Great Books: A Paean and Cautionary Tale

As mentioned previously here, and as spelled out in more, and more current, detail at Rotten Chestnuts, college education has been made into a cesspool of idiocy, bad ideas and evil intent. I do not exaggerate: Just as I would have gladly let my children wander the street all day unsupervised than send them to the public schools of Fichte, William Torrey Harris, Dewey and Freire, I would rather they work as ditch diggers and sleep in hovels than attend any of our fine institutes of “higher education” except, maybe, to get job training in a technical RAD field.

Image result for old books

There are a few minor exceptions, of course: St. John’s College, where my beloved and I went to school, which, despite its name, is vehemently secular (and, as such, under tremendous pressure to conform, which pressure they are likely to yield to as they lack any dogmatic reason to resist). SJC graduate under 200 students a year; the UC system awards degrees to over 40,000.

Then there are the religious schools. Thomas Aquinas College, which two of our sons have attended, has about 400 students total, graduates maybe 75 a year. The Cal State system has just under half a million students and awards nearly 100,000 degrees a year.

And on and on. For every little college trying to get kids to look at real, substantive and lasting ideas and hone their minds trying to understand and discuss them, there is some giant university doing the opposite, cranking out 10, 100, or 1,000 times the graduates in Conformity Studies, who get their participation trophy for vomiting back whatever the professor wanted to hear. It ain’t pretty out there.

All good cults provide, first of all, a hermeneutic under which all opponents can be summarily dismissed. ‘They’ just don’t understand! They are unenlightened! They are eeeeeevil! They are trying to ruin it for you! They are on the wrong side of History! Thus, the non-RAD fields inculcate into their victims the absolutely essential idea of diagnosis: you don’t listen to what opponents say, you merely diagnose the disorder that would cause them to disagree with you. The diagnosis then supplies what ‘they’ really mean, removing from the enlightened the onerous task of actually trying to understand what an opponent is actually saying.

Once the them versus us dichotomy is firmly in place, the student is introduced into the gnostic mysteries that explain all things, without the bother of any actual thought. Thought, after all, might – barely – lead the student to have certain reservations or quibbles, and with such glorious goals – the goals of mindless fanatics are always so, so, glorious – almost within reach, such quibbles and reservations must be quashed with extreme prejudice.

The success of this project is awe-inspiring. To see how such success is not only possible but all but inevitable, contemplate the ramifications of Pournelle’s Iron Law. If I want to, for example, share my love of Dante with a bunch of ignorant, foolish 18 year olds, I will gladly leave as much of the admin portion of my job as possible to those who seem to want to do that sort of stuff. Over time, those people are sorting the resumes, manning the hiring committees, sitting on the tenure committees, constructing the school’s long-term goals and plans – in other words, my love of my subject and of teaching results in people who love running things having ultimate control of the institution. Soon, and very soon, nobody gets hired except those who pass the purity test of those people on the hiring committee; nobody get tenure except those who are with the program; new departments get set up to employ the otherwise unemployable products of this bureaucracy, with the goal of producing more like-minded (using ‘mind’ loosely) product. Eventually, You Are Here. We got ‘here’ about 30 years ago by my reckoning. Now, the holdovers from the previous regimes and those few who slipped through the cracks are aging out. It’s Studies Nazis all the way down. Your average chemistry professor, say, is cowed into silence if he hasn’t already taken an industry job.

The solution is two-fold, and it ain’t pretty: somehow, the colleges and universities must – must – be burnt to the ground, and the earth where they stood salted. There is no reform at this point. Funding must be withdrawn; all classes must be videotaped and posted where everyone can see them; all Studies fields must be challenged, mocked, belittled, scorned at every opportunity. And that’s not enough. Things may get – unpleasant. The option of standing by and watching has passed.

Then, we – you – must raise your children outside the K-12 system, which also must be burned to the ground. The education schools that produce the automata that staff K-12 schools are so, so Woke. You can educate your kids better than any certified teacher. Hell, your pet rock could. Yes, yes, you don’t know calculus too good – get over it. Samwise Gamgee is your goal. If your child is in that tiny percentage called to be real scholars, there are those little schools out there. If that’s what he wants and you have raised him well, he can do it. Same goes for job training, even the high-end stuff like medicine and engineering. If he really wants it, he can do it.

What about the Great Books? I love them and have even read them, some of them many times, some of them very poorly, but I’ve given them a shot. That experience, ongoing, creates in me a sort of humble pride or prideful humility: having measured myself against truly great minds, I am painfully aware that I am a second-rate intellect. There’s so much more work for me to do, and I won’t live long enough to do it. On the other hand, I am an intellectual, however second rate I may be. I do know how to think, how to read a book, how to reason and use logic, how to write a coherent sentence (not that I always do, but you get it). I have context.

That’s why when I hear a moronic marketing slogan like ‘everything’s a social construct, man’ I see a not very subtle transmogrification of a bad idea that’s at least 3,000 years old, and was already an old idea when Aristotle mocked it. The basic idea stated in a more intelligible form: there is no such thing as objective reality. All any of us have is subjective experiences. For each of us, reality is a creation of our own minds. The marketing spin is to introduce the idea of ‘collective’ or ‘society’ as the creator of the subjective universe. Having read all those books, and an inadequate but not insubstantial selection of history, I can see that this appeal to ‘the masses’ or ‘society’ is a painful ruse: ‘advanced’ societies, ones which are ‘woke’ as the kids say these days, are lead by Vanguards, whose consciousness is the society doing the constructing. But wait, there’s more! The Vanguards themselves are created and managed by leaders, world-historic individuals who are even more woke! Actual history (not the god that is not a god capital ‘H’ History) shows us those guys are not avuncular and kindly men like people imagine the Bern to be, but have always been guys like Pol Pot, Mao, Lenin, Stalin, Che – you know, sociopathic mass murderers. That the most blood-thirty and brutal ‘leaders’ rise to the top under Marxism is not an accident, but is required by the logic of the Marxist system itself – but you’d need to have honed your mind on some real thought to understand why that is so. The woke of today have been very successfully immunized against that!

Thus, the ‘society’ doing the ‘constructing’ is going to be one sociopath and his sycophants. The rest of you jokers? Useful idiots.

Well, this ramble got out of hand. So much for the Great Books, which are a good idea but not a panacea. If you children were raised to be Samwise Gamgee, a rooted, level-headed person well aware of his own limitations and intimately familiar with the lore and traditions of his people, which people, lore and traditions he loves with whole heart – well, THEN the Great Books would be an immense value to them. But all one needs to do is look at the Enlightment, many of the scholars of which knew the Great Books quite well, to see how such knowledge can be misused, perverted and ignored. For someone unconcerned with being modern, someone who hasn’t accepted the contrary-to-fact dogma of Progress, Locke and Rousseau, for example, are often quite idiotic. In Dr. Johnson’s famous assessment, they are both good and original. Where they are good, they are not original, and where they are original, they are not good. But if you have absorbed the chronological snobbery ubiquitous in today’s schools, you just know those two jokers are 2,000 years smarter than Aristotle!

But, alas! It would be a minor miracle if the products of our current K-12 system, especially if they had the misfortune of being good at it, could get anything out of the Great Books except a knowing, dismissive sneer.

Miracles do happen. And reading hard books is still far better than the predigested vomit served in schools today.

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The State of Education

Yea, yea, beating a dead horse. Here I collect, organize and expand upon a number of themes that converge to get us to the sorry state we now find ourselves in. Expanding on a Twitter thread I wrote this morning:

When William Torrey Harris said “substantial education” (greatly facilitated by the graded classroom model being imposed everywhere back in the 1890s, and universal now) turned people into “automata, careful to follow prescribed paths” he meant that as a GOOD thing. He wanted everyone to absorb a culture, in his case, an Hegelian culture, whatever that might mean.

But there is a next step: after you’ve trained people to just follow orders, get in line, regurgitate on command & collect the participation trophy, THEN – (translating from Hegelian jargon to Modern English) – you need to get them Woke. For Harris, this meant a culture where everyone is open to being enlightened, allowing Progress to happen by approaching all problems via Hegelian dialectic. This the substantially educated would just do, no questions asked. There is no option, as Harris sees the the world, to working for Progress through the unfolding of the Spirit through History, etc. All is Becoming, nothing really IS. The usual Hegelian bullsh*t.

Reminder: Harris was not just some loopy poser (although he was that) – he was the US Commissioner of Education from 1889 to 1906.

By the 1890s. Hegel had been set upright by Marx. I am oddly sympathetic to this traditional claim, as the God of Hegel is no god at all, but rather a mutable force finding its ultimate expression in History. Seems more tidy, even if equally dazzlingly incoherent, to just assign to History whatever god-like traits Hegel had hung on Spirit. Cut out the middleman, as it were, and lose whatever tenuous relationship Hegel’s Spirit had to any traditional understanding of the Supreme Being.

Marxists have no use for God, but the schooling Harris helped establish suited them just fine. School of Darkness describes, peripherally, how this change from the barmy and superficially benevolent totalitarianism of Harris to the much more bloodthirsty totalitarianism of Marx came about.

Jump ahead 50 years. Ambitious people had long recognized college as a meal ticket. (They failed to see that it’s only a meal ticket when it’s selective and hard – it doesn’t create jobs, just filters out the riff-raff, so to speak). So college became a universal goal, an unmitigated good. As such, the government got heavily into subsidizing it. For totally benevolent reasons, I’m sure.

Remember: follow the money. We pretend we’re subsidizing students but we’re not – students get debt, colleges get the real money. More and more flush with cash as the 60s rolled into the 70s and 80s, with more on the table for the taking from students loans, our fine colleges and universities practically wet themselves in the search for more students, any students! But faced with the dumbed-down products of Harris’s schooling, colleges were and are highly motivated to create classes & degrees for the unprepared and stupid. Today, even freshmen at elite colleges need to take remedial classes to attempt even the radically dumbed down curricula, so that, for example, 50% of incoming freshmen at Cal must take remedial math & English. These are kids who got into Cal based on all those AP credits and high SAT scores.

Today, anyone drawing breath can get into college and get ridiculous loans to pay highly inflated tuition prices so that they can get a college degree on the patently false theory that a better job will magically come with it.

The colleges get the money.

Luckily for the colleges, they already had a field-tested model of content-free education that could be passed by relative morons: Education schools, which have handed out degrees to the bottom 10% of students for over a century now. All they had to do was apply the rigor-free regurgitation approach perfected in education, where Harris’s philosophy, as modified and refined by such luminaries as the Communist apologist Dewey, is taught to the idealistic, if less intelligent and more gullible, fraction of students.

RAD(1) (Right Answers Disciplines) classes, like math, or even accounting, are deemphasized and removed from requirements while those demanding simple regurgitation of the prof’s pet theories multiply like rabbits. Old subjects that used to at least pretend toward some rigor, such as history and philosophy, are castrated to become as manageable as education.

Colleges became participation trophy diploma mills. Businesses can no longer use a degree as an indicator of minimal intellectual competence. Employers want to know you studied something, you know, hard-ish, before they give you that coveted slot in the cube farm. (2) Grads who never should have attended college in the first place weep that they have a lovely Studies degree but no one will hire them!

EXCEPT for the lucky few who get hired BY THE COLLEGES to teach yet more Studies classes to yet more heavily-indebted, unprepared students. Even the remaining RAD classes are under intense pressure to be made easier.

At some point, I’m guessing around 15 or 20 years ago, the Studies faculty began to outnumber the RAD faculty. This means that the hiring & tenure committees as well as internal governance and discipline boards came to be dominated by Studies professors.

This has had negative consequences.

Go back to Harris & being Woke. The Studies people have one thing in common: Critical Theory. Critical Theory has one answer to all questions: oppression. The only acceptable exercise is exposing the oppressor/oppressed dynamic that explains all misery everywhere.

Critical Theory which is merely Marxism configured for academic consumption, is, like Marxism in general, fundamentally an adolescent idea. It’s stupid, and contradicted by all experience. Any adult-level interaction with reality would disabuse one from it – but the products of our schools are inoculated as far as possible from any such interactions. Get ’em while they’re young! Because once it’s set in, it often takes a nuclear-level red pill to break the spell.

Back to colleges. We’ve reached the point where now, if any RAD professor were so crazy as to suggest that biology, history, (non-Marxist, i.e., real) economics, etc. contradict the crazies, the Studies people can deny him tenure or get him fired – if he somehow made it past the hiring committee in the first place. Then the loving, enlightened students will harrass him, dox him, threaten his children, threaten any venue that publishes his work and slander anyone who interacts with him.

Good times. Just imagine how bad it would be if our Woke children weren’t so loving and kind.

Thus, when the serious-looking talking head says idiotic things like Science supports Gender Theory, the biologists, physiologists, evolutionary biologists etc., who know this is idiotic nonsense stay silent – if they want to keep their grants and jobs.

The well-educated, who spent 12+ years ‘succeeding’ by sitting in their desks, standing in their lines, regurgitating the acceptable answers, and in general doing exactly as they were told feel a thrill of victory when the bad man who said mean things is punished. This is called being enlightened.

Even more convenient, being Woke means you already know the answer. Being Woke is inoculation against ever having to think. You know you are just the best, finest, most moral people EVER, in a way that simply cannot be explained to the unwoke. To even attempt such an explanation would be ridiculous. You either get it or you don’t.

The schooling we have today, promoted by Harris (and many others), taken over by Critical Theorists, is the chief tool of today’s totalitarian, anti-science nihilism. Comply or Die!

Conclusion: we are so screwed. The schools must be burned to the ground. True, the useful idiots will be the first to go if the revolution they are enabling ever comes to pass. A successful backlash would save their lives. Amusing if you like bitter irony, but small comfort.

Probably going to move out of my home state of California, always the leader in social trends. I’m taking suggestions for states that are accepting political refugees like me and mine, preferably ones where a finance/business guy can find a job. Any ideas?

  1. Heard RAD from Severian, not sure if it’s original with him, it was too cool not to use.
  2. The bottom rung in business, smarts-wise, is Human Resources. If a Woman’s Studies grad were ever to get hired, that’s where she’d end up – where they can act as gatekeepers to future job applicants. What could go wrong?

Book Review: Polanyi’s Great Transformation

Since this is a very long review – Short and sweet: Polanyi knows the answer. It doesn’t really matter much what the question is, as the answer he knows is the answer to everything. All the great erudition on display is just that – a display. He happens to know a great deal about English history over the 18th and 19th centuries, and a bit about an obscure set of pacific islanders, but by the end of the book, it’s obvious that this expertise is irrelevant to his thesis. He could start from basket weaving and wheat as a theme in Art Deco, and he’d end up at the same place: what the world needs now, what it has always needed, what History has been striving for, is Communism, sweet Communism.

In the Great Transformation, Polanyi describes the mechanism by which the commoditization of land, labor and currency and the implementation of the Gold Standard reveal the contradictory and self destructive nature of Capitalism and the impossibility of any free market being long maintained. He asserts that not only are free markets not natural in any sense, but they can only come into existence and continue by means of constant political and social intervention.

Using England’s industrialization as the case study, Polanyi argues that there’s nothing natural about free markets, that the very idea of free markets is a mythology used to justify the reduction of land, currency and people to commodities. A market in labor reduces people to mere human resources, something to be managed like any other resource and a cost to be controlled. Land will simply be consumed, not husbanded across generations. And currency, with which the book is mostly concerned, will be standardized across the world in order that international trade can take place. This standardization, under the rubric of the Gold Standard, is the engine driving political and social change, almost entirely for the worse.

The idea that people might take advantage of a market for labor by decommoditizing themselves – learning skills or moving someplace where their skills are in demand in order to better their prospects – is not considered. That people did not in fact stay illiterate laborers for very long once the market provided opportunities unavailable for rural laborers is not discussed. That the workers of the world today are vastly better off than the rural laborers prior to the industrial revolution is barely mentioned. Rather, Polanyi dwells on all the evil effects of the social displacement caused by industrialization and the political steps meant to mitigate them, and well as the steps taken to facilitate market creation and trade. He sees, not individual decisions both good and bad being made in an uncertain environment (i.e., the real world), but the forces of History working themselves out according to inevitable laws.

Similar filters are applied to the commoditization of land and currency. In 1944, when Polanyi published this tome, it was perhaps reasonable to believe that land was being recklessly consumed by industry – FDR did promise that the skies would soon again be ‘blackened by industry’ once the New Deal kicked in. (Of course, his cousin Teddy had begun the process of setting aside land from too much human use a generation earlier.) Subsequent small ‘h’ history has shown that free people with a little material security tend very much to want to keep the world tidy and clean – nobody wants to live in a dump. A continually better cared for world is not what theory predicts, even if it is what history seems to be showing.

Currency, by which Polanyi means international banking and the trade it facilitates, does tend strongly toward standardization, because international trade, like all trade, is built on trust. You pay me in standard Spanish pieces of eight or silver U.S. trade dollars, and I’m good, because everybody agrees on the value of such currency. We trust each other, at least that far. Once transactions become too large and too frequent for physical silver or gold to change hands, I need some other mechanism I can trust – the Bank of England, for example. Their notes are as good as gold! My trust is built on stability: the claim that our notes are worth X amount of gold or silver, which you can trade your note in for if you want, is good as long as you back it up. Floating fiat currencies require a level of trust that people who knew their history were not able to muster, in past eras.

This view, which is based on the logical and historical playing out of personal trust between trading partners and banks, is built on the observation that our world is uncertain and involves many discrete and often unpredictable human decisions. Polanyi wants vast forces to push History to an end already known, and so must reject what people actually do as a basis for reality.

Continue reading “Book Review: Polanyi’s Great Transformation”

Is There an Aristotelian in the House?

Or a Thomist, certainly. Somebody who could help me out with some basic philosophy.

Woke up thinking about a certain epistemological issue, thought the readers of this blog might find this entertaining.

The guy on the right.

Background: a few months ago, at our Chesterton Society Reading group meeting, there was a fun discussion with two people who had dropped in to visit, (incidentally, the son and grandson of a famous economist) about the importance of Aristotle.

My boy Aristotle was being dissed. The claim was that he had been superseded, and the example given was that he totally got inertia wrong.

I was stunned into silence (doesn’t happen often, but it did this once.) I felt a little like the man Chesterton described, asked to explain why he prefers civilization – where do you even start, if it’s not obvious already?

Now, upon reflection, I should not have been surprised. That these gentlemen knew enough Aristotle to even know what he says about inertia shows a very much higher degree of knowledge of Aristotle than is typical. They knew enough modern science to draw the obvious conclusion that Aristotle was ‘wrong’. Because he’s ‘wrong’ about basic science, he’s been superseded, and one would do better studying somebody who got it right – a completely reasonable position, if one assumes Aristotle is primarily a scientist in the modern sense, or that philosophy depends for its validation upon such science (the position of the Analytic philosophy taught in universities today), or both.

Background 2: I am a pathetic poser when it comes to Aristotle. I only really studied the Physics, dabbled in everything else. One can’t just read Aristotle – one would be lost within a page or even paragraph. Dense doesn’t do it justice, not bafflegab dense like Hegel (1), but dense because each phrase has been formulated down to its rock-hard minimum, and builds carefully on the last. Each sentence and phrase needs to be understood before moving on, or it quickly becomes a mish-mash.

I breezed through a bunch of Aristotle, which has left me muddleheaded. More muddleheaded, I mean. There may well be people – Thomas, I suppose – who could just read Aristotle like a novel and get the gist. I am not one of those people. Which is why I’m pondering here.

So, on to the issue. Richard Feynman tells this story:

He (Feynman’s father) had taught me to notice things and one day when I was playing with what we call an express wagon, which is a little wagon which has a railing around it for children to play with that they can pull around. It had a ball in it—I remember this—it had a ball in it, and I pulled the wagon and I noticed something about the way the ball moved, so I went to my father and I said, “Say, Pop, I noticed something: When I pull the wagon the ball rolls to the back of the wagon, and when I’m pulling it along and I suddenly stop, the ball rolls to the front of the wagon,” and I says, “why is that?” And he said, “That nobody knows,” he said. “The general principle is that things that are moving try to keep on moving and things that are standing still tend to stand still unless you push on them hard.” And he says, “This tendency is called inertia but nobody knows why it’s true.” Now that’s a deep understanding—he doesn’t give me a name, he knew the difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something, which I learnt very early.

Having a name by which to discuss a thing is a powerful aid and channel for thought. (This issue of how having names reflects and influences thought has been laid out very ably by Mike Flynn on his blog, most recently here – check it out.) It’s tempting to say that one cannot even think about something without first naming it, but, as a musician – I have musical ideas – I know that’s not quite right. There’s a lot of brilliant thinking going on in a Bach fuge, but the words come well after the thought has been completed.

But I digress.

Aristotle didn’t have a name for inertia, and we do. Aristotle had a name for horses, and we do, too. I will now fumble around trying to spell out the differences between the class of things such as inertia, and the class of things such as horses.

Aristotle has the concept of a thing that, by its nature, separates itself out from the background, a thing that presents itself to our understanding, a ‘this’ as in the case of ‘this horse’. A horse is full of life and meaning, and is not at all blurry around the edges. (2) Any individual horse will yield a whole bunch of information to the senses and understanding without us having to do much of anything except observe and think. Studying several horses quickly yield an understanding of horseyness in general. Horses have a nature, in other words, and we bring our understanding to that nature, which will always be greater than our understanding – there will always be things about horses which any horse embodies yet remain outside or even beyond our understanding.

Natural objects are like that. They have natures, intelligible forms, to which our minds are suited and directed, but which are not necessarily things our minds can completely grasp. We don’t really directly study Nature in any sense beyond studying natures. It’s definitional – a ‘this’ is something with a nature that can be understood at least to some extent, otherwise it would lack that ineffable something that makes it a ‘this’.

Inertia is not a ‘this’. We never say except in jest ‘See that inertia over there?’ Feynman’s dad was indeed a deep thinker, recognizing that having named inertia was not the same as knowing what it is. In some sense, inertia does not leap out of the background like a prancing horse, presenting itself to our senses and understanding. Instead, we see, if we are paying very close attention, some things which happen consistently over a wide range of experiences: the ball keeps rolling, the stone block doesn’t want to move, I am thrown from the horse if it pulls up too sharply.

It is indeed an act of human brilliance to find the common thread, and to name that thread ‘inertia’ and then to come up with rules and math that describes how inertia ‘behaves’ in useful ways. Newton is the man! But he is a man standing on the shoulders of very many more men all the way back to Aristotle, who laid the groundwork.

So, do I have that right? Epistemologically speaking, I guess I’m claiming that inertia is not knowable in the same way as horses, to stick with the example. One might argue that, as a mental abstraction best described by math, inertia is *more* completely knowable than horses, which, because their nature is not a mental abstraction, will never be understood as completely as inertia. Or it might be argued that inertia is not real, that it is only the name we give to a bunch observations, a handy receptacle for all our useful math. (I’m not arguing that, because that seems a path to insanity. Hasn’t stopped others from going there.) I’m a moderate realist (I think), so there’s *something* to the notion that inertia is real insofar as it is a characteristic of real things – of ‘this’ or ‘that’ thing – and thus as real as they are. It’s just not a ‘this’ in itself…

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“I trust I make myself obscure.”
“Perfectly.”

Getting over (well, more over) my head. What bugs me is that I’m certain Aristotle talks this issue through somewhere in great detail, and I’m not remembering where.

Anyway, back to that Chesterton meeting. I tried to point out that it’s Aristotle’s logic and method that have never been superseded, that all science today (excluding, of course, Science!) is built upon them. Didn’t remember the Feynman story fast enough. Left it in an unsatisfactory state.

  1. Aristotle’s examples are of the essence of his philosophy and method. They are simple and direct. Hegel’s examples, when he deigns to give them, are complex and generally fail to make his point, rather, they assume his point. Thus, Aristotle will talk about how ‘white’ is always in another thing and never present by itself, and give the example of a white horse; Hegel will give Art History (as understood by Hegel) as an example of the Spirit unfolding through History. If you don’t already believe that the Spirit unfolds itself through History, the supposed upward progress of art through stages of spiritual enlightenment will, alas, not be visible to you.
  2. The story about how Cortez’s horsemen were at first thought chimeras by the Aztecs notwithstanding.

42

With a growing backlog of books to review (Polanyi: what a fraud! Oops, sorry, should have spoilered that!) and about 120 draft posts to clean up/finish/toss/whatever, I digress:

If you already know the answer to life, the universe and everything, such that your dearest, most heartfelt belief is that everything is explained and all ends known with certainty, all discussions either support the conclusion, or are irrelevant noise. The very idea that something, something real or even some line of thought, might not fit in with the already known and sacred conclusion is anathema. Those who insist on bringing up challenges to The Answer are to be silenced with extreme prejudice.

The only worthy intellectual exercise is explaining and expanding on just exactly how 42 is the answer. An intellectual exercises his mind and creativity in coming up with ever more ingenious and detailed ways of getting to 42. The new ways 42 is demonstrated to be the one and only answer is a great comfort to the true believer, and a shield and bulwark against any line of thinking that might cause unease.

This much should be obvious. A little more subtle: Since 42 is the answer beyond challenge, any way of getting to 42 is valid regardless of the method used. 42 is beyond logic, beyond criticism of any kind. It explains – it must explain! It explains everything! – all attempts to unseat it. While it might be possible to have esthetic arguments about how one way to get to 42 is more elegant or thorough or technically accurate, it would be bad form to criticize the logic or structure or heaven forbid, the truth of any explication, so long as it gets to 42 in the end.

From a purely pragmatic point of view, it might be helpful if some of the observations upon which the presentation (it won’t do to call it an argument) are true, or that some of the connections proposed (again, can’t invoke logic) are obvious and reasonably granted. When Polanyi and Marx point to the suffering of the urban poor when industry replaced rural life with slum life, they are pointing to something real. The emotional appeal is also real – what sort of heartless monster would be indifferent to the suffering of the children?

File:Child Labor in United States, coal mines Pennsylvania.jpg
Breaker Boys

Suffering, especially suffering that primarily benefits somebody else, is nothing to be laughed at. Ignoring the suffering of others is a bad thing (under a moral code that recognizes right and wrong, of course). Yet identifying suffering is not the same thing as understanding what causes suffering. Even less is it an argument for whatever solution one might want to propose.

Ultimately, the truth of the observations, references and connections made as part of the presentation meant to demonstrate the truth of 42 do not reflect – are not allowed to reflect! – on whether 42 is in fact the answer. Quite the contrary: 42 becomes the filter used to determine what lines will be pursued and which will be ignored, and what tidbits of reality will be allowed to intrude. Marx and Polanyi have their defenders, rabid defenders, even, despite reality and history (you know, what happened, as opposed to mythical History, which make things happen in the future). The Soviet Union didn’t quite pan out? Well, Polanyi was right about the Asian Financial Crisis! (Except for the part where it was a hiccup in the now 75 year long planet-wide rise in economic productivity and subsequent drop in poverty and violence. Places where the likes of Polanyi are taken seriously being the exceptions, of course). Workers of the world are still not revolting (they have, increasingly, nothing to lose but there vacation packages, hi-def flat screens, second automobiles and iPhones).

The existence of injustice in the world – and there’s plenty to go around, don’t get me wrong – does not in fact prove anything about whether 42 is the answer or not. Describing problems is cheap; solutions are not, and may not even be possible.

Your math proving 42 not add up to 42? No problem! You got the right answer, that’s what counts.

Feser and the Galileo Trap

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Galileo showing the Doge of Venice how to use a telescope.

Edward Feser here tackles the irrationality on daily display via the Covington Catholic affair, and references a more detailed description of skepticism gone crazy:

As I have argued elsewhere, the attraction of political narratives that posit vast unseen conspiracies derives in part from the general tendency in modern intellectual life reflexively to suppose that “nothing is at it seems,” that reality is radically different from or even contrary to what common sense supposes it to be.  This is a misinterpretation and overgeneralization of certain cases in the history of modern science where common sense turned out to be wrong, and when applied to moral and social issues it yields variations on the “hermeneutics of suspicion” associated with thinkers like Nietzsche and Marx.  

Readers of this blog may recognize in Feser discussion above what I refer to as the Galileo Trap: the tendency or perhaps pathology that rejects all common experiences to embrace complex, difficult explanations that contradict them. In Galileo’s case, it happens that all common experiences tell you the world is stationary. Sure does not look or feel like we are moving at all. That the planet “really” is spinning at 1,000 miles an hour and whipping through space even faster proves, somehow, that all those gullible rubes relying on their lying eyes are wrong! Similar situations arise with relativity and motion in general, where the accepted science does not square with simple understanding based on common experience.

Historically, science sometimes presents explanations that, by accurately accommodating more esoteric observations, make common observations much more complicated to understand. Galileo notably failed to explain how life on the surface of a spinning globe spiraling through space could appear so bucolic. By offering a more elegant explanation of the motion of other planets, he made understanding the apparent and easily observed immobility of this one something requiring a complex account. But Galileo proved to be (more or less) correct; over the course of the next couple centuries, theories were developed and accepted that accounted for the apparent discrepancies between common appearance and reality.

We see an arrow arch through the air, slow, and fall; we see a feather fall more slowly than a rock. Somehow, we think Aristotle was stupid for failing to discover and apply Newton’s laws. While they wonderfully explain the extraordinarily difficult to see motion of the planets, they also require the introduction of a number of other factors to explain a falling leaf you can see out the kitchen window.

Thus, because in few critical areas of hard science – or, as we say here, simply science – useful, elegant and more general explanations sometimes make common experiences harder to understand, it has become common to believe it is a feature of the universe that what’s *really* going on contradicts any simple understanding. Rather than the default position being ‘stick with the simple explanation unless forced by evidence to move off it,’ the general attitude seems to be the real explanation is always hidden and contradicts appearances. This boils down to the belief we cannot trust any common, simple, direct explanations. We cannot trust tradition or authority, which tend to formulate and pass on common sense explanations, even and especially in science!

Such pessimism, as Feser calls it, is bad enough in science. It is the disaster he describes in politics and culture. Simply, it matters if you expect hidden, subtle explanations and reject common experience. You become an easy mark for conspiracy theories.

I’ve commented here on how Hegel classifies the world into enlightened people who agree with him, and the ignorant, unwashed masses who don’t. He establishes, in other words, a cool kid’s club. Oh sure, some of the little people need logic and math and other such crutches, but the pure speculative philosophers epitomized by Hegel have transcended such weakness. Marx and Freud make effusive and near-exclusive use of this approach as well. Today’s ‘woke’ population is this same idea mass-produced for general consumption.

Since at least Luther in the West, the rhetorical tool of accusing your opponent of being unenlightened, evil or both in lieu of addressing the argument itself has come to dominate public discourse.

A clue to the real attraction of conspiracy theories, I would suggest, lies in the rhetoric of theorists themselves, which is filled with self-congratulatory descriptions of those who accept such theories as “willing to think,” “educated,” “independent-minded,” and so forth, and with invective against the “uninformed” and “unthinking” “sheeple” who “blindly follow authority.” The world of the conspiracy theorist is Manichean: either you are intelligent, well-informed, and honest, and therefore question all authority and received opinion; or you accept what popular opinion or an authority says and therefore must be stupid, dishonest, and ignorant. There is no third option.

Feser traces the roots:

Crude as this dichotomy is, anyone familiar with the intellectual and cultural history of the last several hundred years might hear in it at least an echo of the rhetoric of the Enlightenment, and of much of the philosophical and political thought that has followed in its wake. The core of the Enlightenment narrative – you might call it the “official story” – is that the Western world languished for centuries in a superstitious and authoritarian darkness, in thrall to a corrupt and power-hungry Church which stifled free inquiry. Then came Science, whose brave practitioners “spoke truth to power,” liberating us from the dead hand of ecclesiastical authority and exposing the falsity of its outmoded dogmas. Ever since, all has been progress, freedom, smiles and good cheer.

If being enlightened, having raised one’s consciousness or being woke meant anything positive, it would mean coming to grips with the appalling stupidity of the “official story”. It’s also amusing that science itself is under attack. It’s a social construct of the hegemony, used to oppress us, you see. Thus the snake eats its tail: this radical skepticism owes its appeal to the rare valid cases where science showed common experiences misleading, and yet now it attacks the science which is its only non-neurotic basis.

A Couple More Links, and Sola vs Schola Revisited

I’ve written here before on the importance of the setting in which philosophical enquiry is done. This is summed up by Sola vs Schola: Are you, like Descartes, Hume, and Kant, contemplating your navel in your private, sunless room? Or are you going a round with other philosophers and students in a Greek academy or medieval university? In the first case, you can pretend to doubt everything – the world, the room you sit in, even yourself. No smirking sophomore buddy is there to sneak up behind you, as you hold forth on the compelling nature of radical doubt, and smack you on the back of the head, and then act all innocent while explaining that he could not have smacked you, as he does not exist, and anyway, what’s with this whole ‘smacking the back of your head’ phenomenology? Awful lot of unsupportable assumptions in there…

In the second case, there is.

Image result for back of head
If I don’t exist, I can’t whack this dude on the back of his head. But I can. Therefore, etc. QED

So we can see that Sola – alone – leads quickly and inevitably to insanity, while Schola – a school or group – has within itself certain corrective forces, called ‘other people,’ whose presence, specifically, whose unwillingness to be dismissed as fantasy, offer at least some chance to stay sane. In the modern world, philosophy falls broadly into two camps: the sons and daughters of Sola occupying one (and occupying virtually all University teaching positions) while the children of the schools, the sons and daughters of Aristotle and Thomas, hold the other.

With that in mind, here is an essay that floated to me across the ether unbidden: The Crisis: Nothing New? The author asserts that the situation we, specifically, the Church, are in today differs substantially from all previous challenges to the Church and, more broadly, sanity.

Now, in all sane societies, it has long been understood that, when you come into the world, you come into a whole network of relationships, rights and duties, which you did not choose, but which in a sense choose you. You can’t legitimately say, “I didn’t choose to be born into this family, this town, this country, so I owe none of them anything.”

But to Enlightenment ideologues, the social world is made up of autonomous individuals who form only those relationships they choose. Things like family, Church, governments, and so on are institutions set up by evil people to oppress other people. Of course, the ideology does recognize that autonomous individuals can form alliances with other autonomous individuals to protect themselves from each other, but, in principle, this is the closest it comes to recognizing any concept of community. But basically, there is no such thing as community, or an ordered society, or an ordered universe, ordered to a common good, but only the mechanical arrangement of fragments of matter, including human matter. And no Creation.

It is easy to see how this outlook could evolve in time into nihilism, and that is exactly what has happened in the lifetime of those of us who are now elderly.

Sola versus Schola, but written large across all relationships.

In the religious ed classes I’m involved in in our parish, I tend to point out that things in the Church have always been bad, as she is made up of people no better than any of us. The author of the above is asserting that this round of heresies (and the corruption that necessarily follows) is worse.

I don’t know, I don’t have a broad enough historical perspective to say that Ambrose’s challenge at the hands of an Arian emperor were less threatening to the Church than what goes on today, or the rise of Islam or the Protestant Revolt. Those also seem pretty bad. But the point warrants consideration.

Next, I’m struck by a more subtle inconsistency (or, if you’re feeling less generous, hypocrisy) in today’s world: the same people who claim progressivism, socialism or communism (insofar as there’s any difference. Hint: not materially) are enlightened and kind and the only future worth pursuing are also very unlikely to promote or even notice what the people behind such movements actually say. That the Communists have said repeatedly that they not interested in reforming the system, but are pursuing whatever moves the world toward revolution – well? That the Fabians* said that they were promoting Communism by working for anything that would lead to communism, but – wolf in sheep’s clothing is their coat of arms – hiding the fact that what they are promoting is moving us toward communism – well?

So we live in a world where Communists promote Progressive and Socialist ideas only because and only to the extent that they believe these ideas will promote revolution. Communists repackage these ideas with plenty of lipstick and misdirection, and then simply lie. But their intent is out there for anyone to see, in print, in their own words, if they want to. It’s not the liars that concern me here, it’s the many, many useful idiots who just refuse to look.

That’s spelled out in this article here.

*The Fabians have fallen into a sweet and sticky Kafkatrap of their own making: What could be more Fabian than not openly joining the Fabian Society? Or denying your communist aims? Or even having the Society itself sort of peter out over the years? All of those things are exactly what one would expect the most dedicated Fabians to do! Thus, Polanyi and Keynes we ‘attracted’ to the Fabian Society, but never formally joined (although the London School of Economics was a Fabian project, and Keynes was their guy) – Well? Are they Fabians? Not formally joining is exactly what a prudent Fabian would do….