Watching The Shadows Go By-A Few Links & Thoughts On Romantic Primitivism, ‘Culture’ And Political Idealism

Let me project some of my own interpretations onto the cave wall.

Photo taken by Nikola Solic (a fine photographer) of a display at the Neanderthal Musuem in Krapina, Croatia.

For many Westerners, perhaps there is no longer a God revealing Himself to Man, but there are expanding fields of knowledge and human endeavors able to light the way forwards onto a future of hope and progress; backwards onto human origins.

In the popular media (such as in the publications displaying the photo above), perhaps this knowledge can align with current popular sentiment and belief.  An imprimatur, of sorts.

Such thinking can also coincide with a rather Romantic Idealization of Nature; a vision of Man without dominion over Nature, necessarily, but rather men, women, children and an ever growing list of humans (and animals, even) living both frustratingly apart, but also interconnected within Nature, following Nature’s lead alone and with each other.

Most people, I suspect, often without such specialized knowledge (not specifically trained in the sciences), require a lot of moral oughts and shoulds regarding how to live and what to do.

Furthermore, people tend to organize into groups united by shared principles and beliefs, and so often, in the modern world, beneath political ideals and political ideologies.  Even if these political ideals and ideologies aren’t explict moral philosophies, necessarily, they can certainly end-up engaging the moral sentiments, basic human desires and motivations of the people within them.

Such movements are certainly understood by many of their members as posessing truth and knowledge enough to write the laws and rules we all must follow, prescribing our own personal moral behavior enough to align us with the people who ought to be in charge of us.

Perhaps the poet or Romantic genius can help guide Man into the Self and the Self into Nature.  The poet/thinker’s example can be full of grief, anguish and Nature’s brutality, indeed, but it can also offer moments of self-actualization, beauty, consolation and transcendence. It can be taught as part of a civilizing hierarchy or canon, a reef of traditions and structure enough to develop seriously good artists and produce quite a few educated citizens.

I suspect there’s always been a tension between the poet/artist and the Man of Science and Mathematics; people generally more concerned in seeking the underlying order and patterns within Nature, discovering the probabilistic and mathematical laws able to accurately describe and predict the strange world in which we seem to find ourselves. Such laws can be beautiful, and symmetrical, and true just for their own sake, sure, but like a good poem, a mathematical law remains curiously silent about how to live and what to do.

Addition: Perhaps, I might add, but perhaps not. Perhaps it’s worth thinking about just which dangers accompany such lights, and which problems endure.

The late Roger Sandall, here:

‘The claim that “open societies” are now increasingly threatened would probably meet with little argument. But what is the nature of the threat, and what are its roots? Here less agreement might be found. Some would say an essentially religious clash of civilizations is the main cause, and point to the growing struggle between Islam and the West.

Others might point to Russia under President Putin, finding evidence of a long-standing political tradition that owes relatively little to the Russian Orthodox Church, but has always found liberty odious.

And then there’s a third and troubling possibility — that from an evolutionary perspective, taking a long view of our historic and prehistoric origins, open societies where voluntaristic principles prevail are new forms of human association only recently arrived from the distant tribal past, and in the more violent trouble spots around the world they never arrived at all.’

The late Ken Minogue:

On the many dangers of political idealism, and using political theory as the limits of your field of vision:

‘We may sum this up by saying that the more the style of what used to be called politics becomes theorized, the more political problems come to be reintrepreted as managerial.  Working out the least oppressive laws under which different and sometimes conflicting groups may live peaceably together is being replaced by manipulation and management of the attitudes different groups take towards each other, with the hope that this will ultimately bring harmony.  In other words, in the new form of society, human beings are becoming the matter which is to be shaped according to the latest moral idea.’

-Minogue, Kenneth.  Politics.  Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 1995. (Pg 111).

Related: A definition of humanism:

“‘…a morally concerned style of intellectual atheism openly avowed by only a small minority of individuals (for example, those who are members of the British Humanist Association) but tacitly accepted by a wide spectrum of educated people in all parts of the Western world.”

Roger Scruton At The WSJ: ‘Memo To Hawking: There’s Still Room For God’

Related On This Site: From Darwinian Conservatism: ‘The Evolution of Mind and Mathematics: Dehaene Versus Plantinga and Nagel’

Sunday Quotation: Edmund Burke On The French Revolution

Denis Dutton suggested art could head towards Darwin (and may offer new direction from the troubles of the modern art aimlessness and shallow depth…the money and the fame) Review of Denis Dutton’s ‘The Art Instinct’…

Roger Sandall, Australian critic of romantic primitivism and the Western’s Left’s penchant for the Noble Savage: His home page where his essays can be found. Here’s “The Rise Of The Anthropologues“ and…

Robert Hughes, Australian and often fierce critic of modernism and post-modernism.

The classical liberal tradition…looking for classical liberals in the postmodern wilderness: Isaiah Berlin’s negative liberty: A Few Thoughts On Isaiah Berlin’s “Two Concepts Of Liberty”

Update And Repost- From YouTube: Leo Strauss On The Meno-More On The Fact/Value Distinction?’

The Conservatarian Curve-Some Reasons To Remain Skeptical Of ‘Culture’ And Cultural Criticism Of A Certain Kind

Roger Sandall’s book:  ‘The Culture Cult:  Designer Tribalism And Other Essays‘ here.

A follow-up essay here springing from a discussion: ‘The Culture Cult revisited’

Sandall:

‘But in the year 2000, with Fascism and Communism both discredited, why, I wondered, were so many turning back toward Rousseau? What was the attraction of romantic primitivism? How had ethnic culture become a beau ideal? Cities certainly have their problems, but why did New Yorkers see tribal societies as exemplary and tribespeople as paragons of social virtue?’

If you do manage to develop a bedrock of secular humanism in civil society (subject to that society’s particular traditions and history), won’t that society still have need of its own myths?

Even though Fascism and Communism have been discredited in theory and in practice, adherents remain (look no further than most American academies).

Sandall notes the Popperian elements discussed as from ‘The Open Society And Its Enemies‘, which as a theory, stretches deep into human nature and the West’s Greek traditions.

Is Popper’s ‘critical rationalism’ some of what we’re seeing from the intellectual dark-webbers, or at least many bright people pushing against the fascistic elements found within many far-Left movements, just those movements endorse and feed a far-right, identitarian and ideological response?:

‘…the people and institutions of the open society that Popper envisioned would be imbued with the same critical spirit that marks natural science, an attitude which Popper called critical rationalism. This openness to analysis and questioning was expected to foster social and political progress as well as to provide a political context that would allow the sciences to flourish.’

Sandall again on Popper:

‘His 1945 The Open Society and Its Enemies started out from the contrast between closed autarkic Sparta and free-trading protean Athens, and used it to illuminate the conflict between Fascism and Communism on the one hand, and Western democracy on the other.’

but…:

‘Is an ‘open society’ also supposed to be an ‘open polity’ with open borders? Médecins sans Frontières is all very well: but states cannot be run on such lines. Popper’s is a theory of society, not a theory of the state—and it seems to me that his book offers no clear account of the wider political preconditions that enable ‘open societies’ to both flourish and defend themselves.’

So, how did Sandall see the idea of ‘culture’ having its orgins?:

‘But at a higher philosophical level, and starting out in England, it owed more to the energetic publicising of Herder’s ideas by the Oxford celebrity Sir Isaiah Berlin — ideas of irresistible appeal to the post-Marxist and post-religious liberal mind.’

Open borders and open societies?  A desire a ‘culture’ has to forge and solidify its own identity?

Kelley Ross (open border libertarian last I checked) responds to a correspondent on value-pluralism, while discussing John Gray as well:

‘Now, I do not regard Berlin’s value pluralism as objectionable or even as wrong, except to the extend that it is irrelevant to the MORAL issue and so proves nothing for or against liberalism. Liberalism will indeed recommend itself if one wishes to have a regime that will respect, within limits, a value pluralism.

‘J.S. Mill, etc., continue to be better philosophers than Berlin or Gray because they understand that there must be an absolute moral claim in the end to fundamental rights and negative liberty, however it is thought, or not thought, to be justified. Surrendering the rational case does not even mean accepting the overall “value pluralism” thesis, since Hume himself did not do so.

Back to Sandall:

‘Then something happened: the English word “culture” in the sense employed by Matthew Arnold in his 1869 Culture and Anarchy got both anthropologized and Germanised — and anthropological culture was the opposite of all that. It meant little more in fact than a social system.’

Any thoughts and comments are welcome.

A rather tangled web indeed…

Further entanglements on this site, possibly related:

Tom Wolfe on Max Weber on one conspicuous use of art in the ‘modern’ world:

‘…aesthetics is going to replace ethics, art is going to replace religion, as the means through which educated people express their spiritual worthiness…

From Edward Feser: ‘Jackson on Popper on materialism

‘Popper’s World 3 is in some respects reminiscent of Plato’s realm of the Forms, but differs in that Popper takes World 3 to be something man-made.  As I noted in the earlier post just linked to, this makes his positon at least somewhat comparable the Aristotelian realist (as opposed to Platonic realist) view that universals are abstracted by the mind from the concrete objects that instantiate them rather than pre-existing such abstraction.’

Quite a comment thread over there…

Popper:

“…and if there could be such a thing as socialism combined with individual liberty, I would be a socialist still. For nothing could be better than living a modest, simple, and free life in an egalitarian society. It took some time before I recognized this as no more than a beautiful dream; that freedom is more important that equality; that the attempt to realize equality endangers freedom; and that, if freedom is lost, there will not even be equality among the unfree.”

Related On This Site:Encyclopedia Of Philosophy Entry On Eliminative Materialism…

Bryan Magee Via Youtube: ‘Miles Burnyeat On Plato’Repost: From the Cambridge Companion To Plato-T.H. Irwin’s “Plato: The intellectual Background’

A Few Thoughts On Isaiah Berlin’s “Two Concepts Of Liberty”

How might this relate to the Heglian/post-Marxist project via ‘The End Of History’: Update And Repost- From YouTube: Leo Strauss On The Meno-More On The Fact/Value Distinction?’

Fred Siegel On The German Influence And Kelley Ross On Some Of Roger Scruton’s Thinking

Repost-Ronald Bailey At Reason: ‘Are Savages Noble?’

Review here (You have to answer a few questions to access the archives)

Bailey reviews two new books on anthropology, one by Jared Diamond, the other by Marlene Zuk.  Inevitably questions of political philosophy arise:

‘Modern anthropological research may be settling the great debate between the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes and the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Was the state of nature a “war of every man against every man” in which life was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short,” as Hobbes wrote? Or did “savages” live in utopian bliss, thanks to “the tranquility of their passions and their ignorance of vice,” as Rousseau believed?’

Libertarians tend to be more comfortable with the Magna Carta, British common law, Hobbes, Locke, Adam Smith and onwards, as well as some products of Enlightenment reason:

‘Diamond simply doesn’t engage with the notion that development of specific human institutions, such as private property and the rule of law, have enabled a happy portion of the global population to rise above humanity’s natural state of abject poverty. His description of trade among traditional societies, in which one group specializes in pottery while another focuses on canoes, completely misses how trade makes both groups better through the higher productivity made possible by pursuing comparative advantage. Diamond characterizes the goal of business transactions in modern societies as winning profits by inflicting losses, missing entirely the fact that modern markets consist largely of world-spanning networks of cooperation.’

Worth a read.

Related On This SiteFrom The Chronicle Of Higher Ed: “Misguided Nostalgia For Our Paleo Past”

What happens when you romanticize the aboriginal? Romantic primitivism: Roger Sandall: Marveling At The Aborigines, But Not Really Helping?Repost-Roger Sandall At The American Interest: ‘Tribal Realism ….Roger Sandall At The New Criterion Via The A & L Daily: ‘Aboriginal Sin’

The tragic, romantic German view…Robert Merry At The National Interest: ‘Spengler’s Ominous Prophecy’

Maybe if you’re defending religion, Nietzsche is a problematic reference: Dinesh D’Souza And Daniel Dennett at Tufts University: Nietzsche’s Prophesy…

Update And Repost- From YouTube: Leo Strauss On The Meno-More On The Fact/Value Distinction?’…From Darwinian Conservatism By Larry Arnhart: “Surfing Strauss’s Third Wave of Modernity”

Peter Levine discusses the Nietzsche connection here.

Did Jared Diamond get attacked for not being romantic enough…or just for potential hubris?:  Was he acting as a journalist in Papua New-Guinea?:  From The Chronicle Of Higher Education: Jared Diamond’s Lawsuit

Darwin and the arts: Review of Denis Dutton’s ‘The Art Instinct’

You know, Plato addressed Thrasymachus in the Republic about the will of the stronger: From Darwinian Conservatism: ‘Might Makes Right’…Darwinian Conservatism’…From Edge: ‘Re: What Makes People Republican? By Jonathan Haidt’…Evolutionary psychology and moral thinking: Franz De Waal At The NY Times 10/17/10: ‘Morals Without God?’

Steven Pinker somewhat focused on the idea of freedom from violence, which tends to be libertarian. Yet, he’s also skeptical of the more liberal human rights and also religious natural rights. What about a World Leviathan?: At Bloggingheads Steven Pinker Discusses War And Thomas HobbesFrom Reason.TV Via YouTube: ‘Steven Pinker on The Decline of Violence & “The Better Angels of Our Nature”‘Simon Blackburn Reviews Steven Pinker’s “The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial Of Human Nature” Via the University Of Cambridge Philosophy Department

Kori Schake At The Hoover Institution: ‘Flawed Diamond’

Full piece here.

Jared Diamond has a new book out entitled the World Until Yesterday.  He’s consistently broadened and generalized from his own field of anthropology and reached a mass audience.  Schake calls his latest a bit of a vanity project which doesn’t necessarily convince:

‘In this book, Diamond draws from his extensive field research in New Guinea to share his views on the shortcomings of contemporary American society. Primitive approaches to social problems, he thinks, would better serve our society. For example, he argues for: dedicating more resources to mediation as an alternative to civil lawsuits, establishing “conventional monopolies” to smooth out trade fluctuations, deemphasizing competition and the desire for excellence among children, on-demand nursing for infants, spending more time talking to our children, devising new living conditions for the elderly, accepting that the gulf between rich and poor in the United States provides an explanation of the popularity of religion in our country, preserving language diversity, and ending obesity.’

Should we model some of our behavior upon that of the tribes of Papau New-Guinea, and what moral reasoning does Diamond use to arrive at such a position for Americans?  What empirical research?

***In the case of Diamond and Steven Pinker, it’s interesting to note that an anthropologist and a psychologist have become generalists, and addressed questions of moral thinking, human political organization, and political philosophy more generally.

The L.A. Times has a book review here.

If you’ve read the book, please share your thoughts.

Also On This Site:  From Savage Minds: More On The Lawsuit Against Jared Diamond…Did Jared Diamond get attacked for not being romantic enough…or just for potential hubris?:  Was he acting as a journalist in Papua New-Guinea?:  From The Chronicle Of Higher Education: Jared Diamond’s Lawsuit…and: Jared Diamond: “Vengeance Is Ours” In The New Yorker

There has been a movement of people in anthropology to romanticize tribal life, many of them tend toward Left-of-Center political philosophies Repost-Roger Sandall At The American Interest: ‘Tribal Realism’…Romantic primitivism in Australia: ….Roger Sandall At The New Criterion Via The A & L Daily: ‘Aboriginal Sin’

Hirsi Ali seems to have found the embrace of the West out of both tribal localism and its customs, Islam, and the short-sightedness of multiculturalism.  Notice non-Muslims are not the ones threatening her with death: Tunku Varadarajan Reviews Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s ‘Nomad’ At The Daily BeastRepost-Ayan Hirsi Ali At The CSM: ‘Swiss Ban On Minarets Was A Vote ForTolerance And Inclusion’

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The West is less violent? At Bloggingheads Steven Pinker Discusses War And Thomas HobbesFrom Reason.TV Via YouTube: ‘Steven Pinker on The Decline of Violence & “The Better Angels of Our Nature”‘

Evolutionary psychology and moral thinking: Franz De Waal At The NY Times 10/17/10: ‘Morals Without God?’

Blackburn not so impressed with the Blank Slate: Simon Blackburn Reviews Steven Pinker’s “The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial Of Human Nature” Via the University Of Cambridge Philosophy DepartmentAt Bloggingheads Steven Pinker Discusses War And Thomas HobbesFrom Reason.TV Via YouTube: ‘Steven Pinker on The Decline of Violence & “The Better Angels of Our Nature”‘

Robert Merry At The National Interest: ‘Spengler’s Ominous Prophecy’

Full piece here.

Is the West in decline?  Is it in decline relative to the Arab world’s exploding birthrate?   Is it in decline relative to the rise of Asia, after having downloaded the West’s “killer apps“?  Are we in inexorable decline having passed the point of empire and will we increasingly feel the temptation to tyranny?

Merry takes a look at Oswald Spengler:

‘So it is with America and Europe. Hence, an analysis of American decline must lead to questions about Western decline. And an analysis of Western decline must lead to Oswald Spengler, the German intellectual who in 1918 produced the first volume of his bombshell work Der Untergang des Abendlandes (The Decline of the West), followed by the second volume in 1922. Spengler’s thesis forced his readers to look at history through an entirely new prism. They did, and he enjoyed a surge of influence. But the man and his work are in eclipse today, and there’s little evidence that scholars pondering American decline have consulted the dark musings of this German romantic or his overarching theory of history’

Perhaps we can view Spengler partially as a product of his age, influenced by the Great war and a strong romanticism that rejected a more thorough rationalist framework of “linear” science guiding historical analysis while making his own more polemical framework (the trap of Continental Europe we can avoid).  He seems to have made grand and sweeping pronouncements within the scope of his own thinking while deploying history, the arts, symbolism, anthropology, culture and German nationalism and idealism.  He was in a Germany increasingly feeling the pinch.

Yet he’s had a lot of influence, and some prescience:

‘As John Farrenkopf points out in his Prophet of Decline: Spengler on World History and Politics, Spengler’s Decline beguiled numerous prominent men of ideas and action in post–World War II America. They included George Kennan, Henry Kissinger, Paul Nitze, Louis Halle, Hans Morgenthau and Reinhold Niebuhr. Kennan read Spengler in the original language during a stay in Germany in his youth. Kissinger’s undergraduate thesis at Harvard focused on Spengler, along with Toynbee and Kant, and he once confessed to a “perverse fascination” with the German’s thinking, although Kissinger ultimately rejected the idea of inevitable decline.’

Lots of food for thought, including mention of Samuel Huntington and Francis Fukuyama:

‘ And isn’t the great foreign-policy debate of our time—whether America should continue its post–Cold War policy of interventionism in the name of American exceptionalism and Western universalism; or whether it should abandon that mission in favor of a more measured exercise of its military and economic power—fundamentally a debate over whether Spengler had it right?’

Well worth a read.

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***As an aside, and a possibly feckless exercise of the type you can find on this blog:

Just to contrast the Anglo and German approaches towards nihilism and the arts, the idea of tragic decline, and the movement of the individual artist isolated from society in the West, one could possibly contrast Werner Herzog’s deep, gloomy, serious German approach (and excellent filmaking):

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….with what I would call more the Anglo tradition on this blog:  a similar nihilism and existential lament of the individual up against the void and the meaninglessness of life…but expressed through a more lively punk and rock music scence, the American talent for advertising, T.V. and movies and all of this occurring inside a framework of the Anglo genius for law and governance, the focus on capitalism and commercialism, religion and sports etc.

Here’s Walter Russel Mead discussing his ideas on the successes of America and Britain, which I submit highlights the Anglo/German divide a bit:

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Denis Dutton suggested art could head towards Darwin (and may offer new direction from the troubles of the modern art aimlessness and shallow depth…the money and the fame) Review of Denis Dutton’s ‘The Art Instinct’…

Roger Sandall, Australian critic of romantic primitivism and the Western’s Left’s penchant for the Noble Savage: His home page where his essays can be found. Here’s “The Rise Of The Anthropologues“ and…

Robert Hughes, Australian and often fierce critic of modernism and post-modernism.

***I should add that Herzog’s ‘Into The Abyss‘ was worth my time.  Herzog is probably not a proponent of the death penalty, but I thought he left me to decide what I thought, and he didn’t flinch from the crime, the tragedy and the loss.

Related On This Site:  Fareed Zakaria BBC Interview: America In DeclineRichard Lieber In The World Affairs Journal–Falling Upwards: Declinism, The Box Set

Samuel Huntington’s page at Harvard here.

Google books has ‘Political Order In Changing Societies‘ and ‘Who Are We?:  The Challenges To America’s National Identity‘  (previews)available.

From The Atlantic: Samuel Huntington’s Death And Life’s WorkFrom The American Interest Online: Francis Fukuyama On Samuel HuntingtonFrom Foreign Affairs Via The A & L Daily: ‘Conflict Or Cooperation: Three Visions Revisited’Has Fukuyama turned away from Hegel and toward Darwin? Adam Kirsch Reviews Francis Fukuyama’s New Book At The City Journal: ‘The Dawn Of Politics’…Is neoconservative foreign policy defunct…sleeping…how does a neoconservatism more comfortable with liberalism here at home translate into foreign policy?: Wilfred McClay At First Things: ‘The Enduring Irving Kristol’

Was Leo Strauss on the other side of the Anglo-German divide, perhaps missing some important liberal traditions that Germans (like many Arabs) simply mistake for decadence in the Anglosphere?  How did the Strauss of his youth, at one point steeped in Nietzsche and Nietzsche via Heidegger, find a way to escape the paroxysms of the German State, the narrowing vision of that state under German idealism, and the possibility of a non-fascistic German conservatism which could accommodate a German Jew? Update And Repost- From YouTube: Leo Strauss On The Meno-More On The Fact/Value Distinction?’Peter Singer discusses Hegel and MarxFrom Philosophy And Polity: ‘Historicism In German Political Theory’…

Do we try and invest in global institutions as flawed as they are…upon a Kantian raft…Kant often leads to a liberal political philosophy:  Daniel Deudney On YouTube Responding to Robert Kagan: Liberal Democracy Vs. Autocracy

Can Kant do all that heavy lifting…what are some of the dangers of Enlightenment project?:  From Bryan Magee’s Talking Philosophy On Youtube: Geoffrey Warnock On Kant…Kant chopped the head off from German deism and the German State has been reeling every since…is value pluralism a response?: A Few Thoughts On Isaiah Berlin’s “Two Concepts Of Liberty”

Hilary Putnam On The Philosophy Of Science:  Bryan Magee’s Talking Philosophy On YouTube

From Darwinian Conservatism: ‘Locke’s Evolutionary History Of Politics’

Full post here.

‘A similar ambiguity is that while Locke says that the state of nature is a state of peace rather than a state of war, and thus disagrees with Hobbes, Locke also says that the state of nature easily becomes a state of war that induces people to establish government to enforce peace, which agrees with Hobbes (ST, 19, 123).  Here is where the Straussians see Locke’s Hobbesianism as his secret teaching.

But this assumption that this shows some complicated rhetorical strategy of secret writing becomes less plausible if one looks at the anthropological reports about America that Locke was studying.’

Well referenced and worth a read.

Here’s a quote from Locke:

If a man in the state of nature be so free, as has been said; if he be absolute lord of his own person and possessions, equal to the greatest, and subject to nobody, why will he part with his freedom?  Why will he give up this empire, and subject humself to the dominion and control of any other power?  To which ’tis obvious to answer, that though in the state of nature he hath such a right, yet the enjoyment of it is very uncertain, and constantly exposed to the invasion of others.  For all being kings as much as he, every man his equal, and the greater part no strict observers of equity and justice, the enjoyment of the property he has in this state is very unsafe, very insecure.  This makes him willing to quit this condition, which however free, is full of fears and continual dangers: and ’tis not without reason, that he seeks out, and is willing to join in society with others who are already united, or have a mind to unity for the mutual preservation of their lives, liberties and estates, which I call by the general name, property.

*Locke, John.  Two Treatises Of Government.  London: Everyman, J.M. Dent, Orion Publishing House.  1993.

Related On This Site: .A Few Quotations: Leo Strauss On John LockeFrom Darwinian Conservatism By Larry Arnhart: “Surfing Strauss’s Third Wave of Modernity”Update And Repost- From YouTube: Leo Strauss On The Meno-More On The Fact/Value Distinction?’Some Sunday Quotations: (On) Kant, Locke, and Pierce..

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