Repost-Simon Blackburn Reviews Steven Pinker’s “The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial Of Human Nature” Via the University Of Cambridge Philosophy Department

Full review here.

The 1st and last paragraphs of Blackburn’s review:

When the hoary old question of nature versus nurture comes around, sides form quickly. And as Leavis once remarked, whenever this is so, we can suspect that the differences have little to do with thinking. Still, the question certainly obsesses thinkers, and crops up in various terminologies and under various rubrics:  human essence versus historical accident, intrinsic nature versus social construction, nativism versus empiricism. In the ancient world the nativist Plato held that we come into the world equipped with knowledge obtained in a previous life, while the empiricist Aristotle denied it. In our own time Chomsky has revived the nativist doctrine that our capacity for language is innate, and some ultras have even held that our whole conceptual repertoire is innate. We did not ever have to learn anything. We had only to let loose what we already have.

and:

‘Once we get past the demonizing and the rhetoric, take proper notice of the space between overt psychology and evolutionary rationale for it, and lose any phobia of cultural phenomena, what is left? There are plenty of sensible and plausible observations about human beings in Pinker’s book. But it is not clear that any of them are particularly new: Hobbes and Adam Smith give us more than anybody else. And at least their insights have stood the test of time, unlike that of some more recent work. Consider again the example of media violence. Here it seems that psychologists cannot speak with one voice about its effects. But worse than that, much worse, they cannot even speak with one voice about what psychological studies find about its effects. That is, the meta-studies that Pinker cites flatly disagree with the meta-studies that I mentioned earlier. If this is the state of play, we do well to plead the privilege of skepticism. We also do well too not to jettison other cultural resources too quickly. The depressing thing about “The Blank Slate” is that behind the rhetoric and the salesmanship, I suspect that Pinker knows this as well as anyone else.’

Quite readable.

Related On This Site: Does evo psy have aspirations in creating a sort of secular morality…or non-religious moral and philosophical structure?:  Steven Pinker From The New Republic: The Stupidity Of Dignity…Also, what might the cognitive sciences have against transcedental morality?  Another Note On Jesse Prinz’s“Constructive Sentimentalism”

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

Franz De Waal At The NY Times 10/17/10: ‘Morals Without God?’Repost-Steven Weinberg’s Essay ‘On God’ In The NY Times Review Of BooksSimon Blackburn ReviewsAlan Sokal’s ‘Beyond The Hoax’ In The New RepublicRepost-From Virtual Philosophy: A Brief Interview With Simon Blackburn

Repost-Alas, What Were You Hoping For?

Simon Blackburn at the University of Toronto discussing the minimalist or deflationist view:

‘Along comes someone like Pilate, Pontius Pilate, and says something like: ‘What is truth?’ and everybody goes sort of dizzy, and you look to the philosopher to provide a suitably abstract and highfalutin answer. The minimalist says you shouldn’t answer Pilate, or rather, if you answer Pilate, you answer should take the form of a question…which is “What are you interested in?’

So basically, you throw the question ‘What is truth?’ back until the person who’s interlocuting you… gives you an example and says ‘Well, I’m interested in whether penguins fly’ and you say ‘Okay well the truth there…the truth would consist in penguins flying…’

…that’s very disappointing:’

Blackburn on Richard Rorty here.

From Kelley Ross, who takes a step back from moral relativism and good ‘ol American Pragmatism:

‘It is characteristic of all forms of relativism that they wish to preserve for themselves the very principles that they seek to deny to others. Thus, relativism basically presents itself as a true doctrine, which means that it will logically exclude its opposites (absolutism or objectivism), but what it actually says is that no doctrines can logically exclude their opposites. It wants for itself the very thing (objectivity) that it denies exists. Logically this is called “self-referential inconsistency,” which means that you are inconsistent when it comes to considering what you are actually doing yourself. More familiarly, that is called wanting to “have your cake and eat it too.” Someone who advocates relativism, then, may just have a problem recognizing how their doctrine applies to themselves’

And on Richard Rorty:

‘Pragmatism is really just a kind of relativism; and, as with Protagoras’s own strategy, it is a smoke screen for the questions that ultimately must be asked about what it means that something is “better,” or now that something “works.” Something “works,” indeed, if it gets us what we want — or what Richard Rorty wants. But why should we want that? Again, the smoke screen puts off the fatal moment when we have to consider what is true about what is actually good, desirable, worthy, beneficial, etc. All these responses are diversions that attempt to obscure and prevent the examination of the assumptions that stand behind the views of people like Rorty. It is easier to believe what you believe if it is never even called into question, and that is just as true of academic philosophers like Rorty as it is for anybody else. Being intelligent or well educated does not mean that you are necessarily more aware of yourself, what you do, or the implications of what you believe. That is why the Delphic Precept, “Know Thyself” (Gnôthi seautón) is just as important now as ever.’

Larry Arnhart At Darwinian Conservatism is skeptical of the Nietzchean influence: ‘Prinz’s Deceptive Silence in His Arguments for Emotivism and Cultural Relativism:’

‘In Beyond Human Nature, Jesse Prinz argues for emotivism and cultural relativism in his account of human morality. In doing this, he employs the rhetorical technique of deceptive silence. What I mean by this is that in presenting the research relevant to his topic, he picks out those findings that seem to support his arguments, while passing over in silence those findings that contradict his arguments. For example, he sets up a stark debate between Kantian rationalism and Humean emotivism in explaining the basis of human morality; and he argues that empirical research supports emotivism by showing that moral judgment is purely emotional and not rational at all (293-95). This is deceptive in two respects. ‘

Also On This Site: A Few Thoughts On Isaiah Berlin’s “Two Concepts Of Liberty”Repost-Some Thoughts On Noam Chomsky Via The American Conservative: ‘American Anarchist’

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

Roger Scruton On Moral Relativism And Ross Douthat On Bill Maher

A Few Thoughts On Steven Pinker’s Appearance On The Rubin Report

Via a reader, Pinker’s book here.

My current views on Pinker’s four categories, for what they’re worth:

Reason-I’ve been exploring philosophically ideal Oakeshottian ‘modes of experience’ lately.  Our thoughts and basic sensory experiences are intertwined within modes, but these modes are not necessarily connected to a larger, hierarchically arranged superstructure.

‘The modes that Oakeshott identifies in Experience and Its Modes—history, science, and practice, to which he later added “poetry” (art)—are epistemological categories, not ontological ones. And although the modes are mutually exclusive, they do not form a closed set. They are constructions that have emerged over time in human experience. They could change or even disappear and other modes might yet appear.’

I view this approach as particularly useful for the humanities, as it could be tonic for the nihilism, existentialism and post-Romantic, post-Modern individual isolation found throughout the Western World (arts, academies, ‘culture’).  This approach could be especially useful where narrow ideologies and righteous belief go about picking up the slack.

I do think Pinker is properly humble about the influence of reason (it won’t scale to everyone, and only to those of interested in engaging their reason in a direction Pinker might help instruct and with which I find much to agree).

More on Oakeshott’s thinking:

‘The illusion that there are “correct” answers to practical questions Oakeshott called “Rationalism”. It is the belief that practical activity is rational only when it rests on moral or causal laws whose truth can be demonstrated. In Marxism, for example, one encounters the claim that laws of historical change can be discerned scientifically and that practical guidance can be derived from them. But this claim, Oakeshott thought, should be understood as a rhetorical one that presupposes a certain kind of audience: it can be persuasive only for those who already believe that such laws exist and that they dictate correct decisions (Oakeshott 2008: 168–177). The error of Rationalism is to think that making decisions simply requires skill in the technique of applying rules or calculating consequences.’

As a brief aside, Oakeshottian pluralism perhaps doesn’t have much overlap with Isaiah Berlin’s value pluralism with regard to political philosophy, but it does remind me of the following: Oppressed individuals may actually have good reasons for change, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that oppressed individuals possess knowledge of the direction nor ends of (H)istory, nor those of (M)an.  In fact, some of the greatest dangers of the 20th century came from individuals believing they knew of such ends while instituting those ends into social and political revolutions.

Berlin:

“Everything is what it is:  liberty is liberty, not equality or justice or fairness or culture, or human happiness or a quiet conscience.  If liberty of myself or my class or my nation depends on the misery of a number of other human beings, the system which promotes this is unjust and immoral.  but if I curtail or lose my freedom in order to lessen the shame of such inequality, and do not thereby materially increase the individual liberty of others, an absolute loss of liberty occurs.”

Food for thought.

Science-I believe the sciences yield the best knowledge we have of the Natural world, and attract some of the best minds, but it takes many years of long practice, hard work and habit to gain a sufficient mental map and the mathematical problem solving skills necessary to advance a field.  Not all sciences are equal, and some social sciences, like psychology, have had serious reproducibility problems of late.

Just as the Oakeshottian critique of ‘rationalism’ display themselves with regard to reason, there is also a critique of ‘scientism‘ on this view.

In the wake of people actually doing science, are many people practicing in a field with scientific elements and varying but respectable degrees of probabilistic accuracy, and further downstream, people with little to no training in the sciences doing something quite different altogether (politics, journalism etc).

There is a reductionism, and a kind of fetishiziation of scientific knowledge around which many gather.  Should one usefully rank order the sciences, a little epistemological humility might still recommend that human knowledge may not all be successfully synthesized into one model nor accounted for within such a model.

Also (I’m sure you’ve probably noticed this, too) smart people, scientists included, are subject to the same blind spots, hubris and group-think as any of the rest of us.  Sometimes smart people are more likely to assume their knowledge in one domain qualifies them for knowledge in another, especially when others pay them a lot of attention.

Humanism & Progress Through Humanist Institutions (The Problem of ‘Isms’)

I wonder if Pinker would accept this definition of Humanism as found here:

“‘…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.”

Perhaps.

From an interview with Pinker:

Naff: Let’s talk about humanism itself. You say that progress without humanism really isn’t progress at all. And you’ve just made the point that humanism can occupy a place in various different perches. But there is a secular humanist movement that is at the forefront of humanism today.

Lots of other “isms” have faltered because of human foibles, jealousies, power divisions, ideological differences and so on. What makes humanism so special that you single it out as essential to progress?

Pinker: Not so much the humanist movement, although I do endorse it as a valuable development, but rather the overall morality of humanism [is what’s essential], namely that human wellbeing is the ultimate good—and also the wellbeing of other sentient creatures. “Humanism” is a bit of a misnomer in singling out Homo sapiens; it’s a larger commitment to sentient beings.

But the effect of humanistic institutions very much depends on how they organize, how they conduct themselves, how they manage their own affairs. Although they’ve been a force for good, I’m not calling for a blind trust in a particular organization that happens to have “humanist” in their title.

Of course, progress is possible and is actually occuring in many fields and such progress filters down to all of our lives through various channels. Yet, as Pinker notes, it’s not clear what prevents unfalsifiable ideas from becoming ascendant and dominant, and the loudest, most committed ideologues from gaining humanist institutional control through administrative maneuvering and confrontational shakedowns.

The schisms within the Progressive movement, for example, and the radical liberationists often driving the latest moral cause are very interested in making all the world, all the people in the world, and all of our institutions [on top of that], reflect their moral and ideological lights, often through very illiberal means.

How much am I missing?  Any thoughts and comments are welcome.

Thanks for reading.

Simon Blackburn Reviews Steven Pinker’s “The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial Of Human Nature” Via the University Of Cambridge Philosophy Department…

A Few Ken Minogue Quotations on Michael Oakeshott

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

***Feel free to critique, or highlight my ignorance, as I’ll have to dig back here soon to confirm the reasoning.

————–

I wanted to contrast and highlight the above video with a recent post by Francis Fukuyama, a well-known American political scientist and former neoconservative. He maintains a blog at the American Interest which often advocates for a larger State.

————–

For Strauss, there were two distinct schools of thought which prevent people from asking and trying to answer the question he wants them to ask:

“What is the good society?”

1. PositivismThe only form of genuine knowledge is scientific knowledge…and science knows only facts, or relations of facts.”-Video 1-Minute 4:40

On the positivist view, political science is but a pale copy of the best knowledge that we have. Science deals with questions of fact, and the social sciences, on this view, deal with questions of value (as Strauss notes, there are much thornier philosophical problems underlying the fact/value distinction).

A good political scientist, however, can develop methods of his own. He can poll people, read and interpret economic data, and he can use the best statistical sampling and modeling available. Fukuyama, in his post, for example, advocates for a return to vigorous, empirical studies measuring the freedom bureaucrats have from direct political pressure in a bureaucratic modern society, bending the discipline in a direction he’d like to see it go (for which he has a conception of the good society which involves a bigger State led by a more moral, bureaucracy and with which I generally disagree).

Political scientists can also carefully follow events on the ground in foreign countries, gathering reports to establish facts (of a sort on the positivist view) which can back their thinking up, or challenge their framework, coming to understand many of the complex relationships of the societies they’re dealing with. They can think clearly and well about Statecraft and the organizational structures of societies, as well as their own. They can interview, visit, and come to understand the particular people, their incentives and motives, that live in these countries. They can try and provide road maps, as Samuel Huntington did, and as Fukuyama did with his famous The End Of History. They can provide direct consultation to our military and can deeply affect how those making U.S. Foreign policy understand the world.

Yet, on the positivist view, such attempts will always fall short of factual, scientific knowledge.

Positivism, Strauss believes, comes with a problem in its wake: It leads to nihilism, or the negation of the possibility of knowledge. Continental European thought in the last 140 years or so is full of nihilists, existentialists, modernists and postmodernists many of whom are reacting to, or developing alongside, positivism. Here’s Wikipedia’s page:

‘Most commonly, nihilism is presented in the form of existential nihilism, which argues that life is without objective meaning, purpose, or intrinsic value. Moral nihilists assert that morality does not inherently exist, and that any established moral values are abstractly contrived. Nihilism can also take epistemological or metaphysical/ontological forms, meaning respectively that, in some aspect, knowledge is not possible, or that reality does not actually exist.’

On Strauss’ view, nihilism can be especially dangerous because in its negation of knowledge, and the possibility of knowledge, it can go about destroying the traditions and institutions that make civil society possible and maintain the political and economic liberty we in America often take for granted. Strauss was particularly concerned with the effects of Friedrich Nietzsche, and Nietzsche through Martin Heidegger.

——————-

The other school of thought holding back genuine questions of the good in politics for Strauss was:

2. Historicism “All human thought, including scientific thought, rests ultimately on premises, which cannot be validated by human reason, and which change from historical epoch to historical epoch.”-Video 2-Minute 4:10.

This is largely a critique of the German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel and his absolute idealism.

Again, those whom Strauss wants to ask: “What is the good society?”, are forced to confront the idea that a universal response is not really possible. Aristotle said many true things, but that was in ancient Athens in the polis, partly in response to Plato’s idealism.

John Locke, in contrast, was responding to 17th century, warring, Protestant, Anglican and Catholic England from a more Christian perspective, as well as dealing with the achievements of Galileo and Newton as the sciences were splitting from natural philosophy at the time. Thus, Aristotle and Locke’s answers will naturally be different as to what constitutes a good society, and perhaps incompatibly so. This view, for Strauss, is in the air we breathe and the water we drink, but it wasn’t always the case.

The historicist view assumes a universality of its own, according to Strauss. Hegel assumed that an absolute knowledge of time is possible, and thus his historicism is a lens through which one can scan and survey all of time, from epoch to epoch. Yet, the historicist lens does not critique itself nor its own metaphysical foundations (Hegel’s thought remains exempt from its own criticism). Hegel’s philosophy puts humanity in a process of progressing toward future goals, shaped by forces larger than itself, in an absolute relationship with time, and as part of a history which has an internal logic of its own (he dragged a lot of Christian metaphysics along).

Hegel’s idealism, after what Hegel did to Kant’s transcendental idealism, became known as German Idealism, developed further later on by Fichte and Schelling, and also formed the basis for some of Karl Marx’s thought, and the ideas that made up the stuff of the Communist Manifesto and the socialist, and the current social democratic, parties of Europe.

Historicism, Strauss believes, comes with a problem in its wake: It leads to relativism. Here’s the Stanford Encyclopedia Of Philosophy definition:

‘Relativism is not a single doctrine but a family of views whose common theme is that some central aspect of experience, thought, evaluation, or even reality is somehow relative to something else. For example standards of justification, moral principles or truth are sometimes said to be relative to language, culture, or biological makeup. Although relativistic lines of thought often lead to very implausible conclusions, there is something seductive about them, and they have captivated a wide range of thinkers from a wide range of traditions.’

Relativism, including moral relativism, should be familiar to us all. Why is one set of moral values any better than another? Why is my civilization better than any other? Why do I even have to learn and understand the values of my own culture if all values are relative? A malaise ensues.

I would offer that too much relativism is clearly corrosive to our civil society, our institutions and freedoms. When no one can agree upon, nor even identify, a set of principles and ideas around which our civil society is based, then we’re all more likely to come into conflict, and more likely to swing to an opposite pole of moral absolutism in response, which is equally dangerous. That said, like many people, I could try and defend some aspects of relativism, or the examining of one’s own beliefs, ideas and principles and testing them for holes which I think is often the beginning of wisdom.

——————–

Hopefully, looking at Strauss can help highlight the Hegelian influence of Fukuyama and why he might have been advocating for an end of history a few decades ago, and for a bigger State now, as well as how a positivist influence through the Straussian lens might look more broadly upon a political scientist.

I haven’t discussed the criticisms of Strauss, including his esotericism, his other work and where his philosophy leads as a positive doctrine.

Any thoughts and comments are welcome. Thanks for reading.

Addition: Related post here at American Creation.

Related On This Site: 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’……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

From The American Interest Online: Francis Fukuyama On Samuel Huntington….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’

Samuel Huntington was quite humble, and often wise, about what political philosophy could do: From Prospect: Eric Kaufmann On ‘The Meaning Of Huntington’……Via An Emailer: Some Criticism Of Leo Strauss?

Kant is a major influence on libertarians, from Ayn Rand to Robert Nozick: A Few Thoughts On Robert Nozick’s “Anarchy, State and Utopia”…Link To An Ayn Rand Paper: The Objectivist Attack 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”

Are You There, God? It’s Me, So-And-So.

Simon Blackburn reviews Edward Feser’s ‘Five Proofs of The Existence of God

From The Ignatius Press description of the book:

‘This work provides as ambitious and complete a defense of traditional natural theology as is currently in print. Its aim is to vindicate the view of the greatest philosophers of the past— thinkers like Aristotle, Plotinus, Augustine, Aquinas, Leibniz, and many others— that the existence of God can be established with certainty by way of purely rational arguments. It thereby serves as a refutation both of atheism and of the fideism that gives aid and comfort to atheism.’

Blackburn, here in the Times Literary Supplement (link may not last):

‘Edward Feser, a Roman Catholic philosopher, disagrees. His book is an exercise in the drive to go where Hobbes, Hume and Kant said we could not go, finding something lying behind the world as we know it, something necessary and unchanging that sustains and in some sense explains the contingent, shifting, natural world and our capacity to think about it.’

and:

‘Edward Feser himself is not at all drawn to silent contemplation inside the monastery walls. He is a vigorous proponent of a morality of natural law, holding, for instance, that abortion is as bad as murder. His ancient exercises in logic are more than just intellectual amusements. They are preludes to the will to power, and if it were not for the Enlightenment, so little admired by John Gray, they would doubtless have continued to be preludes to persecutions and the auto-da-fé.’

Feser responds, here:

‘On the one hand, Blackburn must limit the powers of human reason sufficiently to prevent them from being able to penetrate, in any substantive way, into the ultimate “springs and principles” of nature.  For that is the only way to block ascent to a divine first cause – the existence and nature of which, the Scholastic says, follows precisely from an analysis of what it would be to be an ultimate explanation...

…On the other hand, Blackburn has to make sure that this skepticism is not so thoroughgoing that it takes science and Humean philosophy down too, alongside natural theology.’

On that note, on the profound and what I’d call ‘Will’ tradition nihilist skepticism of modernity, progress and high liberalism, as Blackburn also reviews John Gray’s new book ‘Seven Types Of Atheism

Blackburn on the book:

‘After this taxonomy the book is largely an indictment of misguided thinkers and writers since the Enlightenment, peppered with discreditable stories from their biographies. The examples are sad enough, and Gray uses them to support a general pessimism about human beings altogether, other people being just as bad as religionists. Woe to those who think that things have been or could be improved! Eventually the list becomes reminiscent of Monty Python’s “What have the Romans ever done for us?” substituting the Enlightenment for the Romans. We are all lying in the gutter, and the right things to look at are not the stars above, but the rubbish all around us. The only thing we progress towards is death’

If you’re interested, the below are from past related posts on this site:

Thomas Nagel review of John Gray’s previous book, ‘The Silence Of Animals,’ here.

Simon Critchley reviewed the book at the L.A. Times.

Nagel starts with:

‘John Gray’s “Silence of Animals” is an attack on humanism. He condemns this widely accepted secular faith as a form of delusional self-flattery.’

and:

The question Gray poses is of fundamental importance, so one wishes the book were better. It is not a systematic argument, but a varied collection of testimonies interspersed with Gray’s comments.’

Clearly humanism could use more serious critics and pushback.

Nagel finishes with:

‘Gray thinks the belief in progress is fueled by humanists’ worship of “a divinized version of themselves.” To replace it he offers contemplation: “Contemplation can be understood as an activity that aims not to change the world or to understand it, but simply to let it be.” Though he distinguishes this from the ideal of mystical transcendence toward a higher order of being, it, too, seems more like a form of escape than a form of realism. Hope is a virtue, and we should not give it up so easily.’

Gray discusses the book here:

While science may proceed and real progress is taking place, in the realms of ethics and politics, Gray suggests things are learned but they don’t stay learned.

Are we rational beings?  Rational animals?

What about a Church Of England, somewhat Hegelian, defense of conservatism as a defense of that which one loves?:

In the Q & A afterwards, Scruton receives about as pointed a post-lecture questioning on his metaphysics as I’ve seen.

In the final moments, Robert George also posits that Scruton’s four presented categories actually rather resemble Aristotle’s Order of Nature and three of them Aristotle’s Practical Reason.

Interesting presentation by an interesting thinker, indeed.

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

From Edward Feser: ‘Nagel And His Critics Part IV’

John Gray Reviews Jonathan Haidt’s New Book At The New Republic: ‘The Knowns And The Unknowns’

Ross Douthat At First Principles: ‘The Quest for Community in the Age of Obama: Nisbet’s Prescience’

Charles Murray is trying to get virtue back with the social sciences: Charles Murray At The New Criterion: ‘Belmont & Fishtown’Charles Murray Lecture At AEI: The Happiness Of People

Some Tuesday Quotations From Leo StraussFrom Peter Berkowitz At Harvard: ‘The Reason Of Revelation: The Jewish Thought Of Leo Strauss’

Franz De Waal At The NY Times 10/17/10: ‘Morals Without God?’

Steven Pinker curiously goes Hobbesian and mentions an ‘international Leviathan’…:   At Bloggingheads Steven Pinker Discusses War And Thomas Hobbes

Maybe if you’re defending religion, Nietzsche is a problematic reference: Dinesh D’Souza And Daniel Dennett at Tufts University: Nietzsche’s Prophesy…… From The Access Resource Network: Phillip Johnson’s “Daniel Dennett’s Dangerous Idea’Roger Scruton At The WSJ: ‘Memo To Hawking: There’s Still Room For God’ …Theodore Dalrymple In The City Journal: Atheism’s Problems.

Don’t immanentize the eschaton!: From The NY Times: ‘Atheists Sue to Block Display of Cross-Shaped Beam in 9/11 Museum’

Repost-From Virtual Philosophy: A Brief Interview With Simon Blackburn…Can you maintain the virtues of religion without the church…of England?:  From The City Journal: Roger Scruton On “Forgiveness And Irony”…

Robert Bork had his own view of the 1960’s: A Few Thoughts On Robert Bork’s “Slouching Towards Gomorrah”

Roger Kimball At The New Criterion-‘The Legacy Of Friedrich Nietzsche’

Hmmm…:

‘Nietzsche snidely remarked that Christianity was “Platonism for the masses.” In the academy today we have what we might call Nietzscheanism for the masses, as squads of cozy nihilists parrot his ideas and attitudes. Nietzsche’s contention that truth is merely “a moveable host of metaphors, metonymies, and anthropomorphisms,” for example, has become a veritable mantra in comparative literature departments across the country.’

On this site, well, there’s been quite a bit of related content over the years:

From Darwinian Conservatism: ‘Nietzsche–Aristocratic Radical or Aristocratic Liberal?:

‘In November of 1887, the Danish scholar George Brandes wrote a letter to Nietzsche praising his writings and endorsing his “aristocratic radicalism.”  Nietzsche responded by accepting this label: “The expression Aristocratic Radicalism, which you employ, is very good.  It is, permit me to say, the cleverest thing I have yet read about myself.”‘

Excellent, as always.

‘Finally, as I have indicated in some previous posts, Nietzsche’s aristocratic liberalism is based on a Darwinian anthropology that is open to empirical verification or falsification, while his aristocratic radicalism is based on mythopoetic fictions–the will to power, eternal recurrence, the Ubermensch, and Dionysian religiosity–that are beyond empirical testing.

From all of this, I conclude that Nietzsche’s Darwinian aristocratic liberalism is superior to his Dionysian aristocratic radicalism.’

Arnhart maintains that Nietzsche’s middle period, focused on Darwin’s thought, is the most defensible.

Here’s a quote from Leo Strauss, on Nietzsche beginning the 3rd crisis of modernity, having followed the logic of relativism to nihilism:

The theoretical analysis of life is noncommittal and fatal to commitment, but life means commitment.  To avert the danger to life, Nietzsche could choose one of two ways: he could insist on the strictly esoteric character of the theoretical analysis of life–that is restore the Platonic notion of the noble delusion–or else he could deny the possibility of theory proper. and so conceive of theory as essentially subservient to, or dependent on, life or fate.  If not Nietzsche himself, at any rate his successors adopted the second alternative.’

A paper arguing that Strauss conflated his own critique of modernity with the intentions of philosophers:

‘A fervent critic of modernity, Leo Strauss attributed modernity’s intellectual degradation to the influence of some great philosophers in the history of political thought who radically broke with classical political thinking.  In doing so, Strauss believed, these thinkers either directly or indirectly contributed to the emergence of historicism and positivism, and he held these movements accountable for spineless relativism, nihilism, and modernity’s moral and intellectual demise.’

Above is Nietzsche scholar J.P. Stern on Nietzsche’s anti-Christian, anti-secular morality (Kant, utilitarians), anti-democratic, and anti-Greek (except the “heroic” Greek) biases…See the comments Repost-Camille Paglia At Arion: Why Break, Blow, Burn Was SuccessfulUpdate And Repost: ‘A Few Thoughts On Allan Bloom–The Nietzsche / Strauss Connection’

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: ‘A Few Thoughts On Allan Bloom–The Nietzsche / Strauss Connection’Some Tuesday Quotations From Leo StraussFrom Peter Berkowitz At Harvard: ‘The Reason Of Revelation: The Jewish Thought Of Leo Strauss’

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’

A Few Ken Minogue Quotations on Michael Oakeshott

The Anti-Rationalist:’

‘Rationalism, then, is an active drive in our civilization leading us to construe politics (and much else) as an activity of solving problems by applying to them the latest in expert knowledge. The problems are identified by rather grand abstractions, such as war, conflict, poverty, underdevelopment, and the rest. “The problem of poverty,” however, makes sense only if one imagines a set of puppets with nothing in common except the lack of a square meal. If that were the problem, the solution would indeed be obvious. In fact, of course, “the poor” are a highly miscellaneous set of people with thoughts, emotions, projects, and habits of their own. When rationalist benevolence collides with the actual inclinations of the poor, the result is frustration and disappointment at best. No matter: The bright-eyed rationalist will soon have another analysis, and another project, and off we go again in hot pursuit of a perfect world.’

And:

‘In that real world, however, something more is needed to succeed, something much harder to define. Oakeshott called this thing “practical knowledge”; it is often what we refer to as “common sense.” The dominant form taken by rationalism today can be studied in the American vogue for practical handbooks explaining how to succeed, which is perilous unless the reader has some “feel” for the skill in question. One of the great rationalist masterpieces of earlier times was Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends & Influence People. Marvelous! What more do you need in life? All you have to do is follow Carnegie’s rules. But beware: If you lack common sense in following these rules, you come across as some dreadful kind of creep or sycophant. Modern politics often replays this cycle of bright idea followed by disappointment.’

From the most accessible book of Oakeshott’s:

‘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).

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.: 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”

Positive and negative rights are also a part of Leo Strauss’ thinking (persona non-grata nowadays), and Strauss thought you were deluded if your were going to study politics from afar, as a “science.”  There has been much dispute about this: Update And Repost- From YouTube: Leo Strauss On The Meno-More On The Fact/Value Distinction?’

Link To Roger Scruton’s First Of Three Charles Test Lectures Hosted By Princeton University

In the Q & A afterwards, Scruton receives about as pointed a post-lecture questioning on his metaphysics as I’ve seen.

In the final moments, Robert George also posits that Scruton’s four presented categories actually rather resemble Aristotle’s Order of Nature and three of them Aristotle’s Practical Reason.

Interesting presentation by an interesting thinker, indeed.

Below is some criticism of Scruton from a Kantian-Friesian line of thinking.

Is there a turn back towards the Hegelian ‘we’ from the Kantian ‘I?’

However attractive and practical Scruton’s deployment of the ‘lebenswelt’ in describing the day to day relationships in which we find ourselves (a tissue of contingencies, possibilities and ‘I’ ‘thou’ relationships); however useful the ‘lebenswelt’ might be providing robust criticism of the totalitarian ideologies and scientism of post-Enlightenment ideological utopians, are the Hegelian dangers to abstract, absolutize and collectivize still present?

‘Now, I think that this is an accurate and honest presentation of Wittgenstein’s thought, except perhaps for the notion of “an independent world,” which sounds like a metaphysical assertion; but it also makes it look like Roger Scruton has fallen into the same kind of dark well as the “nonsense machine” of post-modernism that he examined in his other book.

First of all, if we have decided that the “emphasis” of Frege on truth is now to be replaced with the “more fundamental demand” that our language conform to “correctness,” alarm bells should go off. There is in fact nothing more fundamental than truth, if we are talking about knowledge or logic (and not just “communication”); and “correctness” could mean anything, varying with the standard that is applied to judge it. But we quickly get what the standard of “correctness” is, and that is the “common usage” that has “created the rules,” outside of which we cannot “look,” to govern our linguistic practice. These are rules that the invididual cannot decide for himself but that somehow “we,” collectively, in our “form of life” have created.

Key points there are that the autonomous individual and the “independent world” have both dropped out of the treatment. Scruton, as we might suspect for a Hegelian, does not speak up for the individual, but even his explicit invocation of the “independent world” is immediately voided by the assertion that only language itself, in its practice, correctness, and form of life, determines what is going to stand as the equivalent of truth. Thus, the chilling absurdity is that “the ultimate facts are language,” while, naively, we might think that facts are characteristics of the “independent world” that determine truth, as the Early Wittgenstein himself had said. In an objective world without facts, language is the substitute (whose status is somehow established by facts about the world).’

What are some dangers of the projects of reason in the wake of the Enlightenment, or stretching post-Enlightenment reason into a replacement for God, tradition, and Natural Law: A Few Thoughts On Isaiah Berlin’s “Two Concepts Of Liberty”Trolley Problems, Utilitarian Logic, Liberty, Self-Defense & Property

Leo Strauss tried to tackle that problem, among others with the reason/revelation distinction, did he succeed? 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?’

Addition:  As a friend points out:  Strauss is trying to get around the 2nd Nietzschean crisis of modernity, and the cinching and tightening of moral, political, and philosophical thinking into only an Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment pursuit of truth under Reason alone.  The Natural Right and Natural Law Philosophies, including and a pursuit of the truth which can involve religion (Augustine?), or Greek conceptions of the good and the true as applied to the city-state vastly broaden and prevent the inherent nihilism in these waves of modernity as Strauss saw them…historicism being one of these Enlightenment pursuits, from political science to the social sciences to Hegelian and post-Hegelian historicism…the logic is followed to its inherently nihilistic ends.  This poses a threat to individual liberty among other things…

Common Sense Ain’t So Common-An Oakeshott Quotation And Some Links

‘From the earliest days of his emergence, the Rationalist has taken an ominous interest in education.  He has a respect for ‘brains,’ a great belief in training them, and is determined that cleverness shall be encouraged and shall receive its reward of power.  But what is this education in which the Rationalist believes?  It is certainly not an initiation into the moral and intellectual habits and achievements of his society, an entry into the partnership between present and past, a sharing of concrete knowledge; for the Rationalist, all this would be an education in nescience, both valueless and mischievous.  It is a training in technique, a training, that is, in the half of knowledge which can be learnt from books when they are used as cribs.  And the Rationalists’s affected interest in education escapes the suspicion of being a mere subterfuge for imposing himself more firmly upon society, only because it is clear that he is as deluded as his pupils.   He sincerely believes that a training in technical knowledge is the only education worth while, because he is moved by the faith that there is now knowledge.  He believes that a training in ‘public administration’ is the surest defence against the flattery of a demagogue and the lies of a dictator.’

Oakeshott, Michael. Rationalism In Politics“. Rationalism In Politics And Other Essays. Liberty Fund, 1991. Print. (Pg 38).

From The Stanford Encyclopedia Of Philosophy’s entry on Oakeshott:

‘The Rationalist, unaware of the local origins of the universal principles he thinks he has identified, disparages knowledge gained through experience and rejects it in favor of something called reason. Whether deductive or computational, this abstract reason is thought to guarantee a degree of certainty that experience and judgment cannot provide. The fallacy of Rationalism, in other words, is that the knowledge it identifies as rational is itself the product of experience and judgment. It consists of rules, methods, or techniques abstracted from practice, tools that, far from being substitutes for experience and judgment, cannot be effectively used in the absence of experience and judgment.’

We all have experiences and form judgments based upon them.  Each of us, no matter how talented, can get only so far on technical manuals and textbooks alone.  Deduction from principles and allegiance to those principles doesn’t necessarily guarantee any particular knowledge of politics, let alone the abstract category of ‘politics’ so commonly claimed by many in the modern world.

Maybe this applies to economics as well, dear reader:

I wonder if this can’t be applied to those who, in claiming loyalty to a particular set of ideas or political doctrines, claim not only the legitimacy of their feelings under such doctrines, but ‘feelings’ in general.

No one has ever felt before me!

Such claims usually travel under ideas of liberation (from tradition, from marriage, from existing relationships, from whatever ‘oppression’ was to be found internally or externally, personally or politically).

The French Revolution as It Appeared to Enthusiasts at Its Commencement

Oh! pleasant exercise of hope and joy!
For mighty were the auxiliars which then stood
Upon our side, we who were strong in love!
Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
But to be young was very heaven!—Oh! times,
In which the meagre, stale, forbidding ways
Of custom, law, and statute, took at once
The attraction of a country in romance!
When Reason seemed the most to assert her rights,
When most intent on making of herself
A prime Enchantress—to assist the work
Which then was going forward in her name!
Not favoured spots alone, but the whole earth,
The beauty wore of promise, that which sets
As at some moment might not be unfelt
Among the bowers of paradise itself )
The budding rose above the rose full blown.
What temper at the prospect did not wake
To happiness unthought of? The inert
Were roused, and lively natures rapt away!
They who had fed their childhood upon dreams,
The playfellows of fancy, who had made
All powers of swiftness, subtilty, and strength
Their ministers,—who in lordly wise had stirred
Among the grandest objects of the sense,
And dealt with whatsoever they found there
As if they had within some lurking right
To wield it;—they, too, who, of gentle mood,
Had watched all gentle motions, and to these
Had fitted their own thoughts, schemers more wild,
And in the region of their peaceful selves;—
Now was it that both found, the meek and lofty
Did both find, helpers to their heart’s desire,
And stuff at hand, plastic as they could wish;
Were called upon to exercise their skill,
Not in Utopia, subterranean fields,
Or some secreted island, Heaven knows where!
But in the very world, which is the world
Of all of us,—the place where in the end
We find our happiness, or not at all!

William Wordsworth


Robert Conquest reminds of what can happen in institutions as conventions harden, mediocrity and rule-following abounds, and where incentives matter:

Those teach who can’t do” runs the dictum,

But for some even that’s out of reach:

They can’t even teach—so they’ve picked ’em

To teach other people to teach.

Then alas for the next generation,

For the pots fairly crackle with thorn.

Where psychology meets education

A terrible bullshit is born.’

More here.

Link sent in by a reader.  What about the humanities, and cleaning up the postmodern mess (and where political doctrines fill the void)?

Interesting paper presented by Erika Kiss, beginning about minute 32:00 (the whole conference is likely worth your time for more knowledge on Oakeshott).

According to Kiss, Oakeshott’s non-teleological, non-purposive view of education is potentially a response to Friedrich Hayek, Martha Nussbaum, and Allan Bloom, in the sense that all of these thinkers posit some useful purpose or outcome in getting a liberal education.

Hayek’s profound epistemological attack on rationalist thought is still a system itself, and attaches learning to market-based processes which eventually drive freedom and new thinking in universities. The two are mutually dependent to some extent.

Nussbaum attaches liberal learning to ends such as making us ‘Aristotelian citizens of the world’, or better citizens in a democracy, which has struck me as incomplete at best.

Allan Bloom is profoundly influenced by Straussian neo-classicism, and wants love, classical learning, honor and duty to perhaps be those reasons why a young man or woman should read the classics. This, instead of crass commercialism, the influences of popular music, deconstructionism and logical positivism.

On this site, see: Mark Pennington Via Vimeo: ‘Democracy And The Deliberative Conceit’

A taste of her Nussbaum here. Also, see: From The Harvard Educational Review-A Review Of Martha Nussbaum’s ‘Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education.’

Via C-SPAN-The Historical Context Of Allan Bloom

…Timothy Fuller At The New Criterion: ‘The Compensations Of Michael Oakeshott’John Gray At The Literary Review Takes A Look At A New Book On Michael Oakeshott: ‘Last Of The Idealists’

Is there anybody whom you trust to decide what you should and shouldn’t read?

Parents? Great authors? Public intellectuals? Professors? God? Laws and lawmakers? Religious leaders? A school-board? A democratic majority? People who think like you? A Council of Cultural Marxists?

The Department of Institutionalized Idiocy?

uploaded by mattbucher

Thursday Quotation-Michael Oakeshott

‘The emergence of the morality of the ‘anti-individual,’ a morality, namely, not of ‘liberty’ and ‘self-determination,’ but of ‘equality’ and ‘solidarity’ is, of course, difficult to discern; but it is already clearly visible in the seventeenth century.  The obscurity of its beginnings is due in part to the fact that its vocabulary was at first that of the morality of the defunct communal order; and there can be little doubt that it derived strength and plausibility from its deceptive affinity to that morality.  But it was, in fact, a new morality, generated in opposititon to the hegemony of individuality and calling for the establishment of a new condition of human circumstance reflecting the aspirations of the ‘anti-individual.’

Oakeshott, Michael. Rationalism In Politics“. Rationalism In Politics And Other Essays. Liberty Fund, 1991. Print. (Pg 374-375).