Author’s picks for April 2019

What follows is a short list of my favorite posts from this month:

1. What is Philosophy Outside the Text?

This post provides an overview of the nature and scope of a new Medium.com publication that I’ve launched, Philosophy Outside the Text.

2. What makes philosophy difficult?

This post provides some background to the motivation of the Philosophy Outside the Text project. In it, I argue that there are two main difficulties to doing philosophy today: one is the inherent difficulty of the questions it asks; the other is the linguistic and institutional baggage associated with academic approaches to those questions. I argue in favor of a way of doing philosophy that still engages with the former while jettisoning much of the latter.

3. On New Age-ism and western appropriations of eastern religion

This post argues that the popularity of New Age religion is largely a function of the way it functions as a lever in an internal dispute between traditional western religion and post-enlightenment western consumerism. In several important respects New Age appropriations of eastern religion actually conflict with both traditional eastern and traditional western religions where they agree with the newer western paradigm.

4. A glimpse of early Hebrew Metaphysics in the book of Genesis

This post examines a passage from the book of Genesis, on the patriarch Jacob’s meeting Rachel and Leah, and shows how a mistake in the received text itself exemplifies a shift from a linguistic framework where the attribution of attributes to objects is variable and context-dependent to one where the association of an adjective with an object is predetermined in advance. I argue that this linguistic shift itself reflects a shift towards an ‘object-oriented’ ontology where attributes are themselves always thought of as dependent on particular substances.

5. The political philosophy of distributism: a very short introduction

This post provides an introduction to distributism, often regarded as a third way economic philosophy between capitalism and socialism. Particular emphasis is placed on Hilaire Belloc’s concept of the servile state – a form of oligarchic capitalism to which both capitalism and socialism tend.

6. Libertarianism, racism, federalism, subsidiarity, localism

In this post, I show that the identification of libertarianism with federalism constitutes a category mistake. Against this, I show that libertarianism admits of both federalist and anti-federalist forms, the latter of which is arguably the dominant one. Against this, I provide a positive defense of the notions of localism and subsidiarity that does not itself depend on libertarian individualism.

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How refutation works, 1

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The principal object of a refutation is a thesis, that is, an asserted proposition. By extension, the term ‘refutation’ is also said of arguments, which conclude to theses, persons, who hold them, or views, which aggregate them around a common theme or topic.

The methods of refutation available for a given type depend on the type of the object whose refutation is sought, and are greater in proportion with the complexity of the object itself. Thus, the refutation of a thesis consists in a proof that it is not the case. The refutation of a view consists in either the refutation of any thesis constitutive of that view or a proof of its inconsistency. The refutation of an argument consists in a proof of that it is not demonstrative. Hence, a refutation of an argument may consist in a proof that it is invalid, that any of its parts is irrelevant to its conclusion, that any of its parts are inconsistent with each other, that knowledge of any of its premises depends on knowledge of its conclusion, or that any of its premises or conclusions fail to be the case. The refutations available for more complex objects thus extend those available for less complex ones.

The types of refutations of theses will be proportionate to the types of thesis, and hence to the types of assertible propositions. Most basically, propositions may be simple, asserting or denying one thing of one thing, or complex, asserting or denying many of many things, one of many, or many of one. What is asserted is called the predicate; what it is asserted of, the subject. A complex proposition may be formed 1) by linking propositions via connecting terms like ‘or’, ‘if’, or ‘and’, 2) by the composition of complex predicates or subjects through analogous means, or 3) by the use of a common term to designate multiple things by a single name.

Best of, April 21-28, 2019

This weeks recap includes just one post:

What is Philosophy Outside the Text?

In this post, I introduce a new project, Philosophy Outside the Text, a publication that I’ve established at Medium.com. Philosophy Outside the Text serves as a venue for rigorous philosophical work free from the jargon and self-referentialism of academic work. A novel idea behind it’s execution is to reverse the citation incentive dominant in academia: rather than requiring citations, to ban them, in order both to discourage obscurity and to require arguments published therein to stand on their own merits. Check it out.

What is Philosophy Outside the Text?

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I recently established a publication, Philosophy Outside the Text, at Medium.com. The following explains what Philosophy Outside the Text is and where it gets its name from.

1 What is Philosophy Outside the Text?

Philosophy Outside the Text is a publication dedicated to rigorous work on perennial philosophical questions, freed of the jargon and self-referentialism that one finds in much academic work on these same questions. To enforce this ideal, Philosophy Outside the Text requires that its articles be completely free of academic references and jargon – that is, terms of art commonly found in philosophy or other humanities professions that would be unfamiliar to those outside that professional environment.

The need for such a publication arises from the failure of currently dominant media for philosophical thought to provide perennially interesting material for a thoughtful non-academic public without talking down to it. At the present time, the dominant form of philosophical practice is that of publishing in academic journals and books, most of which are behind institutional paywalls or priced with university libraries rather than individuals in mind. Besides this, one also finds magazines and blogs devoted to philosophical questions, some of which are simply a locus for pre-professional work or even chatter about philosophy as a profession, others which provide popular introductions to current philosophical work, or others which focus on cultural discussion and critique. Specifically academic work is in practice inaccessible to non-academic readers. Popular introductions that merely distill academic work are pedantic by nature. Work under the banner of culture becomes rapidly dated.

Besides that of attempting to address a wider readership, Philosophy Outside the Text addresses another problem consequent upon the requirements of professional writing in an academic environment. Any academically published work today must engage with that of other academics through citations and the adoption of a language particular to its field. At research-oriented institutions, the professional value of one’s work is then partially determined through citation-based metrics for determining the works impact, which in turn have a real-world impact on one’s job security in performance and tenure reviews. Because of this, citations tend both to be more abundant than strictly necessary in order to ensure the appearance of belonging to the group, and to disproportionately accrue to those at prestigious institutions in order to signal knowledge of the relative position of its members. Within such an environment, citations are less measures of quality than they are of controversy within the limits of conformity. Thus, the most successful papers within the humanities are frequently those that espouse highly controversial views – e.g. that infanticide is morally permissible, that things are possible because they actually exist in some alternate reality in the same way that we do in ours – in a manner performatively consistent with the dominant academic affect. Besides their scope and location, current incentives determining what counts as quality work in educational institutions are not functionally different from those governing popularity on Twitter. In contrast with the above, the no-jargon, no-citations requirement both forestalls the development of confused questions dependent on that jargon and impels authors to proffer arguments that stand on their own feet.

2 On the name Philosophy Outside the Text

The title Philosophy Outside the Text has several different layers of meaning.

At the most basic level, it signifies the task of addressing philosophical questions directly, rather than through textual sources.

At another level, it refers to the process of doing philosophy with non-textual media. Today, journal articles and books remain the main tools through which philosophy is done. But these are fairly limited ways of communicating information. Over time, Philosophy Outside the Text will expand into non-print media.

At another level, the name serves as a metonym for philosophy outside of academia. This doesn’t mean that Philosophy Outside the Text is only open to academically unaffiliated authors, but it does signify a different model for philosophy. Disillusion with the university model of education is widespread across diverse demographics, and large-scale changes to the structure of education are likely to occur over the short to medium term. There are more optimistic, more general, better ways for us to respond to these impending changes than to create YouTube intellectuals and coding boot camps.

2.1 For academic readers

For those readers coming from an academic background, the title contains a veiled polemical reference to Jacques Derrida’s famous summary of his own philosophy: “There is nothing outside the text”, which understood the notion of ‘text’ to signify language as an all-encompassing system of signs behind which there is no further reality. Variations on this sort of view have a kind of perennial appeal, which periodically reappear at times when the world becomes enmeshed in a spirit of hopelessness, ennui, and indifference. Lastly, there is a positive reference to the work of Jean-Luc Marion and, to a lesser extent, Emmanuel Levinas. Both attack Derrida’s understanding of being through a reaffirmation of a core tenet of Platonic idealism – the facticity of a transcendence which goes beyond worldly being. The undertone of the reference is that of a rebuke to the cynicism and nihilism about philosophy that one finds much of in philosophy departments by way of an affirmation of a way of doing philosophy with a spirit of hope outside of that context. Philosophy as a response to a call.

An introduction to the idea of an object in object-oriented programming, part 2

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Object-oriented programming objects aren’t objects

The previous post provides an intuitively clear motivation for object-oriented programming. The difficulty is that very little object-oriented programming actually conforms to the pre-theoretical explanation. To explain this, it will be useful to take a look at a very simple class from an object-oriented language, Java.

class Bicycle {

    int cadence = 0;
    int speed = 0;
    int gear = 1;

    void changeCadence(int newValue) {
         cadence = newValue;
    }

    void changeGear(int newValue) {
         gear = newValue;
    }

    void speedUp(int increment) {
         speed = speed + increment;   
    }

    void applyBrakes(int decrement) {
         speed = speed - decrement;
    }

    void printStates() {
         System.out.println("cadence:" +
             cadence + " speed:" + 
             speed + " gear:" + gear);
    }
}

The above is an example of a bicycle class taken from the Java Tutorials, a series of tutorials for learning the Java language put out by Oracle, who have held the rights to the language since their acquisition of Sun Microsystems, the language’s creator, in 2010. The class’ fields are cadence, speed, and gear. In this case, the fields do seem to fit into a (non-exhaustive) list of properties that a bicycle can have.

The class’ methods, however, don’t reflect the pre-theoretical intuition at all. Rather than representing behaviors of the object itself, these methods represent ways that the fields of an object can themselves be changed or acted on: the changeCadence method, for instance, doesn’t accurately reflect an action performed by the bike itself, but rather one that the bike’s rider could perform to it. Worse, the printStates method, which prints the bicycle’s cadence, speed, and gear to a terminal, doesn’t reflect anything that someone could do with an actual bicycle. Instead, it represents a task that a program or user can perform on an instance of the bicycle class understood precisely as a digital object in digital space.

Stay tuned for more later.

An introduction to the idea of an object in object-oriented programming, part 1

Object-oriented programming is a computing paradigm implemented in widely used languages like Java and C#. It is often described colloquially in terms of the following intuitively plausible ideas: 1) that the most basic beings in the universe are particular objects, 2) that objects belong to kinds, mathematically represented as classes, and 3) that objects have states and behavior, which are represented mathematically by fields and methods.

States and behavior can only belong to things, which themselves belong – in a different sense – to kinds. To enforce this, object-oriented programming requires fields and methods for kinds of objects to be attached to an associated class. This is usually achieved by placing the code for the methods and fields an object of a given class may have within brackets {} that give the code for the class as a whole. When this happens, fields and methods are said to be encapsulated in their class.

Since objects belonging to one class can belong to a second class by virtue of belonging to the first, as e.g. whatever is a chihuahua is thereby a dog, objects in one class are able to inherit the behavior of other classes – if there are any behaviors or characteristics that all dogs have in common, chihuahuas will also have them.

The principles specifying the above general ideas in ways appropriate for programming languages are called encapsulation and inheritance and these are two of the basic principles of every object-oriented programming language.

What makes philosophy difficult

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There are two sources that contribute to the difficulty of philosophy, one accidental, one essential.

The essential difficulty is that inherent in explaining the concepts of things whose difficulty is consequent upon the ubiquity of those things in lived experience. The exposition of philosophical concepts is difficult on this account in a manner opposed to the difficulty of expounding the basic concepts of highly specialized sciences and professions. The latter are often difficult because they concern things not touched upon in day to day life, where philosophical concepts are difficult precisely in proportion to their familiarity. Concepts like those of time, unity, difference, and good and evil are difficult to explain in a way analogous to the way the nose in front of one’s own face is difficult to see.

The accidental difficulty is that brought about by the highly specialized language often used to complete philosophy’s essential task. Words like ‘a priori’ and ‘a posteriori’, ‘utilitarianism’ and ‘deontology’, ‘realism’ and ‘anti-realism’ are employed – sometimes in widely divergent ways across different domains and time periods – to bear on questions concerning the nature of being, of good and evil, of truth, evidence, and proof. In many cases, the inherited vocabulary of a longstanding philosophical tradition can be as obfuscating as it is illuminating, especially if the use of its central concepts has drifted over time.

The failure to differentiate these difficulties in philosophical practice arises from an understandable conflation of the main task of philosophy with a common means for attaining it. The task is that of understanding being; the means, engagement with the luminaries of a tradition, who may be dead authors whose works have been elevated over time, living writers whose work embodies the best in that tradition, or even writers engaged on account of their productivity or institutional status.

The failure to differentiate the above difficulties is possible precisely because of the way a means interposes itself between an agent and a sought end. Every means only accidentally connected to the attainment of its end is able to become the object of an agents’ attention in such a way that it can actually substitute itself between the agent and the end as the agent’s exclusive focus. When this happens, the original end sought after is often conflated one closely associated with it. In the case of philosophy, the end of understanding being ends up conflated with that of understanding what important or influential figures said about it.

On New Ageism and western appropriations of eastern religion

By ‘New age’ I mean the uprooting of concepts from eastern religions and their implementation into a western, specifically capitalist culture.

The possibility of such an implementation is consequent on the way eastern religious concepts capitalize on tensions between a) those aspects of society that are vestiges of a civilization animated by Christianity, and b) enlightenment rationalism, and c) the demands of a growing consumer culture oriented around the conspicuous consumption of purchased goods.

Relative to western monotheistic counterparts, eastern religions accord less importance to both concrete events (and consequently to both symbolism and history),and to the concepts of sin and final judgment. Instead of these, eastern religions tend to be more abstract and ahistorical, are more likely to conceive of good and evil in terms of cosmic balance rather than personal sin and righteousness, and provide concepts of cyclical death and rebirth in place of those of final judgment and reward.

Relative to western enlightenment rationalism, eastern religions – like the east generally – are understood to be mystical rather than rational. Hence, eastern religious discourse is understood to speak to ethical or emotive concerns, in contradistinction to factual matters. In this respect, 20th and 21st century western appropriations of eastern religion in the New Age movement are analogous to 19th century Romantic appropriations of the middle ages.

All of the above are characteristics where New Age religion compares well with the aims of American consumerism precisely where they conflict with traditional western monotheism. The tendency to downplay positive ethical action and motivations and instead emphasize the contribution to the whole mirrors that found in capitalist understandings of the human person as producer contributing to value-indifferent measures like GDP: the whole appears to work even if its participants are motivated by greed and self-interest. The ahistoricity and non-symbolic bent of eastern religion works against both specifically Christian sacramentalism and the attachment to events and places common across Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. In this respect, it provides support to enlightenment rationalist traditions relative to older religious traditions. But against rationalism and in accord with modern consumerism, it elevates will and feeling against reason. In this way, it provides weight to the consumerist tendency to view things in terms of their ability to satisfy desires or to interfere with inner tranquility, thereby providing incidental support to the effort to monetize the satisfaction of these desires and the maintenance of a state of personal equilibrium –as is seen, for instance, in yoga studios and meditation apps. The absence of a central notion of final judgment is leveraged to minimize self-harm and foster an attitude of self-esteem, the latter of which is strengthened by the pantheistic elements within eastern religions which encourage self-identification with a deity.

But New Age religion stands with western consumerism, against historic eastern religious practice, in several important respects. First, it presupposes a late western distinction between the mystical and the rational precisely to set the former off in a realm where its claims cannot be rationally judged. Next, it while eastern religions do place less emphasis on symbolism and historicity than their western counterparts, New Age appropriations minimize this role further, downplaying the role of symbols and storytelling in eastern texts like the Baghavad Gita and the Zhuangzi. Third, having focused on the more abstract content, it then interprets this in accordance with a western distinction between the internal self and the external world as a one between realms of values and facts. In this way, rather than being instantiated in group practices, New Age treatments of eastern religion almost entirely internalize and psychologize them. In this way, those practices which are appropriated become subsumed under western categories of mental and physical wellness, where they can be marketed to those unsatisfied with their current life in just about any respect. In this way, they serve as a monetized, purely internalized substitution for traditional communal western monotheistic practices of redemption of the self.

On how events have meaning, 3

Welcome back. Over the past week, I’ve been discussing focusing on the question ‘how, if at all, do events have meaning?’ The question was opened by the tragic case of the burning of Notre Dame Cathedral at the beginning of last week, which I’ll eventually return to. Since then, I’ve been examining a different, likewise tragic example, namely the September 11th attacks. We’ve already established that one way in which events come to have symbolic meaning is by virtue of the symbolic meaning of the things involved in those events, e.g. because the World Trade Center was a symbol of finance capitalism, an attack on it could be construed as an attack on the latter. Furthermore, one common way in which things are able to symbolize other things is by virtue of having those things as their ends. Related to this, a term may also symbolize some way of failing to meet the end that is nevertheless connected with it, either by way of excess or by way of defect. In this way, this part of the symbolic meaning of the attacks on the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and the intended attack on the White House could all be expressed by uniformly replacing the names of the objects themselves with the names of what they stand for in sentences that straightforwardly express the original meaning.

In the same example, we haven’t yet addressed the manner in which the date – traditionally associated with the battle of Vienna, a battle in which the Christian army of the Polish king Jan Sobieski held off the advancing forces of the Ottoman Empire – itself comes to have symbolic meaning. This is a more interesting case for a number of reasons. First, there is the question of how this particular event, among countless others on the same calendar day, comes to be associated with the later attack. Second, there is some disagreement about whether those who planned the attack themselves intended the association with the anniversary. Third, though preparations were already in place on the 11th, the Polish advance did not begin until the morning of the 12th.

That the date remains an important part of the meaning of the event thus suggests a number of things: first, that an event may have a symbolic meaning independent of, or even contrary to, the intent of its principal agents. To take another example, the Christian interpretation of the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth on the Jewish Passover as a symbolic reenactment of the Passover sacrifice itself was not merely orthogonal to the intent of the Roman guards who carried out the execution, but also actively antithetical to the intent of the Pharisees who pushed for it: it strengthened the belief, which they vigorously denied, that Jesus was the anointed messiah of God. In short, the meaning of an event need not depend on the intent of its principal agents.

We’ll delve further into these cases tomorrow.

Highlighted posts for April 14-20, 2019

This week includes two highlighted posts:

The first, in political philosophy, examines the differences between the concepts of libertarianism, subsidiarity, federalism, nationalism, states’ rights, and racism. In modern political discourse, the first three of these concepts are frequently conflated with each other, and sometimes are polemically linked with the latter three. I show that the political philosophy of libertarianism and the principle of subsidiarity are strictly orthogonal to each other. Further, while libertarianism and nationalism are materially inconsistent with each other, nationalism itself can be understood as an expansion of the main concepts libertarianism affords to individuals to nation-states.

The second, ‘A glimpse of early Hebrew metaphysics in the book of Genesis‘, combines themes from the study of ancient history, biblical interpretation, and metaphysics, to show how errors in the interpretation of a text – in this case, the description of the sisters Leah and Rachel in the book of Genesis – can arise from more fundamental shifts in metaphysics.