ALECS Blog

Publicity, associative reasons, and legal systems (I)

John Rawls was the best kind of programmatic philosopher. This was not a guy whose output could be reduced to a single thought-experiment or evocative illustration; you can’t appreciate him as a philosopher unless you can see his systematic design. But that’s got a downside. The thing is, when you’re a programmatic philosopher, a lot of your output can be difficult for others to follow. Everyone understands a view best when they can see contrasts, objections, and alternatives, yet the programmatic philosopher’s prose is often impassively self-referential. So, for instance, when Rawls talks about reason, then you’d better be alert to the special ways that he defines the terms elsewhere; and woe be to the reader who thinks they can deduce the meaning of any single one of these concepts {“reasonable”, “public reason”, “acceptable”} from the others. (Meaning: intellectually accountable, common reason for the commons, and accords with convictions under wide equilibrium, respectively.)

So, I think it’s easiest to appreciate the best parts of Rawls’ theory of justice once we accept his broader political vernacular, but also to extend his analytical tools in ways which let us articulate conceptions of political justice that he does not accept. I have an ulterior motive for wanting to contrast his approach to justice to others, since I am interested in how theory of justice relates to general jurisprudence and legal theory as such, which means I’m obliged to do a compare-and-contrast exercise between different incommensurate moral and legal theories.

So here’s the shtick. I assume you’ve basically got the idea of Rawls’s theory of justice under your belt. Now, in the next few posts I’m going to tell a dogmatic story about how legal systems are best understood in terms of non-public reasons. To do that, I’ll use Rawls’s seminal “The Idea of Public Reason” (in Political Liberalism) as reference point. The story unfolds in three chapters. First, in this post, I’m first going to offer a sympathetic rereading of Rawls’s idea of public reason in a way that makes the most sense of the idea of publicity. My aim is to do justice to the attenuated sense in which associative reasons are publicized. In the next post I’ll compare Rawls’s theory of justice to a charitable rereading of Thomism. Then I’ll conclude by offering a few idiosyncratic complaints about the Rawlsian outlook.

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Public reason is the expression of a modern liberal political conception of justice, and since liberalism is a relatively new political phenomenon, public reason is a newcomer on the historical scene. In contrast, associative (“social”) reason is as old as rocks, and an enduring feature of societies, i.e., communities structured by status. Because associative reason is more common, it is easier to understand public reason in contrast to it, rather than vice-versa. Associative reason is the clearer concept of the two, easier to grasp as the historical rule than as the exception. (I will use the term ‘associative reason’ here, which is my own term, not his. Instead, Rawls prefers the term ‘social’ or ‘nonpublic’ reason. I do not join him in his usage because the very idea definition of the social is contestable, and his formulation of ‘nonpublic’ reason is something I will take issue with later.)

As I have argued elsewhere, the most plausible mainstream theories of law in the Western canon have all held that law is necessarily promulgated to be law. Publicity is a criterion for legal validity. Suppose that’s so. It follows that, if associative reason is a legal universal, then we should expect it to be public in some sense or other. And indeed it is universal, in the minimal sense that every reason to adopt a policy that is open to view in public discourse is at least an associative reason as opposed to a private reason. A potential for contradiction lurks here, since associative reason is not ‘public reason’ by definition, but is public. But the air of paradox is resolved by noticing the equivocation at work in the word ‘public’. Associative reasons are not public in Rawls’s sense of ‘public reason’, since Rawls’s use of the phrase concentrates only on reasons that are public qua public — i.e., those reasons for policy that are aimed at achieving a reasonable overlapping consensus among the free and equal citizenry. That is why Rawls thinks that associative reasons do not play a just role in legitimate democratic institutions — they are not public in the maximal sense of being common reason for the commons. In this, Rawls is articulating a model of legitimacy as consent of the governed analogous to other well-known social contract theorists — e.g., Rousseau’s sense that civic participation should be aimed at the general will.

I hope you’ll let me rehearse the idea of public reason one more time, because it’s especially important to a guy like me who cares about the importance of publicity to legal theory. Rawls tells us that the aim of public reason is to establish the constitutive features of a democratic system, especially those features related to political and legal standing of free and equal citizens. His way of speaking entails that public reason is public in the pure sense of being reasons directed at the commons, and not in the mere sense of just being public-facing, i.e., mere attempts to resolve collective action problems. In Rawls’s theory of justice, a public reason is an attempt to arrange our plans in a way that is conceived of through the original position — i.e., a device of representation where hypothetical future participants of a society establish the principles of the political order they would like to live in despite being ignorant of their own rank and status in the future order. It is not just reason open to view, but reason that happens in the commons for the commons.

Yet, although we can distinguish between publicity and public reason, we should not ignore the relationship between the two concepts. For Rawls — and for many of us — strong, justifiable rationales are a part of public reason. This is a point that Rawls makes explicitly in his astute formulation of the publicity condition elsewhere in Political Liberalism (Ch.2, s.4). (If we are feeling especially Whiggish, we might even go so far as to say that the teleological point of publicity is to, eventually, recommend that we adopt public reason as a model of legitimacy, and hence that honoring the ideal of publicity in tyrannies shall eventually bend politics towards the cause of democracy, though these speculations are not ones that I am eager to endorse.)

A final word, ending the setup of the discussion of public and associative reason. When we are thinking about political affairs, we are generally interested in two major topics, which are the requirements of practical justice and epistemic justice. Practical justice is made up of a statement of (a) basic rights in principle (i.e., an articulation of the sense in which citizens are free and equal), and (b) the assurance of means to use those rights in practice (i.e., equity and matters of distributive justice). Public reason is political in the sense that it is directed at the basic structure of society, i.e., the society’s main social, political, and economic institutions, conceived of as a single system of cooperation. Epistemic justice sets guidelines for inquiry, e.g., rules of evidence and process at trial and by police. Because these considerations mark off constitutional essentials, they must be justifiable to all citizens with different ideas about how to live the good life.

Well, suppose that’s all good. It certainly seems like an intuitive characterization of justice, as it correctly characterizes the operations of legal systems as we know them as creatures directed to the cause of justice.

It follows that, if the question of what public reason requires of us is pursued sincerely — i.e., by checking off hypothetical opinions of real people in hypothetical situations — then the sense that the basic constitution of the regime is justified will depend on facts we can refer to about how people think about the implicit contract that binds them. Since those facts are known or intuitively knowable, they are accessible; and since they are accessible, they are publicized. In which case, public reason will get away with satisfying the publicity condition “on the cheap”. In contrast, if a legal regime goes about publicity through associative reason, then it will require an activist spirit, swimming upstream against the currents of a community’s considered sense of fair play.

 

Thoughts of Venezuela from afar

On the question of what Canada ought to do about the constitutional crisis in Venezuela, I think it’s worth thinking about (a) what the constitution of Venezuela requires, and (b) how the right kind of stability can be produced (i.e., in such a way that democratic rule of law flourishes). I’d like to treat this as an opportunity to think about what constitutional law requires (a), as far as I understand it, and full well knowing that I have much to learn, and that facts may change daily.

The linked white paper from CSIS (a Washington think tank, not the Canadian version of the CIA) is instructive. In it, the author argues that Guaidó, head of the ousted legislature, is the current legitimate interim President and should be recognized as such. (More on that in a moment.) Moreover, he believes that, once Guaidó secures the office, he ought to delay election beyond the constitutionally mandated 30 days. Hence, he believes the shadow government ought to ignore the written Constitution of Venezuela. CSIS thinks a delay in elections would be justified because the country is experiencing extraordinary conditions, which the framers of the Constitution could not have reasonably foreseen. But this does not alter the fact that the recommendation is not consistent with the written constitution of the country.

So, either CSIS wants us to ignore the constitution of Venezuela, or it wants us to respect its unwritten constitution, and thinks the unwritten constitution permits a delay in elections. Since ignoring the constitution would amount to being an attack on the rule of law of that country, so I must assume that they are making an appeal to the unwritten constitution. e.g., by making reference to the political features of the system as such (even though the whole problem is that it is in tatters, with the neutering of the legislature), or by appealing to the conditions for identifying and preserving a system of law, or by telling a story about natural law, or some other thing.

I am personally convinced that there are ways to talk about the unwritten constitutions of civil law countries. But, to be sure, any claims we make about unwritten constitutions depend on substantive theories of law and considerations of public discernment of explicit meaning, which I am still actively wrestling with. Moreover, the standards for talking about unwritten constitutions are seriously constrained in civil law jurisdictions like Venezuela, since stereotypically, civil law fetishizes codes.

Here is the legal case for recognizing Guaidó as the President, as far as I understand it. The Venezuelan Constitution allows for the head of the legislature to take up the office in the “absolute absence” of a President, i.e., someone who is endowed with powers through ordinary processes of succession via election. But then the question is, “what does it mean for there to be an “absolute absence” of a President?”. Guaidó argues that the position is not occupied when the elections are fraudulent. This view is apparently shared by the international coalition. Though perhaps there is no objective third-party consensus that the elections were rigged, many seem to think it is plausible to say that they were fraudulent.

Yet, as a matter of fact, elections were held, and Maduro was sworn in — he is de facto ruler, whether or not he is de jure President. But can the Presidency be “absolutely absent” when there is a de facto ruler who fulfills many, but not all, of the conditions for orderly succession? What does the written law require, and who is in charge of figuring it out?

There’s a vast menu of options. Ordinarily, I’d have thought that this is the sort of constitutional question that needs to be resolved by jurists. But that is bad news for advocates of regime change, for a few reasons. First, there is a strong presumption that we ought to ask the Court what they think “absolute absence” means. Yet in cases of civil law jurisdictions, the rule of interpretation is supposed to be something like, obey the limits of the word. Moreover, since the ouster’s view is that the Court is “on the take”, that won’t be of much use in marshaling a legal case, since presumably, the Court will just vouch for Maduro.

What’s clear to me, though, is that if the election is demonstrably illegitimate — which it might be! — then, from a legal point of view, priority one should be to hold one that *is* constitutionally legitimate. With multilateral observers and all the bells and whistles of a democratic coalition operating in good faith. But that would seem to require holding an election within 30 days, as required by the Constitution. This, unless more is said about the processes for thinking about the supremacy of the unwritten constitutions, in a way that does not introduce uncomfortable questions about how we govern ourselves in our own backyards.

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Those are the sorts of considerations that should be at issue when we think about whether Canada, or the West, ought to intervene. I think my suggestion is a substantive requirement that articulates a few of the conditions for just intervention without being paternalistic or imperial. Venezuela’s democratic sovereignty must be restored along the way to a just peace.

And that position is worth contrasting with the outdated neoconservative approach, which is to back a foreign dissident regime and arm them to the teeth. For example, unconfirmed reports from Democracy Now! give us reason to suspect that the US is smuggling arms into Venezuela. If true, then it signals that the States is ramping-up for yet another proxy war. And it is worth saying this doesn’t work out well for anybody.

If the international community truly worries whether or not the most recent election in Venezuela was free and fair, then a multilateral intervention should investigate. Again, ideally, this should occur at the request of the contesting parties who are looking for legitimacy. What the international community should not do is provoke violent unrest in an already complicated region.

Incidentally, none of these remarks issue from an especially idealistic foreign policy perspective. Even from a cold, reptilian neoconservative point of view, the extensions of the Monroe Doctrine (i.e., policies which ostensibly justify US intervention in other sovereign nations for American interests) are essentially subverted by the potential for blowback by non-state actors. From that same reptilian point of view, “No commies in our backyard” makes some sense when we were protecting from a conventional invasion. But it makes absolutely no sense in the context of arming paramilitants. For confirmation, consider former beneficiaries like Hussein and Bin Laden, and consider how well that turned out. (Please note that I am not making a direct comparison between these guys and Guaidó, except from within the reptilian point of view.)

The upshot for neocons in this new century ought to be something like this. Violence thinks it is intrinsically justified, and if you provide it with unfettered means and it will make itself its own end. Or, to put the point in a more prosaic way, once someone gains power, the way that they maintain their power is by scapegoating outsiders. This has been very successfully done by pointing, ironically, at the guys who gave them the guns in the first place, and saying — “we have to protect you from the meddling of the international bogeymen”.

Dialectic and rational arguments in philosophy

Socratic dialogue is modeled on dialectic, and for that reason it is a central part of Western philosophy. In the previous post, I pointed out that, historically speaking, dialectic contrasts with three other argumentative styles — rhetoric, scholasticism, and mathematics. Unlike rhetoric, dialectic is not about persuasion for its own sake, but the pursuit of stable conclusions (as we saw in selections from both Gorgias and Phaedo). Unlike scholasticism, the dialectician attempts to resolve disputes through engagement (i.e., the method of disputation), not through deference to written authority in the form of scripture. And unlike mathematics, dialectic investigates the worthiness of its premises (i.e., what I called the ‘collapse-and-consequence’ model), instead of treating premises as axiomatic.

Last time, I suggested that these three historical contrasts help to hone in on a particular feature of concept of dialectic, which is that dialectic is a form of second-order rational persuasion. I suggested that the constitutive point of dialectic is to convince people that some passages of thought or speech are rational, and to resolve disputes in that minimal sense of creating directed change towards a state of intellectual common ground. I called this ‘persuasionism’. A vital part of the persuasionist thesis is the idea that dialectical arguments occur in the context where they are directed towards change in mental state (what Gilbert Harman calls a “change in view”), leading to resolution of dissonance. I argued that the persuasionist theory is superior to the purity thesis, i.e., someone who thinks the collapse-and-consequence model is sufficient to characterize dialectic, and that no reference to effective perspective change is strictly necessary.

The persuasionist thesis says that dialectic involves a directed change in view accomplished by means of demonstrating the rational defensibility of a passage of thoughts in light of potential challenges. One might wonder whether demonstrating defensibility of some train of thought actually counts as “persuasion”. But a moment’s reflection shows it clearly does. As a matter of definition, to persuade just is to cause someone to believe or act in some directed fashion that they did not before. When you subject a set of reasons to potential objections, you leave the set of reasons altered — stronger, if all goes well for the defender of those reasons. This means that in the process of demonstrating defensibility, you have produced a change in view about the status of the arguments as being more reasonable than they seemed at the outset, all other things equal. And my suggestion is that this sort of directed change is not an accident or an irrelevant side-effect, but rather is a part of the dialectician’s stance of attempting to direct a change in view during the course of presentation of argument. Notably, though, it is an attempt at mutual persuasion between defender and opponent; that is to say, it is as a joint enterprise with reciprocal expectations. Hence, when the dialectician fails to persuade their good-faith interlocutor of the rational qualities of their passage of thought, they thereby gain some reason to regard those passages of thought as irrational under some description.

In the rest of this post, I provide reasons to think that persuasionism makes the most sense of dialectic in philosophy. First, I’ll make a brief remark on the consequences of persuasionism on meta-philosophy. I suggest, briefly, that is persuasionism is conducive to productive philosophy. (Indeed, I think it is even more conducive than the purist’s alternative, which I think is worse than sophistry; but I will not argue this point in this post.) Second, I will consider some attempted refutations, based on the idea that I am excluding some kinds of argument as examples of dialectic.

1. On meta-philosophy. When I say that dialectic is not just an autodidactic exercise of getting ideas clear in isolation — of studying logical implications and entailments, or (Harman again) “what follows from what” — my emphasis is on the word “just“. Dialectic involves the study of such entailments, but is not reducible to that study. I offer two reasons. First, as we have seen in the previous post, Socrates himself thought he was attempting rational persuasion. Indeed, one of the characteristic tropes of Socratic argument is his willingness to throw the whole game away, if only a good answer can be given to a master question (which he then shows cannot be done).

But second, even in a parallel world where our Hellenistic heroes thought they were just making ideas clear independently of their audience’s convictions, it is still a fact that people can do a lot of things with all sorts of side-effects, and some of those side-effects might actually be the thing that makes the activity essentially worth doing. Sometimes, a practice has a function, and that function occurs independently of the ways the practice is conceived; it, instead, has to be recovered by examination of intuitively valenced presuppositions. And that fact makes it possible to engage critically with the tropes in Socratic dialogues, to separate the stuff Socrates thought he was doing well from the stuff that he actually was doing well. Which is just to say that contemporary critical thinkers could probably do without Socrates’s leading questions, for example, or Plato’s noble lies, even if for whatever reason Plato and Socrates in our parallel world had decided these  ideas were essential parts of their whole philosophical package. Revisionism is the price we sometimes pay for rational reconstruction.

2. On excluded cases. Most of this post derives from a spat I had with the author over at Siris blog, who seems to be a purity theorist. In our exchange, he argued that the persuasionist view of dialectic excludes a few cases of rational argumentation. 1) It seems to exclude cases where we apply the collapse-and-consequence model through habit. 2) It seems to exclude practice arguments, e.g., as when the student makes use of natural deduction. 3) It seems to exclude cases involving a stimulating exchange of reasons for exploratory purposes. But these examples are not on equal footing. So, my view is that (1) is not an argument at all, (2) is rational argument but not dialectic, and (3) is an unobvious kind of dialectic.

Habitual processing. I reject the idea that arguments are, or can be, merely habitual passages of thought. For a person to suggest that habitual passages of thought are not directed at change in view, is for that person to fail to attend to the internal point of view, and in particular to neglect the intuitive force of argumentation. Intuitively, there seems to be a difference between mere regularities and rules, and rational arguments are about rules, so regular habits of thought are not themselves arguments.

The point can be made in part by appealing to the philosopher’s ego. If merely habitual orderings of thought counted as philosophical arguments — if it were even possible to follow the quick turnabouts in collapse-and-consequence model into habits — then it would turn philosophy into something even worse than sophistry. Indeed, it would collapse the study of rational argument into the study of the psychology of reliable heuristics, or the study of computational processing. It is a rare philosopher who is eager to make themselves Turing-incompatible in this way.

Perhaps the purity theorist would consider it a strength of their view that they think they can rationally argue as a function of personal habits. And, indeed, much of logic feels like habitual or schematic, once it is mastered. And if they could get away with that, then to be sure, “persuasion” would drop out of the analysis. But the only *rational* way you can get away with the habitualist’s conviction is by finding some independent means of calibrating your passages of thought by placing them into an orderly rule-like quasi-sentential (propositional or imperative) structure. And it is difficult to see how habits or mere regularities could have that rule-like character — a man who “argues” with himself habitually is not engaged in inference, hence not arguing rationally at all. In that sense, the approach from habits is going to founder on the question, “What makes this rational?”, and one does not even have to be a persuasionist to suspect that it is a mistake. But even if we come up with an adequate causal account of rules (as, indeed, we might), there is the remaining requirement of needing to account for the ‘following‘ part of ‘rule-following’, which is an intentional activity that seemingly requires both identification of rules and calibration of them.

Practice arguments. A different argument proceeds by observing that, when we are doing proofs in natural deduction, we aren’t trying to persuade anyone of anything. From premises, we are given the task of showing their consistency. Sure enough, this does not look like rational argument.

In this case, I think it would be useful to remember that philosophical argument is not all dialectic. The geometric or analytical method, of deriving consequences from axioms, is one method in philosophy, though it is not a Socratic method. So, one might insist (correctly) that the geometric method has got all the bells and whistles of a rational methodology, and that this is being ignored in a conversation about dialectic. And then one might notice that practice arguments have the form of analytical arguments.

This argument has my blessing, though it is not of first importance in a conversation which is meant to be about the merits of rational argument insofar as it has been conceived of through the Socratic approach. It also reminds us that we ought to notice that a presumptive dichotomy, between dialectic and rhetoric, is a false one. The mathematician is not just doing rhetoric.

Bullshit sessions. The author of Siris also asserts, plausibly, that the persuasionist view of argument seems to make no sense of ‘stimulating thought’ exchanges, where the aim is apparently to open oneself to exchange, not to create a directed change. I agree these contexts are not obvious attempts at rational persuasion; it is easier to say that they are attempts to explore the space of reasons. In bullshit sessions, for example, rational people can take on points of view “for the sake of argument”.

But appearances are deceiving, because the difference has got to do with whether or not the attempts at change are built to last. I submit that in these cases, participants are attempting to persuade others into the view that it is rational to regard some perspective as appropriate in a context, not to persuade people that it is rational to hold the positions are true. The attempt is still to show that, in a contest of reasons, one comes out stronger, even if the contest is local, and comes to an end when the sun goes down. So they still fit with the persuasionist model of dialectic.

Dialectic and rational persuasion

In an early essay (2006), I suggested that legitimate philosophical argument shall sometimes have some specific sophistic qualities. For example, legitimate pedagogical simplifications, which I dubbed “sophiboles”, or wise exaggerations. The point of that essay was meta-philosophical, to direct attention at the ways in which philosophers, scientists, and sophists are on the same spectrum, despite the fact that they have distinctive aims. Call this the ‘Isocratic thesis’. The motivating case was of Galileo, whose defense of heliocentrism was (rightly) phrased in a bold, realist form for the purposes of popular instruction, though a more conservative probabilistic statement would arguably have been more appropriate at the time. At any rate, the Isocratic thesis was a provocative meta-philosophical statement of purpose. Its central aim is to deflate excessive philosophical pretensions while acknowledging the distinctiveness and productivity of philosophical activity.

I have come to appreciate that the Isocratic thesis concerning philosophy can be distinguished from a more modest thesis about the nature of dialectic. Dialectic, a species of rational argument, is a practice of reducing premises and inferring consequences; Socratic dialogue is the exemplar. But what, exactly, is going on in Socratic exchanges — how does it work, and why do philosophers think it worth doing?

I assume that everyone can agree that the Socratic exchanges have a characteristic rational structure: first, some set of hypotheses are derived from some foundational principles, and then (and only then) consequences are inferred. (Kenny, A New History of Western Philosophy, p.128) In the Phaedrus, Socrates refers to these as processes as generalization and division, and attributed to the dialectician’s toolkit. Call this the “collapse-and-consequence” model of dialectic, and suppose that it is the answer to the how-question. But then there’s still the question of what the philosopher thinks they’re trying to accomplish — what makes their activity productive. An alluring answer would to achieve a greater mutual understanding of some topics and/or decreased confusion, under a guise. Key to this idea is that argument is a conversational effort at reconciliation between two or more divergent perspectives. Hence, the later Hegelian formulation of dialectics as “thesis, antithesis, synthesis”. From these scholarly data-points, one might believe that the aim of dialectic is to be rationally persuasive (under some description), and call that conviction the ‘persuasionist’ interpretation of dialectic.

It is not uncommon to find folks who endorse the persuasionist view today. It is a core element in Trudy Govier’s excellent introductory textbook in critical thinking, A Practical Study of Argument (Seventh Edition): “When we use arguments in the sense of offering reasons for our beliefs, we are responding to controversies by attempting rational persuasion.” (2) Also, it is held in argumentation theory as a pragma-dialectical theory, according to which argument is intended to resolve disputes by diagnosing the appropriateness of the competing standpoint through a model of critical discussion. Resolution, here, can be read as persuasive success or rational cogency.

(I cannot help but also note that Catarina Dutilh Novaes almost endorses something like the persuasionist argument in Dialectica (2015). In that article, she argues that deductive inference as such can be understood as a kind of lopsided debate. “The claim is that, rather than for mono-agent mental processes, (deductive) logic in fact comprises norms for specific situations of dialogical interaction, in particular special forms of debates… It will become apparent that the conception of logic as tightly connected with debating and disputing rather than with thinking has been quite influential throughout the history of logic, even though if it is now mostly forgotten.” (588) Mind you, her account is not as striking as an account of persuasionism, since it applies to a form of inference that has been willfully contorted away from its initial dialogical purpose, in order to provide means for the “built-in Opponent” to get on with their part during the business of disputation. On first blush, I worry that Novaes’s conception is too agonistic, or post-Gricean, to qualify as persuasionist. But I could be wrong about that, and it would be interesting to find out.)

The persuasionist thesis is not the only game in town. It contrasts with the ‘purity thesis’. Purity theorists are sufficiently impressed with the answer to the ‘how-question’ as to think that it tells us everything we need to know about dialectic. The purity theorist holds instead:

  1. Historically, dialectic is defined in terms of pure structure of reasons (the answer to the above-mentioned ‘how question’), without reference to powers of persuasion or any other communicative aims. Hence,
  2. Some kinds of arguments do not seem to involve persuasion at all, e.g., practice arguments, are excluded by the persuasionist. Since persuasionism fails to explain parts of the denotation of the concept of rational argument, it fails as an account.

The purity theorist is wrong on both counts. (1) only makes sense so long as it relies on a provincial and distorted historiography (which Novaes alludes to in the pull-quote in the above parenthetical). Also, (2) is only distinctive so long as it involves eccentric ideas about what counts as an argument in philosophy. In the rest of this post I will only suggest some counter-examples to (1), and will say something about (2) on some other occasion.

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For present purposes, my point of departure is the medieval conception of dialectic. For scholars in the Middles Ages, dialectic was conceived of as a method of disputation. “As the art of discussion– disciplina bene disputandi–dialectic deals with substances”. (Paul Vignaux, Philosophy in the Middle Ages, p. 21) At the time, dialectic was regarded with suspicion, in contrast with the scholastic method, whose point is to make credulous (usually theological) inferences based on the authority of scripture. The method of disputation sure sounds like it has all the airs of an attempt to engage in mutual, rational persuasion (under a description).

Is the medieval conception of dialectic viable in light of other contrasts? I think so, because it follows naturally from the Platonic canon, in its discussion of the contrast between dialectic and rhetoric. Two books are pertinent here, Gorgias and Phaedrus. In Gorgias, the distinction is made in the following way: while rhetoric is directed at persuasion for its own sake (or for the sake of money), depends on the science of human character, is fickle and fleeting. Meanwhile the Socratic method, hence dialectic, is better at persuasion because it is built to last, trading as it does on insight and methodological rigor. Persuasion has a potential role in both forms. The purist’s alternative is to say that dialectic is about pure structure — the collapse and consequence model while rhetoric is about mere persuasion. But this flattens out the nuances of what is said in the above-mentioned passages which most directly bear on the question.

The purity theorist would probably reply by invoking the Phaedrus, where Socrates seems to describe dialectical methods in terms of their potential to allow personal growth and self-education. Hence, the serious pursuit of the dialectician is to “find a congenial soul, and then with knowledge engrafts and sows words which are able to help themselves and him who planted them, and are not unfruitful, but have in them seeds which may bear fruit in other natures, nurtured in other ways — making the seed everlasting and the possessors happy to the utmost extent of human happiness.” (89) We might struggle to make sense of the fruit-seed metaphor in connection with the idea of persuasion. This does not sound much like persuasion, since it lacks a sense of directed acquisition of judgments. But this is a one-sided observation. The persuasionist thinks that argument can occur in contexts of mutual persuasion, which involves an assumption of reciprocal effort with convergent ends. The fruits found by the student may very well differ from the seeds planted by the teacher, but do we think Socrates would have us say that the teacher is released from prizing the fruit once it has grown? One or more parties are expected to recognize the attractiveness of the “winning” argument, if one is found.

In fact, I shall suggest that the persuasionist’s point is entirely resonant in Phaedrus.  Socrates concludes the dialogue with the following remarks. He begins with a fairly clear, though elliptical, reference to the dialectician’s method, and concludes that it is the most effective means of teaching or persuading. “Until a man knows the truth of the several particulars of which he is writing or speaking, and is able to define them until they can be no longer divided… he will be unable to handle arguments according to rules of art, and far as their nature allows them to be subjected to art, either for the purposes of teaching or persuading…” (Phaedrus, 90, emphasis mine) And we have already seen from the Gorgias that he is not inclined to find many resources to distinguish between education and persuasion. The dialectician’s work has clear import to the art of persuasion, if there is one.

It can be objected, at this point, that the collapse-and-consequence model does not say anything at all about the aim of mutual persuasion. Indeed, to be sure, is fairly well established in the canon that dialectic, unlike rhetoric, is not about persuasion of a positive first-order intellectual programme. Instead, I would like to say that dialectic is about clearing the intellectual ground and inferring what follows — its point is to persuade us that some passages of thought are rational, not to compel belief in a particular proposition. So the ‘persuasionist’ label is in a way misleading, since one can try to persuade someone of something without engaging in dialectic. But this is not to say that persuasionism is incorrect; it is only to deny naive persuasionism. Instead, we should say that dialectic — a project of reducing premises and inferring consequences — is a second-order attempt at persuasion. It is not an attempt to convince people about the true and the false, but about the rationality and irrationality of passages of thought and speech through characteristic means.

So, if the villainous brainwasher from Netflix’s Jessica Jones, Killgrave, were to say to me, “Socrates is a mortal”, I would likely be persuaded of the claim’s truth, but it would not be an argument. Meanwhile, if someone gives me the Socratic mortality syllogism, I will be persuaded of the rationality of the conclusion given the premises. And if the same or similar results were given in the collapse and consequence model, it would be dialectic. The point of rational argument is to direct a change in view, allowing an alternative perspective to observe the inferential train as a rational passage of thought or talk. It does not require that they agree with the conclusion or premises.

So I do not quite see the historical appeal of the purity thesis. I am sure there must be a more compelling case, and I have seen some people try to defend it. But I suspect, for the moment, that the problem here is somewhat ironic: namely, that the teachers of classics sometimes resort to sophiboles outside of the classroom. It is a fact that, during the teaching of a freshmen level course, dialectics and rhetoric are simplified for pedagogical purposes. In that context, I can imagine a harried instructor drawing a strong line between them, with ‘persuasion’ on the rhetoric side, ‘pure reason’ on the dialectic side. It is, at best, a wise exaggeration — though I confess I am not convinced of its wisdom.

Link roundup

PROOF

I’m an alpha tester at Proofmedia.io, which is using market-based social epistemology to ferret out false news. I can’t say whether or not it works or not. The jury is still out as to whether the service is a success in helping correct the public record.

But what I find interesting and refreshing about the experience is that it has exposed me to the diverse lunacy of the human condition. So, e.g., a plausible post about Kanye having his Twitter account taken away from him turned out to be mere satire (contrary to my first-blush expectations). And a post that seemed implausible to me — of an overenthusiastic secularist Principal who mistakenly thought that schools were obliged to ban candy canes because their J-shape stands for Jesus — was verifiably true. (That is, it’s true that the Principal existed and banned candy canes because of an odd belief about their shape, and probably not true that candy canes really are shaped for that reason.)

Which is just to say that I’m skeptical of memes that tell me what to believe about what real people believe. Real token human beings believe all kinds of nonsense, and our meta-beliefs about what people believe turns out to be, sometimes, way off base.

GENOCIDE PREDICTION

The BBC reports here on research conducted on genocide. “Two research projects are attempting to predict the early rumblings of genocide and spread the information more widely so that world leaders and others might be able to stop it.” The contention is that there is a kind of etiology to genocide, a definite step-wise process, that can be monitored and noted. Especially interesting is that the precursors to genocide mostly involve the spread of information, leading to group polarization.

DEPOLARIZATION

Considered as a method, philosophy involves the use of rational arguments in order to persuade people working in good faith of the reasonableness of certain passages of thought. Hence, medieval scholars used the term of ‘dialectics’ to refer to the art of logical disputation — contrasted with overly credulous appeals to textual sources (e.g., the scholasticism of the Church) or the use of rhetoric for the sake of persuasion without regard for its rational character (e.g., the sophistry of Gorgias). The medieval sense of dialectics makes pretty good sense of the argumentative practices of philosophy, be it Socratic dialogues and Aristotelian screeds, and is frequently articulated as the core deliverable in an education in critical thinking.

This article reminds us of the role of such critical dialogue in resolving disputes peacefully. It takes a lot of patience and searching in order to work, along with many of the agonizing costs of disputation. But history tells us that, in the long-term, the agonies of polarization are worse.

MARKETS AND MERIT

I hesitate to write about the academic job market. At the moment, I am in an especially precarious position; and, perhaps worse, I would be very embarrassed to write something that I later find is doused in sour grapes. I will say that it is a topic that requires a lot of patience, careful thought, and consideration of the changing “neo-liberalized” economy. It is easy to get wrong. But I thought this piece struck the right balance.

[Collage] On and on and on

…the fact that an aeviternal thing is neither inveterate, nor subject to innovation, comes from its changelessness; and consequently its measure does not contain “before” and “after.” We say then that since eternity is the measure of a permanent being, in so far as anything recedes from permanence of being, it recedes from eternity… Therefore these are measured by aeviternity which is a mean between eternity and time… In this way time has “before” and “after”; aeviternity in itself has no “before” and “after,” which can, however, be annexed to it; while eternity has neither “before” nor “after,” nor is it compatible with such at all.

Thomas Aquinas, ST. I-I, Q10A5.

It is, I say, evident from what has been said in the foregoing Parts of this Treatise, …that visible Ideas are the Language whereby the governing Spirit, on whom we depend, informs us what tangible Ideas he is about to imprint upon us, in case we excite this or that Motion in our own Bodies.
George Berkeley, Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge.
CONSIDER the following sentences:
“Those spots mean (meant) measles.”
“Those spots didn’t mean anything to me, but to the doctor they meant measles.”
“The recent budget means that we shall have a hard year.”…
[F]or all these examples an approximate restatement can be found beginning with the phrase “The fact that…”; for example, “The fact that he had those spots meant that he had measles”…
When the expressions “means,” “means something,” “means that” are used in the kind of way in which they are used in the first set of sentences, I shall speak of the sense, or senses, in which they are used, as the natural sense, or senses, of the expressions in question.

Paul Grice, Meaning, Philosophical Review.

A memeplex is a set of memes which, while not necessarily being good survivors on their own, are good survivors in the presence of other members of the memeplex.

Richard Dawkins. The God Delusion.

Some marine bacteria have internal magnets (called magnetosomes) that function like compass needles, aligning themselves (and, as a result, the bacteria) parallel to the earth’s magnetic field… If a bar magnet oriented in the opposite direction to the earth’s magnetic field is held near these bacteria, they can be lured into a deadly environment… this appears to be a plausible instance of misrepresentation. Since, in the bacteria’s normal habitat, the internal orientation of their magnetosomes [naturally means] that there is relatively little oxygen in that direction, and since the organism needs precisely this piece of information in order to survive, it seems reasonable to say that it is the function of this sensory mechanism to service the satisfaction of this need, to deliver this piece of information, to indicate that oxygen-free water is in that direction.

Fred Dretske, Misrepresentation.

[C]onsider honey bees, which perform “dances” to indicate the location of sources of nectar they have discovered. Variations in the tempo of the dance and in the angle of its long axis vary with the distance and direction of the nectar. The interpreter mechanisms in the watching bees-these are the representation consumers-will not perform their full proper functions of aiding the process of nectar collection in accordance with a normal explanation, unless the location of nectar corresponds correctly to the dance. So, the dances are representations of the location of nectar. The full representation here is a dance-at-a-time-in-a-place-at-a-tempo-with-an-orientation.

Ruth Millikan, Biosemantics.

Nature is an endless combination and repetition of a very few laws. She hums the old well-known air through innumerable variations.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, History.


[The plausibility of the idea that there are such things are homogeneous units of labor] allows [Marx] to formulate the crucial definition of “value” as “socially necessary labour-time;’ which “is the labour-time required to produce any use-value under the conditions of production normal for a given society and with the average degree of skill and intensity of labour prevalent in that society:’ He concludes, “What exclusively determines the magnitude of the value of any article is therefore the amount of labour socially necessary, or the labour-time socially necessary for its production”.

David Harvey, A Companion to Marx’s Capital.

The situations into which the product of mechanical reproduction can be brought may not touch the actual work of art, yet the quality of its presence is always depreciated. This holds not only for the art work but also, for instance, for a landscape which passes in review before the spectator in a movie. In the case of the art object, a most sensitive nucleus – namely, its authenticity – is interfered with whereas no natural object is vulnerable on that score. The authenticity of a thing is the essence of all that is transmissible from its beginning, ranging from its substantive duration to its testimony to the history which it has experienced. Since the historical testimony rests on the authenticity, the former, too, is jeopardized by reproduction when substantive duration ceases to matter. And what is really jeopardized when the historical testimony is affected is the authority of the object.

Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.

Starting without prior meaning or communication, how are we supposed to get to the most desirable sort of equilibrium? Once there, why do we stay there? Lewis offers answers to both these questions. A signaling system, like any convention, is maintained because a unilateral deviation makes everyone strictly worse off.

Brian Skyrms, The Evolution of the Social Contract.

I originally took my clue on how to read the performativity of gender from Jacques Derrida’s reading of Kafka’s “Before the Law.” There the one who waits for the law, sits before the door of the law, attributes a certain force to the law for which one waits. The anticipation of an authoritative disclosure of meaning is the means by which that authority is attributed and installed: the anticipation conjures its object. I wondered whether we do not labor under a similar expectation concerning gender, that it operates as an interior essence that might be disclosed, and expectation that ends up producing the very phenomenon that it anticipates. In the first instance, then, the performativity of gender revolves around this metalepsis, the way in which the anticipation of a gendered essence produces that which it posits as outside itself. Secondly, performativity is not a singular act, but a repetition and a ritual, which achieves its effects through its naturalization in the context of a body…

Judith Butler, Gender Trouble.

Others instead obey a norm just because they recognize the legitimacy of others’ expectations that they will follow the norm. My definition of what it takes for a social norm to exist and be followed takes into account the fact that there are different types of people. All have conditional preferences for conformity, and all need to believe that enough people are obeying the norm to make it worthwhile to conform. What makes people different is the nature of their normative expectations: Some just need to believe that enough other people expect them to conform, whereas others need to believe that others are also prepared to punish their transgressions. In both cases, I stress that preference for conformity is conditional. If expectations change, so does conforming behavior… A situation can be interpreted and categorized in several ways, with very different consequences for norm compliance. An observed exchange, for example, can be perceived as a market interaction, an instance of gift-giving, or an act of bribing. Depending on how we categorize it, our expectations, predictions, and emotional responses will be very different.

Cristina Bicchieri, The Grammar of Society.

[The fluidity of imagination and belief] is noted in the case of liars; who by the frequent repetition of their lies, come at last to believe and remember them, as realities; custom and habit having in this case, as in many others, the same influence on the mind as nature, and infixing the idea with equal force and vigour. (1-5)

Men will scarce ever be persuaded, that effects of such consequence can flow from principles, which are seemingly so inconsiderable, and that the far greatest part of our reasonings with all our actions and passions, can be derived from nothing but custom and habit. (1-10)

In a little time, custom and habit operating on the tender minds of the children, makes them sensible of the advantages, which they may reap from society, as well as fashions them by degrees for it, by rubbing off those rough corners and untoward affections, which prevent their coalition. (2-2)

David Hume, A Treatise Of Human Nature.

For the translation of values into needs is the twofold process of (1) material satisfaction (materialization of freedom) and (2) the free development of needs on the basis of satisfaction (non-repressive sublimation). In this process, the relation between the material and intellectual faculties and needs undergoes a fundamental change. The free play of thought and imagination assumes a rational and directing function in the realization of a pacified: existence of man and nature. And the ideas of justice, freedom, and humanity then obtain their truth and good conscience on the sole ground on which they could ever have truth and good conscience – the satisfaction of man’s material needs, the rational organization of the realm of necessity.

Herbert Marcuse, The One-Dimensional Man.

In my approach, the focus of inquiry is not needs but rather discourses about needs. The point is to shift our angle of vision on the politics of needs. Usually, the politics of needs is understood to concern the distribution of satisfactions. In my approach, by contrast, the focus is the politics of need interpretation.

The reason for focusing on discourses and interpretation is to bring into view that contextual and contested character of needs claims.

Nancy Fraser, Talking About Needs: Interpretive Contests as Political Conflicts in Welfare-State Societies.


Then Sisyphus watches the stone rush down in a few moments toward that lower world whence he will have to push it up again toward the summit. He goes back down to the plain.
It is during that return, that pause, that Sisyphus interests me. A face that toils so close to stones is already stone itself! I see that man going back down with a heavy yet measured step toward the torment of which he will never know the end. That hour like a breathing-space which returns as surely as his suffering, that is the hour of consciousness. At each of those moments when he leaves the heights and gradually sinks toward the lairs of the gods, he is superior to his fate. He is stronger than his rock.

Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus.

A monotonous and unvarying order was established in my whole economy. Everything unable to move stood in its appointed place, and everything that moved went its calculated course: my clock, my servant, and I, myself, who with measured pace walked up and down the floor. Although I had convinced myself that there is no repetition, it nevertheless is always certain and that by being inflexible and also by dulling one’s powers of observation a person can achieve a sameness that has a far more anesthetic power than the most whimsical amusements and that, like a magical formulary, in the course of time also become more and more powerful.

Kierkegaard, Repetition.

The Heaviest Burden. What if a demon crept after you into your loneliest loneliness some day or night, and said to you: “This life, as you live it at present, and have lived it, you must live it once more, and also innumerable times; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and every sigh, and all the unspeakably small and great in thy life must come to you again, and all in the same series and sequence – and similarly this spider and this moonlight among the trees, and similarly this moment, and I myself. The eternal sand-glass of existence will ever be turned once more, and you with it, you speck of dust!” – Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth, and curse the demon that so spoke? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment in which you would answer him: “You are a God, and never did I hear anything so divine!” If that thought acquired power over you as you are, it would transform you, and perhaps crush you; the question with regard to all and everything: “Do you want this once more, and also for innumerable times?” would lie as the heaviest burden upon your activity! Or, how would you have to become favourably inclined to yourself and to life, so as to long for nothing more ardently than for this last eternal sanctioning and sealing?

Nietzsche, The Gay Science.

The first question is by no means whether we are satisfied with ourselves; but whether we are satisfied with anything at all. Granting that we should say yea to any single moment, we have then affirmed not only ourselves, but the whole of existence. For nothing stands by itself, either in us or in other things: and if our soul has vibrated and rung with happiness, like a chord, once only and only once, then all eternity was necessary in order to bring about that one event,—and all eternity, in this single moment of our affirmation, was called good, was saved, justified, and blessed.

Nietzsche, The Will to Power.

The categorical imperative is thus only a single one, and specifically this: Act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law… Because the universality of the law in accordance with which effects happen constitutes that which is really called nature in the most general sense (in accordance with its form), i.e., the existence of things insofar as it is determined in accordance with universal laws, thus the universal imperative of duty can also be stated as follows: So act as if the maxim of your action were to become through your will a universal law of nature.

Kant, Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals.

“The thing is,” says [Alan] Moore, “we don’t have free will, or at least that’s what I believe, and I think most physicists tend to think that as well, that this is a predetermined universe. That’s got to pretty much kill religion because there aren’t any religions that aren’t based on some kind of moral imperative. They’ve all got sin, karma or something a bit like that. In a predetermined universe how can you talk about sin? How can you talk about virtue?”

This leads to a humanist philosophy that is not without its own morality, albeit one that this is self-imposed and unique to each individual. It means, says Moore, that you should be careful not to do anything in life that you cannot live with for all eternity.

“We’re talking here about heaven and hell, we’re talking about them as being simultaneous and present, that all the worst moments of your life forever, that’s hell; all the best moments of your life forever, that’s paradise. So, this is where we are. We’re in hell, we’re in paradise; both together, forever. I’m saying that everywhere is Jerusalem. That in an Einsteinian block universe, where all time is presumably simultaneous, then everywhere is the eternal heavenly city.”

Dominic Wells, on Alan Moore’s Jerusalem.

Extinctions, of course, have been happening for millions of years: animals and plants were disappearing long before people arrived on the scene. But what has changed is the extinction rate. For millions of years, on average, one species became extinct every century. But most of the extinctions since prehistoric times have occurred in the last three hundred years.

And most of the extinctions that have occurred in the last three hundred years have occurred in the last fifty.

And most of the extinctions that have occurred in the last fifty have occurred in the last ten.

It is the sheer rate of acceleration that is as terrifying as anything else. We are now heaving more than a thousand different species of animals and plants off the planet every year…

Even so, the loss of a few species may seem almost irrelevant compared to major environmental problems such as global warming or the destruction of the ozone layer. But while nature has considerable resilience, there is a limit to how far that resilience can be stretched. No one knows how close to the limit we are getting. The darker it gets, the faster we’re driving.

Douglas Adams, Last Chance to See.

Twittificationism

I’m in a holiday mood, so I guess I’ll crank out a “get off my lawn” style post.

The inciting event, I guess, was Ophelia Benson’s post here, which isn’t much of an argument so much as a broadside against a Tweet from sociologist Sally Hines at Leeds. For context, I should explain that Ophelia is a gender critical feminist who I have long been friendly with. I should also explain that, for what it’s worth, my own view is that gender is a socially constructed thing. e.g., conceived as a gender, the ideal of being a man or boy has got less to do with evolutionary psychology and more to do with entrenched patterns or narratives that people who identify as men can hold as their own. So, I believe that trans-men are male. I also think men should defer to women in general to decide what counts as a woman, insofar as ‘woman’ is an intelligible concept that affects the plans and destinies of actual human beings who identify as women, and insofar as I’m not one of them. But, the upshot — I think the field gender studies is copacetic, just fine, and A-OK (as if anyone asked me), though it can be misrepresented by both hypervigilant detractors and overexcitable enthusiasts.

Speaking of which —

My post right now is not about gender politics or gender ontology or gender studies. It’s not even about Ophelia’s post, or Hines’s tweet. My post is about the rational futility of arguing with people on Twitter. I argue that, in general, we — the people who are not on Twitter, and who broadly endorse some approximation of the rational Enlightenment ideal of reason — should hold a moratorium on Twitter (by which I mean 280 character texts sent by tweet). I say this full well knowing that I’m not the first to say it, and this isn’t the first time it’s been heard, but in the hopes of giving this gentle reminder that Twitter has always sucked and still sucks and will probably suck until the end of inquiry.

There are at least two problems with diagnosing intellectual debates by responding to tweets (including tweets by academics). For one thing, because (to paraphrase comedian Joe Mande) Twitter is the informational equivalent of smoking formaldehyde. Here is what I mean. Suppose that the rational part of culture sets some kind of standard for the minimum shared units of rational thought, and the nature of Twitter is to share thoughts that are well below the minimum of what’s worth sharing. When we participate in the cycle, we make everything worse — even if, or perhaps especially if, we agree with the Tweet we’re sharing. For another thing, Twitter is an agonistic medium which encourages quickness and brevity over coherence and cooperation. The back-and-forth of up-to-the-minute opinion-mongering tends to level off into an equilibrium where the least reflective proposals get pushed to the front of the cultural queue. This happens even if you agree with what you’re sharing, or even especially if you agree.

The second point is probably quite obvious to everyone, so I’ll concentrate on the first one.

A tweet is a particular kind of speech act, and another name for the act is the ‘bland assertion’. And, in comparison to arguments, bland assertions are uninstructive. Assertions treat the reader like an idiot whose only job is to read and assent. Where an argument (in the philosopher’s sense) has the purpose of offering a rationally defensible position, the bland assertion only functions at minimum as an expression of the will in reference to some proposition. Most of the rational usefulness of an assertion can only be found in the context of actual or implicit arguments, i.e., where multiple assertions are thrown into the ring and forced to work together to establish a conclusion. Arguments are calculated attempts to persuade oneself and others to observe how thoughts may behave in an orderly fashion; bland assertions are calculated attempts to induce conformity. That’s Twitter. Me me me, here’s what I say, look at me saying it, now you say it too. It is lulling us, like sirens, into habits of uncritical discourse that are addictive.

There are plenty of interesting things happening in the world right now. Trans-gender rights! Felon President! Alt-right! Climate change! You might be tempted to go to Twitter to find out what these things are and what people have to say about the issues of the day. If you use Twitter yourself, as an author, that might be a fun exercise. But that’s only from the author’s point of view. From the consumer’s point of view, there is only one author — the Twitter Thing — with its characteristic style and verve and self-contradictions and mood swings. We listen to it closely, anthropomorphize it into a big malevolent god, and ask ourselves questions about its health and well-being. Is Twitter angry today? What’s Twitter up to? For non-users of Twitter, the answer to these question is basically always the same. Twitter is drunk. It is always drunk. It does not know what is happening.

So I really think we modernist Enlightenment types have to stop reading it. It is better to read and comment on articles, blogs, or essays. And when we do, I think we owe it to each other to read the whole thing; not to excise choice bits and fisk them. That way, when you recognize an argument you don’t like, call it what it is — an argument you don’t like, which can be diagnosed for its validity, soundness, and rational cogency.

Darmok (the game)

Out of boredom and also a lot of holiday free time, I came up with a little game that might appeal to bibliophiles. First, ask your friends to state a subject that they care about. Then search your book collection for an appropriate quote that captures how you think or feel about that subject. I’ll call the game ‘Darmok’, after that Star Trek episode. The rules of the game are that I can only use my own “lore” (i.e., collection of physical books), and that I had to actively search for a quote that is optimally relevant and informative in some allegorical sense (though I occasionally used Google Books for help). Score is determined by three criteria: (1) Explicitness, (2) Value as allegory or implicature, (3) Relevance.

Here are the results when I played with my friends.

Some attempts are quite successful at (2) implicature and (3) relevance, but did not (1) make explicit reference to the subject:

  • Kyla: “Poutine.”
    • “”I usually come here with a book, even though it’s against doctor’s orders: one eats too quickly and doesn’t chew. But I have a stomach like an ostrich, I can swallow anything. During the winter of 1917, when I was a prisoner, the food was so bad that everyone got ill. Naturally, I went on the sick list like everybody else: but nothing was the matter.” (p.105) Jean-Paul Sartre, “Nausea”
  • Stephanie: “Puns.”
    • “Bybee argues that a solely phonological connection between words — in other words, homophony — is the weakest connection of all… Homophony does give rise to a minor yet robust priming effect. In lexical decision and target naming tasks using homonyms, there is a priming effect of both the contextually appropriate meaning and the homonymous meaning within 0-220 msec of presentation of the stimulus; after 200 msec, only the contextually appropriate meaning is primed… This priming effect indicates that there is a lexical connection based on mere phonological similar, but not a strong one.” (p.303)
      “(8) John and his driving license expired last Thursday.” (p. 113) William Croft & D. Alan Cruse, “Cognitive Linguistics”
  • Steve: “Any string of characters formed from your n books by looking at the n-th character of each book and choosing some other character.
    • “In the preceding example, I have introduced some basic terminology of recursion… The terms are push, pop, and stack… To push means to suspend operations on the task you’re currently working on, without forgetting where you are– and to take up a new task. The new task is usually said to be “on a lower level” than the earlier task. To pop is the reverse — it means to close operations on one level, and to resume operations exactly where you left off, one level higher.“But how do you remember exactly where you were on each different level? The answer is, you store the relevant information in a stack. So a stack is just a table telling you such things as (1) where you were in each unfinished task… (2) what the relevant facts to know were at the points of interruption… When you pop back up to resume some task, it is the stack which restores your context, so you don’t feel lost.” (p.128) Douglas Hofstadter, “Godel, Escher, Bach”

In other cases, I was successful at (1), but not (2) or (3):

  • Lucie: “Bamboo”.
    • “Students of the Vietnamese meditation tradition rely on Flowers in the Garden of Meditation, a book compiled in the fourteenth century. The “flowers” of the title refer to the outstanding meditation masters of Vietnam… According to this book, Tang Hôi established a meditation school in Vietnam, which continued until the Tran era (fourteenth century). After that the meditation school of Tang Hôi, along with other meditation schools, was gradually folded into the Bamboo Forest school which became the predominant school of the meditation tradition in Vietnam.” (p.19) Thich Nhat Hanh, “Master Tang Hôi”

And in others, I was successful at relevance (3), but not (1) or (2):

  • Ashley: “Donuts”
    • “Moreover, a finite universe with the topology of a torus is equivalent to a periodic universe with infinite volume, both mathematically and from the perspective of an observer within it.” (p.122) Max Tegmark, “The multiverse hierarchy”, in “Universe or Multiverse?”, ed. Bernard Carr
  • Robin: “Lidars”
    • “”What’s up, boss?”
      “The comm laser,” Bull said. “Say I wanted to make it into a weapon. What’s the most power we could put through it?”
      Sam’s frown was more than an engineer making mental calculations. The spin gravity made her seem older. Or maybe bathing in death and fear just did that to people.
      “I can make it about as hot as the middle of a star for a fraction of a second,” Sam said. “It’d burn that side of the ship down to a bad smell, though.””
      James SA Corey, “Abaddon’s Gate”

On one occasion I scored zero points, because the value of the quote did not pertain closely enough with the subject:

  • Colin: “Cults”
    • “My publisher asked whether we actually referred to ourselves as economic hit men. I assured him we did, although usually only by the initials. In fact, on the day in 1971 when I began working with my teacher Claudine, she informed me, “My assignment is to mold you into an economic hit man. No one can know about your involvement — not even your wife.” Then she turned serious. “Once you’re in, you’re in for life.” After that she seldom used the full name; we were simply EHMs.” (p.xi) John Perkins, “Confessions of an Economic Hit Man”

And on other occasions I hit the high mark on all three:

  • Phil: “Pro wrestling”
    • “The first boy to reach for Calo got a knee in the groin and went down moaning; right behind him came Tesso, with a hard right that sent Calo backwards. Galdo tackled Tesso around the waist, howling, and they hit the ground scrabbling for leverage. ‘Soft talk’ meant no weapons, and no blows that could kill or cripple; just about anything else was on the table. The Sanzas were capable brawlers, but even if Locke had been able to hold up his end of the fight the numbers would have told against them. In the end, after a few minutes of wrestling and swearing and kicking, the three Gentlemen Bastards were dumped in the middle of the alley, dusty and battered.
      ‘Right, lads. Preferences, is it? Let’s hear ’em.’
      ‘Go fold yourself in half,’ said Locke, ‘and lick your arse.'”
      Scott Lynch, The Lies of Locke Lamora
  • Sarah: “climate change”
    • “A giant meteorite, after burning through the atmosphere, crashed into the planet’s surface… It rang Earth’s crust like a bell, triggering volcanic eruptions around the world. The ejecta darkened the sky, altering the global climate… [The event] was the fifth disturbance of this great magnitude in Earth’s history during the 400 million years previous to that time… Now a sixth spasm has begun, this one a result of human activity.” (p. 73-4)“[Diversity of] species do not occur evenly over the land and sea, but in concentrations called hot spots.” (p.94)

      “In 2000 Conservation International sponsored a conference of biologists and economists, entitled ‘Defying Nature’s End’, to address this matter… They concluded that in order to put a protective umbrella over the twenty-five hottest spots on the land then recognized… plus core areas within the remaining tropical forest wildernesses… would require one payment of about $30 billion. The benefit… would be substantial protection for 70 percent of Earth’s land-dwelling fauna and flora.” (p.98) E.O. Wilson, “The Creation”

Scattered thoughts on religion

Oh, look! Here are two hands. They are balled up into tight little fists. Each has a perspective in it and both are mine.

Hand one: I take comfort in those who criticize religion thoughtfully, because the criticism reflects the vibrancy and strength of a society of free (albeit well-trodden) thought. Indeed, I think religious claims to authority ought to be vigorously challenged in the public sphere to earn their keep. Moreover, I find the ‘meaning of life’ question more honestly answered by watching the Discovery Channel than by the Summa Theologica or the Tao Te Ching. In epistemology I observe a relatively thick distinction between reasons and evidence, and insist that putatively divine ‘datum’ (revelations, intuitions, insights) do not count as evidentiary.

Hand two: Still, if you call me ‘atheist’, there is some sense in which my introspective life makes you a liar. I pray, and have prayed, as a form of meditation. Increasingly, existentialism has seemed rather point-missing (with the exception of Paul Tillich, who was canny). I think that Alex Rosenberg’s nihilism marks the low water mark of new atheist metaphysics. As far as the ethics of belief is concerned, I think William James had it over W.J. Clifford, owing to the histrionic bombast of the latter (despite some of the feeble arguments of the former). While I think people should generally assert what they know, uptake demands simplification, so knowledge is not a constitutive norm of rational assertion.

I can’t pretend that I’ve always had these views. As a boy, I was pious in the way that boys are, being attracted to the idea of playing a role in a bigger story. But gradually, I realized that the impulse to pray in Western Protestantism is often toxic, based on wish-fulfillment instead of enlightenment — and that felt creepy. Once I realized that culturally fashionable forms of prayer provided me with no moral comfort whatsoever, religion lost most of its appeal. I stopped caring as a matter of principle. As a young man, I preferred the term ‘apatheist’, meaning, constitutively agnostic owing to not giving a shit about the God question. Later, after witnessing the growth of religious lunacy in the US, I preferred ‘quietism’, meaning that I think religious belief is not public business.

The times have pressed me into transcendentalism, which holds that natural cycles are valuable independently of autonomous or collective volition. Transcendentalism fits nicely with my general, uh, shtick. There is certainly quite a lot of virtue in collecting your thoughts away from social media, and in rooting your sense of value in what can be justified independently of pragmatic consequences. The transcendentalist asks the individual to think of nature as a source of value — and this seems to require us to look hard for patterns of behaviors and to revel in them. In this sense it is the philosophy of discovery, of empirical daring-do.

Transcendentalism also has a better account of absurdity than existentialism, in the sense that a lot of life’s absurdity comes from the plain fact that quite a lot of nature is utterly, wonderfully, mechanistically bonkers. Not just because there is a conflict between the internal and external points of view (though there is), but because nature is weird in itself.

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I guess this is all on my mind because, a few weeks ago, while enjoying my coffee, I overheard two Protestant evangelicals explain their feelings to each other in terms of apocalyptic death parables. They used code-phrases that were, apparently, quite significant to them; “keep the porch light on” being a favorite. That was followed up with rapturous references to Revelation theology, and the building of the third temple in Jersalem, and, etc. It does not take a master cryptographer to understand their meaning. It only takes an episode of Star Trek:Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra“. For them, “keep the porch light on” implies, roughly, “let me have something to live for”; and the apocalyptic references imply, “Or else.”

The thing that makes philosophy so difficult, and so valuable, is that it asks us to try to avoid errors in judgment that are associated with certain kinds of analogical conceptual processing. You see, the ways that we categorize our concepts have a direct effect on the ways that we ascribe and detect errors when we go about making inferences from one judgment to another, insofar as our inferences feature those concepts. Philosophy, at its best, asks us to raise our conversational game, to infer according to rules that are more theory-like and less story-like.

For the educated person, the dangers of losing oneself to the story-telling mind are all too clear. For it is possible, and all-too-easy, to find yourself reasoning exclusively by analogy or meme, operating from one dogwhistle to the next. Hearing people talk that way about how they think is absolutely, positively uncanny.

Oh, look! Here are two hands. They are balled up into tight little fists. In the one, I have the weird — Douglas Adams (of Last Chance to See), Ursula K. LeGuin, and China Mieville; in the other, the transcendentalists — Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Margaret Fuller.

Modeling the concept of genocide

This month I’ve talked a little about conceptual spaces, and a little about genocide, and a little about law and non-classical categories. Now I would like to tie the strings together by showing what use computer models might have in relation to those subjects.

This past week I have been graphing the concept of genocide for the sake of demonstrating the potential appeal of the conceptual spaces paradigm. The hope is to find some way of capturing the information that a person processes which underlie their judgments about how to categorize episodes of genocide, in the absence of classical category structures imposed by definitional fiat. From the jurist’s point of view, looking at concepts in this way is legally obtuse, and hence of at best indirect importance to a court — which, of course it is. On the other hand, if the conceptual spaces paradigm is a worthwhile attempt to describe psychological processing, it is of great importance to a people. And since virtually everybody in the history of the philosophy of law believes that law is only valid law when promulgated, and promulgation presupposes shared conceptual inventory… well, you get the idea.

In the previous post I took a look at Paul Boghossian’s (2011) critique of the concept of genocide. (I could have chosen any number of scholarly critiques of genocide to focus on — e.g., R. J. Rummel — but settled on Boghossian’s paper for the prosaic reason that his paper is available for free on academia.edu.) Boghossian offered a few cases which seemed to intuitively challenge the classical conception — the case of targeted warfare (Dresden), an imagined case of gendercide, and Stalin’s dekulakization. I take it that his remarks are not proposed in an effort to undermine the UN’s 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, but rather to perhaps complicate and enrich it by making its intrinsic motivations more defensible.

Fig.1.
Fig.1. Venn. Classic boundary structure.

The classical concept of genocide looks something like the Venn Diagram we see to the right. Put succinctly, genocide is the use of atrocious means, against vital populations, with the intrinsic end of destroying at least some of that population (i.e., destruction of the group is an end-in-itself). These strict criteria tell us what the international court would have to say about Boghossian’s cases: that dekulakization and gendercide don’t count (economic classes and genders are not protected populations). Meanwhile, the facts about Dresden and Nagasaki are borderline cases, depending on the intentions of the Allies in charge of the war. But a reasonable person might wonder whether the underlying legislation is a result of political expediency and moral complicity as opposed to the strict and merciless requirements of justice.

To get a better sense of the psychological lay of the land, I decided to create a model of the conceptual space of genocide. The really wonky methods I used are discussed in the next section. For now, I’ll just discuss a few interesting implications from what I found.

Fig.2.
Fig.2. Gephi, which is a networked concept. “Distances” are approximated by color groupings.

One potentially interesting result that I keep running into, at least for the latest iteration of the model, is that American slavery occupies a space relatively close to the Holocaust. (see right) This happens even though no direct analytical links force the two together, and despite the fact that this was not an effect I was expecting. Compare that to the classic categorization pictured in the Venn diagram (above), where slavery is treated as a definite non-case.

This might be worth noting, I think, because if the spatial analysis had any probative worth, then it might be an interesting part of a roundabout explanation of America’s long-standing hesitation to intervene in episodes of genocide worldwide, discussed by Samantha Power. You can tell a story where the American civil war places them on awkward footing with the idea of genocide, because they share the same conceptual space, though are not technically part of the same legal category.

Fig.3.
Fig.3. VOSViewer. Genocide as a spatial concept.

But I should place emphasis on ‘if-then’. The use of the model is questionable, and depends on what you think of the methods behind the model. If you are interested in those, keep reading. Still, even if we think the model has little probative value, I would be satisfied to see more conversation in philosophy about the usefulness of conceptual spaces when thinking about how concepts and categories are received.

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