My only question: no Spanish, anywhere? Not even along the borders?
At the end, one of two hosts [of a radio program he was being interviewed at] asked me, “If you were giving a 12-year-old American kid advice on what languages to learn, what advice would you give?” I think he was expecting me to say “English and Chinese.” I answered, “Two languages: English and math.”
I think of this insight often when I read, mostly because they confirm my own anecdotal experiences travelling abroad. Everybody in Ghana spoke English, and only rural Iberians and Slovenians had trouble with English in Europe. Non-Native French speakers seem only to be in parts of France’s old empire, where old customs – learning the language of the conqueror to get ahead in the rat race – still prevail. English is learned because it’s necessary to communicate these days.
Check out this excerpt from a piece on Swiss language borders in the BBC:
There are four official Swiss languages: German, French, Italian and Romansh, an indigenous language with limited status that’s similar to Latin and spoken today by only a handful of Swiss. A fifth language, English, is increasingly used to bridge the linguistic divide. In a recent survey by Pro Linguis, three quarters of those queried said they use English at least three times per week.
Read the rest. That’s a lot of English used in a country that’s sandwiched between Germany, France, and Italy. I think the power of English, at least in Europe, has to do with the fact that it’s a mish-mash of Germanic and Latin; it’s a “bastard tongue,” in the words of John McWhorter, a linguist at Columbia. Let’s hear it for the bastards of the world!
It is well known that Friedrich Hayek once rejoiced at Noam Chomsky’s evolutionary theory of language, which stated that the faculty of speaking depends upon a biological device which human beings are enabled with. There is no blank slate and our experience of the world relies on structures that come from the experience in itself.
Hayek would be now delighted if he were told about the recent discoveries on the importance of background knowledge in the arms race between human beings and Artificial Intelligence. When decisions are to be taken by trial and error at the inside of a feedback system, humans are still ahead because they apply a framework of abstract patterns to interpret the connections among the different elements of the system. These patterns are acquired from previous experiences in other closed systems and provide with a semantic meaning to the new one. Thus, humans outperform machines, which work as blank slates, since they take information only from the closed system.
The report of the cited study finishes with the common place of asking what would happen if some day machines learn to handle with abstract patterns of a higher degree of complexity and, then, keep up with that human relative advantage.
As we stated in another place, those abstract machines already exist and they are the legal codes and law systems that enable their users with a set of patterns to interpret controversies concerning human behaviour.
What is worth being asked is not whether Artificial Intelligence eventually will surpass human beings, but what group of individuals will overcome the other: the one which uses technology or the one which refuses to do so.
The answer seems quite obvious when the term “technology” is related to concrete machines, but it is not so clear when we apply it to abstract devices. I tried to ponder the latter problem when I outlined an imaginary arms race between policy wonks and lawyers.
Now, we can extend these concepts to whole populations. Which of these nations will prevail over the other ones: the countries whose citizens are enabled with a set of abstract rules to based their decisions on (the rule of law) or the despotic countries, ruled by the whim of men?
The conclusion to be drawn is quite obvious when we are confronted with a so polarised question. Nevertheless, the problem becomes more subtle when the disjunction concerns on rule of law vs deliberate central planning.
The rule of law is the supplementary set of abstract patterns of conduct that gives sense to the events of the social reality in order to interpret human social action, including the political authority.
In the case of central planning, those abstract patterns are replaced by a concrete model of society whose elements are defined by the authority (after all, that is the main function of Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan).
Superficially considered, the former – the rule of law as an abstract machine – is irrational while the latter – the Leviathan’s central planning – seems to respond to a rational construction of the society. Our approach states that, paradoxically, the more abstract is the order of a society, the more rational are the decisions and plans that the individuals undertake, since they are based on the supplementary and general patterns provided by the law, whereas central planning offers to the individuals a poorer set of concrete information, which limits the scope of the decisions to those to be based on expediency.
That is why we like to state that law is spontaneous. Not because nobody had created it -in fact, someone did – but because law stands by itself the test of time as the result of an evolutionary process in which populations following the rule of law outperform the rival ones.
One of the greatest controversies on the Brazilian internet these last few days was to define Nazism as either left-wing or right-wing. I even wrote something about it in Portuguese, and although I really tried my best not to be controversial, I was amazed by how divisive the issue seems to be. So here is my view on this issue, now in English.
Is Nazism a left or right wing political movement? The first thing I believe we need to consider to answer this question is what is right and left? The answer (surprisingly simple in my view) is that right and left are words. Words are signs we use to describe things, but as (I guess) most linguists will say, words don’t have any objective connection to the things they describe. For example, there’s no special connection between the word “cat” and that fluffy animal that drinks milk and chases rats. It is just a convention that in the English language we call that animal “cat,” and not “alligator” or “hot dog.”
However, when we say that there is no objective connection between words and stuff, that doesn’t mean that words are simply random. Words only work in a linguistic context, so there is no use calling a cat anything else if you want to communicate properly. The English language (as any other language, except for Esperanto) was not invented by any specific person. Languages are actually a spontaneous order, something that economists in the Austrian School really enjoy talking about. So, if you want to communicate well, you have to join the party (or the conversation).
With all that said, we need to admit that the word most often used to describe Nazism politically is right-wing. Actually, far-right. The point in discussion (that so many people in Brazil just don’t seem to get) is if this description makes any sense. You see, other groups classified as right-wing are conservatives and liberals (classical liberals, to be more precise). So the question is: why are conservatives, liberals and Nazis all classified as right-wing? What do all these groups have in common? Going back to the example of the cat, there is a reason why you can call both a lion and a tiger a cat (or a feline): they both share several characteristics. It may be just at the eye of the beholder (although evolutionary biologists will say something different), but a lion has much more to do with a tiger than with a frog. So it seems fair to include lions and tigers in a small group where frogs don’t belong. So, the question is: is it fair to include conservatives, classical liberals and Nazis in the same group? Why?
I know there are reasons why all these groups are generally classified together. I know that left and right are terms that go back to the French Revolution. I know how these terms are generally used. All I’m saying (with Friedrich Hayek, David Nolan, and many others) is that we should reconsider the way we typically classify political groups.
Dinosaurs were classified as reptiles. And then people realized they were closer to birds. I guess it was a shock when someone first said that a Velociraptor has more to do with a chicken than with a Komodo dragon, but it seems to me (as an outsider of paleontology) that this is common wisdom now. Similarly, maybe we should have the courage to reconsider the way we classify Nazis. Leftists, of course, won’t like this. But neither do conservatives like being called fascists. Are leftists tasting their bitter medicine? Maybe. But I believe they should give us a good explanation why Nazis should be considered right-wing. I haven’t heard any.
Well Jacques, my last comment was not supposed to be the full reply to your preceding comment, as I tried to make clear. As I said I needed time to think before posting anything from Foucault. I was just preparing the way with comments on the background to Foucault’s style. On Montaigne, how easy is Montaigne? Maybe he seems clear to you and other French people who read him in the Lycée. I teach a lot of Montaigne in Istanbul and students don’t find him easy. Maybe his style at a sentence by sentence level is clearer than Foucault, but I would say only Foucault at his most supposedly obscure. Montaigne can seem clear because he writes in a conversational way, appearing to just comment informally on something in his mind. However, his essays are endlessly digressive and shifting in viewpoint and claim within just one essay, some of which are very long and very detached from the starting point. He mixes quotations from classics, historical illustrations, unreliable anecdotes, and personal memories, in ways which could be often said to obscure as much as clarify any underlying claim, though sometimes a relatively simple maxim seems to be the point. Even there, one really has to think about the relation between the apparent maxim and Montaigne’s shifting point of view to get the underlying point/points. The way that the style interacts with Montaigne’s mind and the uncertainties of his point of view, and the persistent anxieties about saving his world of experience from extinction in death, all have some echoes in Foucault and in various ways it seems to be me that Foucault works on a basis in Montaigne, even if adding the kind of abstract language, vocabulary and sentence construction coming from a mixture of German philosophy since Kant, and poetic-literary language since the Romantics.
Now for a couple of quotations. The first is a random selection from the book that first made him famous, History of Madness. The second is a less random selection from his late essay ‘What is Enlightenment?’.
History of Madness, page 29 (2006 Routledge edition translated by Murphy and Khalfa)
Rising up in spirit towards God and sounding the bottomless depths into which we find ourselves plunged are one and the same, and in Calvin’s experience madness is the measure of man when he is compared to the boundless reason of God.
In its finitude, man’s spirit is less a shaft of the great light than a fragment of shadow. The partial and transitory truth of appearances is not available to his limited intelligence; his madness discovers but the reverse of things, their dark side, the immediate contradiction of their truth. In his journey to God, man must do more than surpass himself—he must rip himself away from his essential weakness, and in one bound cross from the things of this world to their divine essence, for whatever transpires of truth appearances is not its reflection but a cruel contradiction.
‘What is Enlightenment?’ (as published in Michel Foucault Essential Works vol 1, ed. Rabinow, 2000), p 315
We must obviously give a more positive content to what may be a philosophical ethos consisting in a critique of what we are saying, thinking, and doing, and through a historical ontology of ourselves.
1. This philosophical ethos may be characterised as a limit-attitude. We are not talking about a gesture of rejection. We have to move beyond the outside-inside alternative; we have to be at the frontiers. Criticism indeed consists of analysing and reflecting upon limits. But if the Kantian question must was that of knowing what limits knowledge must renounce exceeding, it seems to me that the critical question today must be turned back into a positive one: In what is given to us as universal, necessary, obligatory, what place is occupied by whatever is singular, contingent, and the product of arbitrary constraints? The point in brief, is to transform the critique conducted in the form of necessary limitation into a practical critique that takes the form of a possible crossing-over.
In the first passage above, Foucault uses a language recognisable to anyone who has read much Heidegger to discuss the thought of the 16th century religious reformer Calvin. Since Heidegger’s thought in Being and Time has some roots in Reformation theology this maybe a particularly intriguing way of using Heidegger. The finitude of man compared to God is something that alludes to Heidegger’s understanding of the essential mortality, finitude, temporality of humanity. It also brings out how for Calvin, madness is an aspect of the limitation of human consciousness compared with that of God. In this passage Foucault is bringing together 16th century religious thought, the way that some 20th century philosophy approaches the themes of earlier philosophy and religion when concerned with questions of the limit of experience, how the question of defining ‘madness’ relates to the questions of defining consciousness, experience and limits from the viewpoints of the dominant ways of thinking and organising experience at the time, the ideology operating in the institutions and laws which are applied to the ‘mad’. What Foucault also brings out is that madness’ was closely related to a positive idea of transcending human bounds, so that the stigmatisation of madness then as now is intimately associated with altered states of consciousness that are given value. The use of a ‘mad’ perspective in 20th century Surrealism is one of the aspects that Foucault is alluding to here, an the ways that such aestheticised encounters with the limits of consciousness and rationality relate to earlier religious ideas of exalted spiritual states.
In the second passage above, Foucault is still concerned with the limit and while individual passages in Foucault may seem obscure, he had a very persistent interest in limits of experience, and related questions over some decades, so it is possible to build up an accumulating familiarity with Foucault’s treatment of the issue. The ‘message’ in that passage is the value of moving from Enlightenment of a Kantian kind, which places limits on the claims of universality, to a a kind of Enlightenment based on exploration of the non-necessity of limits, the exploration of the plurality of individual instances unlimited by rationalistic limitations. This is a very Montaigne-like thought, even if the language is more ‘obscure’. There is a commitment to a ‘historical ontology’, that is the understanding of ourselves as individuals and of the ‘human’ in general as the product of contingency and circumstances rather than a deep self or deep humanity detached from experience and history. This is both a proposal for the study of human institutions and discourses as Foucault already had been doing for decades and a proposal for an ethics which values subjectivity in its variability and different contexts. There is no clear limit to knowledge or consciousness, just as there is no clear limit between different areas of knowledge or experience. Foucault’s idea of Enlightenment knowledge and ethics is to keep exploring and pushing at the limits that have been assumed, which is a way of showing their continent constructed nature as well as the way that consciousness is always dealing with a sense of inside and outside that is open to transformation.
In both passages above, I would argue, Foucault uses allusion and compression of multiple allusions, to show connections and differences, and to make us think about those connections and differences. Calvin’s thought about theology has implications for defining ‘madness’, Enlightenment scientific inquiry is related to assumptions about limits of reason and experience. The ‘obscurity’ arises from the way that the syntheses, allusions, and challenges to a priori boundaries are put in a language which shows these things at work rather than just saying that they exist and makes us aware that the language we constantly use is structured and energised by the unions and tensions contained within these thoughts.
If one simply wants the ideas about institutions, history, discourse and so on in Foucault, without the ‘obscure’ language, then to some degree these can be found in Foucault’s lectures, and then maybe more so in those commentators committed to a clarification of Foucault for those not immersed in the use of philosophical language to convey meaning beyond the most literal transmission of messages, commentators including Gary Gutting, Ian Hacking, and Hans Sluga. I recommend them to anyone who finds Foucault’s style to be a chore but wants to find out about ideas which have certainly influenced a lot of work in the humanities and the social sciences.
The whole dialogue between the two starts here, if you’re interested.
A professor of Political Science at my school described the modern left-right paradigm for the class today — to paraphrase, he summed up the political landscape of the US with the all-too familiar perspective: ‘conservatives want less government, and liberals want more government’.
I opined, silently, in my seat. Sensing my disapproval, the professor asked if anyone had a differing perspective on the country’s political spectrum. I raised my hand and pointed out the perspective of this oft-regurgitated axiom of political theory. rephrased the point: Conservatives want liberty, and Liberals want safety. When it was suggested by a classmate that I was coloring the axiom to suit my political bent, I defended my choice of language. This phrasing, I argued, is the happy middle ground between the original, popular formulation that the professor used, and a statement that more closely aligns with my actual opinion: Conservatives want freedom, and Liberals want slavery.
When placed together, these three phrasings of the same observation illustrate the powerful effect nomenclature can have on a statement — and sheds a pinhole of light onto the vastness of the power of language analysis with respect to ideology:
Conservatives want less government, and Liberals want more government.
Conservatives want liberty, and Liberals want safety.
Conservatives want you to be free, and Liberals want you to be a slave.
The words we chose to use when we frame our thoughts betray our underlying perspective. Language is the seat of understanding, and can be deconstructed to suggest motivation and perspective. Analyzing the language used by self-styled ‘progressive liberals’ (forgive the quotes — the term itself is completely removed from cogency as a representation of meaning, as is ‘conservative’. These two terms as used in modern US politics do not come anywhere near connoting accurate definitions) yields a lexicon that I dub the language of Co-option. This liberal dictionary is used by a vast majority of the public out of rote; most people do not consider deeply the meaning of the language they use. Those that speak this dialect knowingly craft the language, and therefore, the thinking, of the larger public who adopts the dialect and spreads the meme and built-in collectivist programming therein.
This Language of Co-option is the language of our classrooms. It is the language of our politicians. It is Hegel. It is Sociology.
Let’s vivisect the following liberal sociological speech pattern:
“X is bad for society. We should do y so that z happens instead.”
To make the point that much clearer, let’s translate the above formulation into political rhetoric:
“For American families, x is a real problem, so our administration is committed to y policy so that z will result.”
To define our terms: the value x in this construction represents a ‘problem’ — to be specific, some suggested verifiable disadvantageous phenomena, that would be mitigated by taking y action. These instances exist; we can plug in some terms for our variables to create cogent statements: Suffocating is problematic for humans, therefore humans should breathe. This construction is cogent because human beings need to breathe in order to avoid suffocation, which is indeed, harmful to humans. However, such statements rarely provide people with new insights, because cause and effect tend to be plainly apparent; most everyone knows that they need to breathe to live. It seems tedious to think such obvious statements would warrant comment, let alone, say, a State of the Union address.
The power of this statement only manifests when coupled with action — the y variable. The point of x, of stating an obvious ‘problem’, is merely to gain the agreement of the audience to the y that will follow. In fact, in political speech, x and y need not have any real connection at all. This effect has been pointed out by others, including the research of behaviorist Ellen Langer, who’s research suggests merely by adding any explanation to a request one can improve the chance of a ‘yes’ in response.
For example, take this phrase from the State of the Union Address last night:
“There are other steps we can take to help families make ends meet, and few are more effective at reducing inequality and helping families pull themselves up through hard work than the Earned Income Tax Credit.”
to simplify: “Poverty (x) is a problem for people, and we can fix inequality (z) with the EITC (y).”
Let’s break it down critically. Poverty is always a problem for a family, as it is averse to survival. If you don’t eat, you starve — as obvious as the sun shining in the sky. This statement alone is almost as bereft of importance as ‘nice day, huh?’ or ‘how about those (insert local sports team name)!’ The President must have had a reason to make the comment. The statement made in this way implies poverty is a fixable problem in society, rather than a product of the human condition or the laws of our natural world. The first law of the human condition is scarcity; there is never enough of any resource to satisfy demand in any economy. When coupled with the Second Law of Thermodynamics, any natural system in the universe behaves the same way. POTUS makes the statement about poverty implying a collective problem that can be solved by some action.
The showstopper for libertarians is usually y. The solution to the problem offered by the state is ALWAYS aggressive force. In the above example, that aggression is in the form of extortion — specifically, theft of property through threat of violent action via taxation. This is stated in a positive light as phrased; the Earned Income Tax Credit is sold to the public as a tax break for some people, but comes at the expense of everyone else. The fact that your government is extorting less money from some than from others is aptly defined as ‘inequality’, but this obvious truth is distorted and reversed completely with Co-optive language to masquerade as benevolence, yielding the aberration cited.
This construct is the essence of the Hegelian ‘crisis, reaction, solution’, and is a hallmark of Co-optive speech and thought, and permeates our zeitgeist. Freedom-minded individuals hear this language and know just how ubiquitous it is in society — keep it in mind the next time you hear someone spray about what ‘We’ must ‘do’. Co-option is built in to the culture and mindset of authoritarianism, and in fact, the democratic process itself as naked tyranny of the supposed majority.
Please, feel free to post your co-optive, authoritarian quotes in response below!
Narrating the Decline from a Classroom Desk,
What language you are born into matters. It matters because it’s a means of communication and it matters even more because it’s a kind of soft prison. I regularly turn off the French language media because I become cumulatively irritated at the number of absurd statements I hear coming out of the mouths of presumably university-educated French newsmen and newswomen. There are fewer absurd affirmations in the news in this English-speaking country simply because good information is more abundant in English than it is in French.
We are used to believing that whoever is intelligent is also well informed. The reverse, we know, is not true. There are plenty of people who accumulate information and who are perfect fools. The best way I have heard it put is from an anonymous author played recently on my local radio station (KSCO Santa Cruz 1080 AM): Being aware of the fact that a tomato is a fruit is to be well-informed; to abstain from putting tomatoes in a fruit salad is to be wise!
The assumption that intelligent people are automatically well informed is so general that when we come across someone who is obviously intelligent but ill-informed we study him like an infinitely interesting creature. I have known several people like that in my life. They drove me crazy. One I know now, is smarter than I, I suspect but nearly everything he believes to be true is false. My friend has made a philosophical decision not to have any electronic media in his house. He usually carries a book. Over time, I have come to suspect that he does not read very well, that he is dyslexic (whatever that means) or something like that. In general, we don’t think enough of this rare case: The ignorant intelligent person. Continue reading