Posts Tagged ‘philosophy’

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Yes, the late Richard Rorty got it spot on:

Members of labor unions, and unorganized unskilled workers, will sooner or later realize that their government is not even trying to prevent wages from sinking or to prevent jobs from being exported. Around the same time, they will realize that suburban white-collar workers—themselves desperately afraid of being downsized—are not going to let themselves be taxed to provide social benefits for anyone else.

At that point, something will crack. The nonsuburban electorate will decide that the system has failed and start looking around for a strongman to vote for—someone willing to assure them that, once he is elected, the smug bureaucrats, tricky lawyers, overpaid bond salesmen, and postmodernist professors will no longer be calling the shots. . .

One thing that is very likely to happen is that the gains made in the past forty years by black and brown Americans, and by homosexuals, will be wiped out. Jocular contempt for women will come back into fashion. The words “nigger” and “kike” will once again be heard in the workplace.

That’s from Rorty’s Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America, originally published in 1998. And Edward Helmore [ht: ja] is right to cite Rorty and to note that passages from the book have gone viral in the wake of the election.*

But that’s about all Helmore gets correct. Maybe I’m getting old. Or journalists like Helmore need to spend more time talking with actual leftists. Or probably a combination of the two.

Let me explain. First, I find it hard to believe that Rorty is “obscure” now. Maybe he is. But he certainly wasn’t in 1998, when Scott Stossel referred to him as “one of the most famous living philosophers in the United States.” Me, I’d just change that to one of the most famous previously living philosophers in the United States. Rorty’s Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature was a monumental achievement—a riposte to the long post-enlightenment tradition of reducing the problem of knowledge to one of representation.

And while some on the Left (especially those in the Rethinking Marxism tradition, who have long been critical of all forms of essentialism, in both epistemology and methodology) have benefitted from reading Rorty, many other left-wing thinkers, especially those who remained wedded to realism, rejected much of what came to be called the postmodern critique of representation.

As for Rorty himself, he wasn’t a leftist. He did write about the Left (both Old and New, modern and postmodern) but he was by his own admission a Cold War (anti-communist) liberal.** He believed fervently in liberal democracy and argued for strengthening it. His own politics harkened back to a quite different tradition, the pragmatism of John Dewey.

That doesn’t mean Rorty was wrong or that his work, both philosophical and political, doesn’t still have a great deal to offer the contemporary Left.

Me, I think Rorty should remain on our reading lists, if only because postmodernism has been blamed (by, among others, Peter Pomerantsev) for a wide range of recent disasters, from 9/11 to Donald Trump.***

This equaling out of truth and falsehood is both informed by and takes advantage of an all-permeating late post-modernism and relativism, which has trickled down over the past thirty years from academia to the media and then everywhere else. This school of thought has taken Nietzsche’s maxim, there are no facts, only interpretations, to mean that every version of events is just another narrative, where lies can be excused as ‘an alternative point of view’ or ‘an opinion’, because ‘it’s all relative’ and ‘everyone has their own truth’ (and on the internet they really do).

While I hate to admit it (because I don’t share many of his views, especially those expressed in recent years, nor his general attitude of arrogant disdain), Stanley Fish does offer the appropriate response:

postmodernism has no causal relationship to either the spread of terrorist ideology or the primary triumphs of Trump.

What postmodernism says is that while the material world certainly exists and is prior to our descriptions of it, we only have access to it through those descriptions. That is, we do not know the world directly, as a matter of simple and unmediated perception; rather we know it as the vocabularies at our disposal deliver it to us. The philosopher Richard Rorty put it this way: “The world is out there, but descriptions of the world are not.”

The world does not come equipped with its own language, its own directions for stating the truth about it; if it did, we could just speak that language and be confident that what we said was objectively true.

But in the absence of such a language (called by the historian of science Thomas Kuhn a “neutral observation language”), we must make do with the vocabularies that are developed in the course of our attempts to make sense of things: the vocabularies of science, philosophy, political theory, anthropology, sociology, law, aesthetics. Merely to list those vocabularies (and there are of course more than I have instanced) is to realise that in every discipline – every laboratory of description – there is more than one; there are many and those many are in competition with one another, vying for the right to wear the labels correct and true.

If different vocabularies deliver different worlds and different measures of true and false, does that amount (in Pomerantsev’s words) to the “equaling out of truth and falsehood”? Only in reference to a measure of true and false attached to no vocabulary at all, a measure proceeding directly from an unmediated, perfectly seen world. Were there such a measure, all assertions would equal out because they would be equally (though differently) far from the truth as seen from a God’s-eye point of view.

Without such a measure, what we have is a contest of discourses—each of which, of course, has different effects.

What that means is, if we can’t rule out Trump (or any other economic or political disaster) in the name of some kind of “reality” or capital-T truth (and I don’t think we can), we still have two formidable weapons: critical thinking and political organizing. And, while liberals continue to deny it, the Left is still the best place to find and develop those weapons.

 

*According to Jennifer Senior, Rorty’s book has now sold out and “Harvard University Press is reprinting the book for the first time since 2010.”

**See, for example, his conversation with Derek Nystrom and Kent Puckett (pdf).

***Both Max de Haldevang and Victor Davis Hanson have also referred to Trump as a “postmodern candidate.”

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Readers are, I presume, as dismayed as I am by the current terms of debate concerning guns and police violence in the United States.

Yes, important points have been made—for example, about guns and profits, the diversity of victims of fatal shootings, and the racial disparities in police shootings. But the more general debate in the United States has largely ignored or overlooked other key issues, such as discourses of inferiority, people’s right to resist violence, and the nature of state-legimitized violence.

Fortunately, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak [ht: ja] has weighed in on these topics:

Brad Evans: Throughout your work, you have written about the conditions faced by the globally disadvantaged, notably in places such as India, China and Africa. How might we use philosophy to better understand the various types of violence that erupt as a result of the plight of the marginalized in the world today?

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak: While violence is not beyond naming and diagnosis, it does raise many challenging questions all the same. I am a pacifist. I truly believe in the power of nonviolence. But we cannot categorically deny a people the right to resist violence, even, under certain conditions, with violence. Sometimes situations become so intolerable that moral certainties are no longer meaningful. There is a difference here between condoning such a response and trying to understand why the recourse to violence becomes inevitable.

When human beings are valued as less than human, violence begins to emerge as the only response. When one group designates another as lesser, they are saying the “inferior” group cannot think in a “reasonable” way. It is important to remember that this is an intellectual violation, and in fact that the oppressed group’s right to manual labor is not something they are necessarily denied. In fact, the oppressed group is often pushed to take on much of society’s necessary physical labor. Hence, it is not that people are denied agency; it is rather that an unreasonable or brutish type of agency is imposed on them. And, the power inherent in this physical agency eventually comes to intimidate the oppressors. The oppressed, for their part, have been left with only one possible identity, which is one of violence. That becomes their politics and it appropriates their intellect.

This brings us directly to the issue of “reasonable” versus “unreasonable” violence. When dealing with violence deemed unreasonable, the dominating groups demonize violent responses, saying that “those other people are just like that,” not just that they are worth less, but also that they are essentially evil, essentially criminal or essentially have a religion that is prone to killing.

And yet, on the other side, state-legitimized violence, considered “reasonable” by many, is altogether more frightening. Such violence argues that if a person wears a certain kind of clothing or belongs to a particular background, he or she is legally killable. Such violence is more alarming, because it is continuously justified by those in power.

The rest of the interview is also worth reading, especially the sections on self-appointed anti-poverty entrepreneurs (who never mention “capital’s consistent need to sustain itself at the expense of curtailing the rights of some sectors of the population”) and “affirmative sabotage” (which involves “entering the discourse that you are criticizing fully, so that you can turn it around from inside”).

As well as Spivak’s conclusion

one must continue to work — to quote Marx — for the possibility of a poetry of the future.

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American voters are clearly angry. At least it’s clear to me—for example, as reflected in the success of the Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders campaigns (and in the evident dissatisfaction with Hillary Clinton, Congress, and Wall Street).

But it’s not clear to many economists, who cite rising average incomes, a relatively low unemployment rate, and other aggregate indicators. For them, the economic situation is improving and there’s really no reason for Americans to be angry.*

And then there are the philosophers, like Martha Nussbaum, who think anger is itself morally bad.

You can be dignified, you can protest, you can say this is outrageous, but you don’t have to do it in a way that is angry or seeks payback.

But the fact is, even with slight improvements in the overall economic situation in recent years, many Americans remain financially stressed and are angry that most of the gains that have been achieved since 2009 have been captured not by them, but by a tiny group at the top.

The financial stress underlying the anger is evident in the latest Report on the Economic Well-Being of U.S. Households in 2015 issued by the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System (pdf).

The word cloud above is a good place to start. Each cloud includes the 75 most frequently observed words in the description of individuals’ challenges, with the size of the word reflecting its frequency. Thus, for example, among low-income respondents, “bills” and “money” are the most commonly reported words, while for those in the middle, the most common words are “insurance,” “health,” “money,” and “retirement.” For those earning more than $100,000, the emphasis shifts to worries about “retirement.”

The report offers plenty of additional evidence about the financial stress experienced by many Americans. For example, just under one-third of respondents report that they are either “finding it difficult to get by” (9 percent) or are “just getting by” (22 percent) financially. This represents approximately 76 million adults who are struggling to some degree to get by.

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And while individuals are 9 percentage points more likely to say that their financial well-being improved during the prior year than to say that their situation worsened, it is still the case that 46 percent of adults reveal they either could not cover an emergency expense costing $400, or would cover it by selling something or borrowing money.

That’s 46 percent! To cover a $400 expense!

So, although there’s been some improvement in recent years when looking at aggregate-level results for the U.S. population as a whole, the fact is most of the improvement has occurred at the top (especially for college-educated, white Americans). The rest of the population (black, white, Hispanic, without college degrees) continues to be financially squeezed. And it’s that difference—between improvement for a few and stress for everyone else—that means lots of Americans are angry right now. And, yes, they want payback.

The mainstream economists and politicians who say that people should not be angry, that they should be content with their lot, are wrong. So are the philosophers who argue that anger and the desire for payback are morally suspect.

As I see it, the American working-class is justifiably angry and they clearly want to see some kind of payback. The real questions are, who is standing in their way (and thus whom should they be angry at) and what kinds of fundamental changes in the economic system are necessary to improve their situation (and thus to achieve the appropriate payback)?

 

*To be fair, Jared Bernstein himself looks behind the aggregate numbers, which leads him to understand “why some people are unsatisfied with the economy and beyond. Growth hasn’t reached all corners by a long shot, and policymakers have too often been at best unresponsive to that reality and at worst, just plain awful.”

 

 

Here’s a second video with Antonio Callari (the first is here)—this one on Marx’s intervention into the arena of philosophy and the idea of freedom as the basis of a Marxian project of transforming the world.

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[ht: cwc]

 

Lou Reed and Arthur Danto couldn’t have been more different. One used music to make us feel the contradictions occasioned by the desperate situations people find themselves in, while the other used philosophical language to make us think about what constitutes a work of art.

But they were also connected, at the very start: The Velvet Underground & Nico was produced by Andy Warhol (in 1967), while Warhol’s Brillo Box was the object that led Danto (in 1967, pdf) to argue that art is whatever the artworld says it is.

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I can’t say I was ever fully satisfied by the answers Reed and Danto offered but my encounters with the work of both of them led me to feel and think about life, music, and art in new, unexpected ways. And the world is now a less interesting place without them.

Culture-MemeWars

Philosophers’ conceptions of economics are both a symptom of a crisis and an opportunity to exploit that crisis.

OK, that’s a pretty broad thesis (which would require, of course, a great deal of evidence). But I do think it holds in general, and it certainly is an apt characterization in the case of Alex Rosenberg and Tyler Curtain. Their view is that, after the Great Crash of 2007-08, which economists for the most part failed to predict, the idea that economics is a science needs to be abandoned.

But economics has never been able to show the record of improvement in predictive successes that physical science has shown through its use of harmless idealizations. In fact, when it comes to economic theory’s track record, there isn’t much predictive success to speak of at all.

The fact that leading academic economists were completely unprepared for the crisis that broke out six years ago—they didn’t see it coming and, more importantly, failed to even include in their models the possibility that such a crisis might occur—certainly represents a crisis in and of economics. According to the official philosophy of economics, the criterion of success of theoretical and empirical work in economics is the ability (even when the underlying assumptions are unrealistic) to predict both the path of the economy and the effects of implementing different economic policies. On that score, most of mainstream economics has failed miserably.

That crisis of economic thought certainly created an opening for philosophers like Rosenberg and Curtain. If all were well in academic economics, there simply wouldn’t be an opportunity for philosophers of economics to comment on whether or not economics meets the standards of a science.

But it is also the case that philosophers such as Rosenberg and Curtain exploit the opportunity they’ve been offered by providing a particular philosophy of science, one that emphasizes prediction (a standard they consider to be satisfied elsewhere, like physics), and arguing that economics actually follows a different model.

Social and political philosophers have helped us answer this question, and so understand what economics is really all about. Since Hobbes, philosophers have been concerned about the design and management of institutions that will protect us from “the knave” within us all, those parts of our selves tempted to opportunism, free riding and generally avoiding the costs of civil life while securing its benefits. Hobbes and, later, Hume — along with modern philosophers like John Rawls and Robert Nozick — recognized that an economic approach had much to contribute to the design and creative management of such institutions. Fixing bad economic and political institutions (concentrations of power, collusions and monopolies), improving good ones (like the Fed’s open-market operations), designing new ones (like electromagnetic bandwidth auctions), in the private and public sectors, are all attainable tasks of economic theory. . .

For the foreseeable future economic theory should be understood more on the model of music theory than Newtonian theory. The Fed chairman must, like a first violinist tuning the orchestra, have the rare ear to fine-tune complexity (probably a Keynesian ability to fine-tune at that). Like musicians’, economists’ expertise is still a matter of craft. They must avoid the hubris of thinking their theory is perfectly suited to the task, while employing it wisely enough to produce some harmony amid the cacophony.

In the end, Rosenberg and Curtain let mainstream economics off the hook, in the name of designing better institutions and fine-tuning the economy. That’s because they take the goal of economics as a given: to fix market imperfections.

What they don’t understand is that economics is not a singular science, with a singular object, but rather an agonistic field made up of a variety of theories and objects. There is neoclassical economics and Keynesian economics and Marxian economics, all of which have different objects. Economists who use those theories literally see different economies and associated economic problems and solutions. Economics is therefore a battleground and no amount of fine-tuning or craft serves to pick out the correct theory or approach. It is still the case that any attempt to “produce some harmony amid the cacophony” on the part of a neoclassical or Keynesian economist (e.g., by implementing rules-based monetary policy or supporting fiscal stimulus) presupposes an economy in which one group of economic actors appropriates the surplus created by another group. No amount of fine-tuning or craftsmanship solves that particular problem.

It is merely exploiting the current crisis in economics to argue otherwise.