Three Quotations On Liberalism-Lionel Trilling, Michael Oakeshott & J.S. Mill

‘Contemporary liberalism does not depreciate emotion in the abstract, and in the abstract it sets great store by variousness and possibility. Yet, as is true of any other human entity, the conscious and the unconscious life of liberalism are not always in accord. So far as liberalism is active and positive, so far, that is, as it moves toward organization, it tends to select the emotions and qualities that are most susceptible of organization. As it carries out its active and positive ends it unconsciously limits its view of the world to what it can deal with, and it unconsciously tends to develop theories and principles, particularly in relation to the nature of the human mind, that justify its limitation.’

Trilling, Lionel.  The Liberal Imagination: Essays On Literature And Society.  The Viking Press:  New York, 1950. (preface xiii).

It’s easy to believe that because you know one thing pretty well, or a few things reasonably well, that what you know is known by all, and that this knowledge is universal.  What if what you can know is bound up with your experiences, and is acutely limited?

A 20th century address of such problems:

But my object is not to refute Rationalism: its errors are interesting only in so far as they reveal its character.  We are considering not merely the truth of a doctrine, but the significance of an intellectual fashion in the history of post-Renaissance Europe. And the questions we must try to answer are: What is the generation of this belief in the sovereignty of technique? When springs this supreme confidence in human ‘reason’ thus interpreted? What is the provenance, the context of this intellectual character?  And in what circumstances and with what effect did it come to invade European politics?’

Oakeshott, Michael. Rationalism In Politics“. Rationalism In Politics And Other Essays. Liberty Fund, 1991. Print. (Pg 17).

One of the more solid moral foundations for why you should be liberal still comes from J.S. Mill:

“The likings and dislikings of society, or of some powerful portion of it, are thus the main thing which has practically determined the rules laid down for general observance, under the penalties of law or opinion. And in general, those who have been in advance of society in thought and feeling, have left this condition of things unassailed in principle, however they may have come into conflict with it in some of its details. They have occupied themselves rather in inquiring what things society ought to like or dislike, than in questioning whether its likings or dislikings should be a law to individuals. They preferred endeavoring to alter the feelings of mankind on the particular points on which they were themselves heretical, rather than make common cause in defence of freedom, with heretics generally. The only case in which the higher ground has been taken on principle and maintained with consistency, by any but an individual here and there, is that of religious belief:…”

John Stuart Mill, On Liberty (New York: Barnes & Noble, 2007), 8-9.

Watch out for the assumption of rational and knowable ends, and the one-stop-shop of modern doctrines promising radical liberation. All that’s left is to implement such knowledge into systems that will lead all men to some point outside of themselves.: -The Englightenment/Romantic tension…the horror of rationalist systems which claimed knowledge of man’s ends, but also a defense of both positive and negative liberties-Appeasement Won’t Do-Via A Reader, ‘Michael Ignatieff Interview With Isaiah Berlin’…A Few Thoughts On Isaiah Berlin’s “Two Concepts Of Liberty”

The radical and rationalist project, anarcho-syndicalism and libertarian socialism: Repost-From Michael Totten At World Affairs: “Noam Chomsky: The Last Totalitarian”

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

Full post here.

Bonus quote:

“More recently Richard Rorty made an attractive attempt to reconcile the most avant-garde postmodern theory with a defence of the institutions of the Western liberal democracies, but the Mill of On Liberty still reigns supreme.”

Two AI Links And Some Thoughts On Political Philosophy

Sam Harris & Eliezer Yudkowsky-‘AI Racing Towards The Brink

Should the primary focus be on questions of alignment?  If spiders are to mice are to chimps are to humans, could independent human actors be creating general AI which is a similar order above our own thinking?  Yudkowsky argues that the time to think about such issues is now.

From Quanta Magazine: ‘New Theory Cracks Open the Black Box of Deep Learning

Not exactly reassuring, but the ‘bottleneck’ theory likely mirrors neuronal networks and something which occurs when we humans learn.

Even as machines known as “deep neural networks” have learned to converse, drive cars, beat video games and Go champions, dream, paint pictures and help make scientific discoveries, they have also confounded their human creators, who never expected so-called “deep-learning” algorithms to work so well. No underlying principle has guided the design of these learning systems, other than vague inspiration drawn from the architecture of the brain (and no one really understands how that operates either).

And now for something mostly different…a note on political philosophy (because you didn’t ask 🙂):  Let’s say, for a moment, that questions of fact and questions of value are orthagonal to one another. Whether or not something is true is not necessarily connected to whether or not the thing is good.

One clear problem arising from Marxist and neo/post Marxist thought is that many of the ‘is’ claims contained therein are simply not true.  Marxism, relying upon a singular variable (let’s say L) for all types of labor, is not really describing the world as it is accurately enough to work (capable of planning economies and organizing societies led by a revolutionary ‘vanguard’).  Although Marxism isn’t an explicit moral theory, it clearly animates the moral sentiments and provides value hierarchies to which Marxists still cling and neo-Marxists still seek to produce.  Some variant of Marxism is good enough for a lot of people, frankly, and a lot of people with a religion-sized hole in their lives.  Marxist confusion regarding its own epistemological value as a ‘science’ tends to reflect within its followers, too, many of whom still seem to think what they do is ‘science.’

To my mind, J.S. Mill went a good deal deeper in trying to provide ‘is’ cases for why one should act liberally, maximizing liberty for one’s self by banding together with others also speaking against custom and taboo and the current rules (Benthamites, Puritans, heretics, various outcasts etc.) in pursuit of the truth.  Utilitarian logic doesn’t entirely scale, of course, at least not without sacrificing some individuals for the whole, but both individual autonomy and political liberty in pursuit of the truth are much better preserved.

Within my own trajectory, I do suspect that some of the current neo-Kantians, neo-Platonists (neo-classicists) and Straussians are displaced and/or current religious believers, engaged in some pursuit (confirmation bias included) of what is both true and good (and perhaps, beautiful) within one philosophical whole.

At the moment, on the issue of being pro free-speech, I reasonably align with neo-Marxist (Brendan O’Neill) and post 60’s radical Camille Paglia, but I’ve got deep doubts as to where their thinking leads.

On individual and political liberty as well as economic freedom, I tend to align with many Millians, Hayekians and various flavors of libertarians.  This tends to be, philosophically, where I’m most at home.

On upholding tradition (the wisdom in traditions of which I may be ignorant), and upholding current rules and a deeper scepticism regarding human nature in favor of anything new, I tend to be in alignment with that rather neo-Kantian, neo-Hegelian, Church Of England conservative Roger Scruton.  I still have my worries regarding the modern touchstone of Kant, and the religion-sized hole filled by Hegelian metaphysics and the significant problems of the German State, but the defense of both individual and family within potentially scalable political economies is welcomed.

Patriotism, the desire for limited government, the importance of citizens united under Laws as a nation, and citizens perhaps guided by Natural Law are not entirely unamenable to me, but the case for their goods must consistently, openly, and reasonably be made.

Feel free to highlight my vast and deep ignorance, fellow human (or impostor).

I’ve got a lot of ignorance.

Related: From Darwinian Conservatism: Nietzsche-Aristocratic Radical or Aristocratic Liberal?

A Few Thoughts On The Stanford Encyclopedia Of Philosophy Entry: Nietzsche’s Moral And Political Philosophy.

Out of the Valley of modernism, post-modernism, and relativism…one path from Nietzsche’s nihilism is through Leo Strauss and Allan Bloom:Update And Repost- From YouTube: Leo Strauss On The Meno-More On The Fact/Value Distinction?’

Can Kant do all that heavy lifting…what are some of the dangers of Kantian reason?: From Bryan Magee’s Talking Philosophy On Youtube: Geoffrey Warnock On KantA Few Thoughts On Isaiah Berlin’s “Two Concepts Of Liberty”

Peter Singer discusses Hegel and MarxFrom Philosophy And Polity: ‘Historicism In German Political Theory’

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”From George Monbiot: ‘How Freedom Became Tyranny’…Looking to supplant religion as moral source for the laws: From The Reason Archives: ‘Discussing Disgust’ Julian Sanchez Interviews Martha Nussbaum.…

Repost-Another Take On J.S. Mill From “Liberal England”

Full post here.

Key quote:

“More recently Richard Rorty made an attractive attempt to reconcile the most avant-garde postmodern theory with a defence of the institutions of the Western liberal democracies, but the Mill of On Liberty still reigns supreme.”

Related On This Site: Isaiah Berlin’s negative liberty bears resemblance to Mill’s Harm Principle:  From virtual philosopher: ‘Free Speech: notes and links for course at Free Word Centre’

A Few Thoughts On Isaiah Berlin’s “Two Concepts Of Liberty”From The Boston Review: ‘Libertarianism And Liberty: How Not To Argue For Limited Government And Lower Taxes’From Slate: ‘The Liberty Scam-Why Even Robert Nozick, The Philosophical Father Of Libertarianism, Gave Up On The Movement He Inspired.’

Saturday Quotation: J.S. Mill

“The likings and dislikings of society, or of some powerful portion of it, are thus the main thing which has practically determined the rules laid down for general observance, under the penalties of law or opinion. And in general, those who have been in advance of society in thought and feeling, have left this condition of things unassailed in principle, however they may have come into conflict with it in some of its details. They have occupied themselves rather in inquiring what things society ought to like or dislike, than in questioning whether its likings or dislikings should be a law to individuals. They preferred endeavoring to alter the feelings of mankind on the particular points on which they were themselves heretical, rather than make common cause in defence of freedom, with heretics generally. The only case in which the higher ground has been taken on principle and maintained with consistency, by any but an individual here and there, is that of religious belief:…”

John Stuart Mill, On Liberty (New York: Barnes & Noble, 2007), 8-9.