Friday, October 12, 2018

A Sundry Syllabus for Individual Flourishing & General Emancipation In a (would-be) Democratic Society

A couple of times a year I post notice of the unannotated bibliographies available (along with other published and unpublished writings) at my Academia page. This is the latest list, which thus includes additions since the last posting. These lists vary widely in length. The two principle constraints are books, in English (although a few lists have articles as well).

The compilations are found here.

Tuesday, October 09, 2018

The cat is on the mat.

In Western philosophy, there are lots of “cats on mats” (e.g., ‘The cat is on the mat’). It does have a nice ring to it, unlike, say, “The dog is on the couch” or “The hamster is in the cage” or “The rat is at my bare feet.” I thought it worth mentioning after seeing this well-worn declarative sentence yet again in a work by Nicholas Rescher in which he discusses the epistemic significance and warrant of the notion of presumption (about which I hope to post anon). One of my favorite passages invoking this stock philosophical locution comes from Hilary Putnam’s Reason, Truth, and History (Cambridge University Press, 1981):

“[F]act, (or truth) and rationality are interdependent notions. A fact is something that it is rational to believe, or, more precisely, the notion of a fact (or a true statement) is an idealization of the notion of a statement that it is rational to believe. [….] [B]eing rational involves having criteria of relevance as well as criteria of rational acceptability, and…all of our values are involved in our criteria of relevance. The decision that a picture of the world is true (or true by our present lights, or “as true as anything is”) and answers the relevant questions (as well as we are able to answer them) rests on and reveals our total system of value commitments. A being with no values would have no facts either. The way in which criteria of relevance involves values, at least indirectly, may be seen by examining the simplest statement. Take the sentence ‘The cat is on the mat.’ If someone actually makes this judgment in a particular context, then he employs conceptual resources—the notions ‘cat,’ ‘on,’ and ‘mat’—which are provided by a particular culture, and whose presence and ubiquity reveal something about the interests and values of that culture, and of almost every culture. We have the category ‘cat’ because we regard the division of the world into animals and non-animals as significant, and we are further interested in what species a given animal belongs to. It is relevant that there is a cat on the mat and not just a thing. We have the category ‘mat’ because we regard the division of inanimate things into artifacts and non-artifacts as significant, and we are further interested in the purpose and nature a particular artifact has. It is relevant that it is a mat that the cat is on and just something. We have the category ‘on’ because we are interested in spatial relations. Notice what we have: we took the most banal statement imaginable, ‘the cat is on the mat,’ and we found that the presuppositions which make this statement a relevant one in certain contexts include the significance of the categories animate/inanimate, purpose, and space. To a mind with no disposition to regard these as relevant categories, ‘the cat is on the mat’ would be as irrational as ‘the number of hexagonal objects in this room is 76’ would be, uttered in the middle of a tête-à-tête between young lovers. Not only do very general facts about our value system show themselves in our categories (artifacts, species name, term for a spatial relation) but, our more specific values (for example, sensitivity and compassion), also show up in the use we make of specific classificatory words (‘considerate,’ ‘selfish’). To repeat, our criteria of relevance rest on and reveal our whole system of values.” — Hilary Putnam

Friday, October 05, 2018

Judge Kavanaugh and the Question of Moral Responsibility (or evasion)

(The remarks that follow assume one has read Neil H. Buchanan’s piece, ‘The Kavanaugh Travesty: A Roiling Brew of Alcohol and Entitled Self-Righteousness,’ that I linked to on Facebook yesterday.)

I find it more than plausible that Kavanaugh fancies himself as deserving of the privileges and feelings of superiority that are often part and parcel of being a member of the entitled meritocracy in this country, although I suspect he subscribes to the principle of noblesse oblige by way of easing his conscience, hence the frequency of first-person references (as a possessive pronoun) to a “lifetime of public service,” the “coaching of young girls” and so forth. In addition, we might plausibly if not reasonably infer that he believes his feelings of contempt, anger (if not rage), and defiance (for example) are justified because the accusations of sexual assault and accounts of his drunken behavior have spilled over onto and thus sullied the images of sanctimonious purity with which he and his supporters have painted his roles as a “son, husband and dad.” That portrait, in conjunction with the “good name” his legal career has—in both his mind and the minds of his supporters—etched in stone, serve as sacred artifacts or insignia of his meritocratic entitlement. Still, one wonders how a person of his intelligence and “fine breeding” as it were, can live in good conscience with an abundance of evasions and lies that typically add up to denial and self-deception.

I’ll hazard a guess: the (often perverse) moral psychology intrinsic to substitutionary atonement doctrine in Catholicism which, I believe, is intimately tied to the Church’s teachings and practices of sacramental confession requiring “disclosure of sins (the ‘confession’), contrition (sorrow of the soul for the sins committed), and satisfaction (‘penance,’ i.e. doing something to make amends for the sins),” are at least a necessary condition to a possible if not plausible psychological explanation. Assuming Kavanaugh is a “good Catholic,” the moral psychology of substitutionary atonement in conjunction with the act of confession permits him to view his past behavior in a far more forgiving and excusing light than the rest of us (at least those of us who do not believe in substitutionary atonement or practice sacramental confession) and again, in his mind at least, thus serves to rationalize or pardon his expressions of anger and defiance at those believed responsible for soiling the sacred signs associated with his “good name” (as well as the conspicuous lapse in the kind of judicial temperament one associates with a candidate for the Supreme Court). One result of putting things in this psychological and theological framework is that it suggests or implies the possibility that Kavanaugh does not see himself as truly evading moral responsibility, for such responsibility as is relevant was assumed and faced in the theological precincts and moral psychological context of his Catholic faith.

Sunday, September 30, 2018

The comparatively early (in global terms) appearance of sophisticated Nyāya logic, epistemology, and empiricism in Indian/Indic philosophy

Apologia: As part of my research on Lokāyata/Cārvāka philosophical views, for which there is a comparative paucity of textual evidence (several possible and plausible reasons have been proffered for this state of affairs), and thus the knowledge of which is often gleaned from the descriptions and arguments of other—and opposing—philosophical schools in India, I am reading Kisor Kumar Chakrabarti’s “erudite” (Jay Garfield) exploration of aspects of Nyāya logic and epistemology in his book, Classical Indian Philosophy of Induction: The Nyāya Viewpoint (Lexington Books, 2010).

“While Aristotle, the Stoics and the Epicureans made great contributions to the study of induction, there is no firm evidence to show that in the Western tradition [of philosophy] the problem of induction was explicitly recognized and elaborately discussed as a serious problem before Hume. But clearly the Indian logicians have done that long before that time. Again, in the Western tradition (notwithstanding the good work done by Whewell, Herschel and Mille earlier in the nineteenth century) it was left to [Charles Sanders] Peirce in the late nineteenth century to bring out the value of the method of hypothesis (calling it abduction and distinguishing it from deduction and induction). Even after that philosophers in this century took time to warm up to the idea as can be gathered from the relative lack of any substantial discussion of this method in the first decades of the twentieth century. The same is true of the link between causation and counterfactual conditionals. Although some traces are found in Hume, no detailed and systematic study of them is found in any Western writing before the twentieth century. The same, further, applies to the principle of economy. While the principle is very old and sometimes called … Occam’s razor, no Western philosopher has systematically and explicitly studied different kinds of economy before the twentieth century. Similarly, a systematic study of inference to the best explanation is emerging only in some recent publications. As an epistemological theory Nyāya empiricism, though older, appears to be more developed than the modern European empiricism of Locke, Berkeley and Hume. The powerful defense of causality, the careful analysis of circularity, the sophisticated arguments from counter-factual conditionals and belief-behavior conflict appear to give Nyāya empiricism the decisive edge.” — Kisor Kumar Chakrabarti, Classical Indian Philosophy of Induction: The Nyāya Viewpoint (Lexington Books, 2010): 67-68.
Suggested Reading (basic and largely secondary material in English):
  • Chakrabarti, Kisor Kumar. Logic of Gotama [Akapāda Gautama]. Honolulu, HI: University of Hawaii Press, 1978.
  • Chakrabarti, Kisor Kumar. Classical Indian Philosophy of Mind: The Nyāya Dualist Tradition. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1999.
  • Chakrabarti, Kisor Kumar. Classical Indian Philosophy of Induction: The Nyāya Viewpoint. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2010.
  • Ganeri, Jonardon. The Self: Naturalism, Consciousness, and the First-Person Stance. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2012.
  • Gangeśa (Stephen H. Phillips and N.S. Ramanuja Tatacharya, trans. and philosophical     commentary) Epistemology of Perception—Gangeśa’s Tattvacintāmai: Jewel of Reflection on the Truth (about Epistemology), The Perception chapter (pratyaksa-khanda). New York: American Institute of Buddhist Studies (with Columbia University’s Center for Buddhist Studies and Tibet House US), 2004.
  • Krishna, Daya. The Nyāyasūtras: A New Commentary on an Old Text. Delhi: Sri Satguru Publications, 2004.
  • Krishna, Daya, ed. Discussion and Debate in Indian Philosophy: Vedānta, Mīmāsā and Nyāya. New Delhi: Indian Council of Philosophical Research, 2004.
  • Matilal, B.K. [Bimal Krishna] The Navya-Nyāya Doctrine of Negation. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1968.
  • Matilal, B.K. Perception: An Essay on Classical Indian Theories of Knowledge. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1986.
  • Matilal, B.K. (Jonardon Ganeri and Heeraman Tiwari, eds.) The Character of Logic in India. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1998.
  • Phillips, Stephen H. Classical Indian Metaphysics: Refutations of Realism and the Emergence ofNew Logic.” Chicago, IL: Open Court Publishing Co., 1996/Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1997.
  • Phillips, Stephen H. Epistemology in Classical India: The Knowledge Sources of the Nyāya School. New York: Routledge, 2012.
  • Potter, Karl H., ed. Encyclopedia of Indian Philosophies, vol. 2. Nyāya-Vaiśeika up to Gageśa. Delhi: Motilal Barnarsidass, 1977.
  • Potter, Karl H. and Sabijiban Bhattacharya, eds. Encyclopedia of Indian Philosophies, vol. 6. Indian Philosophical Analysis: Nyāya-Vaiśeika from Gageśa to Raghunātha Śiromai. Delhi: Motilal Barnasidass, 1993.
  • Ram-Prasad, Chakravarthi. “Nyāya: Suffering, Detachment and Peace,” in Ram-Prasad’s Knowledge and Liberation in Classical Indian Thought. New York: Palgrave, 2001: 57-108.

Friday, September 28, 2018

Indian/Indic darśana(s) and hedonistic egoism

There’s a provocative yet plausible argument to be made, and Pradeep P. Gokhale has made it (in his 2015 book, Lokāyata/Cārvāka: A Philosophical Inquiry), that orthodox and heterodox Indic philosophical systems or schools* (save, perhaps, Mahāyāna Buddhism) can be aptly characterized in the main (thus in the form of a generalization) as minor variations on the ethical theme of “hedonistic egoism.” Of course I am not claiming that altruism or ethical views and practices beyond hedonistic egoism don’t exist in Indian philosophy (or here or there in canonical sacred texts). Rather, the philosophical systems, qua systems, can be ethically characterized this way insofar as the paramount value or emphasis is on moka/mukti “liberation” (from pain, suffering) or, as in the case of Mīmāsā, heaven (and enjoyment of life therein) and the consequent mental and/or spiritual states such liberation is said to bring: (eternal) peace, pure happiness, the highest bliss, unadulterated and enduring pleasure, what have you. As one of my professors from university, Raghavan Iyer, has written, “In the course of time moksha became in India a largely negative notion of escape [or withdrawal from the world, as it were], a rejection of this irredeemable world, an intoxicating flight from reality” (one of the indirect or unintended consequences of Mughal rule and especially British colonialism is that they combined to compel Indians to recover and renew their appreciation of the conditions of worldly life and the value of social, cultural and political self-determination).
Not surprisingly, there are various philosophical conceptions of hedonistic egoism so in a forthcoming guest post at the Indian Philosophy blog I will attempt to clarify what those are (as part of this endeavor I will use, in part, notions of psychological hedonism and egoism as Freud appears to have understood and used them). I believe it’s possible to ethically reconfigure or reconstruct these philosophical systems (as Gandhi did in his inimitable way, for example, with a stress on karma yoga and a more or less universalized conception of dharma as lokasangraha, as well as his understanding of moka as absolute ‘truth,’ in effect giving ‘traditional values a new meaning and a fresh relevance to politics and to society’) so as to change this fundamental ethical orientation.
Much of this discussion hinges on how one understands the ideal-typical normative categories enshrined in the puruārtha(s). Religiously motivated philosophical opponents of Cārvāka/Lokāyata (which is predominantly empiricist, sceptical, materialist, rationalist, and thus secular) have often characterized the latter’s ethical views along the lines of hedonism or egoism or hedonistic egoism (or even as amoral or immoral) although, as Gokhale has argued, the “this-worldly” hedonistic egoism of Cārvāka/Lokāyata is more realistic and in some respects (at least potentially) more profoundly ethical than that found in the regnant religio-philosophical worldviews on the Indian sub-continent.
* The six orthodox (āstika) schools of Indic philosophy: Navya-Nyāya, Vaiśeika, Sākhya, Yoga, Pūrva Mīmāsā, and Vedānta. The schools are often grouped in pairs, thus: Nyāya and Vaiśeika (Logic and Atomism); (Classical) Yoga and Sākhya (Yoga and Discrimination or Distinctionism); Pūrva Mīmāsā and Uttara Mīmāsā or Vedānta (Prior Exegesis [of the Veda] and Later Exegesis or End of the Vedas Metaphysics). There are sub-schools within several of these main philosophical systems. The heterodox (nāstika) schools are Jainism, Buddhism and Cārvāka/Lokāyata (this last is the only one of the darśana(s) that is not religious).
Should you not be familiar with these philosophical traditions, a nice introduction is provided in a series of podcasts available here (on that same page you will also find a short list of recommended reading as well as a couple of links to sites with material on Indian philosophy).
Relevant bibliographies:

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Edward W. Said (1 November 1935 – 25 September 2003)

Edward Said “was one of the leading literary critics of the last quarter of the 20th century. As professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University, New York, he was widely regarded as the outstanding representative of the post-structuralist left in America. Above all, he was the most articulate and visible advocate of the Palestinian cause in the United States, where it earned him many enemies.

The broadness of Said’s approach to literature and his other great love, classical music, eludes easy categorisation. His most influential book, Orientalism (1978), is credited with helping to change the direction of several disciplines by exposing an unholy alliance between the enlightenment and colonialism.” — Malise Ruthven

*           *           *

Edward (Wadie) Said (1 November 1935 25 September 2003) was a professor of literature at Columbia University, a public intellectual, and a founder of the academic field of postcolonial studies. A Palestinian American born in Mandatory Palestine, he was a citizen of the United States by way of his father, a U.S. Army veteran.

Educated in the Western canon, at British and American schools, Said applied his education and bi-cultural perspective to illuminating the gaps of cultural and political understanding between the Western world and the Eastern world, especially about the Israeli–Palestinian conflict in the Middle East; his principal influences were Antonio Gramsci, Frantz Fanon, Aimé Césaire, Michel Foucault, and Theodor Adorno.

As a cultural critic, Said is known for the book Orientalism (1978), a critique of the cultural representations that are the bases of Orientalism—how the Western world perceives the Orient. Said’s model of textual analysis transformed the academic discourse of researchers in literary theory, literary criticism, and Middle-Eastern studies—how academics examine, describe, and define the cultures being studied. As a foundational text, Orientalism was controversial among scholars of Oriental Studies, philosophy, and literature.

As a public intellectual, Said was a controversial member of the Palestinian National Council, because he publicly criticized Israel and the Arab countries, especially the political and cultural policies of Muslim régimes who acted against the national interests of their peoples. Said advocated the establishment of a Palestinian state to ensure equal political and human rights for the Palestinians in Israel, including the right of return to the homeland. He defined his oppositional relation with the status quo as the remit of the public intellectual who has ‘to sift, to judge, to criticize, to choose, so that choice and agency return to the individual man and woman.’

In 1999, with his friend Daniel Barenboim, Said co-founded the West–Eastern Divan Orchestra, based in Seville, which comprises young Israeli, Palestinian, and Arab musicians. Besides being an academic, Said was also an accomplished pianist, and, with Barenboim, co-authored the book Parallels and Paradoxes: Explorations in Music and Society (2002), a compilation of their conversations about music. Said died of leukemia on 25 September 2003.”

An Edward Said bibliography is here.

*           *           *

Re-thinking the Orientalism thesis: a few comments

I suspect insinuations or charges of “Orientalism” (in a pejorative sense, as something ‘essentialist, racialist, patronizing and ideologically motivated’) today come too easily for most of us (yes, there are times when it’s perfectly appropriate, i.e., hits the target). And the late (and great) Edward Said’s seminal and widely venerated book (1978) on same is in large measure responsible for this state of affairs, the remaining portion of responsibility lying in the hands of his readers. I’m inclined to believe that several early, highly critical (some would say ‘hostile’) reviews of Said’s book, as well as Robert Irwin’s later study, Dangerous Knowledge: Orientalism and Its Discontents (Overlook Press, 2006; outside the U.S. the book was titled, For Lust of Knowing: The Orientalists and their Enemies), are more or less on the mark (Irwin focuses on Said’s book in one chapter: ‘An Enquiry into the Nature of a Certain Twentieth-Century Polemic’). Saying this should not at all detract from the well-deserved respect for—if not admiration of—Said’s considerable virtues as a literary critic, an intellectual keenly sensitive to issues of intellectual obligation and responsibility, and a “tireless campaigner for Palestinian rights” (Irwin). Please don’t infer from these comments sympathetic to critics of Said’s “Orientalism thesis” that I align myself with the views, say, of a Martin Kramer or (the Zionist ideologue) Bernard Lewis. In addition to Irwin, please see Daniel Martin Varisco’s indispensable if not exhaustive analysis, Reading Orientalism: Said and the Unsaid (University of Washington Press, 2007).

More recently (last year) I read a critique (in ‘solidarity’*) of Said’s Orientalism that should be must reading for anyone convinced of the book’s brilliance (there’s brilliance there, but it’s rather episodic), namely, the chapter, “Orientalism and After: Ambivalence and Metropolitan Location in the Work of Edward Said,” by Aijaz Ahmad from his Marxist-inspired In Theory: Classes, Nations, Literatures (Verso, 1992). I had previously read other parts of the book (the introductory material and the respective chapters on Jameson and Rushdie), so while I’m not surprised by the quality of the analysis, it is far better than I imagined it would—or even could—be! There is any number of compelling reasons to read Ahmad’s book in toto, but should you be understandably enchanted by Said’s Orientalism, I suggest you find the time to read Ahmad.

Finally, I’d like to give notice to one of my favorite Orientalists, Maxime Rodinson (1915-2004). Rodinson—like the late Samir Amin—has been correctly lauded as an “independent Marxist,” as well as a (pre-Saidian) “French Orientalist.” In the words of Gilbert Achcar,

“Maxime Rodinson was the last survivor of an exceptional group of French Orientalists—in the pre-Saidian non-pejorative meaning of this term, i.e. scholars of Islam and the Arab world—who lived through most of the twentieth century and rose to fame in the 1960s, a decade that saw the emergence of an impressive contingent of French thinkers whose names loom large in the social sciences of our time. The group of brilliant Orientalists to which Rodinson belonged, and which included other luminaries such as Jacque Berque and Claude Cahen, reclaimed the field of Arab and Islamic studies with impeccable erudition, scientific rigour, and a critical solidarity with the peoples they studies that made their writings largely free from the deficiencies of the colonial ‘Orientalism’ of yesteryear and their own time.” 

* “Suppression of criticism,” writes Ahmad, “is not the best way of expressing solidarity,” and yet one should make plain the motivation for such solidarity,

“For Edward Said is not only a cultural critic, he is also a Palestinian. Much that is splendid in his work is connected with the fact that he has tried to do honour to that origin; and he has done so against all odds, to the full extent of his capacity, by stepping outside the boundaries of his academic discipline and original intellectual formation, under no compulsion of profession or fame, in pursuit of personal gain—in fact, a frightening risk to himself. … [I]t is worth remarking that his eloquent and irrepressible partisanship with his national cause has earned him assassination threats, from quarters which are known to have assassinated a great many other patriotic Palestinians. Said has decided to live with such risks, and much honour—a very rare kind of honour—attaches to that decision.”

Hence Ahmad’s heartfelt expression of solidarity in conjunction with his “many disagreements” with Said “on substantive issues.”
References & Further Reading:
  • Ahmad, Aijaz. In Theory: Classes, Nations, Literatures (London: Verso, 1992).
  • Anderson, Kevin B. Marx at the Margins: On Nationalism, Ethnicity, and Non-Western Societies (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2nd ed., 2016).
  • Bilgrami, Akeel. “Reflections on Edward Said,” the final three chapters from Bilgrami’s book, Secularism, Identity, and Enchantment (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014).
  • Chibber, Vivek. Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital (London: Verso, 2013).
  • Irwin, Robert. Dangerous Knowledge: Orientalism and Its Discontents (Woodstock, NY: The Overlook Press, 2006).
  • Macfie, Alexander Lyon, ed. Orientalism: A Reader (Washington Square, NY: New York University Press, 2000).
  • Rodinson, Maxime. The Arabs (London: Croom Helm, 1981).
  • Rodinson, Maxime. Cult, Ghetto, and State: The Persistence of the Jewish Question (London: Saqi Books, 1991).
  • Rodinson, Maxime. Europe and the Mystique of Islam (London: I.B. Tauris & Co., 1988).
  • Rodinson, Maxime. Islam and Capitalism (New York: Pantheon Books, 1973).
  • Rodinson, Maxime. Israel and the Arabs (Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books, revised ed., 1982).
  • Rodinson, Maxime. Israel: A Colonial-Settler State? (New York: Anchor Foundation/Pathfinder, 1973).
  • Rodinson, Maxime. Marxism and the Muslim World (London: Zed Books, 2015) (1979).
  • Rodinson, Maxime. Muhammad (New York: Pantheon Books, 1980). [I realize this biography is controversial for obvious reasons, nonetheless, it remains a sympathetic portrait from an avowed Marxist.]
  • Said, Edward W. Orientalism (New York: Pantheon Books, 1978).
  • Varisco, Daniel Martin. Reading Orientalism: Said and the Unsaid (Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press, 2007).

Monday, September 24, 2018

The President’s arrested emotional and moral development

At Dorf on Law this morning, Michael Dorf writes:
“Last week, while in North Carolina surveying some of the damage caused by Florence, the president came across a property on which a yacht had washed ashore during the storm. According to the NY Times story:
‘Is this your boat?’ Mr. Trump asked the homeowner.  When the man shook his head and said ‘No,’ the president turned with a grin and replied, ‘At least you got a nice boat out of the deal.’ Then, the real-estate-tycoon-turned-president added: ‘They don’t know whose boat that is. What’s the law? Maybe it becomes theirs.’”
As part of his discussion, Professor Dorf rightly observes that “[T]his is further evidence that Trump’s moral development was arrested when he was in grade school, where the principle finders-keepers-losers-weepers has currency.”
Hence my comment:
In the currency of Lawrence Kohlberg’s stages of moral development (after Piaget), Trump’s moral (and psychological) development is thus arrested at the “pre-conventional” level of moral reasoning (Kohlberg noted that this could be found among some adults; it is also a level that happens to be immune from Carol Gilligan’s critique), although I would hesitate to use the adjective “moral” in both cases, for it strikes me as “pre-moral” as well with regard to interpersonal communication and behavior (or folk psychological narrative). Psychologically speaking, whether we attribute this arrested moral (and emotional?) development to “narcissism in extremis” or simply pathological narcissism (‘narcissistic personality disorder’), it is associated with a cluster of well-attested behavioral manifestations and symptoms (this is not an exhaustive list): condescension and arrogance, self-aggrandizement, egregious exaggeration and habitual lying, bullying, envy, paranoia, fragile self-esteem, absence of compassion, a tendency to “dehumanize” others, racism, misogyny, “what’s in it for me” or “tit-for-tat” (or ‘you scratch my back, and I’ll scratch yours’) reasoning (in foreign policy terms, ‘us-v.-them’). (Incidentally, Gerald Gaus has argued, soundly and persuasively by my lights, the widely held view that iterated game theory [tit-for-tat] and evolutionary psychology [kin altruism] provide sufficient evidence for the proposition that purely instrumental reasoning is capable of securing large-scale social cooperation is profoundly mistaken.) Some psychiatrists have described Trump’s behavior in terms of “unbridled, or extreme present hedonism,” which is descriptively rich and fairly transparent in meaning.
What has increasingly interested me is what all of this says about those who continue to enthusiastically and uncritically support Trump (be they citizens or politicians), whatever class or social strata they come from. We have, it seems, a more or less authoritarian social psychological dynamic in which ideological messianism is entrenched or facilitated by the cultural “triumph of spectacle” (Chris Hedges). A cluster of apparently mutually reinforcing and deplorable beliefs and attitudes are held by individuals who are unusually (that is to say, more than the rest of us) prone or disposed to self-deception, denial, and wishful or fantasized thinking while being attracted to an authoritarian, plutocratic, and kleptocratic “daddy” who happens to suffer from narcissistic megalomania. A paranoid “politics of fear” is the (or one) result, although I confess to being afraid for rather different reasons (and this fear is not only personal).

Sunday, September 23, 2018

George Padmore (28 June 1903 – 23 September 1959): author, journalist, Left organizer and activist (against colonialism, imperialism and Empire), one-time Communist Party member, socialist, and Pan-Africanist intellectual

Please see my post on Padmore here

Friday, September 21, 2018

On the putative genius of (our) constitutional democracy

 … [L]iberalism, constitutionalism, and democracy do not per se make good societies, although they are arguably necessary part of the structure of a good society. But it is also true that merely having the psychology for or a commitment to a good society will make one. In particular, the makings of a civil society are not the makings of good government under a constitutional regime. What is generally required for a constitutional regime to work is that it serve the relative interests of major political groups in the society, that is, groups that are politically efficacious. — Russell Hardin
Capitalist democracy encourages economic calculation through the generation of conditions of material uncertainty. But economic calculation leads rationally to a rejection of more radical long-term struggles against capitalism itself. Short-term material improvement is the preferred aim of materially based conflict within a capitalist democracy because of the different requirements and competing logics of short-term pursuits and longer-term struggles, and the rational pursuit if material advantage within capitalist democracy thus leads to a less radical and less global pursuit of short-term material gain. [….] Thus the situation in which workers make their decisions leads them rationally, on the basis of their material interest, to choose not to struggle against capitalism. The long-term production of consent within capitalist democracy is based on just such short-term decisions to consent to capitalist production. The system can provide workers with short-term material satisfaction, and workers participate in the system to assure that satisfaction. And even when, as is not infrequently the case, capitalism is failing to deliver material benefits, rational calculation does not mandate a longer-term transformative conflict. Individual workers may hope that the burden of decline will not fall on them. They may calculate that protecting existing gains from further erosion is more likely to deliver benefits than engaging in a costly and in any case uncertain long-term effort. And if they are organized, their organizations, designed to deliver short-term benefits under better conditions, are likely to be ill-suited to the enterprise of radical transformation. – Joshua Cohen and Joel Rogers
The likelihood of reducing the extreme inequality of representation in the Senate is virtually zero. The chances of altering our constitutional system to make it either more clearly consensual or more definitely majoritarian are also quite low. The likelihood is very low that the Supreme Court will refrain from legislating public policies, often highly partisan ones, and instead focus its power of judicial review strictly on the protection of fundamental democratic rights and issues of federalism. The combination of chief executive and monarch in the American presidency is not likely to change. Finally, the probability that democratic changes in the electoral college will occur appear to be inversely related to their desirability, with the most desirable having the lowest probability of occurring. There is at least a modest chance that some states might require their electoral votes to be allocated in proportion to the popular votes. But a constitutional amendment that makes the number of a state’s electors proportionate to its population stands little chance of adoption. And the inequality in representation in the Senate makes a constitutional amendment providing for direct popular election of the president virtually impossible. — Robert A. Dahl
*          *          *
“The genius of constitutional democracy has been that it limits what the most powerful interests are allowed to do.”—Neil H. Buchanan (in a recent post at Dorf on Law)
I beg to differ: I think it’s in fact the case that the genius of (liberal) constitutional democracy, to the extent such a thing exists, is owing to its ability to serve the mutual advantage of interests embodied in and common to a large middle class and the wealthy (the wealth here being of the kind generated by capitalism). And it is the comparative stability, ideological tenacity, and rule of such genius that is democratically distorting and disturbing. It may, on occasion (thus in an episodic not structural sense), and owing to the aspirational legitimacy of a representative democracy, constrain the exercise or morally egregious expression of the most powerful of those interests, but this is utterly contingent on those outside the circle of the (largely white) middle and upper classes having opportunities to represent their interests within the four corners of the constitution. The groups whose mutual advantage must be served are not the poor, the disenfranchised, the vulnerable, the incarcerated, and so forth; in brief, those outside the circle of the most powerful interests. De jure constitutional democracy in this instance is de facto capitalist democracy, hence political rights tend to be formal and procedural and not substantive (this is not to dismiss the value of the former, but to highlight their limits vis-à-vis a democratic society). The true genius of our constitutional democracy, therefore, is best evidenced in the fact that the welfare of workers is structurally secondary to the welfare of capitalists, the well-being of the former in the hands of the decision-making and investment practices of the latter. Capitalist or constitutional democracy does not limit the private control of investment in the hands of the wealthy (as individuals or corporations). Conditions of material insecurity inherent in a capitalist democracy (be it a liberal, corporatist or social democratic welfare state; although the choice among these types has very real consequences for the welfare and well-being of those not solidly middle class or wealthy) finds workers canalizing their general and moral (or worldview or ‘lifeworld’) interests in a myopic manner into the “rational” pursuit of material advantage or short-term material gain.
Professor Buchanan replied to my comment as follows: “I do not disagree with Patrick O’Donnell’s comments at all. I would only say that he is arguing that constitutional democracy is quite consistent with neoliberalism and thus exploitation. Again, I agree. My point was that the very nature of constitutional rules is to put some limits on what powerful interests can do. If that were not true, powerful interests would not be so eager to hire Supreme Court justices to eliminate those limits.”
References & Further Reading
  • Alford, Ryan. Permanent State of Emergency: Unchecked Executive Power and the Demise of the Rule of Law (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2017).
  • Anderson, Carol. One Person, One Vote: How Voter Suppression is Destroying Our Democracy (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2018).  
  • Berman, Ari. Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015).
  • Chang, Ja-Joon. 23 Things They Don’t Tell You about Capitalism (Bloomsbury Press, 2010).
  • Cole, David and James X. Dempsey. Terrorism and the Constitution (The New Press, 3rd ed., 2006).
  • Dahl, Robert A. How Democratic Is the American Constitution? (Yale University Press, 2nd ed., 2003).
  • Fontana, Benedetto, Cary J. Nederman, and Gary Remer, eds. Talking Democracy: Historical Perspectives on Rhetoric and Democracy (Pennsylvania State University Press, 2004).
  • Garsten, Bryan. Saving Persuasion: A Defense of Rhetoric and Judgment (Harvard University Press, 2006).
  • Gilbert, Alan. Democratic Individuality (Cambridge University Press, 1990).
  • Goodin, Robert E. Reflective Democracy (Oxford University Press, 2003).
  • Greenberg, Karen J. Rogue Justice: The Making of the Security State (Crown, 2016).
  • Hasen, Richard L. Plutocrats United: Campaign Money, the Supreme Court, and the Distortion of American Elections (Yale University Press, 2016). 
  • Hedges, Chris. Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle (Nation Books, 2009).
  • MacLean, Nancy. Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America (2017). 
  • May, Gary. Bending Toward Justice: The Voting Rights Act and the Transformation of American Democracy (Basic Books, 2013). 
  • Mayer, Jane. Dark Money (Doubleday, 2016).
  • Nelson, Dana D. Bad for Democracy: How the Presidency Undermines the Power of the People (University of Minnesota Press, 2008).
  • Tullis, Jeffrey K. and Stephen Macedo, eds. The Limits of Constitutional Democracy (Princeton University Press, 2010).
  • Urbinati, Nadia. Representative Democracy: Principles and Genealogy (University of Chicago Press, 2006).
  • Urbinati, Nadia. Democracy Disfigured: Opinion, Truth, and the People (Harvard University Press, 2014).
  • Wills, Garry. Bomb Power: The Modern Presidency and the National Security State (Penguin Press, 2010).
  • Wolin, Sheldon S. Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism (Princeton University Press, 2008).

Monday, September 17, 2018

Richard Wright and the Bandung Conference (1955)

Once again, for reasons of length and the number of images, I have not cross-posted my piece on Richard Wright and the Bandung Conference (1955), which is found at Religious Left Law


Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Steve Biko (d. 12 September 1977)

By way of a small tribute to Steve Biko (18 December 1946 – 12 September 1977), here is a brief descriptive introduction to and characterization of Biko as a thoughtful and politically aware young medical student at Wentworth (the Natal University nonwhite medical school), where he was elected to the Students’ Representative Council and soon participated in NUSAS (the multiracial National Union of South African Students): 

“Undogmatic but highly disciplined in his thinking, possessed with a rare insight into human and political situations, Biko increasingly began to question the value of what he saw as the artificial integration of student politics. As in South African politics generally, Africans were hanging back, resentful but reticent, hiding behind white spokesmen who had shouldered the job of defining black grievances and goals. For liberal whites, verbal protest and symbolic racial mixing were seen as the outer limit of action. Apartheid was defined as the enemy, and nonracialism prescribed as the antidote. Repeated over and over in words and symbols, this liberal approach, and in fact the entire liberal analysis, had to Biko’s way of thinking become not an inspiration to constructive action but a sterile dogma disguising an unconscious attachment to the status quo.”— Gail M. Gerhart, Black Power in South Africa: The Evolution of an Ideology (University of California Press, 1978): 260. Gerhart had the privilege of interviewing Biko in 1972.   

Related Bibliography: South African Liberation Struggles: Toward (revolutionary?) Democratic Self-Determination.

Beyond Factory Farming

I should like to call your attention to an article by Sherry F. Colb today at Verdict: “Factory Farming:” An Evolving Phrase. While I recommend the entire piece, I’ve highlighted one passage below so as to make a brief comment.

For (philosophical and ethical) reasons found within the Buddhist tradition,* I wholeheartedly agree with this, although of course one need not be a Buddhist to concur with the premises and conclusion:

“First, if a sentient living being feels good and healthy and happy, I cannot justify depriving her of her life if I have other options. Factory farming originally woke me and others up to the fact that the animals whom we were using for food and clothing have feelings and suffer and want to live out their lives [while they likely lack a conception of what it means to ‘live out their lives,’ they clearly express a will or desire to live, they ‘cling’ to life, as it were]. Having realized and fully absorbed this, I no longer wanted to play any role in sending animals to the slaughterhouse, however lovely their pre-slaughter abode.”

Those of us who more or less share this view cannot countenance “humane slaughter” of animals (which, for us, albeit with a few possible exceptions, is a contradiction). It is true that farm animals can be treated humanely, “pre-slaughter,” and thus the forswearing of factory farming, to the extent this takes place, represents a significant measure of improvement in the quality of the lives of animals before they make it to “our” plates. I welcome that, even if, from my spiritual and ethical perspective, it falls short of what we should be—and sometimes are—capable of in our ethical relations with non-human animals. 

* Specifically, the Eightfold Path, which is divided into three interrelated and mutually supporting parts: (i) insight or wisdom (prajñā), (ii) moral virtue (śīla), and (iii) meditation (samādhi). Moral virtue consists, broadly speaking, of “right speech,” “right action” and “right livelihood.” And, among other things, and given other Buddhist teachings and doctrines, “right action” entails observing the “five precepts” (pañcaśīla), the first of which is to abstain from harming breathing beings (Pali: ātipātā veramaī sikkhāpada samādiyāmi). This is keeping with a pan-Indic virtue, ahi or (‘non-injury’ or ‘non-harming,’ often also translated as nonviolence) exemplified in particular within the traditions of Hinduism and especially Jainism and Buddhism. There is a helpful discussion of this in Peter Harvey’s An Introduction to Buddhist Ethics (Cambridge University Press, 2000). 

Related Bibliographies: