Friday, 31 July 2009

Link of the Day: Wilkinson on Measuring Inequality

Primary version of this post at Barry Stocker's Weblog, with picture of Will Wilkinson, not just the link!

Image is of Will Wilkinson

Will Wilkinon has recently published a paper on inequality which looks at the difficulties of working out how much inequality there is and how much it changes over time. It’s produced a lot of online reaction, and Wilkinson is getting ready for a comprehensive series of replies on his blog.

How does inequality in income relate to inequality in consumption of goods and services?

How do changing prices in different kinds of goods and services at different price levels affect inequality over time?

How much advantage is there in having the most expensive car or refrigerator compared with having a cheap one which coves the basic functions just as well?

How does economic inequality relate to inequality in person welfare or well-being or happiness?

How much inequality comes from immigrants who accept low paid employment because it makes them better of than working in their country of origin?

What effects does economic inequality have on equal justice, equality before the law and equality in the political process.

Should we worry about inequality if the poorest are better off compared with the poorest in the recent past?

The other thing to add is that Wilkinson writes from a free market libertarian position, and not surprisingly his answers minimise the negative effects of inequality. His position is that economic inequality is very high in America, but this is not a bad thing because it does not effect happiness equality of justice equality. He posted the paper at the Cato Institute where he is a fellow and which is a libertarian free-market foundation, where he is a fellow. I don’t think that makes his paper less interesting for the left inclined, or only if they are unable to deal with reading anything where they might find areas of disagreement. Wilkinson is a moderate libertarian, who thinks the state should be involved in delivering public goods and reducing poverty. Like egalitarian or left liberals, such as the political philosopher John Rawls about whom I have posted several times, he thinks protecting a minimum level for the poorest in society is an important political goal. Even those who do not find this convincing from a left point of view would benefit from reading the paper and thinking about what it is they accept and don’t accept and why. Certainly his discussion of how to define inequality should of interest to anyone who is interested in inequality and equality.

Here’s few points Wilkinson did not cover with regard to defining inequality, but which seem to me to be very much in the spirit of what he writes

The impact of changing incomes and investment values over time. The rich are the mostly likely to suffer a very big drop in either or both, when the economy declines. If we look at economic inequality over time, it is likely to be reduced by this consideration. A relatively free market economy, like that in America may be more prone to such fluctuations.

How much do higher income people consume instead of investing? This sort of comes into what Wilkinson says about the difference about income and consumption, but is not completely explicit.

How much is income inequality exaggerated by the low income university students have before getting well paid jobs? Similar concerns apply to the unemployed who may be between quite well paid jobs.

How much is consumption inequality affected by immigrant sending money to family members in home countries, which spreads income from rich to poor countries?

Reading Clausewitz, On War

Primary version of this post at Barry Stocker's Weblog, with picture of Clausewitz, not just the link!

Clausewitz is pictured above.

I’m continuing my reading of Carl von Clausewitz’ On War (I last posted on this n 12th July), certainly one of the greatest books written about military strategy, in a style of interaction between part and whole (a dialectical approach), which matches the constant unstable interaction between tactics and strategy which Clausewitz refers to as a characteristic of war. Cluausewitz famously refers to war as the continuation of politics, and like Michel Foucault we might to want to turn that back and understand politics as a form of war.

Clausewitz surprisingly emphasises something that appears absurdly obvious, that is the importance of numbers in war, that it is important for an army to have more soldiers than the opposing army, Clausewitz recognises that this might seem to be a truism, but assures the reader that until quite recently in history, right into the Eighteenth Century, that this issues was ignored. Earlier accounts of war fail to mention numbers or pay little attention to the idea of using superior numbers as an advantage against the enemy. Looking at the background to Clausewitz’ remark, we can remember that a lot of cultured references to war go back to the Ancient Greeks, and the defeat of a vast Persian army, including the resistance of just 300 Spartan soldiers at Thermopylae known through The Histories of Herodotus. Expanding on that, we might also note that the history of war used to be the history of heroes, reflecting an attitude that monarchs and aristocrats were the only memorable people in war, or any other aspect of history.

In the Eighteenth Century, Giambattista Vico noted in The New Science the mythical aspects of historical writing about ancient wars, in what must have been a battle between large armies is sometimes reduced to the story of battle between a few heroes. What Vico says can be seen as part of an Enlightenment shift towards a greater interest in the equal status of all humans, so that war can be taken as essentially a conflict between masses of men in which the vulgar issue of numerical supremacy may be more important that the leadership of aristocratic generals.

In his usual dialectical style, Clausewitz suggests that surprise as a means of gaining an advantage in war must be in a trade off with the general efficiency of military action. Surprise can only be achieved by doing something that is costly in terms of time and organisation and which loses some kinds of military advantage. The point of a surprise is to do something costly and inefficient because that is what the enemy does not expect. Surprise becomes generally less useful the higher the level of war, so surprise may often work as an improvised tact at a low level in the military command in the heat of battle, it is much less likely to have success at the general or commander-in-chief level in planning strategy for a whole battle or a whole campaign. Surprise therefore belongs more to tactics than strategy, though if it does work at a higher level there could be enormous benefits.

Despite his great respect for Napoleon Bonaparte, Clausewtiz is very critical of claims that Napolean used surprise with great success. Where he did have success it was early in his wars, when it the opposing generals and monarchs became very demoralised by defeat in one battle, where Bonaparte used strategy that was new to them. The early reaction of opposing countries (Prussia, Austria and Russia being the most important) was to agree to a peace favourable to Napoleon after losing an apparently major battle. Later on opposing powers kept fighting after losing a battle and found they could wear down Bonaparte’s armies and particularly after they were able to join forces. This partly relates to Clausewitz’ remark that war is the continuation of politics by other means and also suggests that a dramatic victory involving surprise may not be a truly strategic victory. Clausewitz suggests that the brilliant use of surprise attributed to Napoleon’s victories in his first great campaign, in Italy, overlooks what might have been achieved if Napoleon had done something else; and overlooks the tendency of the Habsburg Empire to withdraw and give in to easily which may explain what look like the brilliant victories of an emergent genius. He also suggests that Napoleon’s genius as he fought off the opposing coalition in 1813 may have been exaggerated. His battle plans of that period have often been praised for genius though he inevitably lost to such a huge and strong opposing coalition. Clausewitz, suggests that what looks like military genius as Napoleon moved his armies rapidly between the armies of different powers, so that he could defeat them in isolation, was an error since Napoleon was exhausting his resources through such manoeuvres and that preparation for a decisive battle with the coalition would have been better. So in general Clausewitz is sceptical of the value of surprise and suggests that the value of Napoleon’s surprise strategies has been greatly exaggerated.

Clausewitz’ remarks in surprise are remarks about trade-offs cost and benefits, hidden costs. The significance of this and its relations with dialectic in Clausewitz is something I will deal with in tomorrow’s post.

Thursday, 30 July 2009

Link of the Day: Philosophy Bites Podcast on Pascal

Primary version of this post at Barry Stocker's Weblog, with picture of Pascal, not just a link!

Blaise Pascal pictured above.

Nigel Warburton interviews Ben Rogers on Blaise Pascal in the Philosophy Bites series of short podcasts (29th July). A good introduction, in Warburton’s normal relaxed style with apparently naive questions well pitched to get the interviewee to explain the issues in accessible terms.

The interview starts with reference to the most famous idea in Pascal’s Pensées (which means ‘Thoughts’ in English, but all the translations keep the French title), ‘Pascal’s Wager’. This is a famous argument for the existence of God, which on its own is not very strong, but as Rogers explained it belongs in a longer argumentative strategy of accumulating reasons and habits for faith in Christian God as defined by Pascal. The Wager is the argument that if we have faith in God, we will live a good life so we will still gain even if God does not exists, while if we do not have faith in God our life lacks the pleasure of faith even if Gd does not exists, and we will go to Hell if God does exist.

As Rogers rightly points out, Pascal’s arguments do not exist in isolation, they interact with each other and aim to influence habits as much as pure reflective thought. Rogers points out that Pascal establishes his position by presenting two opposing views,m such as dogmatism and scepticism. Pascal aims to avoid the extremes of dogmatic rationalism and sceptical rejection of knowledge. I certainly support Roger’s suggestion that Pascal should be better known to Anglophone philosophers.

Just two criticisms I can think of. Rogers says that Pascal is not just an ‘aphorist’ as Nietzsche is. This is a misunderstanding as Nietzsche’s ‘aphorisms’ (including passages which go on for a few pages) confront and interact with each other in order to draw the reader into a position, much as Pascal does, and Nietzsche greatly admired Pascal. Rogers could have said more important aspects of Pascal such as: ‘reasons of the heart’, which is less subjectivist than it sounds as it is concerned with those principles we need for knowledge before we can justify or test them; the combination of force and mysticism Pascal sees behind any rationalisation of law and political institutions. However, it is likely that some content will be lost in a short podcast and that may be a necessary sacrifice to accessibility.

As Rogers says, Pensées is a great philosophical and literary classic, full of references to all aspects of knowledge, formed Pascal’s own considerable achievements in science and stylist religious polemic, and possessed of great cultural and historical breadth. Pascal maybe belongs with Plato, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche as a writer who combined philosophy with literature.

Cervantes, author of Don Quixote of Jewish origin?

Primary version of this post at Barry Stocker's Weblog, with picture of Cervantes, not just the link!

Picture of Migeul de Cervantes (author of Don Quixote above)

This is not news for people in Cervantes studies, but I was surprised earlier today to find that it is widely believed to be from converso stock, that is from a Jewish family that converted to Christianity in the late Medieval Spain due to Christianisation of a new unified kingdom under Catholic monarchs. Spain had been very mixed between Christians, Jews and Muslims but a new strong monarchy thought it appropriate to repress religious variety. The preceding period was not one of tolerance and equal rights as we understand it, but did allow some pluralism.

Jews and Muslims were forced to covert or go into exile, and those who converted were still treated with suspicion and even cruelty. In the end even Muslim converts were expelled. Those who converted often wish to continue their old religion in secret, This reality intensified persecution by the Inquisition.

There is now a widespread belief that Cervantes, on his mother’s side. was from a Jewish family which had outwardly converted but who continued to practise the Jewish faith in secret. Reasons for this include the region of Spain his mother came from and what look like references to Judaism in Don Quixote. This includes a judgement given by Sancho Panza during his period as a semi-serious governor, the judgement appears to be a translation from the Talmud (book of commentary on Jewish laws, ethics and customs). The miserable meal the Don eats at the beginning of the book is named with a phrase which refers to Jewish mourning, including the sorrow of Jews exiled from Spain. Rather more esoteric discussions exist of what elements of Don Quixote might refer to in Jewish mystical tradition.

The whole idea that Cervantes was Jewish is inevitably speculative, he was not going to advertise this fact, if it is a fact, and no one was going to leave records, When discussion comes up of mystical meanings in his writings, then inevitably we are arriving at another level of inference and speculation. Nevertheless, the fact that such links can be found between Don Quixiote and Jewish texts, and practices, is of great interest, even if it was to emerge that Cervantes had found and incorporated such material for reasons other than being Jewish. It would certainly suggest strong sympathy for the persecuted Jews of Iberia.

It was already well established that Cervantes obliquely comments on the devastation and loss caused to Spain by the expulsions. The time after 1609, when the Moriscos (Muslim converts) were expelled is a time of decline for Spain, which became poorer and lost its status as premier European power to France. The expulsions are not the only reason, but it all fits a pattern of a state trying to dominate and control everything in religion, the economy and so on. Cervantes even hints at sympathy for Moriscos in the story of a girl returning to Spain in Don Quixite, though there is a lot of rhetoric justifying the expulsion in general to accompany the mercy shown in this case by the authorities. The Second Part of Don Quixote suggests that parts of the text comes from Moorish Arabic writers, which introduces the issue of reliability and deceit, but maybe also obliquely points out that varied sources of Spanish literary culture, and the culture in general.

I must re-read one of my three translations of Don Quixote again, and think about all these issues, which will also need to include some reading of scholarship on the Jewish aspects of Cervantes the person, and Don Quixote the novel. This is maybe the most important novel ever written, and is certainly one of the most important. The discovery of Judaic influences, and possibly a secretly Jewish author is something very important for the history of literature, and for literary studies. Maybe I should post about this again.

Wednesday, 29 July 2009

Link of the Day: Caracas Chronicles

Primary version of this post is at Barry Stocker's Weblog, which has graphics!

Caracas Chronicles is a website of news and opinion about Venezuela, edited by Francisco Toro, under Hugo Chavez and his version of ‘21st Century Socialism’, which has replaced ‘Bolivarism’ as Chavez’ main point of reference. The position is very critical but very fair minded as well. There are links to pro-Chavez sites. Today;’s post gives praise to a Chavezista governor who puts into practice what Chavismo preaches in theory, dialogue with an responsiveness to public opinion rather than using election victory to take a top down approach. Some of what the blog refers to is how Chavez did some very good things. This post refers to the constitution, the very admirable parts of the constitution, and how these have been undermined by administrative practices. For example, the constitution guarantees that tenured teachers in state schools will be appointed through a competitive open process. This has benefits in preventing the politicisation of public employment and improving the quality of teachers, or it would if it was implemented. The way that provision is avoided is a very interesting, if disturbing example, of how legal and constitutional provisions can fail. Schools are full of teachers on temporary contracts appointed by an unaccountable administrative procedure. In practice administrators are appointed by the government and appoint ‘temporary’ teachers on very politicised grounds.

Toro takes account of the injustice which preceded Chavez’ rise to power, he refers to the social, economic and cultural rift between political leaders and most voters. He also shows that a reaction to this based on resentment, revenge and unlimited power for some messianic strong man who controls very large petroleum revenues, is no answer. Supporters of Chavez would like to portray his critics as coup mongers and agents of US interventionism, and indeed there is still an element of thinking on the US right which thinks strong men, extra-constitutional action and foreign manipulation are the answer to people like Chavez. There is no support for this from Toro and I became aware of Caracas Chronicles because of an item Toro wrote for New Republic, a left of centre (if very mildly) US magazine.

Nietzsche on Art in The Gay Science, Books I and II

Primary version of this post at Barry Stocker's Weblog, with picture not just link.

Image shows original printing of Nietzsche’s second edition of Gay Science

The Gay Science, in its title expresses Nietzsche’s wish for some kind of fusion of art with science (or knowledge, Wissenschaft could be translated as either though science is the most normal). The idea of science is clearly there, and the idea of something aesthetic is hinted at with gay (fröhliche) The idea of the aesthetic is made more clear with the subtitle, la gaya scienza, a Provençal (Occitan i.e. southern dialect of French particularly associated with medieval Troubadour poetry and music) phrase for the poetry of the Troubadours. Unlike Human, All Too Human, in Ecce Homo, Nietzsche defined The Gay Science as a ‘yes saying’ book, along with Dawn and Thus Spoke Zarathustra. So these are the books where Nietzsche claims to have put forward a positive philosophy rather than a rejection of other philosophies. This reinforces the sense of a work which is poetic and aesthetic in its conception, and this is finally confirmed by Nietzsche’s addition of poems, narrowly speaking, to the second edition of The Gay Science.

I’m thinking here about section I in Book I, and about most of Book II. It says something about the centrality of art in The Gay Science that it starts with art, in a double way, poetry followed by discussion of art. Nevertheless, there are those who are inclined to see The Gay Science, and all Nietzsche’s work from Human, All Too Human as rejecting art as having a central role in Nietzsche’s philosophy, on the argument that Nietzsche’s naturalism (his rejection of any force or thing outside the natural world) entails a positivistic privileging of science in his philosophy. I think this is just wrong, but I’d rather not contribute to a spirit of bad temper between commentators. It’s not a bad thing to emphasise the role of science, and the study of humans as part of nature, in Nietzsche and it’s certainly no more wrong than only seeing Nietzsche as engaged in an aesthetic philosophical self-reflection, that is only concerned with the possible styles of philosophy. I’m not sure that any major commentator has actually seen Nietzsche that way, and I am sure that it is a mistake to think that Derrida read Nietzsche in that way. Perhaps some people working on ‘post-structuralist’, or ‘post-modern’; or rhetoric or metaphorical or literary approaches to Nietzsche have come too close to that point of view, and I seem to remember getting too close to that in the earliest stages of my postgraduate studies. If people want to work on Nietzsche in a ‘philosophy as style’ mode or they want to work on Nietzsche as an early cognitive psychologist, I don’t see a problem, and the same goes for people who see Nietzsche as a historian, a sociologist or anything else I might have forgotten. I would just prefer everyone concerned to approach this is an inclusive way, but there’ll always be some who find it necessary to attack all approaches other than their own.

We’ve seen in the post of July 27th why some commentators might think Nietzsche is against aestheticism in Human, All Too Human, but as I argued in the post of July 26th, there is already a movement back and forth between knowledge of nature and aesthetics in Birth of Tragedy, and a complicated set of statements about whether art has some value from the point of view of knowledge or is the production of illusion. After my recent (re)reading of The Gay Science I’m very inclined to the view that Nietzsche at all points is trying to articulate the view that art contains knowledge because it refers to experience, that art is the expression of natural forces in the human body, and that art creates illusions but illusions which make us see life in a better way rather than creating a complete deceit.

What Nietzsche suggests in The Gay Science is that poetry begins with the attempt to impress the gods through rhythm and that tragedy makes life bearable (which seems continuous with Birth of Tragedy). That seems to lend itself to the line that Nietzsche rejects art as illusion. I would say that Nietzsche has certainly rejected the view that art could refer to an underlying metaphysical reality, but I would also say that he never completely accepted such a view. There is maybe more of a clear rejection now. I certainly do not see that at is rejected as something that gives us knowledge. Art still is what draws our attention to appearances and then maybe to appearances as the only reality, or that there is no model of reality-in-itself behind appearances and art is part of what helps us get that point, which needs to be experienced not just argued. Nietzsche clearly signals that his book is a way of getting us to experience philosophy as something that comes through the fine and sensitive use of language (unlike what I can manage), including its symbolic possibilities. That does not exclude the existence of knowledge claims within it.

Section 107 at the end of Book II, is I think particularly useful. It’s easy to remember beginning and ending sections which maybe why I’m referring to them, but I think that Nietzshe worked particularly hard in this case on making the first and last sections of books memorable, long and complex, as an appropriate way of giving form to his argument. As Section 107 is long and complex, I won’t quote or even paraphrase it. I’ll just say that it puts forward the view that art creates illusion, but not dishonest or destructive illusions. The illusions of art distract us from the more painful aspects of living, but they also draw our attention to these aspects in giving them enjoyable form. These illusions also allow us to to stand above our claims to knowledge and morality. They allow epistemic and ethical scepticism, by showing situations above customary knowledge and morality in a kind of superior existence. The poetic exaltation of an existence in which we do not follow moral rules or prevalent assumptions about knowledge, does not just narcotise us against suffering, though it does have that role. The narcosis is a relative narcosis and it also provokes the courage to question and reject. In this way art provides beautiful illusions and penetrates illusions. There are different kinds of illusion and they can be used against each other. In the early sections of The Gay Science, Nietzsche also argues that what is useful to life is mostly against morality, though also sometimes might be in line with morality as the Utilitarians believed (they believed that good means what promotes the greatest utility, benefit, for the greatest number). Art is part of this amiguity, in which the artist may help or hinder ‘life’, and could do both with regard to higher and lower forms of life. Art can be a stimulus to a more affirmative abundant life, and if not it is an effective way of exploring a collapsing negative form of life, and it can be difficult to say which. The artists may lie to themselves but still produce a stimulus to life. All views of life, all claims to knowledge are illusory, in the sense that none of them present unchallengeable knowledge. The illusions of art, even the self deception of the artist still provides perspectives which something of reality. All appearances are part of reality and there is no higher reality and art may make us particularly aware of that.

Tuesday, 28 July 2009

Link of the Day: Left-Libertarian Theory in Steiner

Primary version of this post at Barry Stocker's Weblog

Download pdf of ‘Left Libertarianism and the Ownership of Natural Resources’

Hillel Steiner in Public Reason: Journal of Political and Moral Philosophy, Volume 1, No 1. February 2009

This paper by Hillel Steiner explains a position which I think needs to be better known: equality can be promoted without a big state and a complex redistributive tax and benefit scheme. The theory is left because it is egalitarian, it is libertarian because if favours a minimum state. It is important to understand that libertarian arguments for a minimal state are not necessarily tied up with inequality, and that libertarianism in politics is not necessarily ‘right wing’ and only concerned with the rights of those who have a lot of property.

The argument in summary builds from a claim that property in natural resources should be equally distributed, which itself derives from a reading of John Locke’s Essay on Civil Government (also known as the Second Treatise on Government or Second Treatise on Civil Government), particularly Chapter V ‘Of Property’. The non-egalitarian reading of of Locke’s argument is that we have an absolute and natural right to our property, beginning from the (pre-)historical point at which we labour on land. In this view there is no limit to how property we can accumulate in land, natural resources of anything else. The egalitarian reading is that Locke only allows for unlimited accumulation of land and natural resources where there is an unlimited amount. Where we approach the limit, we have to divide equally. We are near the limit of the cultivation of land and the use of it to extract natural resources, in the sense of the amount of the Earth’s surface. Therefore Locke’s argument should lead us to distribute land and natural resources equally. This provides a basic form of property equality which avoids the need for complex big state schemes to redistribute income from the rich to the poor through income transfers or public services. Given property equality, there is more possibility for all individuals to be in a position to purchase those kinds of goods and services. Property equality is achieved by equally dividing ownership of land and natural resources; or taxing land and natural resources to finance a minimum income and unavoidable state activity.

Steiner additionally argues for taxing genetic inheritance, that is taxing parents for genetic outcomes in their children which give those children better life chances and make it easier for those children to be raised. This is offered as an alternative to a assistance for the disabled by taxing the non-disabled, which Steiner associates with John Rawls, I do not find this very convincing, but this kind of scheme to help those who might still suffer hardship in an equal distribution of property/natural resources seems typical of left libertarian thinking, as in Libertarianism without Inequality Michael Otsuka, which suggests supporting the disabled through the work of prisoners. I’m not really convinced of the argument in general, but I think it is worth of study and reflection, and certainly I’d like to keep some of the basic impulses behind it, in particular, a limited state combined with a social minimum.

The simplest point I wish to convey is that libertarian thought is not in itself anti-equality or conservative or right wing. The massive complex state machines used to regulate the economy and social risk, and administer tax and benefit schemes, surely create some economic social cost which bears on the poorest, and which spills over into the authoritarian attitude that state agencies always know best and cannot be challenged. Even from a very socialist point of view, it is surely appropriate to be concerned about economic and social resources going into a state bureaucracy which is inevitably hierarchical and seeing for power and privilege. Surely left-liberals, social democrats and socialists should be concerned with limiting state power and expenditure on administration to the smallest level possible.

Even if we look at more ‘right wing’ libertarians like Milton Friedman, we can see support for universal minimum income, which Friedman calls negative income tax. Another major idea of Friedman’s, school vouchers to give everyone a choice of schools funded by public money, is designed to help the poorest who do worst out of uniform no-choice public education. Other ideas of Friedman might be considered more left than right, like opposing military conscription, supporting legalisation of drugs, and supporting unlimited immigration. Friedman’s emphasis on strict control of inflation benefits the poorest the most, since they inevitably suffer the most when high inflation quickly destroys the value of low monthly incomes or small cash savings. One of today’s international left heroes, Lula, the President of Brazil has made that the cornerstone of pro-poor policies.

Monday, 27 July 2009

Art in Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human, §§ 221-3

Primary version of this post at Barry Stocker's Weblog, with picture, not just link to picture!

Image is of front cover of the original edition of Human, All Too Human

Art Reborn or the Death of Art?

Paragraphs 221 to 223 come at the end of Human, All Too Human, ‘From the Souls of Artists and Writers’ The paragraphs have the three following headings: ‘The revolution in poetry’, ‘What is left of art’, ‘Evening Twilight of Art’.

Classicist Rebirth of Art

This looks to me like a moment where Nietzsche counter poses views that cannot be easily reconciled. § 221 refers to a decline and rebirth of art. The decline comes from the loss of Hellenic and French classicism. Nietzsche refers to the modern French as those closest to the Ancient Greeks. He seems to be particularly referring to the Seventeenth Century tragedies of Pierre Corneille and Jean Racine, which follow very closely classical practices in which the action of a tragedy takes place within very tight limits of time and space, and overall unity. What he refers to most explicitly here though is Voltaire who wrote various tragedies, which do not now attract much interest. Nietzsche refers to the decline of the status of French classicism as Shakespeare’s tragedies became more elevated in status throughout Europe, despite their lack of conformity to classicist rules. Nietzsche refers to this as ‘naturalism’, as the return to the original nature of art. He looks at the reactions in Germany where the dramatist and art theorist Gotthold Lessing criticised classicism in comparison to Shakespeare, and Friedrich Schiller who follows classicist rules in his tragedies despite criticising classicism in his aesthetic theory. The English poet and adventurer Byron appears as the most thorough advocate of anti-classicism in thought and practice in which form is overwhelmed by chaos.

Nietzsche refers to Goethe as someone who follows anti-classicism in his famous verse-drama Faust but then repents of the results of naturalism: formlessness and copying. He returns to the Hellenic-French classicism of a simplicity which becomes myth, forms above pathological problems, masks, universal allegory. Goethe here gets the kind of status Nietzsche had awarded to Richard Wagner in Birth of Tragedy, the unique figure who brings back the force and unity of ancient art. The German nationalism entwined with his earlier praise of Wagner is overturned by making the French classicists Goethe’s predecessors in preserving classicism.

Death of Art

The last two paragraphs of Human, All Too Human 4 investigate another thesis, the death of art, or at least its death as the supreme form of knowledge. Nietzsche suggests that art was closely tied to the inquiry into truth, with accurate depiction of experience and attempts to portray some deep metaphysical reality, as in religious art. The most powerful aspect of art is that it shows humanity as part of nature. Science has now taken up that role. Earlier German thinkers had already suggest some link between the activity of art as an aspect of mind and nature and the activity of science which shares those aspects. Nietzsche takes a step beyond that, in suggesting that these common aspects of art and science are part of the inevitable move from the primacy of art to the primacy of science. There is some precedent for this in Hegel who had argued that art was giving way to philosophy as a way of dealing with the highest kinds of truth and reality. For Hegel, the greatest art, certainly in the sense of having a structure related to the overall nature of reality, belongs to the past, including the epic works of Homer, Virgil and Dante which could be said to present a comprehensive and unified view of an intelligible world. The novel seemed less important to Hegel, though some Hegel commentators insist that he is referring to shift from determinate to free form rather than a decline, I believe this is an evasion of the issue. Free form for Hegel means still beautiful but lacking in the cognitive and moral significance of earlier art. For Hegel, philosophy in its metaphysical/logical and phenomenological structures takes over from art. Nietzsche makes science the heir of art in a commitment to enquiry, and does not give it the kind of metaphysical and phenomenological structure Hegel does, preferring a more empiricist and sceptical approach.


I’m no offering a final view here, just reporting on work in progress. My guess though is that there is no final resolution. Nietzsche gives us two views to consider. We might prefer one to the other, we might try to find a way of unifying them, or we might see this as an inevitable problem of reason trying to reach a final universal point of view with no contradiction (somewhat in the manner of antique scepticism in Sextus Empiricus and modern empiricism in David Hume, which is to some degree informed by the ‘Pyrrhonic’ approach of Sextus. Right now, I would say that last option is Nietzsche’s general approach and the explanation behind the tension at the end of Human, All Too Human 4. This is, however, a provisional conclusion.

Link of the Day: Apple Tablet/MacTouch/iPad

Primary version of this post at Barry Stocker's Weblog, with picture of what the new device might look like!

“Apple's much-anticipated tablet device coming early next year”

Key Points

10 inch touch screen.

Will use cell phone networks like an iPhone, and price will be subsidised by cellular network providers.

New App Store.

Very light, thin, portable device which will do most of what a laptop/desktop has been used for, possibly all these functions depending on ports.

Could replace the role MacBook used to have as the most popular Apple computer.

AppleInsider, which has a very good record in predicting new Apple products, is now predicting a new range of Apple devices by next Spring. Apple is notoriously secretive about its product development, apparently devising elaborate security procedures to stop employees sharing information with each other about new products, and working very hard to stop leaks to the outside world. Also Apple appears to have dumped a lot of potential products after development, the CEO and co-founder Steve Jobs very much works on the principle that Apple should stick to a limited range of products where it can produce something exceptional. Apple has the usual status of a corporation with a lot of intense fans (and critics), so rumours and speculation fill the gap. Nevertheless complete secrecy is impossible, and patterns are observable in which rumours grow and converge over time about a new product, where that product really exists. We are certainly at that stage with the ‘iPad’ rumours. AppleInsider is just the most reliable of the many sources which are now predicting such a device.

Place in the Apple line up

Between iPhone/iPod Touch and MacBook in price.

Between iPhone/iPod Touch and MacBook Air in specifications

‘iPad’ will replace partly MacBook which is now a residual model only available in white, below an expanded MacBook Pro range, which now starts at 13 inches.

The growing technological capacity to have high functioning small light devices at low prices means that some people who used to get a MacBook will get an ‘iPad’ instead, or will maybe have an ‘iPad’ as a second computer after an iMac (desktop with hard drive in screen), Mac Pro (traditional desktop tower) or MacBook Pro. MacBook Air already fills that role, but at a high price.

What was the MacBook market will now be divided between ‘iPad’ and the MacBook Pro and Air lines.

Place in general range of computing devices

High end netbooks, low end laptops/notebooks.

What are the likely specifications?

Screen 10 inches

Most people say that 10 inch screens are being produced, a few are predicting 9 inch screens.

Touch Pad Screen

Screen will be touch pad, as in iPhone and iPod Touch, so no physical keyboard or separate track pad.

No optic drive for DVDs and CDs

The MacBook Air, which can download wirelessly from DVDs and CDs on other devices, has no optic drive so ‘iPad’ will probably have the same capacities.


The MacBook Air has one USB port, one audio output port and an external display port. The ‘iPad’ will not have more and will probably have less. The issue of ports is important in determining how far ‘iPad’ will replace desktops and laptops. This will not be completely possible if there is no USB, despite the spread of wireless connectivity I presume there will always be a need for physical connections with peripheral devices. Anyway, we are certainly not at the point where wireless connections can completely replace physical connections.

New App Store

The iPhone and iPod Touch have an App Store on iTunes, with over 55 000 applications from third party soft ware designers, many are free or only ten dollars. The ‘iPad’ will need a separate range of applications because of the bigger screen, which requires new code for the old applications. Apple will certainly be aiming to turn the iPad into another major platform for applications, amongst other things making it a major gaming platform.

Wifi and Cell Phone Networks

Like netbooks, the ‘iPad’ will be designed around wireless connectivity. At present netbooks, notebooks and laptops can be connected to cell phone networks with an ugly looking USB ‘dongle’. There are clearly negotiations going on with cellular network providers for the ‘iPad’ to be connected with cell phone networks and to be subsidised in price by providers. The downside of this is that in many countries purchase will probably only be possible with such a plan, and that in some countries only one provider will be co-operating with Apple.

Operating System

This will be OS X (pronounced OS Ten) as with Mac computers and the iPhone. The iPhone and Macs use different versions of OS X though, so that raises the possibility that ‘iPad’ will have its own version. I doubt it, I guess that OS X for Mac will be used, and that will be reflected in the naming if the device: ‘Mac Touch’? Apple could be tempted to have a lower functioning version of OS for ‘iPad’ in order to reduce loss of sales of MacBook devices, but since they are clearly going to eliminate the MacBook proper I doubt they are concerned. The MacBook name now survives for a white plastic version only which is not being advertised, and can only be found on the Apple website with some persistence. The new 13 inch unibody Macs were initially advertised as MacBook, but are now the entry level MacBook Pro models (below the 15 inch and 17 inch models), with more ports than when originally launched. Apple are now clearly moving towards premium devices at 13 inches and above, and a very mobile device at 10 inches which could take over the role MacBook used to have as the standard and most popular Mac device. In that case, it’s hard to see Apple offering a cut down version of OS X only, which would require time and money to develop.

Sunday, 26 July 2009

2 Points about Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy, section 3.

Primary version of this blog is at Barry Stocker's Weblog, with picture not just link to picture!

Picture shows ampitheatre of Athens, where the Ancient tragedies were staged.

Reading section 3 of Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy today, I have two comments to make on contentious issues in Nietzsche.

Nietzsche’s view of tragedy is not that of a lie to escape life.

Nietzsche’s view of Homer challenges the classification of Ancient Greek literature as naive.

On the first point: (quotations are from Walter Kaufmann’s translation)

“The same impulse which calls art into being, as the complement and consummation of existence, seducing one to a continuation of life, was also the cause of the Olympian world which the Hellenic “will” made use of as a transfiguring mirror”

Actually I can see why someone might want to say this is about creating a lie (as Julian Young does in Nietzsche’s Philosophy of Art), but nevertheless I think the best interpretation is that life contains the possibility of creating this triumphant joy, as well as containing the suffering Nietzsche also refers to here as essential to human life The essential nature of suffering does not make artistic joy a lie, since the possibility of that joy is essential to life as well. The joy of Ancient Greek art includes the happy life of the gods, as Nietzsche says, but Nietzsche also refers to the way that Ancient Greek mythology shows the Olympian gods as only pre-eminent after a war with the Titan gods (see Hesiod’s Theogony). So suffering is not absent from the lives of the Greek gods who represent the justification of life. Tragedy itself is not a lie of beautiful happy life, it dwells on the suffering of life, but creates joyful beauty from it.

This is not a lie in the sense of deceiving someone about reality, but the suggestion of a way of looking at the world. Nietzsche does sometimes in various texts refer to the illusions and lies of art, but I think this is best thought of in relation to Nietzsche’s view that we have to look at many truths or perspectives, not just one. The idea of perspectivism in Nietzsche has become controversial as the more naturalist-scientific commentators are absolutely desperate to avoid any hint of relativism in Nietzsche. Let us leave aside relativism, or ontological questions about the relations between perceptions and ‘real’ objects, and just remember that referring to a number of perspectives is not the same as a relativistic claim that perspectives are incompatible. Nietzsche does sometimes refer to contradiction, but this is not the same as saying perspectives contradict, anyone perspectivism does not require a radical belief in pure relativism.

On the second point:

“The Homeric ‘naiveté’ can be understood only as the complete victory of Apollinian illusion: this is one of those illusions which nature so frequently employs to achieve her own end.”

Again, it’s not surprising that someone might take this as a statement that art is a lie to distract us from existence, but the context in the previous paragraph is of the Olympians overthrowing the Titans, a story well know to Ancient Greeks familiar with Homer and tragedy. There is a dream in Homer, and an Apollinian suppression of the tragic, but this is in epics which contain constant violence, death, cruelty, fear and suffering. Nietzsche emphasises that the supposed “naiveté” of Homer is itself an illusion.

The context for the “naive’ in art is Friedrich Schiller’s 1794 distinction between naive and sentimental in art, which was taken up by Friedrich Schlegel and other ‘Romantic Ironists’ a few years later. In this view, Ancient art is not reflective or concerned with inner conflict, but modern art is which is why it ‘sentimental’ in the sense of a play of feelings and actions of the mind. Something like this distinction carries on into the early Twentieth Century in Georg Lukács’ Theory of the Novel. Though Lukács was very familiar with Nietzsche he does not think of Birth of Tragedy as challenging Schiller’s aesthetic stages. Nietzsche casts doubt on this view in arguing that at the beginning of known Greek literature, the Apollinian beauty of surfaces which is equated with the naive, is itself an illusion created by the artist in a work which also contains a Dionysian awareness of death and suffering. The Dionysian itself is not a belief in the futility of life, since it promotes festivals of joy in nature.

If Nietzsche is referring to a lie in art, it is more in the way that the Dionysian is associated with Schopenhauer’s metaphysic of will, than in the beauty of the Apollinian. In some ways, in his account of the Dionysian, Nietzsche seems to take Schopenhauer’s metaphysics as given, but the emphasis on the enjoyment if nature does not really seem like Schopenhauer, for whom that sense of nature could only be the means to a union with universal will. In Schopenhauer, nature leads us immediately to pure ‘Ideas’ and despite what the distinguished commentator on Nietzsche’s aesthetics, Julian Young says in Nietzsche’s Philosophy of Art, I can’t see these Platonist ideas in Birth of Tragedy.

Link of the Day: Pirate Economics and Democracy

Primary version of this post at Barry Stocker's Weblog, with fun illustrative picture!

A great discussion of the economics and political organisation of pirates.

Leeson on Pirates and the Invisible Hook

Also this shorter video discussion

I’m later than I would normally expect to be with putting up this link, but it’s still on the home page of EconTalk, at the bottom. I really want to draw attention to what Peter Leeson does with pirates, He looks at the economic rationality behind piracy. The most obvious aspect of this free money through robbery, but there’s a lot more to why sailors became pirates. Conditions were more relaxed on pirate ships than naval or legal trading ships, but not in these sense of chaos. There was a Captain and a Quarter Master General, both elected by the crew. They provided inspiration, leadership, organisation and discipline, in a deal in which crew worked out for themselves which crew member would provide the best combination.

One of Leeson’s most interesting points is that the Quarter Master General provided a kind of constitutional check on the power of the Captain. Leeson argues that this anticipates aspects of the United States constitution and that the experience of mini self-governing republics on pirate ships did have an influence on political thinking in the early modern period, when democratic, constitutional and self-governing republican thought was growing.

Leeson also looks at the economics and calculations of self-interest in piracy. Pirate crew not only benefited from more relaxed conditions than on legal ships of the time, they had considerable employer benefits. Stolen property was shared in a transparent way, pirates were compensated for injuries and received medical attention. So pirate ships provide an early example of social and health insurance from employers.

Pirates used minimal violence, except where they were disposed to sadism anyway. Despite role of illegal violence in piracy, pirates found it is more economically efficient to minimise violence, and keep it as an unused threat. Pirates would torture and murder in order to locate property on ships, but realised that if they behave pleasantly where property was handed over quickly that they could avoid a lot of expenditure of effort. So pirates encouraged publicity which betrayed them as extremely violent and cruel when obstructed, but kind and pleasant when the loot was handed over. Crew and officers on ships robbed by pirates were likely to have more problems with ship owners who suspected them of not trying hard enough to fight off pirates.

Leeson also suggests a real basis for the way pirates talk in literature and then films, a high proportion came from the West of England where people did have that kind of accent and phrasing. Pirate travels also meant they really did have parrots.

All of this refers to Leeson’s book The Invisible Hook: The Hidden Economics of Pirates, which I have not read sadly. However, I hope during the course of this year, and produce several blog posts on what seems like a really admirable book, combining history, politics, economics and literature, with great humour. The title refers to a phrase used by Adam Smith in Wealth of Nations. Smith only uses the phrase once but it does sum up a central idea in the book, that individual pursuit of economic interests often has the unintended consequence of promoting the interests of society as a whole. Leeson looks at how this works within the world of piracy. He is of course not suggesting that piracy itself promotes social welfare, but he does point out that the way pirate ships self-organised did have some unintended consequences in showing how constitutional democracy might work, how individuals can be protected against misfortunes at work, and how employers may benefit from non-autocratic behaviour towards employees.

Saturday, 25 July 2009

Nietzsche: Physiology and Tragedy

Primary version of this post at Barry Stocker's Weblog, with image not just link to image

Image is of the front cover of the first edition of Birth of Tragedy

Birth of Tragedy, (Walter Kaufmann translation) Section 1, paragraph 2

In order to grasp these two tendencies [Dionysian and Apollinian], let us first conceive of them as the separate art worlds of dreams and intoxication. These physiological phenomena present a contrast analogous to that existing between the Apollinian and the Dionysian. It was in dreams says Lucretius, that the glorious divine figures first appeared to the souls of men; in dreams the great shaper beheld the splendid bodies of splendid bodies of superhuman beings...

Section 15, paragraph 5 (paragraph 3 in German)

Therefore Lessing, the most honest theoretical man, dared to announce that he cared more for the search after truth than for truth itself—and thus revealed the fundamental secret of science to, to the astonishment, and indeed the anger of the scientific community.

It seems to me that the two quotations above from Birth of Tragedy (1872) have not been discussed enough in Nietzsche commentary. I might have missed something in the vast volume of Nietzsche commentary in various languages, but they certainly have not been emphasised much by the better known commentators of international reputation.

The first quotation introduces the physiological into the idea of the Dionysian and Apollinian as necessary contrasting elements of art. Nietzsche’s phrasing seems to waver between regarding the physiological phenomena of dreams and intoxication as the basis of the Apollinian and the Dionysian, and as analogies for them. In any case, we are invited to see art as the outcome of the struggle between, and unity of, two physiological drives. Surely this distances Nietzshce from a completely non-natural Romantic metaphysics of art. A Romantic conception could seek a basis in nature, but in any case that would reduce the opposition between a Romantic-Metaphysical conception and a Naturalistic-Scientific conception. Maybe it is not a good idea to think of Birth of Tragedy as a left over from ‘Romanticism’, an idea itself which excludes reflection on what Romanticism is.

The second quotation introduces a notion of the relation between science and art which is picked up again in Human, All Too Human (1878). The notion that art and science are connected in the search for truth and that both would die without a continuing search. Sometimes in Human, All Too Human, Nietzsche seems to be saying that art has given way to science in the great search, and this sometimes taken as indicating a break with Birth of Tragedy. But as we see, the idea is already being explored in the earlier book, which already deals with an approach to science I addressed in a post of 5th July ‘Nietzsche Prophet of Karl Popper: Art and Science’.

I’m strongly inclined to doubt that Birth of Tragedy represents a non-naturalistic approach deeply at odds with Nietzsche’s later texts. In some current work on Nietzsche I am concerned with oscillation between aestheticism and scientism (including their combination), and it seems to me that such an oscillation is evident in Birth of Tragedy.

Link of the Day: Nietzsche Source.

Hosted by the École normale supérieure in Paris.

Hat tip: Continental Philosophy

This is now on my Favourite Sites section

Looks like an essential tool for everyone working on Nietzsche. Giorgio Colli and Mazzino Montinari German language editon of the Collected Works online and searchable, and facsimiles of original manuscripts. The last aspect may not be working very well at present though, I opened specimen pages with Safari and Firefox browsers, but could not see any text.

Link of the Day: Libertarian view of Obama

Washington Post op-ed from Matt Welch and Nick Gillespie

Welch and Gillespie are both from the libertarian foundation Reason. They represent the moderate end of libertarianism (I’m from the extreme moderate end and unlike most libertarians I would put myself in the tradition of Abraham Lincoln’s liberalism). The article is libertarianism in a calm moderate mode, and it seems to me their comments include criticisms that left wingers could agree with: Barack has been slow to end arbitrary detention of terrorist suspects and restrictions on gays in the military, and has broken promises on open government. They also point out that Bush massively expanded federal spending and that Obama is continuing this. I would add that Obama has flirted far too much too much with economic protectionism, and this had led to retaliation from other countries.

Friday, 24 July 2009

Nietzsche, Philosophy, Art

Primary version of this post at Barry Stocker's Weblog, with Munch painting, not just the link.

Image is Edvard Munch’s painting Nietzsche (1906)

Some general points about approaching Nietzsche in relation to art, as I’m starting some work in that area. What aspects of this could there be:

The aesthetic theory in Nietzsche’s philosophy

Nietzsche’s philosophical writings as literary art

Artistic reactions to Nietzsche’s texts

What problems arise under these headings?

How do we construct a theory of art from Nietzsche’s various books unifying different comments which are expressed in ironic, provocative, playful, hyperbolic terms?

How do we see Nietzsche’s texts as both philosophical arguments and works of literature?

There is much artistic material relating to Nietzsche: Richard Strauss, Gustav Mahler, Thomas Mann, Knut Hansun, W.B. Years, Rainer Maria Rilke and so on and so on. How can we possibly unify these different reactions across different art forms?

There cannot be a final answer, but I would like to suggest a few guidelines some of which seem obvious but nevertheless have sometimes been ignored.

Nietzsche has a constant interest in the relation of art, philosophy, nature and knowledge.

The literary-rhetorical-stylistic aspect of Nietzsche’s arguments should never ever be overlooked.

The complexity and literariness of Nietszche’s philosophy should never be used as a pretext to ignore philosophical theory on Nietzsche.

Abstracting from particular texts and passages of texts is very dangerous, and it’s not a very good idea at all to ever assume that Nietzsche’s philosophical development reaches a mature ‘final’ stage with a complete theory.

There is no complete break between an earlier metaphysical-Romantic Wagner-Schopenhauer follower and a later empirical-Naturalist Boscovich-Hume follower (Roger Boscovich is an 18th Century Polish physicist mentioned with great enthusiasm by Nietzsche).

Nietzsche is at no time ‘essentially’ an aesthetic-Romantic, or naturalistic-Positivist, or psychological-Cognitivist, or social-historical figure. Elements of all of these can be found across his work.

Some of the debate about the relation between art and knowledge in Nietzsche at different stages of his work, could I believe be assisted by more attention to the Idealist and Romantic background. This may have been well covered in some German commentary, but not in a way which has affected English language commentary. Looking at the German Idealists from Kant and the brief flowering of Ironic-Romantic philosophy in Germany in the last few years of the 18th Century; art, science and nature come together. This is surely very obvious, it can be seen in Kant’s Critique of the Power of Judgement, the first part of which refers to the beautiful and the sublime and the second part of which refers to nature. Nevertheless, if much work has been done on relating this to Nietzsche it seems to have slipped my attention on the many occasions I’ve looked at Kant and Nietzsche commentary. Nietzsche may not have been a great reader of the relevant texts, but that’s not the only way of measuring influence, and there are certainly direct and indirect indications in Nietzsche’s texts of awareness of this material.

Hume, Smith, Rawls, Nietzsche and Heroic Virtues

Primary version of this post is at Barry Stocker's Weblog, with picture, not just link to picture!

Image above is of the Panthéon in France, commemorating republican heroes.

In my last post, I discussed John Rawls on time, but with reference to ethics in David Hume and Adam Smith. One thing we get from David Hume and Adam Smith is an anti-heroic attitude to ethics. They respect the civic virtues suitable for a law governed society of property and cultivation of sensibility. In both his ethics and in his History of England, Hume refers very critically to Oliver Cromwell, the commander of the parliamentary armies in the Civil War between crown and parliament. Cromwell became ‘Lord Protector’ and the effective autocrat of England, Scotland and Ireland. Hume criticises his autocracy, but the criticism is also of the idea of a hero in general and a hero having a political role, and Hume criticises ‘heroic’ virtues like pride which he regards as asocial. Both Hume and Smith associated heroism with earlier peoples lacking in law and culture.

Rawls looks like the heir of Smith and Hume when he criticises Nietszsche in A Theory of Justice, § 50. ‘The Principle of Perfection’. He associates Nietzsche with an extreme and dangerous form of moral perfectionism. Moral perfectionism refers to the wish to follow the highest possible model of excellence in achievement. We might regard it as in contradiction with the spirit of democratic equality, though some democratic theorists now, Like Martha Nussbaum, see it as democratic, and in American history religious and ethical-philosophical (Transcendentalist) perfectionism has been linked with democratic ideas. Rawls chooses to emphasise the anti-democratic aspect and associate it with Nietzsche, who certainly does sometimes say that a society is justified by its greatest members.

Even taking perfectionism in an elitist way, as drawing attention to the example of the greatest individuals, how anti-democratic should we take that idea to be? The democracy of Ancient élites certainly emphasised heroism as an aristocratic attribute, but maybe that only refers to the aristocratic ‘democracy’ which needs to define the superiority of its members over the masses. Even so, aristocratic heroism in the stories of ancient aristocratic republican heroes like Cicero and Marcus Brutus (the leading writer against Julius Caesar and the leading assassin of Caesar), influenced 18th century democratic movements. Certainly Rousseau, a very egalitarian thinker admired antique heroes as much as believers in aristocratic constitutionalism. It was this kind of thing that Hume reacted against in his criticisms of Cromwell and elsewhere.

As we see above, France now and ever since 1791, has held remains of the official heroes of the nation in the Panthéon. This is a way of recognising an élite and the greatness of its members, exemplars for a democratic and republican people. The name itself refers to a Roman temple for the gods, so the Parisian building could be said to hold the gods of a secular republican nation. This is not something unique to French republicanism which is often contrasted with a supposedly less statist American republicanism. The United States has Mount Rushmore for four great presidents carved into a mountainside, the Lincoln Memorial for the emancipator-martyr Abraham Lincoln. Turning to Germany, on 20th July I put the case for remembering Claus von Stauffenberg as a hero. Returning to French style Republicanism, but in Turkey, Kemal Atatürk’s remains are housed in a mausoleum in the Anıtkabir complex, overlooking Ankara, Back in Britain, Oliver Cromwell is commemorated by an equestrina statue outside the Houses of Parliament, This not an anachronism as lazy commentators sometimes assume, it is recognition of the constructive role that Cromwell played in developing the British state, which did become a parliamentary within a few decades of his death. I discussed the liberal historian Macaulay on 6th July, and he certainly had that view of Cromwell though he was no advocate of Cromwell’s autocracy.

I believe that liberal and democratic thinking needs to deal with many of Nietzsche’s concerns, though we cannot say that Nietzsche is an advocate of liberal democracy, something I will return to in a later post. Whatever we might think about Nietzsche’s relation to liberal democracy, his references to a radical perfectionism are not in themselves against the spirit of democracy. Liberal democrats require exemplars, models, a personification of the ideal, they require heroes, A hero is not someone of the kind of modest virtues generally admired by Smith and Hume, but a society which is liberal and democratic, property owning and cultured, needs heroes. After all Smith and Hume are heroes for some, if people praise ‘modest’ virtues in Smith and Hume, they still praise exceptional greatness in such virtues, and heroic struggle with opposition to their ideas. Hume had himself apotheosised in the mausoleum, which I provide a picture of in my post of 12th July.

Thursday, 23 July 2009

John Rawls’ Struggle against Political Time

Primary version of this post at Barry Stocker's Weblog, with Poussin picture, not just the link!

Image above is Nicholas Poussin’s painting The Dance to the Music of Time (1640)

Rawls picks up on the contractual tradition in political theory. The contractual tradition works on the assumption that the political institutions can be traced back to a beginning point which is also the point of legitimacy. We should be able to trace back a series of links from current institutions to some origin, and if the series breaks down we do not have legitimacy. There are complications we could introduce, but this is not the place, we can reasonably assert that a large part of what Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau said is in line with that.

We get acknowledgements from them that the contract is a hypothetical idealised event, but the idea of legitimation through tracing back to the origin is always preserved, in a double move where the rupture with a pre-existing natural order has to be justified. With Kant, we get an apparently more purely abstract hypothetical approach, but in Kant we also get a David Hume-Adam Smith type explanation of the emergence of improving laws, institutions, morality and economic welfare over history.

Rawls claims to progresses in contract theory, by using a Kantian approach by insisting on a very pure abstactionism. Rawls’ version of the original contract in the original position is presented as a purely abstract hypothetical situation in which all aspects can be justified without regard to the fictional situation of the original position, so the original position has a purely heuristic purposes, as an instrument for intellectual clarification. However, we have a backward step in relation to Hume and Smith, who are often invoked by Rawls.

It is important to note how often Rawls refers to Hume and Smith when we consider that it is very normal to contrast Rawls’ as a modern ‘statist’ or ‘progressivist’ Liberal with ‘Classical’ Liberalism in Smith and Hume. That raises issues of how we should interpret ‘Classical’ Liberalism in relation to ‘Libertarianism’, in Nozick and others, and Egalitarian Liberalism (as Rawls approach is often know). I’m disposed to think both are inadequate, but I will address that on another occasion. What I will point out here is that Rawls does not deal with the historical aspect of Smith and Hume, and the way Kant takes it up.

His references to Smith and Hume are all to an impartial or invisible spectator in their moral theory, that is the observer who brings universality into a theory which has strongly subjective tendencies. For Hume and Smith, morality progresses over time, along with other fundamental of civilised and growing existence.

On the post of July 19th, I addressed the way that time enters into the original position, when Rawls justifies the difference principle (inequality is only justified where it benefits the poorest) with reference to forms of rationality which rely on learning from repeated situations. This is a very abstracted kind of time.

Concrete historical time enables us to learn as a society according to Hume and Smith, which partly explains why they do not refer to contract theory. Rawls takes them out of time, referring their moral theory to his system based on atemproal contract, which leaves no room for developing principles through historical experience.

If we take Hume and Smith in the whole, surely we will need to incorporate some kind of historical time for a long term feed back and learning mechanism in the best rules for society. Maybe there are problems with that, maybe their theory involves a tyranny of the past over the future, but then we would still need a theory incorporating historical time in order to think about how the present liberates itself.

Rawls could say that his theory is a completely heuristic and be used in historical learning process, but why leave out that process? If we leave it out, we are back with Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau and the primacy of the original contract which both begins and transcends historical time.