Category Archives: Theory of Knowledge, and all things Philosophic

As long as we’re here, let’s figure out what’s going on.

The Paradox of Sovereignty: The Enlightenment Version (4 of 5)

  • I want to begin this part of my series on Rousseau with a disclaimer. This series does not pretend to be a full analysis of the whole of Rousseau’s Social Contract. Rather, it pulls from Rousseau some ideas of wide impact which he perhaps problematizes better than any other writer.
  • And problematizing these ideas, while good for analyzing them down to their roots, is often not good as a basis for pragmatic political arrangements. For that purpose, I think Locke and Madison are far more useful.
    • Rousseau stands to those two in the same sort of relation in which I think Plato stands to Aristotle: Plato is brilliant for illuminating the problematic basis of political foundations, but if you want to know how to make constitutions work better, go to Aristotle.
  • Consequently, just as there are ideas in Rousseau very much worth pondering down to their roots, their are also other ideas, or aspects of those very same ideas, to be wary of.
  • Having said that, I will now proceed to my final task, to contrast the paradox of sovereignty as it is manifest in Rosseau, and his contemporary progeny, the radical critics of Enlightenment rationalism (the postmodernist and anticapitalist Left and the sectarian, traditionalist, and nativist Right).
  • One last disclaimer: within the limits of blog writing, I can only deal with contemporary positions in the broadest terms, as they are prefigured in Rousseau. (This will give us all something to do later, as my time frees up from the constraints of my last few weeks as a paid employee, harnessed to agendas not my own).
From John Locke’s Second Treatise (Section 225), a passage echoed in Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence. “But if a long train of Abuses, Prevarications, and Artifices, all tending the same way, make the design visible to the People, and they cannot but feel, what they lie under, and see, whither they are going; ’tis not to be wonder’d, that they should then rouze themselves, and endeavour to put the rule into such hands, which may secure to them the ends for which Government was at first erected:

The Enlightenment’s Version of the Paradox of Sovereignty

  • Rousseau is often considered the first critic of the Enlightenment.
  • To grasp Rousseau’s version of the paradox of sovereignty, one must first grasp the Enlightenment’s version.
  • In Hobbes, sovereign power stands above the laws in its bare essence: law is a pure convention; it is whatever the sovereign says it is.
  • In Locke, sovereign power ( a term which he avoids using) can only exist as a conscientious judgment, made by one willing to take charge and claim their sovereign right, in the hope that their judgment matches the judgment of the reasonable and the just, that is to say, matches the judgment of History or God, from the secular and religious perspectives, respectively.
  • Locke, along with Montesquieu, is a key founder of liberalism (classic liberalism, not the contemporary distinction within classic liberalism of its more progressive and more conservative forms), the Enlightenment’s version of sovereign power.
  • Liberalism begins with the separation of powers, hence limited government.
  • Limited government replaces arbitrary personal rule with the rule of law, a shared constitutional order recognized across partisan boundaries, and elections which allow for the rotation of parties in power and which indicate the consent of the governed.
  • A second strand of liberalism is to confine government within limits that establishes, distinct from the public realm controlled by the state, a private realm beyond the state’s control (unless and until the government determines it to pose a threat to public health or stability, in which case, national security preempts, during the emergency, the sanctity of the private realm).
    • This first appears in Locke in the doctrine of religious tolerance.
    • In Locke’s view, the union of religious authority with sovereign power has led historically to the corruption of religion by power (private beliefs fueling bellicose public factions), rather than the purification of power by religion.
    • While Locke ranks religious salvation above civil harmony, he relegates it to the private realm to protect it from the perversions arising when the dominant party uses religion as a pretext for stripping those who dissent from them of rights, property, and often life itself.
    • Locke’s solution means the separation of church and state, not the denigration of the church. The state is meant to be a shared public attachment of all members regardless of the denominations and beliefs which may divide them.
      • While progressives within the liberal tradition fully support the separation of the functions of the state from those of the church, Conservatives within that tradition view church-based morality as underpinning the state, and thus are reluctant to honor that separation, routinely relying on church-based solidarity as a force in political life.
      • So there is friction within liberalism about how nominal or substantial that separation is.
  • Nevertheless, even in liberal government, whoever holds the sovereign power, dictates how the government’s monopoly on legal force will be deployed in the interests of the state. For that is the irreducible residue of the paradox of sovereignty: someone must claim it to use it, and (in republics) someone else will always (publicly) dispute that claim.
    • And this dispute will take place either within the rule of law or not, and even if within, each party to the dispute will have all the usual incentives to play as close to the boundaries of the rule of law as they can, without going over them, or at least not to the extent of precipitating their collapse.
    • A stark model of this is presented by Locke in the Second Treatise on government, Chap. III, Section 21, the Old Testament story of Jephtha, in which a centuries-old territorial dispute between multiple tribes leads to a war in which both parties feel their claim is just.
      • The actual story of Jephtht and the Ammonites (Judges 11) is a confusing tale of political chaos, of perpetual tribal and civil wars, in which the Hebrews intermingled with other tribes, territories and birthrights are constantly fought over, and in which Jephtha seems, by most interpretations, to perform a human sacrifice. There is much to disagree and argue about here, and it is argued about by scholars of both the Old Testament and of Locke.
      • It’s hard to draw a point form this confusion, but perhaps that is Locke’s point: when each has the right to judge for themselves what is just, civil discord is inevitable and civil war an ever-present risk when divides widen to chasms (we’re not there yet).
    • In Locke, then, the paradox of sovereignty is that, when viewed (as Locke thinks necessary) from the perspective of rights, the exercise of sovereign power necessarily divides citizens into parties, yet republics, if they are to endure, must maintain a consensus about their shared constitution, despite their partisan differences.
    • In (what I now hope to be) a fifth and concluding part of this series, I will consider the post-enlightenment view of the paradox of sovereignty (or at least offer some thoughts on it), of which Rousseau is the first great precursor.
    • A warning: I’m not a fan of the post-Enlightenment, certainly not of its most extreme tendencies, nor of what seems to me to be its political naivete. To be blunt: the political tendencies of the post-Enlightenment looks to me less like a form of politics than like an escape from politics, a denial of the context within which politics actually occurs, and thus a blind alley, a road that leads nowhere.
A road to nowhere

Rousseau’s Sovereign: The People Arise! (3 of 5)

Nature seen through human eyes

Pure Justice comes from outside of Nature

  • In my last post, I digressed from Rousseau to offer a framework for thinking about Rousseau’s views on the roles of convention and sovereign power in the emergence of legitimate authority (Social Contract, I.1-5), views dramatically different from any expressed before, views revealing one of the transformational gear shifts of modernity.
  • But let us return to the pages of The Social Contract itself, and see how this framework avails us.
  • Before Rousseau, when one wanted a model of pure justice one looked above both nature and society to God.
    • Plato (in the myth of Er, The Republic, Book IX) and the early Christian fathers (e.g., Augustine, The City of God) spoke of a realm of judgment after death ruled by the perfect justice of God.
    • Machiavelli agonized about whether the model prince, doing evil when necessary in pursuit of the common good, would be pardoned or condemned by God (De Grazia, Machiavelli in Hell).
    • Locke saw God’s Law of Nature (matched and validated by the light of natural reason) as already ruling over the state of nature between men.
  • But with Rousseau, as later with Marx, God becomes a veil behind which the real rulers on Earth work their magic, presenting their conventions of justice as natural and as ordained by the powers above (Social Contract, II.7).

The People, according to the Gospels of Rousseau and Marx

  • Rousseau and Marx look, instead, to a model of pure justice below the actual rulers (and thus innocent of their wrongdoings), in Rousseau the people, in Marx the proletariat).
  • But, as Rousseau acknowledges (and Marx, too), the people (the proletariat, in Marx’s case) are the first ruling class not yet capable of self-rule. Rousseau acknowledges this in II.6’s final paragraph and in II.7.
    • Marx’s unconvincing answer to this problem is the dictatorship of the proletariat, by which he means the rule, not of the proletariat, but of a vanguard party (a splinter of the old ruling bourgeois class), which dictates to the proletariat the proletariat’s own interest, which the vanguard party claims the sole privilege of understanding and enforcing. Marx’s rationale: being blind, the proletariat must yield its power to those who, having sight and foresight, will see for it, ruling it with the power they draw from it. (Editorial note: Thus have ruling classes ever justified their seizure of power.)
      • Marx then asserts, with no discernible justification, that such a party would not develop a sense of itself as a ruling class with its own interest as a class.
        • Perhaps Marx thought that economic classes alone could separate humankind into distinct interests and classes. Madison argues in Federalist Paper #10 (paragraphs 7-8) that interests and governmental powers inexorably converge, due to the inherent natures of both human beings and of fundamentally necessary government actions. Madison’s points seem both better argued and far better supported by history and empirical observation.
      • Madison and Marx theorized about the role interests would play in the new and unprecedented forms of government about which they each theorized.
      • Madisonian democracy works about as Madison speculated it would.
      • Marx’s theorized communist regime did not.
        • It never succeeded among the industrial proletariat of advanced nations, but only in the rural peasantry of backward, pre-industrial ones.
        • More to my point, however, when Marxist-inspired parties succeeded in gaining power, entrenched revolutionary elites ruthlessly defended their monopoly on power while failing to provide long-term growth, with one notable exception.
      • Only in the case of Deng Xiaoping’s post-Maoist China did a Communist Party anywhere finally match capitalist societies in advancing their economy — and only by adopting capitalist, market-driven guidance for the growth-oriented parts of its economy, and only while tapping foreign capitalist markets by export, foreign capital invested in China, and the Hong Kong halfway house between the Communist Party and foreign capital. (Hong Kong, it seems, has outgrown its usefulness to China, as China forecloses on its erstwhile halfway-house.)
      • The paradox of sovereignty is here manifest in the submission of the supposedly sovereign proletariat to a self-appointed ruling party, which maintains itself in power, while allegedly knowing the people’s interest better than the people themselves.
She-wolf suckling Romulus & Remus

Founders & their Legends

  • Rousseau’s enigmatic answer to the question “How does a merely natural herd of humans become a people?” is the figure of the legislator, the founder shrouded in myth, who first converts a human population into a people, giving it a constitution of laws and customs — its general will — which it must ratify by its acceptance, with the legislator then departing to leave the people to act as its own sovereign (II.7).
  • The paradox of sovereignty is here manifest in the necessary imposition of a general will from above (i.e., by the legislator) who then disappears, so that the people may be its own sovereign.
    • Rousseau’s examples of founders are figures shrouded in myths: Sparta’s Lycurgus, Athens’s Solon, Rome’s Numa and Servius).
    • Interestingly, these are the same sort of figures to whom Machiavelli referred a quarter-millenium before (Solon, Rome’s Romulus, Judea’s Moses and Persia’s Cyrus). How strange that the most wildly utopian of political idealists should appeal to such similar types of founders as the most brutally cynical of political realists!
  • In Book II, Rousseau shows us what the general will must be (II.1-6), how it must come into existence (II.6-10), and the range of variations within which the general will may match the differing natures of peoples while remaining a general will.
  • In my next post, I will conclude this discussion of Rousseau (the current plan, anyway) by contrasting how the paradox of sovereignty is handled, respectively, by the high Enlightenment thinkers and by Rousseau and subsequent critics of the Enlightenment.

Rousseau’s Sovereign: by Convention, Not by Nature (2 of 4)

Nature v. Convention

  • In Chapters 1-4 of Book I of The Social Contract, Rousseau shows the inadequacy of nature as a basis for legitimate authority.
  • In Chapters 5-8 he stakes out the lines along which legitimate authority can arise through convention.
  • The sovereign in Rousseau is the point of tangency between nature and convention.
  • Nature is physical, while convention is cultural.
  • Nature is amoral, while within conventions morality becomes possible.
  • Nature is value-free, uncaring, and devoid of values, while convention is the embodiment of values in social practices.
  • From this perspective of nature — the nature of the scientists, not of the Romantics — where else could morality come from but convention?
  • Apart, that is, from a supernatural force that, like convention, dictates terms to mere nature, commanding obedience from human beings. And which, not incidentally, gives rise to a moral order that must be enforced with punishments by both society and the sovereign power above society, and whose definitive conventions are known as moral commandments or moral laws.
The power of planning… applied to, well, applied to smelting zinc, for instance

Digression on the Functional Origin of Values

  • In what way is convention “the embodiment of values in social practices”?
  • Conventions are actions routinely repeated by members of a particular society.
  • Members repeat those actions whose performance or products their society values. They do so either because they, like most others of that society, values them or because, since others value them, they must perform them to fit in or to trade for things they do value but cannot produce on their own.
  • Only animated life values things, because only animated life has needs, which all begin from the survival needs of the precarious life of the organism itself.
  • Only animals able to generalize beyond their particular conditions — which reasoning makes for the first time possible — can escape the immediate needs imposed by their environment at the present moment, and the impulses triggered by those needs.
  • By generalizing particular problems, reasoning beings can devise solutions that are more general, more comprehensive, and often more complete than the improvisations of the moment. By treating the problem as general, they convert it from a problem of the moment into a class of problems for which a class of solutions is required.This makes possible the creation of step-by-step techniques (to be improvised and refined, then taught and learned). Each step in this process is justified only by a possible future use, for present uses require already developed processes.
    • If the process results in a formed object apart from itself, we call that object a product.
    • If the process results in a formed object apart from itself, that is used in further processing, we call that product a tool; it is the generalizing power of reasoning that makes us the tool-making animal
    • If the process produces no object apart from itself, we call that process:
      • a technique or skill if it serves some further purpose
      • a virtue if we value it, not merely for its outcome, but also as a character trait and a way of being honored within our culture.
    • The products, tools, techniques, and virtues of a culture make it more or less adaptive to both its general environment and to the competition between cultures for resources available within that environment. For obvious reasons, every culture values those things which allow it to survive, compete, and prosper.
  • Values thus derive from reasoning processes directed toward imagined future problems categorized in classes, while impulses are unmediated responses to present stimuli.
  • While values do not wholly escape the compulsions of causality, they dramatically change its nature. For while the immediate problem requires a solution improvised on the spot, it also begins a rational process of imagining, planning devising, and inventing, which changes the conditions of the next encounter between the rational being and that class of problem. So, now, the response is structured both by causal stimuli and by the rational techniques, products, tools and virtues derived from reason for general purposes.
  • Human culture has begun to shape human destiny, and in ways that the purely physical processes of nature could not have done by themselves.

Power + Justice
(image credit: John Graham, Flickr)

The Sovereign Power

  • Sovereign power is the power to compel in the name of authority.
  • It compels, through laws, cultural habits, and codified social practices and expectations, what members of that society can do, can have, and can use: what products they can acquire, what tools they can wield, what skills they can train in, and what values they must honor, both in public and in private (e.g., the Ten Commandments, the laws of Deuteronomy, sumptuary laws, kosher and halal, ghettoization, segregation, occupational prohibitions, the right to bear arms).
  • This compulsion, sanctioned by the sovereign, is executed both through public punishments and rewards (i.e., status, honors, property, or income) and through private praise and blame (e.g., gossip, shunning, bullying, reputation, expectations of submissive behavior)
  • In this way, sovereign power, a human creation, mimics nature in claiming a power to compel, although this power is upheld, not by universal laws that happen always and without recourse, but by elaborate social systems of authority and subservience, of rewards and punishments, and of praise and blame.

The Paradox of Sovereignty

  • The paradox of sovereignty is that if there is to be an enforceable law at all, there must be a power above the law. And that law — and the sovereign power to enforce it — must be, in some way, self-justifying, a trait it shares with every form of wrongful rule and misrule.
  • “Thou shalt have no other Sovereign before me, and thou shalt follow my laws above all others.” That is the sovereign claim, not only of the Lord God Jehovah of the Hebrews, but of every form of sovereign power.
  • I’m being just a little playful here. Just and unjust rule share the trait of being , ultimately, self-justifying, but there are differences.
    1. Despotic self-justification issues directly from the naked power to compel, with little in the way of meaningful intermediaries or procedures between the claim and the expectation of submission.
      1. Constitutional self-justification, by contrast, adheres to constitutional procedures that specify numerous intermediary powers and authorities (limited government, separation of powers, etc.) and many procedural limitations and phases between the first expression of a desired political policy and its implementation (the rule of law, constitutionalism).
      2. Legitimate governments also spill much ink in elaborate and carefully thought out and expressed justifications of the form and proper uses of sovereign power.
    2. The self-justification of legitimate sovereign power revolves around reason, rationality, and some notion of the common good. (This is manifest in Platonism, Aristotelianism, the great medieval reconciliations with the three branches of the Abrahamic faiths with Aristotelianism, those of Aquinas, Averroes, Avicenna, Al-farabi, and Maimonides, as well as in Enlightenment rationalism.)
      1. However, those notions are notoriously flexible and open to interpretation, having given rise to a variety of regime types, each with their own justifying ideology. And while many are threadbare (monarchy, oligarchy, theocracy, fascism), not all are so easily dismissed.
      2. Those attaching different weights to the principles of liberty and equality within some kind of balance between the two look to me most reasonable, both ideally and empirically.
  • To sum up, sovereign power, however well justified in its own terms, must stand above the laws, for only sovereign power can create enforceable laws. For through sovereign power alone can moral convention control forces found in nature; and, while obligation relies upon shared moral conventions, compulsion comes only from forces of nature.
  • In other words, if obedience to conventions is always, at bottom, voluntary, the pains and deprivations inflicted as punishment rely only on universal laws of nature, whether one consents to one’s punishment or not.

Rousseau & the General Will (1 of 4)

Care to exchange your chains for a general will?

Introducing… the General Will

  • Rousseau’s most famous and influential work, The Social Contract, published in 1762, begins with a clarion call to revolution: “Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains”.
  • Yet this work is far more than a call to arms. It is also a call to live up to the full moral potential of a human being and moral agent. This show in the easily overlooked second line: “One thinks himself the master of others, and still remains a greater slave than they.”
  • This work pivots on the concept of the general will, a strange and difficult term, even in the work that is its birthplace. But its residue is pervasive in a fuzzy modern concept shared across most of the political spectrum (libertarians and anarchists being the exceptions), namely, that of the people.
  • Rousseau introduces the concept by degrees, beginning with its formal definition in Book I, Section 6 (hereafter, I.6): “the total alienation of each associate, together with all his rights, to the whole community”.
and everywhere he is in chains

Two Perspectives: Ideal & Empirical

  • This sounds rather totalitarian to modern liberal ears (and Rousseau-inspired thinking runs that risk). Rousseau knows this, so he immediately seeks to reassure us: “for, in the first place, as each gives himself absolutely, the conditions are the same for all; and, this being so, no one has any interest in making them burdensome to others”.
  • This is not all that reassuring, again, to modern liberal ears, for what if the general will (or the nameless many of “society”) want something for themselves that no right-thinking person would want for themselves?
    • Here each may insert their own darkest dystopian nightmare: the surveillance state (Bentham’s panopticon), the enforced equality of the dictatorship of the proletariat (imposed coercively by the ever-ruling Communist Party), or the patriarchal theocracy of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, among them.
    • It’s good to be wary of this possible interpretation, to which Rousseau opens himself in ways that the far more prudent and cautious Locke did not. Rousseau shouts from the rooftops what Locke whispers in veiled asides.
    • Yet both point to what I call the paradox of sovereignty , though Locke does so much more subtly and cautiously (see my 3-22-2020 post with that title).
      • In brief, the paradox of sovereignty is that the source of law must necessarily be above the law, for in founding a society and its laws, it performs an act of fiat, not unlike that with which God creates the world, in the traditional understanding.
      • It is equivalent to the emergence of a moral agent from within an amoral mechanical nature (composed entirely of objects acting under the compulsion of causal laws, as described by science) — a being able and willing to give itself laws, which nothing but a moral agent can either conceive of or follow. The laws moral agents follow, they follow only because they choose to; nothing done from compulsion counts as a moral purpose, though it can serve the nature-derived purposes of survival, utility, or pleasure.
      • This strict demarcation of nature form convention — and that special form of convention we call morality — propounded systematically by Kant, was first expressed here in Rousseau’s Social Contract. Rousseau’s general will was the inspiration for Kant’s categorical imperative.
    • I am suggesting that Rousseau’s general will should be viewed as a moral imperative (at best, only approximately embodied in any particular government and society), not as the all-powerful will of a nebulously-defined people, as self-interpreted by some charismatic leader or self-elected one-party regime.
    • Yet it is still necessary to consider how Rousseau’s thought opens the door to that, whether or not that is its intention and deepest meaning. So, to read Rousseau well, we must always alternate between the ideal view of his intended moral imperative and the empirical view of how government on his principles is likely to occur, and with what deformities.
    • Rousseau himself admits that man’s ascent from the natural liberty of his natural state as just another animal to the civil liberty made possible by the social contract, is an aspirational ideal that, in actual practice often instead degrades him below his natural state (I.8).

Two more Perspectives: Intoxicated & Sober

  • I want to introduce a second pair of perspectives needed to make sense of this singularly flamboyant, mischievous, and paradoxical writer. Whenever judging about the practical upshot of Rousseau’s thought, think of this most fractious of great thinkers (some see in him signs of paranoid schizophrenia), using double vision (in a foretaste of the alcoholic metaphor) as the two Rousseaus, whom I affectionately refer to as intoxicated Rousseau and sober Rousseau.
    • They are really just personifications of the strong and weak interpretations that define the range of possible interpretations (see Rule II.1 “Exposing Weak From/Strong Form Equivocation”; click on Rules in the black navigation bar at the top of your screen, via the 3 horizontal bars for phones).
  • Applying the two Rousseau perspective to his formulation of the general will (4th & 5th bullet-points, above), intoxicated Rousseau does mean the absolute abandon of one’s individual rights, judgment, and conscience to the general will, the voice of the people. In the the real world of empirical history, that looks like writing a blank check for whoever gains the heights of political power. I, along with Locke, consider that a dangerous and irresponsible expression, far more likely to result in despotism than in freedom or good government.
  • But sober Rousseau has a different interpretation: in entering into the social contract, one has agreed to abide by the shared procedures constitutive of one’s government, when the procedures have largely been adhered to in good faith.
    • Example #1: When a proper trial has occurred, but one disagrees with the verdict, one cannot take the law into their own hands and execute a private vigilante justice upon the acquitted.
    • Example #2: When a proper election has occurred. but one disagrees with the outcome, one cannot refuse to honor that outcome.
    • Example #3: When one is bound to military service for one’s country, but one disagrees with current policy, one cannot simply ignore it; civil disobedience, certainly as Henry David Thoreau formulated it, allows protest, but only when one willingly accepts the punishment lawfully determined for resistance to the law
  • So, we really don’ yet know what really Rousseau means with his general will. Book II of The Social Contract is where Rousseau expounds the characteristics, limits, scope, and origin of the general will and its embodiment in the sovereign. Until then, we must treat it as a placeholder concept; what I mean by that is explicated in Rule I.2 “Function-Stipulated Definitions”, with variants at Rules I.9-10 black navigation bar).
  • The general will turns out to be, not some fractious or averaged-out summation of the multiplicity and variety of viewpoints that make up public opinion, but a rare social condition — when a people is formed by a founding legislator who proposes a concrete system of laws and customs that embody, as well as any actual government and society can, the universal principle upon which, alone, a truly fair and just society can be founded.
  • For more on the paradox of sovereignty in Rousseau and others, my next post should arrive next weekend.

Methodical Reasoning (2 of 2): Strengths, Weaknesses, and How To Use It To Counter Pseudo-Truths & Lies

Descartes had a few ideas on method

Methodical Thinking: Benefits

  • Anecdotal thinking comes naturally; methodical thinking is a discipline, in every sense of the word.
  • Methodical thinking takes discipline.
  • All disciplines rely on some techniques, practices, procedures, and rules-of-thumb, but some have definitive methods, ranging from the reasonably rigorous to the absolutely rigorous.
  • The sciences, for example, rely on the scientific method.
  • Methodical thinking differs between broad categories of disciplines. For example, the sciences use the scientific method, while history and various kinds of cultural studies ( art history, philology, etymology, demographics, sociology) use the historical method.
  • Further, many human sciences, including economics, political science, military science, psychology, and business studies, use comparative historical studies known as case studies.
  • Further, even where the same method is used, the objects it is applied to may drastically alter how it works. For example, natural sciences and human sciences both use the scientific method, but in many of the natural sciences they are predictive, while that is never the case in the human sciences, where results are probabilistic at best.
  • The reason: natural science applies to inert objects which uniformly obey those rules we call laws of nature, while human science applies to conscious beings whose responses to the social laws they live under are individualistic and hence not determined uniformly in the same way for each individual, regardless of whether they are determined in some ultimate way or not (the free will v. determinism controversy).
  • While the phenomenon of disciplinary thinking is complex, it can all be contrasted wiht anecdotal thinking.
  • All disciplinary thinking requires specialized training, which, though it can be undertaken on individual initiative — how else did it originate? — is best signaled by certification from reputable colleges and universities, certification being a proxy for testing someone’s competence by an expert’s direct examination. (It takes one to know one!)
  • To sum up: 1) disciplinary thinking is required for subjects where progress requires sustained study, 2) in many fields, that thinking depends on a discipline-defining method, as in the case of the sciences.
  • In science, adherence to the discipline-defining scientific method separates the expert from the amateur, the hack, and the quack.
Are you certifiable?… Guards, escort him to the ivory tower!

Methodical Thinking: Pitfalls

  • What, then are the pitfalls of such powerful disciplines?
  • No human institution is infallible, and the institutions of expertise are no exception.
  • 1) The allure of money, fame or hubris can lead certified practitioners to relax their standards, and even to falsify results. Peer review and boards of certification exist to deal with these lapses when they occur.
  • 2) Overconfidence and arrogance in some of its practitioners, decline and senility in others can lead to stubborn persistence in error. For example, the hesitancy of doctors to tell patients that there’s nothing they can do for, say, much of chronic back pain, can lead them to oversubscribe pain-killers (the opioid crisis) or to perform unnecessary procedures and operations. Also, for years medical professionals told patients that PTSD and several immune system disorders were “all in their head”; psychologists treated atypical gender behavior as a curable disease rather than as either biologically-conditioned or a natural condition of longstanding, though minority, existence (a recessive behavioral trait, if you will).
  • 3) Disciplinary thinking can decay into a knee-jerk conventional wisdom of the discipline, a kind of thinking inside the box, which, from time to time, needs shaking up by a paradigm shift.
  • To sum up, experts are not invariably right. Nevertheless, it typically takes experts to recognize when this is truly the case. It takes one to know one, and also to detect a fraud.
Tell me where it hurts

How Should Methodical Thinking Address Anecdotal Thinking?

  • To teach is to correct gently, without gloating or triumphalism.
  • Triumphalism comes naturally; it’s how the savage dances in triumph over the slain.
  • Move past it, if you can. If you can’t, keep your thoughts to yourself; they’ll help no one.
  • If Joe Six-Pack — or anyone you think is arguing a weak case or offering weak support — supports his position with what is clearly anecdotal thinking, or something equally deficient, be careful and be gentle.
  • Show him an alternative viewpoint, open a door; don’t slam it in his face.
  • Build the alternative on expertise, if you can, but only if you can explain it simply, straightforwardly and with as little jargon as possible.
  • It’s harder than it sounds.
  • Excessive complexity, lengthy digressions, and too much jargon, from the other guy’s perspective, look like attempts to hoodwink and bully him with your better educational credentials. What’s that going to accomplish?
  • If you get lost in your explanation in any of these ways, you’ll look to him (and sometimes to yourself as well) like a phony; and he’ll think you’re trying to lay off on him a load of self-serving bullshit because you think you’re better than he is. You’ll confirm all his pre-existing views about the bossy global elite, with their fancy degrees, who look down on people like him, who do the hard work that made this nation great.
  • Where do you think the red cap got its logo from? Make America Great Again. The implied aside: free us from all these stuck-up coastal social climbers who are busy shipping our jobs to China, while they make out like bandits with all their digital bullshit and politically correct mumbo jumbo!
  • Don’t validate Joe’s stereotype! That’s leading with your chin!
  • So, doing this right means curbing the kind of anecdotal thinking (and other kinds of groupthink) rampant on the progressive Left.
  • Denmark?
    • It’s 97% white, 87% Danish, a small, cold, Nordic, homogeneous nation, not really a model for large, multi-ethnic melting-pots, like the U.S., Germany, France or the U.K.
    • Finland, too, everyone’s favorite model for education.
    • Models are most useful when they have comparable conditions.
    • That doesn’t mean we can’t learn from them, but they’re hardly a wholesale model for what would be economically or politically possible for us.
  • And taking political correctness beyond the pragmatic to the messianic is not about to help Joe find his way to common ground.
    • It’s also a form of peer pressure and groupthink, prominent on elite college campuses (where elites cluster to congratulate one another on the qualities that got them there).
    • There is, of course, a right way to do this, but among elites, as among all others, it’s never hard to find where the Easy Way Out is: there’s always a crowd there.
    • As a sociological phenomenon, overdone political correctness has more to do with fitting into one’s peer group than with promoting effective political change within the broader society.
      • There are two approaches to promoting political change under polarized conditions not yet become irreparable:
        1. with mutual respect, in search of a common ground
        2. by objectifying the opposition and manipulating, threatening, and coercing them.
    • Teaching, conversion, and citizenship use the former, while partisanship and, ultimately, civil discord and even civil war, use the latter.

Anecdotal Reasoning (1 of 2): Coronavirus & Politics

Anecdotal Thinking, Progress & Politics

Now let’s see, which way is the wind blowing?
  • Anecdotal reasoning is how we all begin.
  • It’s how we learn from experience. It’s subjective, but if we were incapable of it, methodical reasoning would have no place to begin from.
  • Animals do it.
  • The birds or feral cats you feed will learn to recognize you or your feeder as a source of food. The predators you chase away from your pets or livestock will learn to recognize you as a threat and an enemy.
  • The wild animals that are shot, killed, or captured will learn to view humans as dangerous enemies, giving us a wide berth.
  • Humans, however, distinguish themselves by being able to reason more methodically, first via learned and culturally transmitted habits and techniques, then by the semi-formalized lore of crafts and arts, and finally, by formally articulated procedures, recipes, discipline-based methods, and industry- and company-based manufacturing processes, taught step-by-step in formal job training.
  • But not all humans use the highest level of reasoning available to them, and these levels are not equally available to expert and amateur.
  • Now for the clincher: in the business of democratic self-government, the great majority of voters are rank amateurs in economics, government policy-making and administration, and diplomacy or geopolitics.
  • One sign of this is that 85% of voters are what political scientists call retrospective voters (Fiorina, Retrospective Voting in American National Elections (New Haven, CT:Yale U. Press, 1981), that is, knowing deep down that most matters they vote on are beyond them (and researching such matters is beyond their level of interest), their vote is really only a nationwide poll on the survey question: Are you happy with the way the country seems to be going at this moment?
  • Hence, retrospective voting. Not “Do the proposed policies hold water, or even make sense?” but “How are you today? What way is the wind blowing when you hold your saliva-moistened finger up in the air?

Joe Six-Pack & Anecdotal Reasoning

  • Joe Six-Pack relies on anecdotal reasoning. That’s how he deals with life in general and politics in particular. If he has a skilled trade, as is most often the case, he will combine anecdotal thinking with the more methodical thinking of his craft or trade when at work.
  • But he views life in general, life lessons, and politics and religion as matters upon which any man’s opinion is as good as another’s.
    • Otherwise, he would be at a huge disadvantage in every area where some kind of more methodical thinking separates the experts from the amateurs.
    • (The extreme form of this is conspiracy theories, where the kid who thought history was boring stuff about dead people becomes the instant equal of credible scholars who actually research their hypotheses and test them against counterarguments.)
  • So, in the gospel according to Joe, his opinions are as good as any expert’s in areas like economics, politics, and science (including the sciences of evolutionary biology, climatology, and epidemiology).
  • But politics is conducted in the language of the voter, not the expert. And worse than that, it’s conducted in the language of slogans and sound bites, of rallying cries and bumper stickers, of iconic images and catch phrases, of name-calling and gaffes gone viral.
  • This is the language Donald Trump speaks. And he speaks it better than anyone. He has the demagogue’s flair for the catchy put-down, for oversimplified slogans and crude posturing, for verbal click-bait, for outrageous slanders and for the showing brushing aside of norms of behavior, all delivered in the vocabulary of a 4th-grader.
  • Trump is a master of marketing in the media circus; he is a world-class self-promoter in a grab-and-go society.
  • And he thinks anecdotally.
  • He seemed unable to take the covid-19 threat seriously, until he had the anecdotal experiences through which his thinking is funneled: seeing the body bags piled up at Elmhurst Hospital in his native Queens, seeing a robust old friend stricken with the virus. I think when Trump shared those two experiences with the public, that was from the heart, unlike much of what he says publicly.
  • Conclusion: Trump speaks and thinks in the language of Joe Six-Pack. That and his in-your-face macho aggressiveness is the source of his charisma among his most loyal followers, and Joe Six-Pack is prominent among them.

Joe Six-Pack, Covid-19 & Politics

the best 20 seconds of your life (in a pandemic)
  • I was talking to a friend the other day. He’s an independent tradesman, a handyman, salt-of-the-earth — a reasonable guy, as long as you steer clear of politics or one of his pet peeves — and a good proxy for Joe Six-Pack.
  • I had worried for years that when he listened to the radio while he worked, it was always talk-show radio, and always of the angry white men variety. I avoided asking who he voted for in 2016, but I could guess.
  • So, I saw him for the first time in a while in the early days of the pandemic scare, before the country went into stay-at-home mode. He was working on my neighbor’s roof — which was a good thing, as I wasn’t sure he would be following social distancing guidelines, not at that time endorsed by either our state governor, Ron DeSantis, or our President.
  • We got talking, and he scoffed at the notion that all these educated types were washing their hands all the time — like that would do anything!
  • That was classic anecdotal thinking. In normal circumstances, washing your hands, by itself, doesn’t keep you safe from the flu or measles, so why should this be any different?
  • I told him that the coronavirus is held together and protected by an outer layer, but that soap dissolves that layer so that the virus falls apart. I didn’t push the point, and he accepted it without comment.
  • Anecdotal reasoning again fails us when we neglect to finish our prescription of antibiotics. “We’re well now, aren’t we? Why waste the remaining medicine? What if we get sick again some weekend when the doctor’s office is closed? It would be nice to have a little to tide us over until Monday.”
  • Scientific reasoning, however, based on methodical observation and experimentation that produces unambiguous evidence, teaches us that the symptoms’s causes are microbial bacteria, and that if we do not continue taking medicine beyond the point at which our gross symptoms disappear, but at which bacteria survive (though in greatly reduced numbers), the surviving bacteria will reproduce a new generation of bacteria able to hold out against our antibiotic counterattack. In short, a new generation of super-bacteria will have evolved, with superior antibiotic-resistant traits.
  • And we played the role of natural selection by eliminating the least fit ones and spreading the drug-resistant traits of the survivors.
  • It’s very much like how a repressive government tries to deal with an insurgency. With its superior forces, it initially destroys the bulk of the insurgent forces, and the most vulnerable of them. But if it leaves behind a hard core of ruthlessly competent and determined leaders and battle-hardened veterans, the government has won the battle but not the war, and may ultimately fall.
  • In Part 2 of Anecdotal Thinking, we’ll consider the benefits and pitfalls of methodical thinking (thinking inside the box), and: 1) how to redirect (where appropriate) anecdotal to methodical thinking, and 2) how to begin the gradual roll-back of that most manipulative form of anecdotal thinking and speaking, the demagogic sort, consisting in polemics, propaganda, tweeting, trolling, and misinforming.
How it looks to Joe: see penciled in “Step 7: Ask someone to open door for you to get out.”

Three Sovereigns and a Social Contract (a Drama in One Act)

[The following imaginative dialogue, interpretations mine, is drawn from the following texts: 1) Hobbes’s Leviathan, Part I, Chapters 13-14. 2) Locke’s Second Treatise on Government, chaps 2-3. Rousseau’s Social Contract, Book I & Book II (chaps. 1-7). 4) The Cambridge edition of Kant’s Political Writings, especially “Perpetual Peace” and “Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Purpose”.]

Hobbesian sovereign: “Hi, I’m your new sovereign. I’ll draw 10% less from the fruits of your labor in taxes than your old sovereign, who seems to have lost his head. You should be grateful. If you’re not, my henchmen will remove your foolish head from a body that has no doubt grown weary of it. After all, why lug around eight pounds of deadweight?”

Hobbesian sovereign: “To obey me is your surest path to self-preservation. To disobey me is your quickest path to death. Any questions?”

Lockean sovereign:“What a beast that one is! Have you really done yourself any favors — if any of you be rational subjects — to protect yourselves from polecats by putting yourselves at the mercy of a maned lion-king?”

Lockean sovereign: “No man should be judge in his own case. But what is an absolute monarch but such a man, judging in his own case, and supported by a sycophantic band of suck-ups and paid goons?”

Lockean sovereign: “Now, off the record, I’ll admit that any sovereign, even a many-headed republican sovereign, is ultimately judge in his own case. But better a dragon whose separate heads are divided amongst themselves, counterbalancing one another, than a single head, with but a single purpose! Here there be dragons, whichsoever way one turns!”

Lockean sovereign: “And if civil war is thereby a greater risk, that is a chance free men will bear, for the price of liberty is eternal vigilance.”

Rousseauian sovereign: “Man is born free, yet everywhere he is in chains.” Let’s have a revolution! And no revolution without a great leader: that would be me.”

Rousseauian sovereign: “Sorry I’m late. Can’t stay long. Just long enough to impregnate this fair young nation with a general will. But don’t expect me to stick around to care for the bawling infant. A republic must change its own brat’s diapers, and teach the little monster manners. For the founder cannot both lay down the laws and then wield power under them; that could only lead to corruption, as men in society are self-serving, all too eager to rise above their fellows in wealth and power. And, besides, I’m not really the sovereign, I’m the Legislator. I only exercise sovereign power before there is a people with a general will who will be the true sovereign. I shape that people to have a general will, and it then becomes sovereign.”

Rousseauian sovereign: “The people is sovereign. There is a people with a general will, even though they don’t usually know it, yielding instead to the will of all, which is merely the sum of the interests of the factions within the republic. But the factions into which the people so easily divides must be submerged in the truth of the general will. So, the people needs a leader with charisma to speak for them and to present them with the truth that they will embrace. And, because the people lacks the wisdom to accept the truth in its pristine purity, the veil of religion must enshroud the truth so that the sovereign people can accept it as their general will.”

Kant: “Sovereigns come and go; only History abides. Obey your sovereign, because by so doing you advance yourself from the lawless natural animal encoded into your genes to the law-governed rational being encoded into your progressively more Enlightened cultural behavior. Morality grows by nurture inward, from the environment into the soul, not by nature outward, from the soul into the environment. The ultimate purpose of culture, education, and nurture is to create — from the crooked timber with which nature provides us — the cultural construct of the moral agent in a civilized, law-governed society, formed by the patient historical moulding of a race of devils into a society of rational beings.

Kant: “Shallow minds may mock this law-governed society of rational beings as a construct, which it is, and as imperfect, which it will always be. But it is the necessary and indispensable condition for the emergence of morality from within nature. A universal morality (which any true morality must be) can only arise as a historical possibility that accompanies education and enlightenment. In no other way can the animal man be remade in the image of God. This is the moral purpose and aspiration of the Enlightenment. The double-edged sword of nationalism is merely the low-hanging fruit of the Enlightenment; that alone will not save us.”

Kant: In the end, history matters more than do sovereigns