A Few Thoughts On (Absolute) Idealism, Both Religious And Political/Philosophical

Below is a challenge I don’t think I’ve met:

Here’s a video of a recent NYU protest:

Of course this is an absurd example of leftist protest, one which the real radicals would find a pale imitation of real protest.   Yet, a recognizable youthful idealism is on display here; an earnest attempt of applying highly abstract political and philosophical ideals to current circumstances and direct experience.

Here’s some of the philosophical backstory from wikipedia:

“The guiding ideal behind Hegel’s absolute idealism is the scientific thought, which he shares with Plato and other great idealist thinkers, that the exercise of reason and intellect enables the philosopher to know ultimate historical reality”

Addition:  Hegel was an idealist because empirical reality is not knowable to us, but is always mediated by the mind to some extent (after Kant), but unlike Kant, that reality isn’t attributable to categories of thought which yield genuine knowledge of the physical world (Kant was an empirical realist, influenced by Newton’s Principia and keep in mind Kant failed in his aim to put metaphysics on the same ground as the sciences).


Such absolute idealism can pose real danger to individual liberty as can all folks seeking to institute a top down set of abstract principles… granting legitimacy to all manner of statist thinkers (who have translated that troubling relationship between individual and collective in Hegel’s work to “rational” projects which worked their way into a political philosophy and platform for actual governance for the German State…but given German piety I believe was already there to some extent), who with their followers very much believe that they are on the road to reality (serfdom?), and that such a road must be built and maintained by them.

Of course this isn’t the only influence, and it doesn’t necessarily de-legitimize Hegel’s thought either, as many other uses can be found for it even by those who don’t understand it all (of which I am one).  Francis Fukuyama, in The End Of History synthesizes Hegelian thought with many other influences (including Nietzsche, which Allan Bloom didn’t much like) into the building of neoconservatism. (which I should mention is a movement from which Fukuyama has been distancing himself since the Iraq war).


However, I’ve been asked to come up with an intelligent connection between the political/philosophical idealism of the NYU protestors and this recent 60 minutes video, which portrays the Israeli settler situation and its religiously motivated idealism.

In the video, Israeli settlers (many of whom are young), are busy applying highly abstract religious principles as proof of their rights to the land they colonize.  It seems something of a kibbutz, where both socialism and Zionism are merged, but it is also very much religiously motivated.  Such idealism also doesn’t seem too far from Israeli nationalism (with which it may come into direct conflict through the state’s use of military force, which Israel’s elected officials and lawmakers claim they may well have to use against them).


Perhaps the best I can come up with is what I’ve already hinted at:  a shared lack of individualism in both cases (which as an American, I may mistakenly assume has such strong roots elsewhere as it is does here).  Both groups of individuals are placing perhaps even their lives in the hands of group authority, which in turn is guided by the interpretation of highly abstract and profound ideas under which collective action is sought.

It is doubtful that any one member of either group has entirely thought the guiding ideas through, but it is likely that each of them have had many doubts…doubts which their respective groups don’t necessarily foster.


It’s also worth pointing out that in the U.S., we have managed to create a structure in which people may believe and organize as they please, but the attendant political idealism and desire to base their principles in virtue as determined by one political party, one sitting government, or indeed one majority (and the tyranny that majority can wield over any individual) has so far been kept in check.

In addition, we have also successfully managed to develop a state in which freedom of religion is maintained, but religious idealism (and the desire to ground our principles in religious texts and belief) is also thankfully kept in check.


I don’t know if this is a satisfactory, or even complete response, as most of what I’ve said is fairly pedestrian, over-simplified, and nothing new…

If you think you can do better, have at it.  Your thoughts and comments are welcome.

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NYU Protest Ends With A Whimper…

Full post here.

Perhaps much as the zealots in the global warming debate are are best met and handled by scientific debate…where habits of intellectual curiosity, openness of mind and rational debate provide grounds for discussion…

…so too the NYU university code of conduct is quite enough to provide grounds to allow such youthful political idealism to run it’s course (hard not to laugh at the video).

Apparently, you don’t need to go as far as George Will went in the global warming debate.

…and do you remember Robert Bork’s book?

This is a lot to ask of (S)cience…

See Also:  The Volokh Conspiracy has some good commentary here.

See Also On This Site:  From Slate: Anne Applebaum’s ‘What’s Going On In Greece?’Freeman Dyson On The Question Of Global WarmingThe Weather Channel’s Green Blog: A Little Too GreenThe Politics Of Noam Chomsky-The Dangers Of Kantian Transcendental Idealism?

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From The Volokh Conspiracy: Eric Posner On A Question Of Law Regarding Afghanistan

Full post here.

“There is a nice legal question whether President Obama has initiated or accelerated a “new” war against the Taliban-in-Pakistan or is merely carrying on an “old” war against Al Qaida and the original Taliban albeit in a neighboring country.”

Old or new, it doesn’t appear to be ending anytime soon…

Related On This SiteA Few Thoughts On The FATA Region Of PakistanSarah Chayes On Afghanistan In The Boston Review: Days Of Lies And RosesFrom Newsweek.com: Fareed Zakaria On AfghanistanFrom Bloggingheads: Andrew Bacevich And Heather Hurlburt Discuss Afghanistan And Pakistan

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From The Washington Post: A Mission To Europa?

Full post here.

“But now scientists believe there may be environments well outside that zone that could potentially harbor life, an idea that Green called “tremendously exciting.” ‘

Has this belief been changed by the discovery of those deep sea tube worms that survive without sunlight?

“they discovered that the tubeworms had no mouth, digestive tract, or anus, they learned that bacteria live inside the tubeworms’ bodies”

Quite possibly.

More On Europa’s Galileo mission here.  A brief NASA overview of Europa here with a cool photo of the surface.

Slated for 2020…

See Also:  Phil Plait from Bad Astronomy and Carl Zimmer briefly discuss NASA here.

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From Newsweek.com: Fareed Zakaria On Afghanistan

Full article here.

This was from the February 1st, 2009 issue.  Zakaria highlights what he thinks are 4 keys to Afghanistan:

1. Do counterinsurgency right:  According to Zakaria, we’re operating on dated tactics to root out the insurgents:

“Between the addition of two to four U.S. brigades and a ramp-up of the Afghan army, there should be enough troops to execute a modified version of the new counterinsurgency strategy”

We need to update our strategy and send more troops.

2. Make the Afghan government credible:

“The central government is widely seen as weak, dysfunctional and utterly corrupt.”

No kidding.   Islam seems to be the glue holding the tribes together more deeply (see my post on the Huntington-Fukuyama debate) than any nationalistic urges…let alone the current government which is likely seen as installed by some and has had trouble spreading any roots from the top down.

3. Talk to the Taliban-Try and drive a wedge between the Taliban and free-floating, violently idelogical and religiously extreme  Al-Qaeda?   It could work…but they are brothers-in arms fighting for some time now…how to expose those faultlines between them?

4Solve Pakistan-Zakaria states:

 For Islamabad to genuinely renounce these groups
would require a fundamental strategic rethinking within the Pakistani military.”

This could be very useful, but Pakistan’s government doesn’t really control the FATA region, and its national reach, while much stronger than Afghanistan’s,  is also limited…

Despite the mess, Zakaria points out how politically infeasible it is for any U.S. president to pull out while Al-Qeada still poses a direct national security threat to the U.S.

Robert Kagan In Newsweek:  Afghanistan Is Not Vietnam.

See Also On This Site: My extremely limited contributions:  A Few Thoughts On The FATA Region Of PakistanFareed Zakaria BBC Interview: America In Decline?…We’re not necessarily in decline:  Richard Lieber In The World Affairs Journal–Falling Upwards: Declinism, The Box Set

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Review of Denis Dutton’s ‘The Art Instinct’

I think it would be more appropriate to call this a commentary:

Book here.

“What would a universal aesthetics or theory of art look like?”

“…my aim has been to elucidate general characteristics of the arts in terms of evolved adaptations.”

I think these quotations are fairly representative of what most engages Denis Dutton in his new book “The Art Instinct’.

Landscape painting, for example, can be best understood as exemplifying the traits developed for our own survival within Darwinian natural selection (to which he appeals to the popularity of landscapes as portraying abundant food and water, a good view and a safe place to enjoy it from).

Thus, Dutton may be trying to synthesize Darwin’s theory of natural selection with aesthetic theory and art (and also by drawing somewhat on the philosophies of Kant, Aristotle and Plato).   From this synthesis, Dutton comes up with a rough list of the criterion he thinks art ought to give, possess, or meet:

1.  Direct pleasure

2.  Skill and virtuosity

3.  Style

4.  Novelty and creativity

5.  Criticism

6.  Representation

7.  Special Focus

8.  Expressive Individuality

9.  Emotional Saturation

10. Intellectual Challenge

11. Art Traditions and institutions

12. Imaginative experience


Dutton then puts these ideas to the test (not scientifically) against a piece of art which openly questions what a piece of art ought to be, and which he finds emblematic of where he thinks art theory and criticism have gone partially wrong:  Marcel Duchamp’s ‘Fountain,’ or likely the most famous urinal in the world.

Marcel Duchamp 'Fountain' 1950, Museum of Art, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania by hanneorla.

by hanneorla

Dutton finds that while ‘Fountain’ does meet a majority of his criterion, it is best thought of as an outlier, and an outlier which has influenced art for quite some time now (think Duchamp to Andy Warhol to Damien Hirst) and which Dutton seeks to change by aiming the debate toward evolutionary science and thus broadening it considerably.

This is where his theory meets with some success.  If I were an art critic, for example, or a theorist or academic making a living in this field, or perhaps just someone who had spent an hour listening to Mozart and been tremendously moved….then I might find these ideas useful in providing a broader context for the experience I had just had (though I still think Nietzsche provides the deepest thought here, which is why he and the existentialists have been so influential).

So, as a theory of aesthetics, Dutton may be on to something.


However, I grew doubtful as to the scientific validity of his thinking when he tried to apply natural selection theory to orgasms, sex, and chocolate.

As a scientific theory Dutton seems to fall short of the mark:  that the truths and universality of Darwin’s theory of natural selection when applied to the arts fully and best explain why people make art.  I’m pretty sure Dutton’s theories aren’t intended too, nor function, as scientific theories.  In addition, I don’t think many scientists will find his thinking a compelling addition to their respective fields of knowledge.

I should mention there is some philosophical debate as to whether or not Darwin’s ideas are scientific (upon which creationists seize), but they are quite obviously more predictively successful and universally applicable than aesthetic theories are….and I just don’t believe that Dutton has come up with a true synthesis here that would benefit, say, an evolutionary biologist.


That said, Dutton does however demonstrate a good understanding of Kant, and where Kant may (or may not) have left room for aesthetics in his thinking.  The ‘imagination’ as defined by Kant was a part of the elaborate metpahysical framework of his, and as Dutton notes:

“Trying to understand what life was like in ancient Rome is an imaginative act, but so is recalling that I left my car keys in the kitchen.  However, the experience of art is notable marked by the manner in which it decouples imagination from practical concern, freeing it, as Kant instructed from the constraints of logic and rational understanding.”

Dutton also brings up Plato, and Plato’s idealism: that art is an imitation of an imitation…twice removed from the ideal forms that yield genuine knowledge.

Plato regarded the whole Greek literary tradition, but especially the Homeric epics that lay at its heart, as setting the worst possible moral examples.”

…so much so that Plato’s Ideal State would cen(sor) them.

Dutton responds with the following caveat:

“Religion, ethics, and politics all require to some degree adherence to a conceptual stability that even the most conformist artist may wish to test.  The arts never quite fit with the moral demands on which any functioning society depends.”

He seems to understand reasonably well some of the philosophical challenges that await an aesthetic theory…


All in all, it’s not a bad read.   If you’re interested in the philosophy of art, aesthetics and art theory…libertarian aesthetics?…perhaps the debate within psychology and its philosophical influences (the Pinker/Spelke debate) evolutionary psychology and anthropology…then I would recommend it.

There are certain targets (cultural relativism and social contructionism particularly) that Dutton, as a libertarian, has in his sights.  Hopefully, he doesn’t focus too much on them…

Addition:  I should add that I’m quite sympathetic to many of Dutton’s themes, and am impressed with the scope of his aesthetic thinking (especially in regard to philosophy). I’m trying to piece together how his theory is pieced together and what it may achieve and what it may not.

Dutton’s bloggingheads appearance here. (read the comments).

Dutton On The Colbert Report here.

Denis Dutton by wnyc

See Also On This SiteFrom The Washington Post: A Few Thoughts On Jonah Lehrer’s Review Of Denis Dutton’s ‘The Art Instinct’

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From The Atlantic: Richard Florida’s ‘How The Crash Will Reshape America’

Full essay here.

“What’s more certain is that the recession, particularly if it turns out to be as long and deep as many now fear, will accelerate the rise and fall of specific places within the U.S.—and reverse the fortunes of other cities and regions.”

Of course such theory and analysis have great appeal by their potential predictive power over people’s lives:  Will my town die out?  Where should I move?

Economic crises tend to reinforce and accelerate the underlying, long-term trends within an economy.”

Bad news, Detroit, if Florida is right.

“…the economy is shifting away from manufacturing and toward idea-driven creative industries—and that, too, favors America’s talent-rich, fast-metabolizing places.”

Obviously, manufacturing jobs are dying out in the U.S., but what is an idea driven creative industry exactly?  Tech start-ups?  Biotech start-ups? Wind and hydro-farms?  Spill-over from universities into hip urban environments?


In addition, Florida suggests the suburbs represent an old, homeownership-centric model that we’d do well to get rid off:

Velocity and density are not words that many people use when describing the suburbs. The economy is driven by key urban areas; a different geography is required. “

Instead, we need:

“A bigger, healthier rental market


“...we need to encourage growth in…the great mega-regions that already power the economy, and the smaller, talent-attracting innovation centers inside them—places like Silicon Valley, Boulder, Austin, and the North Carolina Research Triangle”

Bad news also, Cleveland, times are tough and you might just likely diminish more in size, opportunities and importance.  We’re going to be giving government dollars guided by government policy to San Francisco, Boston and Austin to come out of this recession stronger and more ready to compete on the world stage…

Are you convinced?

See Also:

From Joel Kotkin: ‘Richard Florida Concedes the Limits of the Creative Class’

From The Atlantic: Richard Florida On The Decline Of The Blue-Collar Man

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The Politics Of Noam Chomsky-The Dangers Of Kantian Transcendental Idealism?

Noam Chomsky is a deep thinker, and his theory of language is quite profound (from Wikipedia):

“Children are hypothesized to have an innate knowledge of the basic grammatical structure common to all human languages (i.e., they assume that any language which they encounter is of a certain restricted kind)… This innate knowledge is often referred to as universal grammar… “

“This is related to Rationalist ideas of a priori knowledge, in that it is not due to experience.”

Chomsky has been able to merge deep philosophical/rationalist thought, a good understanding of mathematical analysis and the study of language into a unified theory.  It is quite an achievement.

Here’s a good page discussing the philosophical backstory:  the debate between empiricism/rationalism and Chomsky’s Kantian influence.


However, what about Chomsky’s politics?

It’s a leftist politics of anti-imperialism, anti-capitalism (the media is an arm of capitalism) and what he calls libertarian socialism (sympathetic to anarcho-syndicalism and quite radical).  He has written a stream of political screeds which attack, without necessarily understanding, all that fall outside of their bounds.  Despite his depth, Chomsky is uncompromising and does not seem interested in unifying his ideas in such a way that would lend to an influential and applied political philosophy (thus having to account for his ideas in the tradition) and the moral consequences that such political ideas have already had in practice.

Here’s a debate between Chomsky and William F. Buckley:

A reader has suggested to me that it is precisely Kant’s influence (particularly that of German rationalism/idealism) that permits Chomsky to justify his own political idealism.  Thus the hubris lies not only with Chomsky (I still find his linguistic theory compelling), but in Kantian transcendental idealism and the idealism of ideas like the categorical imperative.

It’s an interesting thought, though I don’t find it tenable.  Perhaps a useful thought experiment might run: What if Chomsky was a libertarian statist, or a somehow extreme but irreligious social conservative..attacking the very leftist positions he supports now?

Can any political position be necessarily justified by Kant’s thought..let alone Chomsky’s extremism?

The burden of proof is on you dear reader…I’m willing to listen.

Addition:   Chomsky’s position is one that recognizes injustice from a moral perspective, arguing that America has put its interests all across the globe, making deals with sometimes thuggish regimes to promote our interests (sometimes unintentionally so in a fog of idealism or jingoism and sometimes intentionally through military action).   From such a moral perspective, all intervention is injustice, and a falling away from that ideal.

Yet, the initial reader’s point is exactly this:   Kantian transcendental idealism, especially via Hegel and Marx, is easily directed into his communism and socialism (which Chomsky always embraced and in his later years supported through ridiculous hubris)…and is at the heart of this problem, and Chomsky is a good example of it.

I put up another post recently which may shed a little more light on this question:  A Few Thoughts On Isaiah Berlin’s “Two Concepts Of Liberty”

Another Addition:  The Kantian transcendentally ideal influence may well lead to a kind of liberal political philosophy.

Via Youtube: (1 of 3) Kant, Chomsky and the Problem of Knowledge

See Also On This Site:  Martha Nussbaum criticizing Chomsky’s hubris in Martha Nussbaum In Dissent–Violence On The Left: Nandigram And The Communists Of West Bengal…Jesse Prinz is trying to lead psychology and the cognitive sciences toward British Empiricism and away from Kant..A Brief Review of Jesse Prinz’s ‘The Emotional Construction Of Morals’ add:(and incorporate moral relativism and a strong Nietzschean influence).

From The Washington Post: Charles Krauthammer-The Fierce Urgency Of Pork

Full article here. (Via RealClearPolitics)

Krauthammer was not impressed with how the Stimulus Package was looking as of Feb 6th:

“The product, which inevitably carries Obama’s name, was not just bad, not just flawed, but a legislative abomination.”

Why?  Because of all the pork.  As for Obama’s idealism, and his request that the American people give him a chance, Krauthammer points out the contradiction between the influence peddling and self-interested politics that Democrats piled on the bill (nothing new there)…

…with the lofty and perhaps naive idealism of their supporters.  But is that all there is to it?

“So much for the president who in his inaugural address two weeks earlier declared “we have chosen hope over fear.” Until, that is, you need fear to pass a bill.”

Apparently so.   He’s not much interested in getting on board the Obama express…:

“I thought the awakening would take six months. It took two and a half weeks.


I have a friend who as the Iraq war publically soured, would periodically look out to the right to see how far away Krauthammer was…

Also On This SiteFrom Bloggingheads: Noam Scheiber And Matt Welch Discuss Obama’s Appeal To George Will And The RightHow Would Obama Respond To Milton Friedman’s Four Ways To Spend Money?Barack Obama President Elect: A Few Hopes From An Independent

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From The Wall Street Journal: Denver’s Mustang Or ‘Devil Horse’

Full post here.  (Slideshow included).

I’ve had to think a fair amount about art lately (life could be worse), so I thought I’d post this despite the current national frenzy for the importance of (A)rt. 

The sculptor, Luis Jimenez is:

“…a widely honored artist known for melding Chicano themes and Western history in exuberant sculpture.”

and on this sculpture:

“The eyes are light-emitting diodes, which burn red like taillights. They are an homage to Mr. Jimenez’s father, who ran a neon-sign studio in El Paso, Texas... “

That could work.  Are we getting close to kitsch art and possibly Chupacabra territory here?…do the skill and artistry transcend that?  

It seems powerful, serious and proud…a little scary even…a mythic figure.  Is it possible Jimenez was poking fun at the serious belief people have in such figures and myths…?   Maybe not.

DSC_0093 by robvann_99.

by robvann_99

Sad fact:  “He was killed on June 13, 2006, in his studio when a large piece, a mustang intended for Denver International Airport, fell on him severing an artery in his leg.”

Also On This SiteJoan Miro: WomanGoya’s ColossusGoya’s Fight With CudgelsGoethe’s Color Theory: Artists And ThinkersSome Quotes From Kant And A Visual Exercise

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