Archive for March, 2005

Those old ahistorical Marxists

This article on the French and British Enlightenments reminded me of a thought I had when I was reading Aden Arabie by Paul Nizan, a Communist and friend of Sartre’s from the ’30’s who certainly appears, to my admittedly not authoritative eyes, to have pretty much formulated the so-called “existentialist” theory of action which Sartre gets all the credit for, a full 15 years at least before Being and Nothingness appeared. Anyway, the book is a semi-propogandistic autobiographical account of his intellectual conversion to commitment to revolution during a trip to Arabia. At one point in which he is ranting about how declaring publicly that one wishes to live as a human being would get one arrested in France, and how no one actually lives as a human being there, I got to wondering what he would actually define as a human being. At this point, an essential difference between what in this context you might call the French (anti-religious/communist/revolutionary/authoritarian) and British (capitalist/reformist/skeptical) Enlightenment models sprang to mind. The capitalistic economic theories of Adam Smith, for example, or the political sentiments of Edmund Burke, are often, when supported, lauded for being realistic and paying heed to the vulnerabilities and capacities of humankind, while revolutionaries are considered more idealistic as well as abstract and impractical. But it seems to me that the British model, to the extent we can talk about it as a unified phenomenon, is actually more idealistic than the French. What strikes me about the revolutionary model as embodied by Nizan, Voltaire, etc. is that the revolutionaries seem to view the world, and human society in particular, as essentially a zero-sum game. Uplifting the poor inevitably implies depriving the prosperous; instituting the cult of reason necessites consigning religion from public life. Supporting some ideal state of human existence requires that one stigmatize current life as inhuman. It’s not hard to see why the pursuit of ideals in this case is almost inherently violent.

The reformists, by contrast, seem to imagine a world of almost undefined possibility. The poor can be uplifted not by depriving others but by creating new wealth. Reason can come to bloom in human society not by shoving superstition out, but rather by complementing it in adding a new realm of reflection and thought (and action) which had not previously existed. Actual human existence contains the kernel for future dreams, which can be built upon, rather than being demolished. It is not necessary to go along with this philosophy to perceive that there is something more fundamentally hopeful and ambitious about it than in revolution. Of course, the one regard in which it cannot compete, let alone surpass, the revolutionary model is in the maintenance of equality. It’s true that equality is a more marginal consideration, and a more accidental by-product, of the British than the French conception. However, without going into an overly lengthy discussion at the moment, I think it is very necessary to consider whether levelling the top, or caving in to the middle, is what one any of us really value as a social or philosophical ideal, whether it can ever be distinguished from homogeneity, and whether it is not merely the province of envy.

p.s. My title, while intended to be ironic, might require a word of explanation. Marx, as you might guess, was pretty much the paragon of zero-sum revolutionary thinkers. Although idiots like Louis Althusser may believe that it was he that single-handedly brought history into philosophy and culture, it seems that his thinking, and by implication that of his intellectual descendants, is profoundly ahistorical. The opposition between worker and owner which existed at his historical moment in the mid-19th century, which he admittedly perceived very clearly, was to be imposed on the entire history of mankind and on its future. I don’t think he could imagine a true cultural and economic revolution, nor today, in our world of stock options, mutual funds, self-employed people, etc. could even a Marx probably be able to delineate exactly the boundary between worker and owner. Or, to take another example, when I was staying in Oxford several weeks ago, talking with a friend of mine and several other students, one of whom was a die-hard Marxist planning on studying in Japan, the subject was broached as to why no strong Marxist-type revolution or revolutionary movement had broken out in Japan despite its intensely hierarchical society and its monopolistic business model seemingly taken straight from the 19th century. I suggested that maybe the Japanese had simply never in aggregate identified themselves along economic class lines. The idea was not dismissed, but it did not seem to have occured to them before.


A few days ago, I walked by a group of people protesting outside the local alternative radio station. A couple guys had a big sheet they’d painted up with a bunch of slogans and there were people with signs and whatnot. I was in a hurry to catch a bus, but I did manage to catch the basic gist of their complaints, namely that Bush is evil for wanting to privatize Social Security. Lots of Hitler comparisons, some swastikas, humming Deutschland Über Alles, you get the idea.

Which I thought was a little weird. I mean, taken at face value the message seems to be that these guys want “Hitler” in charge of mediating the transfer of wealth from young to old. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be trying to convince him not to relinquish some tiny modicum of control over it, right? I mean, I don’t necessarily want to say Stockholm Syndrome, but let’s just say the thought crossed my mind once or twice during the ensuing four hours I spent stuck in traffic on that damn bus.

(And no, I don’t think they were savvy enough to recognize that you’d have to stretch the meaning of the word pretty far to classify Bush’s plan as “privatization”; a sense of irony and a Friday-afternoon political protest usually don’t mix too well)


As you may have noticed (or not, if I did everything right), we’re now rolling with WordPress. Comments should work, along with everything else. Some of it’s still a little messy, but let me know if you encounter any major problems and I’ll do my best to fix them.

Okay, so you won the argument. So what?

Over at Catallarchy, Micha Ghertner discusses “How To Tell You’ve Won An Argument;” namely, when your opponent concedes that his position is less coherent than your own, you’ve won. Now, I don’t want to dispute his point, but rather to question how relevant it is. I’ve touched on this before, but I’m a bit dubious of the notion that the “correct” position is the one that wins arguments between advocates of two different positions.

Obviously, in the first place, there’s nothing to prevent both arguers from being wrong; the relative lack of coherence of one of their positions means, at best, that the other’s position is “less” wrong (assuming that even makes sense and assuming that coherence is a measure of correctness).1 But this is somewhat superficial (and besides, already mentioned and acknowledged in the comments to Ghertner’s post); more importantly, I want to cast doubts upon the parenthetical assumption I made above, that coherence is some sort of infallible metric for measuring correctness/validity.

In fact, Ghertner (perhaps unconsciously) alludes to this very issue when he quotes Wittgenstein’s famous seventh proposition from the Tractatus: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” Within the context of the Tractatus (as an attempt to construct or at least describe a perfect language), this supports the notion that being right and being coherent are synonymous, but Wittgenstein himself later rejects this perspective and, to me, the more apropos quotation is: “Explanations come to an end somewhere” (Philosophical Investigations, I§1). That is, no argument (and certainly none about abstract principles) is completely coherent; we always run up against that whereof we cannot speak and therefore must be silent. The question is simply at what stage in the investigation we enter the realm of unsupported assertion.

And even if we scale back our expectations and choose to embrace the position that manages to maintain coherence as far back as possible, there’s still no guarantee that we’re on the right track. Although much of the world can apparently be explained without the need to stipulate a deity, this doesn’t really make it any less likely that theism is right. In the words of Chuck Klosterman:

Math [or, perhaps more fittingly in this context, logic] is the antireligion, because it splinters the gravity of life’s only imperative equation: Either something is true, or it isn’t.

In fact, if we really want to get all Wittgensteinian about this (not that we necessarily should), we might even begin to question those positions which do appear to be coherent:

In the actual use of expressions we make detours, we go by side roads. We see the straight highway before us, but of course we cannot use it, because it is permanently closed. (PI, I§426)

Anyway, getting back to whatever semblance of a point I was trying to make, when someone admits that their position is incoherent, that does indeed mean that they’ve lost the argument, but I just wonder how important that really is. Giving up your high-paying job and live-in girlfriend to go back home and take care of your sick mother isn’t going to win a lot of arguments if we’re taking logical coherence as the criterion of victory (seriously, think about it), but that doesn’t mean it’s not the right thing to do. That doesn’t mean that coherence is totally irrelevant to what is right/correct, either (and, I should point out, in the above example helping your sick mom isn’t necessarily the right thing to do; as is almost always true, it depends on the circumstances), but let’s not give argument-winning more importance than it merits. Or, as some smarmy new-age intellectual might put it, in the pursuit of knowledge, our goal shouldn’t be to win arguments, but, rather, to discover truth.

1. Since I’m quoting Wittgenstein anyway, I might as well include the relevant quote for this as well:

The law of the excluded middle says here: It must either look like this, or like that. So it really—and this is a truism—says nothing at all, but gives us a picture. And the problem ought now to be: does reality accord with the picture or not? And this picture seems to determine what we have to do, what to look for, and how—but it does not do so, just because we do not know how it is to be applied. Here saying “There is no third possibility” or “But there can’t be a third possibility!”—expresses our inability to turn our eyes away from this picture: a picture which looks as if it must already contain both the problem and its solution, while all the time we feel that it is not so. (PI I§352)