-fulfillment as defined by philosophers and sages] (as opposed to mere contentment). It is well that we should bear in mind our rational nature and what is distinctive about us—what makes us ‘darkly wise and rudely great,’ ‘a pendulum between smile and tear,’ ‘the glory and the shame of the universe.’ … [In distinguishing and comparing man and beast we must bring to the fore] the applicability and reasons for the applicability of many cognitive and cogitative concepts to human beings, and to all other animals that are neither blessed with, nor cursed by possession of, the powers of reason, thought and understanding.”—P.M.S. Hacker, from the Introduction to The Intellectual Powers: A Study of Human Nature (Wiley Blackwell, 2013)

*           *           *

And now a snippet from Olivia Goldhill’s brilliant essay, “In the Dark: 30 years after Prozac arrived, we still buy the lie that chemical imbalances cause depression,” Quartz, December 29, 2017

“ … [T]he idea of chemical imbalances has remained stubbornly embedded in the public understanding of depression.

Prozac, approved by the US Food and Drug Administration 30 years ago today, on Dec. 29, 1987, marked the first in a wave of widely prescribed antidepressants that built on and capitalized off this theory. No wonder: Taking a drug to tweak the biological chemical imbalances in the brain makes intuitive sense. But depression isn’t caused by a chemical imbalance, we don’t know how Prozac works, and we don’t even know for sure if it’s an effective treatment for the majority of people with depression.

One reason the theory of chemical imbalances won’t die is that it fits in with psychiatry’s attempt, over the past half century, to portray depression as a disease of the brain, instead of an illness of the mind. This narrative, which depicts depression as a biological condition that afflicts the material substance of the body, much like cancer, divorces depression from the self. It also casts aside the social factors that contribute to depression, such as isolation, poverty, or tragic events, as secondary concerns. Non-pharmaceutical treatments, such as therapy and exercise, often play second fiddle to drugs.

In the three decades since Prozac went on the market, antidepressants have propagated, which has further fed into the myths and false narratives we tell about mental illnesses. In that time, these trends have shifted not just our understanding, but our actual experiences of depression.”

The complete essay, which is, as we say, spot-on, is here.  

Update: I’ve just learned of a recent piece in the Guardian that provides us with a similar, albeit more personal argument that nicely complements Goldhill’s article: “Is everything you think you know about depression wrong?

*           *           *

One of the underlying problems (or presuppositions, essential assumptions, animating premises) here is the failure to conceptually—and properly—distinguish the mind from the brain and, correlatively, to understand what it means to be a human animal and/or person (the latter in a metaphysical sense; thus one might advocate for a conception of legal personhood by way of  granting a small cluster of legal and perhaps moral rights to—some class of—nonhuman animals, while denying that these animals are persons in a metaphysical sense, or in the terms of a philosophical anthropology, which is based on a concept of a distinctively human nature). Furthermore, what Raymond Tallis describes as “Neuromania” (an uncritical and philosophically indefensible understanding of the various neurosciences) and “Darwinitis” (e.g., in the form of evolutionary psychology) has contributed to and exacerbated this failure. What follows are titles that help us understand why we should adamantly refuse to conflate the mind with, or reduce it to, the brain, or to believe that the mind simply arises or emerges from the brain (it might rather be understood as a necessary yet not sufficient condition of mind).

  • Bennett, M.R. and P.M.S. Hacker. Philosophical Foundations of Neuroscience. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2003.
  • Bennett, Maxwell, Daniel Dennett, Peter Hacker, John Searle, and Daniel Robinson. Neuroscience and Philosophy: Brain, Mind and Language. New York: Columbia University Press, 2007. (I prefer the arguments of Bennett, Hacker, and Robinson over Dennett and Searle.) 
  • Bilgrami, Akeel. Self-Knowledge and Resentment. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006.
  • Descombes, Vincent (Stephen Adam Schwartz, tr.). The Mind’s Provisions: A Critique of Cognitivism. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001.
  • Finkelstein, David H. Expression and the Inner. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003.
  • Gillett, Grant. Subjectivity and Being Somebody: Human Identity and Neuroethics. Exeter, UK: Imprint Academic, 2008.
  • Gillett, Grant. The Mind and Its Discontents. New York: Oxford University Press, 2nd ed., 2009.
  • Hacker, P.M.S. Human Nature: The Categorial Framework. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2007.
  • Hacker, P.M.S. The Intellectual Powers: A Study of Human Nature. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013.
  • Hodgson, David. The Mind Matters: Consciousness and Choice in a Quantum World. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991
  • Horst, Steven. Beyond Reduction: Philosophy of Mind and Post-Reductionist Philosophy of Science. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2007.
  • Hutto, Daniel D. The Presence of Mind. Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 1999.
  • Hutto, Daniel D. Beyond Physicalism. Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 2000.
  • Hutto, Daniel D. Folk Psychological Narratives: The Sociocultural Basis of Understanding. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008.
  • Pardo, Michael S. and Dennis Patterson. Minds, Brains, and Law: The Conceptual Foundations of Law and Neuroscience. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013.
  • Patterson, Dennis and Michael S. Pardo, eds. Philosophical Foundations of Law and Neuroscience. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016.
  • Smith, Christian. What Is a Person? Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2010.
  • Tallis, Raymond. The Explicit Animal: A Defence of Human Consciousness. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999 ed.
  • Tallis, Raymond. I Am: An Inquiry into First-Person Being. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2004.
  • Tallis, Raymond. The Knowing Animal: A Philosophical Inquiry into Knowledge and Truth. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2004.
  • Tallis, Raymond. Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis and the Misrepresentation of Humanity. Durham, England: Acumen, 2011.
*           *           *
Finally, I happen to have three bibliographies that are directly relevant to the topics broached in Goldhill’s piece:

Image: Ella Bergmann-Michel (20 October 1896 – 8 August 1971) I don’t know the title or date of this painting.

Wednesday, January 03, 2018

“Semantic infiltration” of right-wing propaganda via euphemisms to characterize regressive public policies in the mainstream mass media:

From Michael Hiltzik’s column, “A New Year's pledge: Don’t let politicians and pundits say Social Security and Medicare ‘reforms’ when they mean ‘cuts,’” in the Los Angeles Times (January 2, 2018):
“Just after Christmas, for example, Politico achieved a multi-fecta in an article about disagreements between House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) over Medicaid and Medicare. Reading from the top down, the article referred to ‘overhauling’ the programs, to ‘reform,’ ‘welfare and entitlement changes’ and ‘policy modifications.’ These are Republican terms for benefit cuts. There’s no excuse for journalists repeating them without defining them. But one has to drill pretty deeply into the Politico piece to find the first mention of benefit ‘cuts’ (to paragraph 12, actually). Other weasel words often found creeping into what purport to be objective reports about social programs are ‘reshape,’ ‘revamp,’ ‘modernize’ and especially ‘fix.’ As we’ve observed in the past, Republican plans for Medicaid, Medicare, food stamps and other such programs are ‘fixes’ in the same sense that one ‘fixes’ a cat or the Mafia ‘fixes’ an informer.
I’ve mentioned (in another context) the warning delivered in a 1965 speech by the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) about what he called ‘semantic infiltration’ in policy debates: ‘If the other fellow can get you to use his words, he wins.’”
The rest of the article is here.

Monday, January 01, 2018

Toward a Marxist Theory of International Law


Last week at the blog of the European Journal of International Law, EJIL: Talk!, there was—for yours truly at any rate—an intriguing and inspiring roundtable on the second edition of Professor B.S. Chimni’s International Law and World Order: A Critique of Contemporary Approaches (Cambridge University Press, 2nd ed., 2017). Below I’ve provided brief excerpts from the posts of the four contributors (I’ve not included my comments to a couple of the posts), although one should read Professor Chimni’s concluding response in full as well by way of a taste of the book and its overarching argument, which might be called, “Toward an Integrated Marxist Approach to International Law.”

Duly inspired and motivated by the roundtable, and having read a bit in the relevant literature (which means I’m far from a mastery of same), I decided to put together a bibliography related to Chimni’s work as well as the theoretical and practical Marxist and scholarly legal orientation (as far as I could ascertain) of the contributors to the roundtable: Umut Özsu, Robert Knox, Akbar Rasulov, and Konstantina Tzouvala. This latest compilation, “Toward a Marxist Theory of International Law: an introductory bibliography,” has garnered a comparatively fair amount of attention for something posted during the holiday season: since posting several days ago, I’ve received 141 views from the following countries: Portugal, Spain, Jordan, Canada, the United Kingdom, Colombia, Austria, Serbia, Israel, Italy, Germany, Poland, Sweden, India, Slovenia, Australia, France, Albania, South Africa, Argentina, Lebanon, the Republic of Korea, Finland, Greece, the United States, Romania, Ukraine, Hong Kong, the Netherlands, and Malaysia. [It’s also posted at ResearchGate, but I’ve not checked the statistics there.]

*           *           *

“The first edition of B. S. Chimni’s International Law and World Order: A Critique of Contemporary Approaches appeared in 1993, only a couple of years after the Soviet Union’s collapse and at a time when critical and feminist approaches to international law had only just begun to make their presence felt. This was a period when only a small handful of prominent international legal theorists self-identified as Marxists—and when few jurists from the “Third World” aside from Georges Abi-Saab and Mohammed Bedjaoui were read consistently in the West. Published in New Delhi and armed with a preface from Richard Falk, International Law and World Order was no ordinary contribution to international legal scholarship. Chimni’s aim was nothing less than the reconstruction of international legal theory, a project he undertook by way of sustained examination of a number of competing perspectives, from that of Hans Morgenthau to that of Grigory Tunkin.

The second edition offers the most detailed and systematic analysis of international law from a Marxist standpoint that is currently available. Enormously ambitious in scale and reach, it updates, revises, and enlarges the first edition, sweeping across a range of substantive topics and discussing a variety of different approaches to international law and international legal theory. While the first edition had its roots in Chimni’s early engagement with the ‘New Haven School’ (hence the title of the book, which alludes to both Falk’s work and the ‘world public order’ models espoused by Myres McDougal, Harold Lasswell, and Michael Reisman), the second edition deals at length with feminist international legal scholarship and the work of David Kennedy and Martti Koskenniemi as part of a broader effort to outline a new Marxist theory of international law, one that integrates insights from socialist feminism and postcolonial studies while absorbing the lessons of the indeterminacy debates of the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s.

Given the breadth of this new edition, there are a number of different means of assessing Chimni’s ‘integrated Marxist approach to international law’ [IMAIL]. Arguably the most useful is by attending to Chimni’s discussion of classic debates about the relationship between what some Marxists (and enemies of Marxism) have characterized as the economic ‘base’ and ideological ‘superstructure.’ Rejecting all interpretations of the ‘base’/’superstructure’ relation premised upon the notion that the economic is strictly determinative of all social relations, Chimni argues that Marx and Engels subscribed to a more nuanced view of economic and extra-economic dynamics, pointing in particular to a key passage in an 1890 letter by Engels. In that letter, which has long been regarded as a key piece of evidence that Marxism need not entail crude economic determinism, Engels writes as follows:

‘According to the materialist conception of history, the ultimately determining element in history is the production and reproduction of real life. Other than this neither Marx nor I have ever asserted. Hence if somebody twists this into saying that the economic element is the only determining one, he transforms that proposition into a meaningless, abstract, senseless phrase.’

Chimni refers explicitly to this passage (alongside a number of others from Marx and Engels) at a key juncture in the book, using it to make a number of points, the most fundamental of which is that ‘law is not simply a reflection of the economic structure of society but is also in many instances constitutive of relations of production’ (p. 450). Rather than adhering to a stark, hard-and-fast distinction between the economic ‘base’ and ideological ‘superstructure,’ with the latter functioning purely as a means of mystifying and legitimating the former, Chimni (like others) argues that law is endowed with significant constitutive power, inhering within and contributing directly to the contradictions and transformations of the economic relations that comprise the core of the capitalist mode of production.

It is on the basis of this appreciation of the constitutive power of law that Chimni develops his ‘integrated Marxist approach to international law’ [IMAIL]. Chimni claims that Marx and Engels, committed though they unquestionably were to the view that legal rights are insufficient to secure full human emancipation, recognized the value of legal reform initiatives, particularly for improving the conditions of the working class. While certainly not uncontroversial, this is an interpretation that finds significant support in classical Marxist texts, especially Marx’s famous discussion of the struggle around factory legislation in nineteenth-century Britain in chapter 10 of the first volume of Capital. It is also a view that has been shared, albeit in different ways and to different degrees, by a host of key Marxist thinkers, from Karl Renner, who attempted to demonstrate that legal forms do not always track socio-economic relations, through E. P. Thompson, who wrote hyperbolically of the ‘rule of law’ as an ‘unqualified human good’ to Nicos Poulantzas, who theorized the state as the material ‘condensate’ of ongoing struggles between different classes and class fractions. Chimni relies extensively upon these and other thinkers, arguing that Marx and Engels did not press their critique of formal equality in order to repudiate law, but simply in order to demonstrate the limits of an exclusively rights-based strategy of effecting social change, which could not help but remain within the juridico-political framework of capitalism. [emphasis added]

It is not hard to see how this stance would yield a more generous conception of international law than the kind that is typically found in many other critical (and Marxist) theories.”—Umut Özsu

*           *           *

“B.S. Chimni’s work sits at an important intersection of international legal theory. It is most readily identifiable as falling within the Third World Approaches to International Law (TWAIL) movement: adopting the perspective of the Global South, and foregrounding the role of imperialism. Simultaneously, with its focus on class, production and global capitalism, his work is explicitly Marxist. This combination harkens back to an older Marxist Third Worldism—exemplified by Frantz Fanon, Amílcar Cabral and Walter Rodney.

For Chimni, his position is not exceptional. He goes so far to say that his “integrated Marxist approach” to international law, is TWAIL [Third World Approaches to International Law]. Whilst this is true to a degree—TWAIL is a broad church—it underplays the degree to which Chimni’s Marxism is distinctive within TWAIL.”—Robert Knox

*           *           *

“In 1993, Professor B.S. Chimni published what Richard Falk described as the ‘persuasive rehabilitation of Marxist thought as the foundation for a progressive theory of international law.’ Almost twenty-five years later, the second edition of International Law and World Order: A Critique of Contemporary Approaches offers us valuable insights not only into the evolution of Chimni’s thought, but also into the evolution of the discipline. Indeed, the structure and the sheer size of the second edition is telling of the flourishing state of heterodox approaches to international law. It is no coincidence that Chimni felt the need to add two new, lengthy chapters on the New Approaches to International Law (NAIL), which he sees as exemplified in the writings of David Kennedy and Martti Koskenniemi, and on Feminist Approaches to International Law (FtAIL), where he focuses primarily on the work of Christine Chinkin and Hilary Charlesworth, and particularly their co-authored, ground-breaking book, The Boundaries of International Law: A Feminist Analysis. Perhaps more fundamentally, when articulating his own Integrated Marxist Approach to International Law (IMAIL), the author gestures toward the need to integrate class, gender and race for a critical project in international law. In this respect, the book at hand does not simply offer an overview of the field, but it also registers and responds to relevant discussions (see here and here) about race, gender and class that are taking place in leftist movements and parties around the world. This is a refreshing development in its own right, since for the best part of the last twenty years references to civil society in international law revolved around Western(ised) and professionalised NGOs (see here and here).

The book at hand is rich and stimulating, not least because of Chimni’s choice to structure it around a diverse range of theories: from classical realism to the transformations of Koskenniemi’s thought and from the writings of Richard Falk to Gadamer’s theory on interpretation.”—Konstantina Tzouvala

*           *           *

“By explicit declaration as well as numerous “practical” illustrations, International Law and World Order: A Critique of Contemporary Approaches (ILWO) proves over and over again that far from having nothing more to say about international law other than that it is a cynical cover-up for imperialistic violence, the Marxist tradition can, in fact, make a very complex, nuanced, and rich contribution to the discipline of international legal studies, that it can teach us something valuable not only as moral agents or as ideological actors but also as international lawyers and legal scholars. And the significance of this cannot be underestimated.”—Akbar Rasulov

*           *           *

For those wanting to further explore a Marxist approach to law in general and international law in particular, please see the Legal Form blog (‘a forum for Marxist analysis of law’), which has an excellent online “collection of documents contain[ing] texts that (a) are widely recognized as ‘canonical’ within the Marxist tradition, (b) grapple with legal questions from a standpoint informed by Marxist methods, (c) scrutinize a specifically Marxist approach to law in the context of a particular debate, and/or (d) examine the historical conditions under which a given account of Marxism and law was initially discussed.”

Some readers may also be interested in the London-based Haldane Society of Socialist Lawyers. 

Image: El Lissitzky, Troublemaker (1923)

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Individual & Shared Responsibility: a preliminary syllabus for exploring and perhaps delineating the contours of individual and shared responsibility


  • Baehr, Jason. The Inquiring Mind: On Intellectual Virtues & Virtue Epistemology. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.
  • Baier, Annette C. Reflections on How We Live. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.
  • Cane, Peter and John Gardner, eds. Relating to Responsibility (Essays for Tony Honoré on his Eightieth Birthday) Oxford, UK: Hart Publishing, 2001.
  • Bilgrami, Akeel. Self-Knowledge and Resentment. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006.
  • Chatterjee, Deen K., ed. The Ethics of Assistance: Morality and the Distant Needy. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004.
  • Coady, C.A.J. Messy Morality: The Challenge of Politics. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.
  • Cullity, Garrett. The Moral Demands of Affluence. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.
  • DeNicholas, Daniel R. Understanding Ignorance: The Surprising Impact of What We Don’t Know. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2017.
  • Düwell, Marcus, et al., eds. The Cambridge Handbook of Human Dignity: Interdisciplinary Perspectives. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2014.
  • Elster, Jon. Alchemies of the Mind: Rationality and the Emotions. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1999.
  • Elster, Jon. Strong Feelings. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1999.
  • Elster, Jon, ed. Addiction: Entries and Exits. New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1999.
  • Elster, Jon and Ole-Jørgen Skog, eds. Getting Hooked: Rationality and Addiction. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999.
  • Fischer, John Martin and Mark Ravizza, S.J. Responsibility and Control: A Theory of Moral Responsibility. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
  • French, Peter A. and Howard K. Wettstein, eds. Shared Intentions and Collective Responsibility. Boston, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2006.
  • Gillett, Grant. Subjectivity and Being Somebody: Human Identity and Neuroethics. Charlottesville, VA: Imprint Academic/Philosophy Documentation Center, 2008.
  • Goodin, Robert E. Protecting the Vulnerable: A Reanalysis of Our Social Responsibilities. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1985.
  • Goodin, Robert E. Utilitarianism as a Public Philosophy. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1995.
  • Hacker, P.M.S. Human Nature: The Categorial Framework. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2007.
  • Heath, Joseph. Following the Rules: Practical Reasoning and Deontic Constraint. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.
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Image: El Lissitzky, Globetrotter (in Time), 1923

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Human Nature

Even creatures immersed in and obsessed by amour-propre, or constitutionally prone to self-deception and the deception of others, to chronic wishful thinking and prolonged states of denial, to bouts of anger and despair, even we need small victories, however episodic and evanescent … along with symbols or portents of change and hope, however ambiguous or fragile; tokens and symbols of possibility and progress, however obscure or tentative; beacons on the horizon, however faint and distant; models of emulation, however contingent or imperfect; dreams and wishes, however surreal and unreal; desires and expectations, however inchoate or presumptuous; all surrounded by and interrupted and suffused with moments of pure silence, with occasional if not assiduous observing and witnessing, with daily chores and tasks, with attentive acts of loving and helping, sharing and caring, with spontaneous acts of performing and playing; all the while striving to think and feel with indissolubly conjoined minds and bodies, heads and hearts, with souls and spirits willing to consciously confront uncertainty or danger, to risk some things or everything.

Sunday, December 03, 2017

Alchemy of the Mind: deliberate misrepresentation leading to unconscious but motivated transmutation

Background Fact: The recent GOP tax bill “rammed through the Senate” in the middle of the night (technically, early morning) is “filled with perks for America’s wealthiest individuals and largest corporations, many of them paid for by closing loopholes that benefit middle-class people. By 2027, the top one-fifth of earners would receive 90 percent of the tax bill’s benefits, according to an analysis by the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center.”
Repeat a lie enough in public, and you (the liar) may come to believe it (whether members of the recipient public come to believe it as well may be an open question, but it appears that at least some of them do). This possibility has been discussed and explained by Jon Elster as exemplifying the wider psychological phenomenon of “deliberate misrepresentation and unconscious but motivated transmutation” and assumes that “people are capable of keeping their private beliefs and their publicly professed ones in separate compartments” [weak mental modularity].
Yesterday evening, I serendipitously came upon the following passage from Jon Elster’s Alchemies of the Mind: Rationality and the Emotions (1999):
“In a society with progressive taxation, those with higher incomes have a strong interest in low taxes. In defending this system, however, they cannot simply appeal to their interest. They cannot say, publicly, ‘Taxes should be low because that’s good for me’ [or in the case of Republicans and the very rich interests they represent, ‘good for us’]. By appealing to trickle-down effects and supply-side considerations they can claim that everybody will be better off if the rich get a tax break [In our case, the Republicans keep calling their overhaul of the tax code a ‘middle class tax cut,’ as well as making the general argument, in spite most economists believing otherwise, that dramatically cutting the corporate tax rate will result in increased economic growth (akin to the post-war decades) that, in turn, provides far more jobs and higher wages.] If they make this argument repeatedly, they may end up believing it themselves. Most people do not like to think of themselves as liars or cynics. To say one thing and think another is a source of tension and discomfort [e.g., cognitive dissonance] that can be removed by aligning one’s thoughts on one’s utterances. In fact, that tension need not even arise. Most people do not like to think of themselves as motivated only by self-interest. They will, therefore, gravitate spontaneously towards a world-view that suggests a coincidence between their special interest and the public interest. This example suggests not only that people have the options both of misrepresentation and of transmutation, but if the former is chosen it may induce the latter.”
So it seems we might conclude that it is likely more than a few Republicans have arrived at the belief—perhaps by way of reducing cognitive dissonance—that their tax bill will in fact benefit the middle classes (they won’t, however, pretend that it will benefit the poor).
As Elster points out in a footnote, “Marx asserted that ideology could be understood as the tendency to assert the special interest of one class as the general interest of society.”