(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘philosophy

“A republic, if you can keep it”*…

Democracy’s meaning has always been contested. The problem with substantive definitions of democracy, Michael Ignatieff argues, is that there’s no agreement on what democracy is nor what it should be. Democracy itself is not just an unruly contest for power, but also the site of an ongoing debate about what democracy is or should be. Yet letting that struggle become a battle between existential foes risks upending the whole democratic project…

The problem with substantive definitions is that democrats with plenty of substantive commitment to democracy do not agree what it is or what it should be. When conservatives talk about democracy, they often express the desire to use democratic institutions to contain and control change. When liberals and progressives talk about democracy, they turn it into a vessel of aspiration into which they pour longings for civility, community, and justice.

What gets missed, in either side’s definitions, is that actual democratic politics is a fierce, no-holds-barred competition for power. Those who think of democracy as a way of life risk framing partisanship as an abnormal rupture in democratic practice, when in fact partisanship is the driver of all democratic competition. When we theorize civility as the norm and competitive partisanship as a threatening exception, liberals and conservatives alike risk being hypocrites about their own partisanship or being helplessly nostalgic, bemoaning the breakdown of a comity that may have been a fantasy in the first place. It is thus a mistake, with large practical consequences, to confuse what we wish democracy could be with what it actually is.

This elision between what democracy is and what we wish it to be occurs, in part, because the democratic theory we teach, and the civics lessons we imbibe in school, lift democracy into an abstract realm of ideal types and pious ideals that is indifferent to historical context. There is no such thing as democracy in a pure state. All actual democracies bear the contours of the historic struggles that gave them shape. While there is a family resemblance in democracy’s basic form—majority rule as the source of legitimate authority—this feature is enacted in and through institutions specific to the societies that created them. Democracy displays crucial historical variations over time and from one society to another.

One salient feature that makes democracies differ from one another is the way each democracy has been shaped by its encounter with violence. Some democracies were born in the violence of revolution. Others that have replaced authoritarian or colonial rule with free elections have struggled to contain the violence unleashed once democracy was achieved. Encounters with violence are recurrent even in successful democracies. Violence cannot be understood as an exceptional irruption overturning democracy’s natural resting state. Many a democracy owes its birth to violence, and violent challenges to democratic order continue to defend themselves as necessary last resorts to save democracy itself.

The modern version of democracy created by the American and French revolutions began its life… with the task of converting violence into politics. In our own time, national-liberation struggles in Africa and Asia have faced the same challenge. This has remained democracy’s core purpose ever since. When democracy achieves this, it realizes what defines it as a form of government. The prohibition of violence—whether as an instrument of politics or as an instrument of rule over citizens—and the related commitment that all coercive measures must be justified to citizens and receive their consent, are the core principles that separate democracy from all forms of authoritarian rule…

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, European liberals, faced with working-class and feminist demands for the right to vote, reluctantly agreed that inclusion was the best way to maintain democratic order in the face of revolutionary challenge. These classic liberals accepted as a basic premise that societies are not natural equilibria, but sites of constant social, cultural, and economic struggle, with a potential to boil over into violence. Democracy’s function was to keep conflict political and to prevent the war of all against all.

Today, in democracies that are more diverse and pluralistic than anything nineteenth-century liberals could have imagined, the priority they placed on democracy’s role in preventing political conflict spilling over into violence is more relevant than ever. In this perspective, democracy’s ultimate purpose is peace rather than justice, or rather, sufficient justice to secure peace, defined as a minimal, constantly tested and renegotiated willingness by competing groups, factions, and parties, to obey the rules of the democratic game. When competitors accept democratic outcomes as legitimate, they accept closure, at least until the next contest starts. If they win, they do not seek to crush their opponents. If they lose, they do not seek to take revenge or seize power. Legitimacy is thus contingent and performative and always conditional on the willingness of political competitors to abide by the same rules.

The saving grace of democracy is the possibility that losers get to become winners. Whenever a group, faction, or party believes that victory was stolen from them or that they are fated to be permanent losers, violence becomes a possibility in the democratic game. Successfully managing peaceful democratic transitions between competing elites is the sine qua non of democratic legitimacy.

Democratic assemblies and elections have regulatory codes that restrain extremist speech, but such codes will always be vulnerable to being gamed and manipulated by scheming opportunists. Democratic systems are built to moderate political competition, but moderation sometimes surrenders to hatred. As Tocqueville warned us more than a century and a half ago, more social justice need not make us more civil.

Neither is it the case that virtue and courage can always hold the line when institutions fail. Men and women of both parties did their duty during the insurrection at the Capitol, while others betrayed their oath of office. The result, as the Duke of Wellington famously said about the Battle of Waterloo, was the “nearest run thing you ever saw.” The most effective measures taken since the insurrection have been the holding of Congressional hearings to establish exactly what happened, so there is a true record for the future, and also the prosecution of leaders. This should discourage others from a similar course.

Even so, it is America’s very revolutionary traditions that will continue to provide justifications for the use of violence in the defense of liberty. These traditions, whether we like it or not, will continue to give desperate and misguided citizens the belief that they must take the law into their own hands.

Democracy is fragile, because it is a sacred thing vital to our liberty, easily lost, easily damaged, and like all such sacred things dependent for its survival on prosaic, daily acts of faith and sacrifice that are made in its defense.

In the end, there are simply no guarantees of democratic order. There is only the inherited belief—transmitted across generations among citizens and politicians alike, reproduced election after election, vote after vote, year after year, in speeches, classrooms, media outlets, civics courses, and all the various fora that a free society uses to figure out what it is doing—that violence can kill democracy and that violence endangers everyone, especially those who would use it to defend democracy itself…

“The establishment of our new Government seemed to be the last great experiment, for promoting human happiness, by reasonable compact, in civil Society” – George Washington, in a 1790 letter to Catherine Sawbridge Macauley.

Eminently worth reading in full: “The Politics of Enemies,” from @M_Ignatieff in @JoDemocracy.

See also: “America Can Have Democracy or Political Violence. Not Both” (gift article from the New York Times— no pay wall).

* Benjamin Franklin, in response to a question from Elizabeth Willing Powel as he walked out of Independence Hall after the Constitutional Convention in 1787

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As we cope with conflict, we might recall that on this day in 2000, the U.S. presidential election ended in a statistical tie between Democrat Al Gore and Republican George W. Bush, only to be settled on December 12 by the U.S. Supreme Court after a bitter legal dispute.

As the Supreme Court debated, protesters gathered.

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

November 7, 2022 at 1:00 am

“Be not the one who debunks but the one who assembles, not the one who lifts the rugs from under the feet of the naive believers but the one who offers arenas in which to gather”*…

From Stephen Muecke, an appreciation of the late, lamented Bruno Latour (see here, here, and here)– an exploration of his ideas and of their sources…

A humble virus, the Dead Sea, oil pipelines, Wonder Woman, a voodoo doll, Escherichia coli, the concept of freedom, monsoons, ‘extinct’ languages, and tectonic plates. All are real. All are active. And, in their own way, these and myriad other nonhuman entities are actors, enrolled in the production of our world. We’re still in the opening paragraph, but this is where Bruno Latour might have stopped us to make a slight correction: the production of worlds.

For Latour, who was one of most influential and provocative thinkers of the past century, the world is always multiple. Above all else, his thought is pluralist – this is his legacy. He died on 9 October 2022, leaving behind a pluralism that accommodates non-Western worlds but also, remarkably, the worlds of nonhumans, which are not just things or forces, but ‘actors’ with the potential to change their worlds. However, this pluralism is not an ‘anything goes’ relativism. In an age when worlds are being destroyed at an unprecedented rate, its stakes are life and death.

Latour’s approach is radical because it shows just how active nonhumans have been in human affairs. His work calls for new political strategies that can acknowledge humans aren’t the only ones enrolled in the production of truth. In his view, forms of ‘nature’ – including nonhumans such as mountains, voodoo dolls, policy documents or door stoppers – are woven together in political networks. To use his phrase, they form a ‘political ecology’. If this is ‘ecology’, it is a particularly French kind. Among Latour’s many actors we find none of the piety of the North American wilderness tradition associated with Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, who sought spiritual transcendence in pristine nature. The ecology Latour was developing is practical, earthbound and problem-oriented. So where did he get his ideas?…

Bruno Latour showed us how to think with the things of the world, respecting their right to exist and act on their own terms: “The generous philosopher,” from @MonsieurMouche in @aeonmag.

* Bruno Latour

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As we cultivate curiosity, we might send traditionally-cultivated birthday greetings to Vandana Shiva; she was born on this date in 1952. A scholar, environmental activist, food sovereignty advocate, ecofeminist and anti-globalisation author, she is often referred to as the “Gandhi of grain” for her activism associated with the anti-GMO movement.

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

November 5, 2022 at 1:00 am

“To be what you want to be: isn’t this the essence of being human?”*…

… Ah, but what does one– should one– want to be? Jules Evans, with a history of the transhumanist-rationalist-extropian movement that has ensorcelled many of technology’s leaders, one that celebrates an elite few and promises an end to death and taxes…

Once upon a time there was an obscure mailing list. It only had about 100 people on it, yet in this digital village was arguably the greatest concentration of brain power since fifth-century Athens. There was Hans Moravec, pioneer in robotics; Eric Drexler, pioneer of nanotechnology; Eliezer Yudkowsky, father of the Rationalist movement; Max More, father of modern transhumanism; Nick Bostrom, founder of Long-Termism and the study of Existential Risks; Hal Finney, Nick Szabo and Wei Dai, the inventors of cryptocurrency; and Julian Assange, founder of Wikileaks. Together they developed a transhumanist worldview — self-transformation, genetic modification, nootropic drugs, AI, crypto-libertarianism and space exploration. It’s a worldview that has become the ruling philosophy of the obscenely rich of California.

It all started in Bristol, England. There, a young man called Max O’Connor grew up, and went to study philosophy at Oxford. But Max wanted more, more excitement, more life, more everything. He changed his name to Max More, and moved to California, where the future is invented. His dreams took root in the soil prepared by Californian transhumanists of the 1970s. Many of them were members of an organization called L5, dedicated to the colonization of space by a genetic elite — its members included Timothy Leary, Marvin Minsky, Isaac Asimov and Freeman Dyson, and its magazine was named Ad Astra — which was what Elon Musk named his school for SpaceX kids in 2014.

Max was also inspired by Robert Ettinger, an American engineer who argued that humans would soon become immortal superbeings, and we should freeze ourselves when we die so we can be resurrected in the perfect future. While doing a PhD at the University of Southern California, Max got a job at the Alcor Foundation for cryonic preservation, and in 1989 he started a magazine with his fellow philosophy grad, Tom Morrow, called Extropy: Journal of Transhumanist Thought. ‘Do you want to be an ubermensch?’ the first issue asked.

‘Ubermensch’ (overman or superman) is the German word used by Friedrich Nietzsche to describe the individual (male or female) who has overcome all obstacles to the perfection of him or herself…

A history and an explanation: “How did transhumanism become the religion of the super-rich?” from @JulesEvans11.

* David Zindell

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As we ponder the (presumptuous) preference for perfection, we might recall that it was (tradition holds) on this date in 1517– All Hallows (All Saints) Eve– that Martin Luther, a priest and scholar in Wittenberg, Germany, upset by what he saw as the excesses and corruption of the Roman Catholic Church (especially the papal practice of taking payments– “indulgences”– for the forgiveness of sins), posted his 95 Theses on the door of Castle Church.  Thus began the Protestant Reformation.

Martin Luther (source)

Today, of course, All Hallows (All Saints) Eve, is celebrated as Halloween, which is (if it is, as many scholars believe, directly descended from the ancient Welsh harvest festival Samhain) the longest-running holiday with a set date… and (usually, anyway) the second-biggest (after Christmas) commercial holiday in the United States.

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“Philosophy is at once the most sublime and the most trivial of human pursuits”*…

The School of Athens (1509–1511) by Raphael, depicting famous classical Greek philosophers

Helena de Bres on what philosophy can– and can’t– help us understand about the meaning of life…

… It’s not always clear what the average person is after when seeking life guidance from philosophers, but it tends to be a mix of three things. First, some general orientation in the universe; second, a serving of existential consolation for when life fucks us over; and, more rarely, a dose of specific practical advice (to text back or not to text back?)

The easy reply to the last of those requests is that philosophy can supply at best only part of the answer. How someone should respond to a particular situation depends on facts about the world that we philosophers have no special expertise in… so we can’t pronounce on the question solo.

The more socially uncomfortable reply is that the demand that philosophy be personally helpful, in any of these three ways, sounds wrongheaded to someone with the training of a mainstream contemporary philosopher. Saying that aloud involves accusing a fellow human who’s having a life crisis of being naïve, which is an asshole move I try to avoid. But I do think it, because pretty much the last thing I saw myself as acquiring while I skilled up in graduate school was transferable expertise in how to deal with everyday life, on either the grand or the intimate scale…

Science has practical applications, but to true devotees the applications aren’t the main point, and attempting to go straight to them is likely to backfire. Seeking direct life guidance or swift consolation from philosophy is similarly risky, for similar reasons. Bernard Williams writes in his essay “On Hating and Despising Philosophy” that, though philosophy can be pressing, it doesn’t get there “by instantly addressing the urgent and the deep.” That results in mere superficiality, intellectual kitsch. Being genuinely helpful usually requires being truthful, and because the issues philosophy addresses are complex and difficult, the search for the truth about them should start in the foothills and inch up cautiously. A truthful philosophy will be unspectacular and inaccessible to the average person as it proceeds. And if philosophy does eventually generate good life advice, there’s no guarantee it’ll deliver comfort along with it. Truth can be a bitch…

Academic philosophy and the meaning of life: “Help!,” from @helenadebres in @the_point_mag. Part one of a four-part series (it gets less bleak :). Part 2, Part 3, Part 4.

* William James

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As we search, we might wish a Joyeux Anniversaire to a philosopher whose practice was robustly practical: Denis Diderot, contributor to and the chief editor of the Encyclopédie (“All things must be examined, debated, investigated without exception and without regard for anyone’s feelings.”)– and thus towering figure in the Enlightenment; he was born on this date in 1713.  Diderot was also a novelist (e.g., Jacques le fataliste et son maître [Jacques the Fatalist and his Master])…  and no mean epigramist:

From fanaticism to barbarism is only one step.

We swallow greedily any lie that flatters us, but we sip only little by little at a truth we find bitter.

Man will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest.

A thing is not proved just because no one has ever questioned it.

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

October 5, 2022 at 1:00 am

“No offense to real jobs, but comics seemed a lot more fun”*…

It’s been just over 12 years since (R)D last visited Dinosaur Comics (though your correspondent checks in regularly). Ryan North— the creator of Adventure Time (comics), Squirrel Girl, numerous books (e.g., How To Take Over The World and How To Invent Everything),and other delights– is still doling out prehistoric profundity…

So much more at Dinosaur Comics (@dinosaurcomics).

* Ryan North

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As we parse percipience, we might recall that it was on this date in 1950 that the daily comic strip Peanuts premiered in eight newspapers: The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, The Minneapolis Tribune, The Allentown Call-Chronicle, The Bethlehem Globe-Times, The Denver Post, The Seattle Times, and The Boston Globe.  Its creator, Charles Schulz had developed the concept as a strip (L’il Folks) in his hometown paper, The St. Paul Pioneer Press, from 1947 to 1950.  At its peak, Peanuts ran in over 2,600 newspapers, with a readership of 355 million in 75 countries, and was translated into 21 languages.

First Peanuts strip

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

October 2, 2022 at 1:00 am

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