In the preceding Saturday post, I spoke of the origins of dialectic in the Socratic method and of the drift away from the dialogic and dialectical as modernity overtook early Europe.
In this post, I will discuss the sharp turn dialectic (or at least the term dialectic) took in the German reconceptualization of philosophy, particularly in the works of Immanuel Kant, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, and Karl Marx.
Kant: the German Way (Prussian, To Be Precise)
For Kant the dialectic of pure reason is the dead end of reason that occurs when reason tries to move beyond the limits of its powers. This is seen in the four antinomies, four pairs of contradictory, yet seemingly logical proofs, which he calls antinomies — logical dead ends and impasses impenetrable to pure reason (Critique of Pure Reason: “Transcendental Dialectic”, “The Antinomy of Pure Reason”).
The Four Antinomies:
The world has/has not a beginning in time and limits in space.
All matter is composite and reduces/does not reduce to simple indivisible parts.
In addition to deterministic causality, free will is/is not needed to explain the phenomena of the world.
A necessary being, God, does/does not exist.
Where did you think existentialism came from anyway? Kant said God was unknowable before Nietzsche said he was dead.
Either way, you can’t invite him to your next party! Guess we’ll have to make it up as we goalong: voila, existentialism!
From Kant to Hegel: A Long Trek
For Hegel dialectic becomes a historical process through which mind manifests itself in the material world. It does so by displacing a social equilibrium whose time is up by an upwelling new equilibrium whose time has come. These are seen always only in retrospect (“the owl of Minerva flies only at dusk”), seen in abstraction as a thesis contradicted by an antithesis that displaces the old thesis, salvaging what of it is salvageable in a new synthesis, as as a better manifestation of the true spirit of mind.
For Hegel, fully realized Spirit is, above all, free and conscious of its freedom. Thus, history moves forward from the realization of their freedom by one or a few in tribal kingdoms and feudal aristocracies to its broader realization in constitutional republics and democracies. Slavery, once the foundation of complex of tribal nations, empires, and civilizations, becomes unspeakable.
Hegel draws upon Kant’s idea of a conflicted human nature, what Kant calls unsocial sociability (ungesellig Geselligkeit), which for Kant is the engine of any possible progress in human history toward a society of Enlightenment.
In Kant this means that we each want to judge all by our own standards, but meet resistance from every other who does the same.
In Kant, though, there are two distinct ideas:
the idea that history is driven by inherent social conflicts
the idea that pure reason dead ends in a dialectical cul-de-sac
Hegel combines them, seeing the freedom of Spirit as a historical destiny made necessary by successive dialectical resolutions of social conflict. Thus is God made manifest, for Hegel, in the ultimate realization of human freedom: the recognition of the freedom and rights of all rational beings under a constitutional government based on rights that preserve true freedom.
True freedom is opposed to the arbitrary willfulness of spiteful beings, who love only themselves and their own, and who lack full consciousness of their own true potential.
But for Kant, this historical destination is a merely speculative idea — best thought of, I think, as a probabilistic outcome of century after century of conflict-riven attempts to create lasting societies.
Such a society, to last, must elicit the compliance of all its members, and so can only attain a level suited to the culture, capacities and expectations of the current stage of history.
Such a theory of history uses the same model used in Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” of free markets (Kant and Smith were both writing in 1776) and, in 1859, Charles Darwin’s natural selection. In this model events originating in the independent actions of the units within a system produce, from the bottom up, systems that look like the work of rational design and intelligence (for a more in-depth look at the Darwinian model, and its applicability to the social sciences see (Scientific Determinism (Part 1) vs. Self-Regulating Systems):
a market-clearing price that optimally balances supply and demand
a habitat in which complex organisms are adapted to available niches in a provisionally sustainable equilibrium
an international system of constitutional republics in which free citizens recognize and develop their full potentials.
While this 3rd, historical, outcome is for Kant a merely speculative idea of how the causally-determined physical realm and the ideal-determined moral realm could converge over time, for Hegel, it is the real driving force of history, and one to which reality must ultimately conform.
Marx: Just Turn Hegel Upside Down!
For Marx dialectic becomes the evolution of the social orders governing the means of production and livelihood of men by means of contradictions, that is, the accumulation of the forces for change, against the active resistance of the beneficiaries of the old order, until the accumulated forces of change overpower the forces of resistance.
It’s all bottom-up and revolutionary action unconstrained by principles or scruples of any kind — that stuff is just the fluff and facade of superstructure (in modern lingo, social constructs)!
(It don’t mean a thing, if it ain’t got that sting… of power.)
One, Two, Three… Modernity!
Each of the three, each in his own way, turns the open-endedness and open-mindedness of the Socratic method and dialectic into a decisive answer to a logical impasse, social contradiction or conflict of social orders.
For Kant this means placing the key logical impasses (antinomies, a special case of aporia) forever beyond the reach of mankind in the newly declared dead zone of metaphysics.
For Hegel it means that absolute mind (whether that means the manifestation of God or the destiny of man is unclear) has a necessary form which must inevitably work itself out over time.
For Hegel it also means that the primitive, initial social orders must eventually give way to the only social order in which history can culminate — a constitutional republic based on the rule of law and the recognition of rights.
For Marx it means that the inherent contradictions of human beings, all sharing the same potential for development, yet dividing into classes in which some must sell their labor to provide surplus and leisure for others, must be resolved in a final, classless society.
So, when one uses the term dialectic today, even in philosophic circles, one is typically making doctrinaire claims about putatively necessary historical, social, and political outcomes.
Yet that seems to me a perversion of the original sense of dialectic and an arrogant and presumptuous one. The speaker is, in effect, claiming that the final word has already been spoken. And, not surprisingly, it is the word emerging from the speaker’s mouth.
But I see no consensus victor in the long-running contest to explain the world, and our experience of it, in its wholeness. And until that victor emerges, the dialogue is on!
I often hesitate to call what I do dialectic, although that is its true and ancient name.
It is also known by another name, the Socratic method but, like many useful labels, they have both been appropriated to other uses and even to uses directly contrary to their original meaning.
Dialectic (dialektike) and dialogue (dialogos) come from the same root in Greek, referring to discourse between two or more persons holding different points of view but aiming, by reasoned methods of argumentation, to find truths to be shared between them.
Western philosophy began in forms more oracular than methodological, preserved only as fragments of longer texts of poetry or prose. Their authors are known as the Pre-Socratics. Among them were Heraclitus, Parmenides, Pythagoras, Zeno and Anaxagoras.
Socrates also left behind no complete texts, or indeed any texts, but his teachings are preserved (and perhaps interpreted) by his most remarkable student, Plato.
Plato recorded the teachings of Socrates in his dialogues, which read like plays.
But they are a strange kind of play, for they they preserve the dialogical and dialectical character of Socrates’s thinking in both their multivocal format and in the running commentary that the Platonic character Socrates delivers as he argues his views against those of other characters in the dialogue.
So, this dialogical/dialectical method, that is, the Socratic method, is in its origins reflective on its own procedures, in an effort to establish a shared way forward through reasoned discussion.
Socrates himself deliberately philosophized only in speech, never in writing.
So, you and i only know of it because Socrates’s premier student, Plato, violated Socrates’s own strictures by composing written records of Socratic thinking, although he kept as true to Socrates’s practice as can be done in writing by developing the dialogue as a format for preserving philosophic thinking.
Platonic dialogues mostly feature feature Socrates as the chief dialogist, although in some of Plato’s later dialogues he is replaced by the Stranger from Elea.
In one of Plato’s dialogues, The Phaedrus, Socrates explains to his young follower Phaedrus why he refuses to commit his thinking to writing. To put it briefly writing fixes thinking — which should remain fluid, adaptive, and ever responsive to new challenges — so that written philosophy has the tendency to become doctrinaire, a doctrine in fixed form shared by many and founded on a text taken as authoritative. In other words, the medium overwhelms and perverts the message.
Aristotle, Plato’s greatest student, continued writing in the dialogue form, but those works are lost. What remains were lecture notes composed by a student — but one hell of a student.
Yet, although the format in which we read Aristotle is that of a treatise, its content continues as dialectical in nature. By this I mean that Aristotle approaches every topic by surveying the variety of rival points of view, analyzing them, eliminating some, modifying some, and in some cases staking out a consensus truth (often a composite balancing features from rival viewpoints) and in some special cases leaving in place an insoluble problem, a logical impasse called an aporia (from the Greek privative a prefixed to poros, thus, a place with no passage).
The dialogue form lingered into the Middle Ages but the treatise began to replace it, especially with the Renaissance, the rise of empirical science and modernity in all its forms.
And even where the format remained, its content was often more dogmatic, adopting either a God’s eye point of view, as did most scholastic philosophy of the early European Christian universities, or the “objective” point of view of those using or mimicking the scientific method.
St. Thomas Aquinas, a somewhat doctrinaire Aristotelian, adopted a stylized format in his Summa Theologica, presenting a rather leading question, three numbered objections, and then a fairly doctrinal contrary thesis, its supporting argument, and rebuttals to each of the three objections.
So, while differing viewpoints are considered, they seem largely corralled into a proper and definitive doctrinal answer.
Aquinas was, in fact, propounding doctrines of the Catholic Church, understood by him to be compatible with “the light of natural reason,” largely meaning Aristotelian philosophy, adding to it only certain specified “articles of faith.” So it’s hardly surprising that it carries a doctrinal tone.
Galileo, in his Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, uses the dialogue format, but the character defending the Ptolemaic system against the Copernican system is given the name Simplicio, which, in Italian, echoes of simpleton, and there is no mistaking which side gets the better of the argument.
The modern treatise is typically written from the God’s-eye point of view, laying down the thesis advocated as though it were a final and indisputable truth. Objections are considered, but only to be dispensed with. Put differently, the modern philosopher argues their case like a lawyer presenting a case before a judge or jury, aiming at victory as much as at truth. There is little room for aporia or alternative points of view in this approach.
While an author can always allow for aporia, or for alternate points of view, the mode of argumentation and the rules of the game have shifted from those of dialogue and dialectic to those of advocacy.
Exploring truths is a theoretical activity, while winning arguments is a practical one. The former aims at truths accessible to all, however nuanced, while the latter aims at the defeat of one thesis by another, forcing a decisive consensus. For the deliberations of juries and electorates must achieve a definite result in a timely manner, but theoretical truths are not bound by such limits nor afflicted by urgent needs.
Theoretical deliberations can afford to recognize logical impasses, where they must; if not, they lose their integrity and became overstatements or outright falsehoods.
Theoretical deliberations can ponder perennial questions or perspectives that limit one another as counterpoints, neither being complete without the other. For truth has all of recorded time and the whole duration of human existence to reveal itself to those who seek it.
This discourse will be continued in the following Saturday post titled “How Dialectic Became Doctrinaire as reconceived by Kant, Hegel and Marx“.
First, let me be clear, this will be an occasional posting slot. If I let it happen, this blog would become the new all-consuming job of this freshly-retired guy, glad to find his freedom (until he realized he had just traded masters — and what’s worse, this new master has him under constant surveillance).
I’ve already learned to stockpile publication-ready posts to meet my self-imposed Saturday and Thursday deadlines, so that I don’t turn those days of the week into hectic deadline rushes, with all my other plans, activities and duties put on hold.
And I recognize that I have a nature/nurture predisposition to workaholism (though, for better or for worse, not of the lucrative variety). My father didn’t know how to retire. His workday, after he retired, looked much like it did before, but he only had himself to manage and, at long distance (thank God), me.
I was reminded of him recently while reading an autobiographical post by the 2012 Chemistry Nobel laureate Robert Lefkowitz, in which he lamented that his mother had not lived to see him win the Nobel. But it wasn’t the pro forma regret. Throughout his life, as he began to achieve success, his mother’s constant reply was “That’s nice, but it’s not the Nobel.” He confessed to having played out in his imagination various scenarios in which his mother lived to see him win that Nobel. I found his stark honesty refreshing.
My own experience is that even the noblest adult vocations often originate in such childhood urges for recognition denied, however much they are later transformed into something far more admirable, by the practice of the acquired art and its inherent standards.
After all, the love of devoted couples — in both the passions of youth and the mutual care of advancing age — have their organic origin in the urge to rut.
Lefkowitz’s confession reminded me of my father’s constant reply to every (admittedly slender or circumscribed) success of the major part of my career “prime”: “You’re not out of the woods yet, Jamie.”
I think I was 50, just beginning my 16-year stint as a high school teacher in the magnet program at Coral Gables Senior High, that I finally said to him: “Dad, I live in the fucking woods. Get used to it!”
Well, I promised you practical advice, not self-psychoanalysis, so let’s get practical!
Paper Agendas & Blue Stripes
Studies show that, even with the ease of the digital age, it pays to do some things the old-fashioned way. Handwritten notes are remembered better than digital or audio notes, whether because of the richness of the analog visual field, the inner voiceover as you write and read them, or the extra effort it takes.
And with digital planners, you are constantly diverted by software limitations, glitches and unasked-for upgrades (which may be downgrades to your personal usage). Freeform note-taking is effortful but inexhaustibly flexible. Use digital where helpful, but always have a paper planner as your primary organizer and your failsafe.
I use PlannerPad. I’ll let their website promotional material explain the benefits, with just this overview: every page has three sections:
top for overarching goals and projects
middle for daily tasks and priorities
bottom for hourly appointments and scheduled events
Agendas (for class sessions, Planning Periods and after hours, for both school work and household plans).
Blue stripes are my own technique for gamifying and rewarding constant incremental experimentation.
Gamifying: Turn a chore into a game by challenging yourself, whether by increasing your speed or efficiency, by modifying or reinventing your approach, or just by beating your old high score.
Whenever I do something new or something I’ve been dragging my feet about or try a new twist to a routine task, I give myself a blue stripe, especially if the results are positive.
But remember that even negative results are positive if you are a creator. Witness Thomas Edison’s reply to an annoying reporter’s question: “Didn’t you fail 2,000 times before you discovered the electric light bulb?” Edison retorted “I never failed, I succeeded 2,000 times in discovering what wouldn’t work!”
The criterion for a Blue stripe : will it change how I perform this task ever after?
Every blue stripe has a happy ending: “more effectively ever after”!
The Net, the last frontier — where humanity faces its most unnerving peril yet, its own reflection — is the new wild, wild West, teeming with idiots carrying loaded guns.
Permitless carry laws are a bad idea, but they already have a parallel in the domain of disputed facts and theories.
The Net, lacking background checks or licensing, permits any fool to think they’ve found the truth online, with no more effort than it takes to let their emotions be aroused.
All you have to do is to cherry-pick, from within the range of views of credible experts, the view that pleases you best.
Presto, shazam, you now hold a view “backed by experts,” without you yourself having the faintest trace of expertise!
The fool feels free, since most views, even among experts, spread out in something like a bell curve, to pick any view that pleases him, however far from the mean or consensus view.
The fanatic picks an extreme view, ready to act out their version of Revelations with themselves cast in the starring role of the Avenging Sword of God. Oath-keeper, jihadist, and Maoist revolutionary are all just different flavors of the same toxic brew.
The denialist feels free to disregard any evidence or procedural outcomes, convinced that the truth is so clear there’s no need for evidence. He is a slightly more buttoned-down version of the fanatic. Outwardly normal, he could be the guy next door, initiated into a cult of conspiracy in private sessions online in the deep of night.
The follower glories in the power manifest in their idol. A weak personality is drawn to a visibly strong, charismatic personality, one who brazenly speaks the harsh words their followers dare not speak in their own voice or on their own authority, except when immersed in a surrounding crowd that echoes their feelings with greater power.
This is not single country aberration, it’s a global upsurge. This latest outburst began in the failed dreamworld of the Soviet bloc, with the rise of Putin in Russia, Orban in Hungary, and the Kaczynski brothers in Poland. As the dream of magical equivalence to rich world standards of living evaporated in these newly freed countries, and as the unfree and poor with no path to freedom or affluence in their own countries saw the world outside their austere economies via the Net, they bolted for freedom and opportunity.
This added pressures to the sense of more rural and traditional communities in the rich world that their best years were behind them, that the turning wheel of progress that had lifted them to the top was now beginning its descent.
This should give pause to anyone with a trace of historical memory or a glimmer of detached judgment. The madness of crowds is not a new or a trivial thing, and, like market bubbles and busts, and it is seldom seen as out-of-balance by those whose passions drive it.
The uncritical, the simple-minded, those whose opinions are never more than a reflection of those around them, don’t even limit their choice to what common sense or mature judgment would allow.
They rely on what “most people” think — always a euphemism for those they identify with, their local community (however unrepresentative that might be), or their social media birds-of-a-feather — or on people with an agenda and something to sell, people like single-issue advocates, industry insiders, politicians (whether insiders or insurgents), or intellectuals or pseudo-intellectuals hell-bent on building their own fan clubs.
If you lack the capacity to think critically, you are, when wandering among big ideas and ideologies, an idiot carrying a loaded gun.
The human mind is a loaded gun; ask any number of extinct species or lost tribes.
Cults of personality are only attractive to people who, whatever their outward appearance, are at their core weak; they lack the grounding or durable principles it takes to resist the call to wallow in grievances and prejudices, while craving a vengeance devoid of norms or due process.
Viewed historically, in eras of disruption and turmoil, moral strength looks to be a rare quality, while too many succumb to the herd instinct.
From where else came the martyrdom of those who stood for principle as society turned against them, making of them prophets and martyrs, so adored in the Abrahamic faiths?
What else is meant by the words that no prophet is honored in his own country? (Mark 6:4, John 4:44)
When whole societies, or their dominant segments, plummet into self-aggrandizement, self-promotion, the demonization of outsiders and others, and a worldly disdain for truth or impartial justice, then truth dies in darkness, at least for a time.
One does not have to agree with Liz Cheney on all matters to admire her backbone, facing down looming defeat, for standing up for what she believes to be the enduring values of her party (in its best moments) and her country (in its best moments).
The methodological dialectic of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and Kant differs markedly from the millennial dialectic of Hegel and Marx.
Methodological dialectic is a procedure that requires one to consider every competing hypotheses, until it is decisively eliminated.
As such, it does not offer doctrinal certainty, but only alternative lines of reasoning that support different paradigms.
Those paradigms may themselves have methods and assumptions of their own, or they may simply be alternative models within the current status quo paradigm of methods and assumptions.
The best written expression of methodological dialectic is the dialogue, a format that early in the history of philosophy gave way to the God’s-eye-view treatise, a format that lends itself easily to the hardening of doctrine into dogma.
While Aristotle saw dialectic as culminating with lines of reasoning that contained within themselves unresolved, and sometimes in principle unresolvable questions or problem — which Aristotle called aporia (from the Greek poros, meaning passage, prefixed with the Greek privative “a”; thus aporos means a place with no passage, an impasse — Kant saw dialectic as demonstrating the limits of reasoning. The two positions are not mutually contradictory, yet they are dramatically different in emphasis.
Habermas and Gadamer seem to me (on insufficient acquaintance) more methodological, Heidegger more millennial, in their uses of dialectic.
Truth v. Advocacy
Advocacy is the original sin instilled into the legal profession by its function in an adversary system and by the training required for functioning effectively within that system.
The judicial temper is a late-stage development, in a small minority of legal practitioners, that attempts to transcend the training, practice and habits of the early and formative part of their career. (If nothing else, that early experience familiarizes them with the stratagems and ploys that opposing advocates use on judges and juries; forewarned, by one’s own prior experience, is forearmed!)
This transcendence is always in principle possible but rarely achieved in practice, true transcendence being as rare in legal systems as in religious communities. Both tend to be reliable supporters of the traditions under which they assumed their powers because both are institutional insiders with interests vested in the institutions that gave them their authority.
Lawyers are trained to win cases without demonstrably lying, yet also without telling the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
This latter oath is reserved to witnesses, who are not the operating agents but the operated upon patients of the legal system, not its subjects but its objects.
Both Socratic philosophers and lawyers cross-examine witnesses, seeking thereby to bring each witness as a “witness against himself” (Plato, Gorgias 474a-b).
While both use tricks and sophisms to overcome the bias of the witness, Socratics must redeem their tricks with more fundamental justifications, as Socrates, at Glaucon’s request, redeems, in Books II-X of Plato’s Republic, his too-easy defeat of Thrasymachus in Book I. Lawyers simply win their cases, if judge and jury are swayed.
Yes, there is an appeals process, but that means up to two rematches under admittedly increasing levels of expertise, but following the same adversarial method.
Concession: The adversarial method may be the only practical solution to disputes between parties in the ineradicably biased practices of politics and their attendant judicial systems– as argued by James Madison in Federalist Papers, #10, paragraphs 6-10).
It produces less biased results than the alternative, which boils down to the discretionary authority of some authority, whether hierarchical or communal.
It can even produce unbiased results in individual cases where the biases and interests of the judging and judged parties are of the same type, though lodged in distinct individuals on opposing sides of a case.
Yet truth-seeking disciplines, like science and philosophy, and fact-ascertaining disciplines, like credible journalism and statistical publications by both government agencies and watchdog NGO’s should be held to higher standards than those of popularity or popular opinion, the effective ceilings for politics on wedge issues.
This difference in the purposes of the agent of truth-seeking through cross-examination is designated by Socrates as the difference between seeking truth (i.e., philosophy) and seeking victory (i.e., arguing before courts and assemblies (Gorgias, 510d-513d).
Lawyers are hirelings and act mostly as hirelings would be expected to act.
Judges are officials of the state and act mostly as state officials would be expected to act.
To see ways in which legal discourse, and its adversarial style, has bled into political discourse, to its detriment, see Mary Ann Glendon’s Rights Talk: The Impoverishment of Political Discourse.
Truth & Consequences
For the typical voter, truth is a bland meal, nutritious but without flavor. They’ll swallow a little truth, so long as it is dressed up with a savory sauce of special interest or appeals to their longstanding preferences and prejudices.
And as for history, they’re delighted to celebrate their triumphs but want their failings cleared from the record. There are no bad students when students assign their own grades!
“For the first time in a long time, I’ve got the time to save time.”
Imagine the former intoned in a heavy Scottish brogue, which would be pronounced something like this “Far the feerst ti-yem, in a loong ti-yem, aahve goot the ti-yem t’ say-ev ti-yem!”
Saving Time: Concrete Examples (coming Tuesday)
In the rush of meeting job requirements, especially when we’re on the clock, especially if we’re locked up with a roomful of teenagers for an hour plus or minus (high school teachers) in a job that’s famously demanding and underpaid, while our performance is often gauged by measurements of things beyond our control (e.g., school-wide statistics), it’s hard not to find habits that work, and then doggedly stick with them, in the constant press of time.
Retirement gives one the leisure to make constant incremental experimental variations and small upgrades to one’s work habits and work place.
Concrete examples: incremental experimentation embodied in the protocol of agenda item blue-striping, pairing chores with reading by audio, a rotating menu of incremental critical tech skill upgrades, the home study cockpit, the portable office caddy, retirement bubbles for those who are still working stiffs (as was I, a mere 10 months ago, approaching anniversary August 13th).
The above themes will be further developed and made more concrete for posting, beginning this coming Tuesday, May 11 (that’s 2021, in case your time machine odometer is on the fritz or you’re back-searching in the future for archival blog posts).
Living the Dream: Plan B
My life has followed the classic evolutionary pattern: a series of random mutations lacking any sign of intelligent design, ending in numberless dead ends until, having somehow survived so far, a core of success-breeding habits has begun to replicate itself as a postscript to my shambolic career, and a self better fitted to its environment has emerged.
Humerus Academicus (Your More Educated Funny Bone)
OK, I’ve got a bad case of femur fever, and I make no bones about it!
Let’s play Definition Jeopardy, the game where the host gives you a definition, and you guess what’s being defined.
Definition of ______: a random and purposeless awareness of itself, as something distinct from what it senses, felt by a sentient being.
This equally describes consciousness — and an itch.
Realtor: a curiously evolved creature that turns your home into a marketable asset.
Q: How do you distinguish between a covid-19 party and a pre-covid party? A: In a covid-19 party, the punch bowl is for hand sanitizer, if there’s a party at all!
A famous dictum of Machiavelli (an author whose works are always timely) asks of princes, whether it is better to be loved or feared.
The same question can be asked of their citizens, whether it is better to be weak or evil?
Most human beings pretend that they believe it is better to be weak than evil.
But their actions, especially when immersed within large groups, gives that the lie.
For, in politics, being evil is an interpretation along partisan lines, while weakness is an assessment visible to all.
Power is never having to say you’re sorry; weakness is being subject to judgment.
Just or unjust, the executioner’s axe bites as deeply, and the executioner works for those in power.
Most people, in every age, are morally average, decent enough when they’re secure and comfortable, but fair weather friends to the good or the weak when they themselves are at risk.
This is poignantly acknowledged in The New Testament when, on the eve of his crucifixion, Christ says to Peter (the rock upon whom his church will be founded): “Thou shalt deny me thrice before the cock crows.” And what is true of Peter is that much more true of the many who say they believe.
In our times, the proportion of the good to the average and the evil are the same as they’ve been from the first written records.
The proportion of good to evil within religion is no better than the proportion outside religion.
Religion does not make people better, it makes them better able to pretend that they are good, for all who follow the same opinions support one another, even as they commit evils in concert.
Nor is religion uniquely the problem. In determinedly secular societies (like classic communist and fascist ones), ideology replaces religion. It’s put to the same political uses, and provides the same public indulgence for evil approved from the political heights.
Man in a crowd is a coward and a bully.
Only some few are so evil or so cruel as to stand up and say, to such a crowd, what it wants to hear.
The name for such: demagogue.
Moderate Republicans, pragmatic, responsible centrists, have failed for the moment to reclaim their party.
Deposed king Trump looks to remain a kingmaker on the sidelines, fueling division, spreading disinformation, and doing all he can to make government distrusted and dysfunctional.
The outlook is not uplifting, despite the narrow electoral repudiation that Trump’s trademark divisiveness and callousness earned.
America is by no means healed yet, though the fever has broken.
Trump looks set to continue poisoning politics from the sidelines.
But it remains to be seen how much his charisma owed to the scent and trappings of power. Everyone loves a winner, especially when that winner gives voice to their grievances, making the weak look strong.
The real consequences of underplaying the seriousness of the pandemic are still sinking in for many who thought it a form of political correctness foisted upon right-thinking self-sufficient, heartland patriots, who signaled their virtue by flaunting safety measures.
That no nation prospered under this worldwide pandemic should put the lie to that, and this may sink in as economies and markets better reflect the longer-term consequences across the world.
The pandemic accelerated the ongoing digital disruption to industries and economies on the edge of obsolescence or downsizing. Schumpeterian gales of creative destruction are blowing hard.
It accelerated the imbalance between globalized coastal economies and the heartlands of America, Asia, and Europe.
It accelerated the generational shift of power from the fading generation to coming one.
It brought hiccups, a temporary backwash, to the shifts from rural to urban and from more homogeneous to more diverse populations.
In the near-term, Trump looks to be an albatross around the neck of the Democratic Party. In the long-term, he may prove to be an albatross around the neck of an unreformed Republican Party, if that is the Republican party the future holds.
Meditator’s motto: Don’t just do something; sit there!
Virginia’s motto: Virginia is for lovers.
Maryland’s motto: Maryland is for crabs.
District of Columbia’s motto: If you can’t vote, toke up!
Seaman’s motto: If it moves, salute it; if it doesn’t, paint it!
Politician’s motto: If it votes court it, if it doesn’t ignore it!
Political consultant’s motto: How much spin does it take to win?
Scammer’s motto: A fool and his money are soon parted.
Hack politician’s motto: A fool and their vote are soon captured.
Conspiracy-peddler’s motto: Evidence to the contrary is fake news!
NRA supporter’s motto: I vote and I own a gun.
Oath Keeper’s motto: I own a gun: who cares about votes.
Donald Trump’s motto: Make me great again
Nike’s motto: Just do it.
Soccer player’s motto: Do it just for kicks!
Sailor’s motto: Sailors do it better!
Wise sailor’s motto: It’s not how deep you cast, it’s how you wiggle your worm.
Investor’s motto: I see the stockbrokers’ yachts, but where are the customers’ yachts?
Civil rights motto: Eyes on the prize!
Social media’s motto: The eyes are the prize.
Surveillance commerce’s motto: Privacy is in the mind of the beholden; they accept our services for free, we suck out their personal data.
Coming Attractions (to be posted this Saturday, May 1, 2021): Asking again the question famously asked by Niccolo Machiavelli: Is it better to be loved or feared? (whose sub-text is: seen as weak or seen as ruthless?)
Belief & Authority v. Knowledge & Critical Thinking
Thinking is not doctrinal and linear; it is a flow-chart of problematic possibilities, liberally sprinkled with decision-points that lead to rival perspectives, which have yet to disprove one another and may even offer offsetting insights through which a more complete picture of an elusive reality emerges.
Belief is not knowledge. Cherry-picking among experts for the opinions that most appeal to one — without the capacity for critical review — is no substitute for knowledge.
The Student’s Paradox: How does a non-expert select the right expert to believe and learn from? The only solution (and, like most practical solutions, an incomplete solution) is to sample and test the full range of credible experts while expanding one’s own nascent expertise.
In abbreviated form this means going to college, although the same result can be achieved by disciplined self-teaching, for the innovative act of creating culture must always precede its transmission.
Culture itself is a creative innovation, initiated by individual authors and consecrated by communities.
All through secondary education, especially public and parochial, the treasure trove of Wisdom is guarded by a dragon named Authority with three heads, the Teacher, the Textbook, and the Test.
Without the capacity for critical thinking, learning that leads to a monolithic Authority leaves the learner prey to the doctrinaire, the dogmatic, and the demagogic.
And outside the classroom, such folks are the natural prey of hucksters of all kinds — commercial, political, faddish and cultish. And the Net lures such people into the widest-open marketplace of ideas and arena for controversies.
Look what happens!
[To see what Critical thinking looks like (and to get a sense of the scope of the endeavor), click on the Rules page, which takes you to Rules for Hypothesis-Free Critical Thinking. To see the combative tactics used to win arguments (not the same thing as attaining knowledge), click on the Tactics page, which takes you to Dialectical Tactics for Rhetorical Parries. These are the hard-core disciplines that lie behind the more presentable format of my blog posts. Think of them as my knowledge credit rating or, using a different metaphor, as the director’s cut.]
Human Being & Its Two Natures
Human nature is bipolar, for man, the cultural animal, is distinguished by the plasticity of a primal nature overlain with a second nature, instilled by nurture and culture.
This plasticity makes man the most adaptable animal, as evidenced by man’s having the widest range of any predator. And the second widest range belongs to that other predator with recognizably different cultures, the killer whale.
But to man. The core animal is engineered for egoism by natural selection.
But the purpose of culture and nurture is to reverse this aspect of man’s nature to a degree sufficient to allow man to create viable communities with social power well beyond any other terrestrial animal.
Better put, man’s essential egoism remains unchanged, but culture harnesses it to social egoism, that is, the social community holds together through rewards like social status and punishments like exclusion, which pressure the individual to conform to the community’s social expectations superficially — at a minimum and more rarely, with real belief and inner conviction, when socialization and acculturation are supremely successful, producing heroes and martyrs whose actions — while egoistically fulfilling internal needs, selflessly serve the highest aspirations of the social community.
America First, Last & Always
Anyone with the remotest understanding of power or politics knows that America was always first (as every nation is for itself, first and last).
Anyone with the remotest understanding of unequal alliances knows that the big dog runs the alliance in accordance with its interests and the smaller dogs slack off on their contributions, content to stay under the supervision and ultimate control of the big dog, but eager to discount their payments for the privilege.
America First, viewed as a political movement, is the rotting carcass of American exceptionalism. It is, in the main, the self-interest of a privileged and entitled ethnic group, who wanted to hitch a ride with some valuable and distinctive cultural values — individualism, constitutionalism, an Enlightenment commitment to an ever-expanding network of the rule of law, democratic republicanism, and human rights — without actually following them when inconvenient to its own interests.
America First is Lip Service Enlightenment Lite: all the taste of ethnic self-interest but with fewer moral calories!