New Books: Philosophy of the Novel, French conquests

Just wanted to call your attention to Barry‘s newest book, Philosophy of the Novel. Here’s a description:

This book explores the aesthetics of the novel from the perspective of Continental European philosophy, presenting a theory on the philosophical definition and importance of the novel as a literary genre. It analyses a variety of individuals whose work is reflected in both theoretical literary criticism and Continental European aesthetics, including Mikhail Bakhtin, Georg Lukács, Theodor Adorno, and Walter Benjamin. Moving through material from eighteenth century and ancient Greek philosophy and aesthetics, the book provides comprehensive coverage of the major positions on the philosophy of the novel. Distinctive features include the importance of Vico’s view of the epic to understanding the novel, the importance of Kierkegaard’s view of the novel and irony along with his other aesthetic views, the different possibilities associated with seeing the novel as ‘mimetic’ and the importance of Proust in understanding the genre in all its philosophical aspects, relating the issue of the philosophical aesthetics of the novel with the issue of philosophy written as a novel and the interaction between these two alternative positions.

Barry has more on liberty and the novel here and here.

Jacques has a new book out, too, titled Indecent Stories by Decent Women. It’s under a pen name, John René Adolph, for obvious reasons. Here is a 2014 essay by Jacques titled “Why Young Women Are Stupid (If They Are): A Scientific Inquiry.”

The death of reason

“In so far as their only recourse to that world is through what they see and do, we may want to say that after a revolution scientists are responding to a different world.”

Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions p. 111

I can remember arguing with my cousin right after Michael Brown was shot. “It’s still unclear what happened,” I said, “based soley on testimony” — at that point, we were still waiting on the federal autopsy report by the Department of Justice. He said that in the video, you can clearly see Brown, back to the officer and with his hands up, as he is shot up to eight times.

My cousin doesn’t like police. I’m more ambivalent, but I’ve studied criminal justice for a few years now, and I thought that if both of us watched this video (no such video actually existed), it was probably I who would have the more nuanced grasp of what happened. So I said: “Well, I will look up this video, try and get a less biased take and get back to you.” He replied, sarcastically, “You can’t watch it without bias. We all have biases.”

And that seems to be the sentiment of the times: bias encompasses the human experience, it subsumes all judgments and perceptions. Biases are so rampant, in fact, that no objective analysis is possible. These biases may be cognitive, like confirmation bias, emotional fallacies or that phenomenon of constructive memory; or inductive, like selectivity or ignoring base probability; or, as has been common to think, ingrained into experience itself.

The thing about biases is that they are open to psychological evaluation. There are precedents for eliminating them. For instance, one common explanation of racism is that familiarity breeds acceptance, and infamiliarity breeds intolerance (as Reason points out, people further from fracking sites have more negative opinions on the practice than people closer). So to curb racism (a sort of bias), children should interact with people outside of their singular ethnic group. More clinical methodology seeks to transform mental functions that are automatic to controlled, and thereby enter reflective measures into perception, reducing bias. Apart from these, there is that ancient Greek practice of reasoning, wherein patterns and evidence are used to generate logical conclusions.

If it were true that human bias is all-encompassing, and essentially insurmountable, the whole concept of critical thinking goes out the window. Not only do we lose the critical-rationalist, Popperian mode of discovery, but also Socratic dialectic, as essentially “higher truths” disappear from human lexicon.

The belief that biases are intrinsic to human judgment ignores psychological or philosophical methods to counter prejudice because it posits that objectivity itself is impossible. This viewpoint has been associated with “postmodern” schools of philosophy, such as those Dr. Rosi commented on (e.g., those of Derrida, Lacan, Foucault, Butler), although it’s worth pointing out that the analytic tradition, with its origins in Frege, Russell and Moore represents a far greater break from the previous, modern tradition of Descartes and Kant, and often reached similar conclusions as the Continentals.

Although theorists of the “postmodern” clique produced diverse claims about knowledge, society, and politics, the most famous figures are nearly almost always associated or incorporated into the political left. To make a useful simplification of viewpoints: it would seem that progressives have generally accepted Butlerian non-essentialism about gender and Foucauldian terminology (discourse and institutions). Derrida’s poststructuralist critique noted dichotomies and also claimed that the philosophical search for Logos has been patriarchal, almost neoreactionary. (The month before Donald Trump’s victory, the word patriarchy had an all-time high at Google search.) It is not a far right conspiracy that European philosophers with strange theories have influenced and sought to influence American society; it is patent in the new political language.

Some people think of the postmodernists as all social constructivists, holding the theory that many of the categories and identifications we use in the world are social constructs without a human-independent nature (e.g., not natural kinds). Disciplines like anthropology and sociology have long since dipped their toes, and the broader academic community, too, relates that things like gender and race are social constructs. But the ideas can and do go further: “facts” themselves are open to interpretation on this view: to even assert a “fact” is just to affirm power of some sort. This worldview subsequently degrades the status of science into an extended apparatus for confirmation-bias, filling out the details of a committed ideology rather than providing us with new facts about the world. There can be no objectivity outside of a worldview.

Even though philosophy took a naturalistic turn with the philosopher W. V. O. Quine, seeing itself as integrating with and working alongside science, the criticisms of science as an establishment that emerged in the 1950s and 60s (and earlier) often disturbed its unique epistemic privilege in society: ideas that theory is underdetermined by evidence, that scientific progress is nonrational, that unconfirmed auxiliary hypotheses are required to conduct experiments and form theories, and that social norms play a large role in the process of justification all damaged the mythos of science as an exemplar of human rationality.

But once we have dismantled Science, what do we do next? Some critics have held up Nazi German eugenics and phrenology as examples of the damage that science can do to society (nevermind that we now consider them pseudoscience). Yet Lysenkoism and the history of astronomy and cosmology indicate that suppressing scientific discovery can too be deleterious. Austrian physicist and philosopher Paul Feyerabend instead wanted a free society — one where science had equal power as older, more spiritual forms of knowledge. He thought the model of rational science exemplified in Sir Karl Popper was inapplicable to the real machinery of scientific discovery, and the only methodological rule we could impose on science was: “anything goes.”

Feyerabend’s views are almost a caricature of postmodernism, although he denied the label “relativist,” opting instead for philosophical Dadaist. In his pluralism, there is no hierarchy of knowledge, and state power can even be introduced when necessary to break up scientific monopoly. Feyerabend, contra scientists like Richard Dawkins, thought that science was like an organized religion and therefore supported a separation of church and state as well as a separation of state and science. Here is a move forward for a society that has started distrusting the scientific method… but if this is what we should do post-science, it’s still unclear how to proceed. There are still queries for anyone who loathes the hegemony of science in the Western world.

For example, how does the investigation of crimes proceed without strict adherence to the latest scientific protocol? Presumably, Feyerabend didn’t want to privatize law enforcement, but science and the state are very intricately connected. In 2005, Congress authorized the National Academy of Sciences to form a committee and conduct a comprehensive study on contemporary legal science to identify community needs, evaluating laboratory executives, medical examiners, coroners, anthropologists, entomologists, ontologists, and various legal experts. Forensic science — scientific procedure applied to the field of law — exists for two practical goals: exoneration and prosecution. However, the Forensic Science Committee revealed that severe issues riddle forensics (e.g., bite mark analysis), and in their list of recommendations the top priority is establishing an independent federal entity to devise consistent standards and enforce regular practice.

For top scientists, this sort of centralized authority seems necessary to produce reliable work, and it entirely disagrees with Feyerabend’s emphasis on methodological pluralism. Barack Obama formed the National Commission on Forensic Science in 2013 to further investigate problems in the field, and only recently Attorney General Jeff Sessions said the Department of Justice will not renew the committee. It’s unclear now what forensic science will do to resolve its ongoing problems, but what is clear is that the American court system would fall apart without the possibility of appealing to scientific consensus (especially forensics), and that the only foreseeable way to solve the existing issues is through stricter methodology. (Just like with McDonalds, there are enforced standards so that the product is consistent wherever one orders.) More on this later.

So it doesn’t seem to be in the interest of things like due process to abandon science or completely separate it from state power. (It does, however, make sense to move forensic laboratories out from under direct administrative control, as the NAS report notes in Recommendation 4. This is, however, specifically to reduce bias.) In a culture where science is viewed as irrational, Eurocentric, ad hoc, and polluted with ideological motivations — or where Reason itself is seen as a particular hegemonic, imperial device to suppress different cultures — not only do we not know what to do, when we try to do things we lose elements of our civilization that everyone agrees are valuable.

Although Aristotle separated pathos, ethos and logos (adding that all informed each other), later philosophers like Feyerabend thought of reason as a sort of “practice,” with history and connotations like any other human activity, falling far short of sublime. One could no more justify reason outside of its European cosmology than the sacrificial rituals of the Aztecs outside of theirs. To communicate across paradigms, participants have to understand each other on a deep level, even becoming entirely new persons. When debates happen, they must happen on a principle of mutual respect and curiosity.

From this one can detect a bold argument for tolerance. Indeed, Feyerabend was heavily influenced by John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty. Maybe, in a world disillusioned with scientism and objective standards, the next cultural move is multilateral acceptance and tolerance for each others’ ideas.

This has not been the result of postmodern revelations, though. The 2016 election featured the victory of one psychopath over another, from two camps utterly consumed with vitriol for each other. Between Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, Americans drifted toward radicalization as the only establishment candidate seemed to offer the same noxious, warmongering mess of the previous few decades of administration. Politics has only polarized further since the inauguration. The alt-right, a nearly perfect symbol of cultural intolerance, is regular news for mainstream media. Trump acolytes physically brawl with black bloc Antifa in the same city of the 1960s Free Speech Movement. It seems to be the worst at universities. Analytic feminist philosophers asked for the retraction of a controversial paper, seemingly without reading it. Professors even get involved in student disputes, at Berkeley and more recently Evergreen. The names each side uses to attack each other (“fascist,” most prominently) — sometimes accurate, usually not — display a political divide with groups that increasingly refuse to argue their own side and prefer silencing their opposition.

There is not a tolerant left or tolerant right any longer, in the mainstream. We are witnessing only shades of authoritarianism, eager to destroy each other. And what is obvious is that the theories and tools of the postmodernists (post-structuralism, social constructivism, deconstruction, critical theory, relativism) are as useful for reactionary praxis as their usual role in left-wing circles. Says Casey Williams in the New York Times: “Trump’s playbook should be familiar to any student of critical theory and philosophy. It often feels like Trump has stolen our ideas and weaponized them.” The idea of the “post-truth” world originated in postmodern academia. It is the monster turning against Doctor Frankenstein.

Moral (cultural) relativism in particular only promises rejecting our shared humanity. It paralyzes our judgment on female genital mutilation, flogging, stoning, human and animal sacrifice, honor killing, Caste, underground sex trade. The afterbirth of Protagoras, cruelly resurrected once again, does not promise trials at Nuremberg, where the Allied powers appealed to something above and beyond written law to exact judgment on mass murderers. It does not promise justice for the ethnic cleansers in Srebrenica, as the United Nations is helpless to impose a tribunal from outside Bosnia-Herzegovina. Today, this moral pessimism laughs at the phrase “humanitarian crisis,” and Western efforts to change the material conditions of fleeing Iraqis, Afghans, Libyans, Syrians, Venezuelans, North Koreans…

In the absence of universal morality, and the introduction of subjective reality, the vacuum will be filled with something much more awful. And we should be afraid of this because tolerance has not emerged as a replacement. When Harry Potter first encounters Voldemort face-to-scalp, the Dark Lord tells the boy “There is no good and evil. There is only power… and those too weak to seek it.” With the breakdown of concrete moral categories, Feyerabend’s motto — anything goes — is perverted. Voldemort has been compared to Plato’s archetype of the tyrant from the Republic: “It will commit any foul murder, and there is no food it refuses to eat. In a word, it omits no act of folly or shamelessness” … “he is purged of self-discipline and is filled with self-imposed madness.”

Voldemort is the Platonic appetite in the same way he is the psychoanalytic id. Freud’s das Es is able to admit of contradictions, to violate Aristotle’s fundamental laws of logic. It is so base, and removed from the ordinary world of reason, that it follows its own rules we would find utterly abhorrent or impossible. But it is not difficult to imagine that the murder of evidence-based reasoning will result in Death Eater politics. The ego is our rational faculty, adapted to deal with reality; with the death of reason, all that exists is vicious criticism and unfettered libertinism.

Plato predicts Voldemort with the image of the tyrant, and also with one of his primary interlocutors, Thrasymachus, when the sophist opens with “justice is nothing other than the advantage of the stronger.” The one thing Voldemort admires about The Boy Who Lived is his bravery, the trait they share in common. This trait is missing in his Death Eaters. In the fourth novel the Dark Lord is cruel to his reunited followers for abandoning him and losing faith; their cowardice reveals the fundamental logic of his power: his disciples are not true devotees, but opportunists, weak on their own merit and drawn like moths to every Avada Kedavra. Likewise students flock to postmodern relativism to justify their own beliefs when the evidence is an obstacle.

Relativism gives us moral paralysis, allowing in darkness. Another possible move after relativism is supremacy. One look at Richard Spencer’s Twitter demonstrates the incorrigible tenet of the alt-right: the alleged incompatibility of cultures, ethnicities, races: that different groups of humans simply can not get along together. The Final Solution is not about extermination anymore but segregated nationalism. Spencer’s audience is almost entirely men who loathe the current state of things, who share far-reaching conspiracy theories, and despise globalism.

The left, too, creates conspiracies, imagining a bourgeois corporate conglomerate that enlists economists and brainwashes through history books to normalize capitalism; for this reason they despise globalism as well, saying it impoverishes other countries or destroys cultural autonomy. For the alt-right, it is the Jews, and George Soros, who control us; for the burgeoning socialist left, it is the elites, the one-percent. Our minds are not free; fortunately, they will happily supply Übermenschen, in the form of statesmen or critical theorists, to save us from our degeneracy or our false consciousness.

Without the commitment to reasoned debate, tribalism has continued the polarization and inhumility. Each side also accepts science selectively, if they do not question its very justification. The privileged status that the “scientific method” maintains in polite society is denied when convenient; whether it is climate science, evolutionary psychology, sociology, genetics, biology, anatomy or, especially, economics: one side is outright rejecting it, without studying the material enough to immerse oneself in what could be promising knowledge (as Feyerabend urged, and the breakdown of rationality could have encouraged). And ultimately, equal protection, one tenet of individualist thought that allows for multiplicity, is entirely rejected by both: we should be treated differently as humans, often because of the color of our skin.

Relativism and carelessness for standards and communication has given us supremacy and tribalism. It has divided rather than united. Voldemort’s chaotic violence is one possible outcome of rejecting reason as an institution, and it beckons to either political alliance. Are there any examples in Harry Potter of the alternative, Feyerabendian tolerance? Not quite. However, Hermione Granger serves as the Dark Lord’s foil, and gives us a model of reason that is not as archaic as the enemies of rationality would like to suggest. In Against Method (1975), Feyerabend compares different ways rationality has been interpreted alongside practice: in an idealist way, in which reason “completely governs” research, or a naturalist way, in which reason is “completely determined by” research. Taking elements of each, he arrives at an intersection in which one can change the other, both “parts of a single dialectical process.”

“The suggestion can be illustrated by the relation between a map and the adventures of a person using it or by the relation between an artisan and his instruments. Originally maps were constructed as images of and guides to reality and so, presumably, was reason. But maps, like reason, contain idealizations (Hecataeus of Miletus, for examples, imposed the general outlines of Anaximander’s cosmology on his account of the occupied world and represented continents by geometrical figures). The wanderer uses the map to find his way but he also corrects it as he proceeds, removing old idealizations and introducing new ones. Using the map no matter what will soon get him into trouble. But it is better to have maps than to proceed without them. In the same way, the example says, reason without the guidance of a practice will lead us astray while a practice is vastly improved by the addition of reason.” p. 233

Christopher Hitchens pointed out that Granger sounds like Bertrand Russell at times, like this quote about the Resurrection Stone: “You can claim that anything is real if the only basis for believing in it is that nobody has proven it doesn’t exist.” Granger is often the embodiment of anemic analytic philosophy, the institution of order, a disciple for the Ministry of Magic. However, though initially law-abiding, she quickly learns with Potter and Weasley the pleasures of rule-breaking. From the first book onward, she is constantly at odds with the de facto norms of the university, becoming more rebellious as time goes on. It is her levelheaded foundation, but ability to transgress rules, that gives her an astute semi-deontological, semi-utilitarian calculus capable of saving the lives of her friends from the dark arts, and helping to defeat the tyranny of Voldemort foretold by Socrates.

Granger presents a model of reason like Feyerabend’s map analogy. Although pure reason gives us an outline of how to think about things, it is not a static or complete blueprint, and it must be fleshed out with experience, risk-taking, discovery, failure, loss, trauma, pleasure, offense, criticism, and occasional transgressions past the foreseeable limits. Adding these addenda to our heuristics means that we explore a more diverse account of thinking about things and moving around in the world.

When reason is increasingly seen as patriarchal, Western, and imperialist, the only thing consistently offered as a replacement is something like lived experience. Some form of this idea is at least a century old, with Husserl, still modest by reason’s Greco-Roman standards. Yet lived experience has always been pivotal to reason; we only need adjust our popular model. And we can see that we need not reject one or the other entirely. Another critique of reason says it is fool-hardy, limiting, antiquated; this is a perversion of its abilities, and plays to justify the first criticism. We can see that there is room within reason for other pursuits and virtues, picked up along the way.

The emphasis on lived experience, which predominantly comes from the political left, is also antithetical for the cause of “social progress.” Those sympathetic to social theory, particularly the cultural leakage of the strong programme, are constantly torn between claiming (a) science is irrational, and can thus be countered by lived experience (or whatnot) or (b) science may be rational but reason itself is a tool of patriarchy and white supremacy and cannot be universal. (If you haven’t seen either of these claims very frequently, and think them a strawman, you have not been following university protests and editorials. Or radical Twitter: ex., ex., ex., ex.) Of course, as in Freud, this is an example of kettle-logic: the signal of a very strong resistance. We see, though, that we need not accept nor deny these claims and lose anything. Reason need not be stagnant nor all-pervasive, and indeed we’ve been critiquing its limits since 1781.

Outright denying the process of science — whether the model is conjectures and refutations or something less stale — ignores that there is no single uniform body of science. Denial also dismisses the most powerful tool for making difficult empirical decisions. Michael Brown’s death was instantly a political affair, with implications for broader social life. The event has completely changed the face of American social issues. The first autopsy report, from St. Louis County, indicated that Brown was shot at close range in the hand, during an encounter with Officer Darren Wilson. The second independent report commissioned by the family concluded the first shot had not in fact been at close range. After the disagreement with my cousin, the Department of Justice released the final investigation report, and determined that material in the hand wound was consistent with gun residue from an up-close encounter.

Prior to the report, the best evidence available as to what happened in Missouri on August 9, 2014, was the ground footage after the shooting and testimonies from the officer and Ferguson residents at the scene. There are two ways to approach the incident: reason or lived experience. The latter route will lead to ambiguities. Brown’s friend Dorian Johnson and another witness reported that Officer Wilson fired his weapon first at range, under no threat, then pursued Brown out of his vehicle, until Brown turned with his hands in the air to surrender. However, in the St. Louis grand jury half a dozen (African-American) eyewitnesses corroborated Wilson’s account: that Brown did not have his hands raised and was moving toward Wilson. In which direction does “lived experience” tell us to go, then? A new moral maxim — the duty to believe people — will lead to no non-arbitrary conclusion. (And a duty to “always believe x,” where x is a closed group, e.g. victims, will put the cart before the horse.) It appears that, in a case like this, treating evidence as objective is the only solution.

Introducing ad hoc hypotheses, e.g., the Justice Department and the county examiner are corrupt, shifts the approach into one that uses induction, and leaves behind lived experience (and also ignores how forensic anthropology is actually done). This is the introduction of, indeed, scientific standards. (By looking at incentives for lying it might also employ findings from public choice theory, psychology, behavioral economics, etc.) So the personal experience method creates unresolvable ambiguities, and presumably will eventually grant some allowance to scientific procedure.

If we don’t posit a baseline-rationality — Hermione Granger pre-Hogwarts — our ability to critique things at all disappears. Utterly rejecting science and reason, denying objective analysis in the presumption of overriding biases, breaking down naïve universalism into naïve relativism — these are paths to paralysis on their own. More than that, they are hysterical symptoms, because they often create problems out of thin air. Recently, a philosopher and mathematician submitted a hoax paper, Sokal-style, to a peer-reviewed gender studies journal in an attempt to demonstrate what they see as a problem “at the heart of academic fields like gender studies.” The idea was to write a nonsensical, postmodernish essay, and if the journal accepted it, that would indicate the field is intellectually bankrupt. Andrew Smart at Psychology Today instead wrote of the prank: “In many ways this academic hoax validates many of postmodernism’s main arguments.” And although Smart makes some informed points about problems in scientific rigor as a whole, he doesn’t hint at what the validation of postmodernism entails: should we abandon standards in journalism and scholarly integrity? Is the whole process of peer-review functionally untenable? Should we start embracing papers written without any intention of making sense, to look at knowledge concealed below the surface of jargon? The paper, “The conceptual penis,” doesn’t necessarily condemn the whole of gender studies; but, against Smart’s reasoning, we do in fact know that counterintuitive or highly heterodox theory is considered perfectly average.

There were other attacks on the hoax, from SlateSalon and elsewhere. Criticisms, often valid for the particular essay, typically didn’t move the conversation far enough. There is much more for this discussion. A 2006 paper from the International Journal of Evidence Based Healthcare, “Deconstructing the evidence-based discourse in health sciences,” called the use of scientific evidence “fascist.” In the abstract the authors state their allegiance to the work of Deleuze and Guattari. Real Peer Review, a Twitter account that collects abstracts from scholarly articles, regulary features essays from the departments of women and gender studies, including a recent one from a Ph. D student wherein the author identifies as a hippopotamus. Sure, the recent hoax paper doesn’t really say anything. but it intensifies this much-needed debate. It brings out these two currents — reason and the rejection of reason — and demands a solution. And we know that lived experience is going to be often inconclusive.

Opening up lines of communication is a solution. One valid complaint is that gender studies seems too insulated, in a way in which chemistry, for instance, is not. Critiquing a whole field does ask us to genuinely immerse ourselves first, and this is a step toward tolerance: it is a step past the death of reason and the denial of science. It is a step that requires opening the bubble.

The modern infatuation with human biases as well as Feyerabend’s epistemological anarchism upset our faith in prevailing theories, and the idea that our policies and opinions should be guided by the latest discoveries from an anonymous laboratory. Putting politics first and assuming subjectivity is all-encompassing, we move past objective measures to compare belief systems and theories. However, isn’t the whole operation of modern science designed to work within our means? The system by Kant set limits on humanity rationality, and most science is aligned with an acceptance of fallibility. As Harvard cognitive scientist Steven Pinker says, “to understand the world, we must cultivate work-arounds for our cognitive limitations, including skepticism, open debate, formal precision, and empirical tests, often requiring feats of ingenuity.”

Pinker goes for far as to advocate for scientism. Others need not; but we must understand an academic field before utterly rejecting it. We must think we can understand each other, and live with each other. We must think there is a baseline framework that allows permanent cross-cultural correspondence — a shared form of life which means a Ukrainian can interpret a Russian and a Cuban an American. The rejection of Homo Sapiens commensurability, championed by people like Richard Spencer and those in identity politics, is a path to segregation and supremacy. We must reject Gorgian nihilism about communication, and the Presocratic relativism that camps our moral judgments in inert subjectivity. From one Weltanschauung to the next, our common humanity — which endures class, ethnicity, sex, gender — allows open debate across paradigms.

In the face of relativism, there is room for a nuanced middleground between Pinker’s scientism and the rising anti-science, anti-reason philosophy; Paul Feyerabend has sketched out a basic blueprint. Rather than condemning reason as a Hellenic germ of Western cultural supremacy, we need only adjust the theoretical model to incorporate the “new America of knowledge” into our critical faculty. It is the raison d’être of philosophers to present complicated things in a more digestible form; to “put everything before us,” so says Wittgenstein. Hopefully, people can reach their own conclusions, and embrace the communal human spirit as they do.

However, this may not be so convincing. It might be true that we have a competition of cosmologies: one that believes in reason and objectivity, one that thinks reason is callow and all things are subjective.These two perspectives may well be incommensurable. If I try to defend reason, I invariably must appeal to reasons, and thus argue circularly. If I try to claim “everything is subjective,” I make a universal statement, and simultaneously contradict myself. Between begging the question and contradicting oneself, there is not much indication of where to go. Perhaps we just have to look at history and note the results of either course when it has been applied, and take it as a rhetorical move for which path this points us toward.

Speech in academic philosophy: Rebecca Tuvel on Rachel Dolezal

A few days ago, controversy exploded in the world of academic philosophy as a new article, published in the feminist philosophy journal Hypatia, earned itself a letter calling for retraction by over eight hundred scholars on the basis that its availability “causes harm.”

Rebecca Tuvel’s article, “In Defense of Transracialism,” argues that the same sort of theoretical support used to justify transgender persons entails, logically, support of the transracial individuals. Tuvel details the claims of Rachel Dolezal, who made major news last year, as a woman “presenting as a black woman for some years [though] her parents are in fact white” (Tuvel, 263). She posits sensible criteria that seem essential to a “successful identity transformation”: self-identification and the willingness of society to accept an identification. Then, she covers literature from biology, neuroscience, and critical race and feminist theory, to ultimately present the idea that, potentially, a concept of racial identity could turn on those criteria rather than notions like ancestry due to exclusionary concerns, a “normativity problem” (274).

The paper is about what our acceptance entails. Although it is entirely about furthering tolerance, the treatment of Tuvel online has been egregious. Some of it can be found on Twitter. One of the more extreme takes, by Nora Berenstain (archived here), outright accuses Tuvel of violence. In a response, Tuvel says she has received hate mail, but that few online have actually dealt with the questions of her article. Brian Leiter even offered to set up a fundraising endeavor if Tuvel decides to seek legal reparation for the defamation circulating online, as it could causes issues with her professorship. Hypatireleased a statement apologizing for the article, saying now they understand it was “unacceptable.”

Why was the feminist philosophy community so upset?

Daily Nous, a philosophy blog, has outlined the reasons the writers of the open letter gave for retracting Tuvel’s essay, and the shortcomings and incoherence of those reasons. Upon reading her essay, one finds that Tuvel is empathetic to trans causes, is entrenched in critical and queer literature, and genuinely only wants to explore some philosophical issues raised by Dolezal’s claims. Some of her offenses, according to Berenstain and the open letter, were deadnaming (using a transgender person’s previous name), using terminology like “transgenderism,” discussing biological sex, and not citing sources by black authors.

These particular misdeeds ran the gamut on social media. The open letter accused Tuvel of some academic concerns like mischaracterization and unpopular vocabulary. Critics on Twitter were more concerned with focusing on Tuvel as a “cishetero white wom[an refusing] to listen to cis black women and trans folks,” committing “cis white bullshit.” Noah Berlatsky wrote a shallow criticism that spends most of its time discussing how the article will be used against transpeople, and the other large bulk on Tuvel’s ignorance of history — as if history is somehow relevant to the logical consequences of a few philosophical commitments. He, again, fails to engage with it academically. It’s true that Tuvel could have incorporated more work on trans history; it’s also true that it in no way effects her basic argument.

Some responses revealed the ideological reasons for opposing Tuvel’s research. Dianna E. Anderson writes, “my problem as a philosophy undergrad… [was that] philosophy seems to separate itself out into a moral vacuum where every question is ‘just asking’ … there has to be a moral framework guiding which questions you’re asking and why … that’s why I grounded my higher education in Women’s Studies, where moral parameters are drawn around questions.” Incidentally, this is one of the two reasons the Church censored Galileo: first, it thought Galileo to be factually inaccurate; second, it had a boundary — theology of the Bible — past which speculation could not take place; cosmological and astronomical theorizing were not to transgress this line. Anderson commits herself to Women’s Studies as a place where stifling zones are set up; dogmas that may not be passed. (Funny enough, the first reason the Church employed censorship has not been picked up by Tuvel’s opposition.)

The non-scholarly attacks on Tuvel don’t hold water, which a short turn to the essay reveals. Daily Nous covered most of those points, and Jesse Singal at NY Mag addressed, again, the extent to which the criticisms avoided a critical look at the actual arguments contained within. Tuvel is not a transmisogynist. For some people outside of feminist academic philosophy, she would probably even seem like a caricature of an “ultra-leftist.” The attacks on her are antithetical to academic humility: among them ad hominems, appeals to authority, slippery slopes and strawmen. The academic environment necessary for such an unscholarly attack on a philosopher for not being aligned enough with the contemporary orthodoxy — and that is all it seems to boil down to — is very unnerving to those acquainted with the historical censorship of ideas. Adding to this, Hypatia is named for Hypatia of Alexandria — a female Greek philosopher murdered for inciting controversy. The irony seems to be lost on everyone.

The reasons given in the open letter to retract the article seem to merit, at most, a slight semantic revision. The scholars, among them Judith Butler, instead want a full apology and censorship. So then, what remains is to ask about the environment of philosophy that enabled this. Hypatia identifies itself as a “forum for cutting-edge work in feminist philosophy” … it also states that “feminist philosophy arises out of diverse traditions and methods within philosophy,” and commits to engage and uplift diversity within the field. Diversity in a continental philosophy journal might mean pluralistic methodology, e.g., hermeneutics, phenomenology, deconstrucion, dialectics, etc. Here, instead, the emphasis is on diversity of identity, which is seen as the foundation of “lived experience” (per the apology), which, it is conferred, provides access to enriched understanding.

Viewpoints from identities outside the mean are given an authority justified by conditions of their birth, rather than the authority of sound argumentation. What is important is some sort of status possessed. There’s an analogue available from another field in humanities: F. A. Hayek was opposed to the Nobel Prize in economics on the argument that no economist should be given so much power: the award “confers on an individual an authority which in economics no man ought to possess… the influence of an economist that mainly matters is an influence over laymen: politicians, journalists, civil servants and the public generally.” In essence, the argument becomes lost; the audience awards merit and attention based on something other than good reasons. In the case of Hypatia‘s readership, the audience seems to award attention based on identity.

It is, however, truly naïve to think the history of philosophy is the prevailing of logic over fallacy; that schools become popular because of their intrinsic validity, that logos always triumphs over our other baser means of evaluation. All sorts of humanistic factors, like creativity, freshness, propaganda, aesthetic appeal and explanatory power serve to elevate certain philosophies or cosmologies over others. This multiplicity of influences, however, doesn’t mean that reason as a guiding principle should be explicitly subsumed under the authority of influences like pathos or ethos, or skin color.

“In Defense of Transracialism” used argument to attempt to unravel some ongoing mysteries about gender and race. Tuvel approached the question of transracialism from a commitment to other philosophical commitments about gender and sexual identification. It was a question about what follows from our beliefs. Per Plato, philosophy begins in wonder: the critical endeavor to evaluate even our most cherished opinions, explore the incomprehensible world, and examine what incongruities appear in our web of belief.

Because of this, her essay was decisively feminist, in that it examined natural consequences of feminist theory while retaining some basic tenets (like the validity of transpeople, and, maybe, racial social constructivism). Combined with her level of analysis, there’s no question that it could only belong to a feminist philosophy journal. And it does belong.

Her article was criticized not for failing to reach sufficient level of rigor in analysis, but for insensitivity in dealing with touchy subjects. Imagine if Frank Jackson had never published his thought experiment on Mary’s Room, about the experience of the color red, for fear of offending the colorblind. Or if Descartes never released his Meditations, for fear the wax example would offend vegans that don’t eat honey.

In fact, returning to the 17th century, the Tuvel situation is reminiscent of Descartes’ reluctance to publish on the heliocentric universe, after the Inquisition’s treatment of Galileo a few years earlier. When professors in the academic philosophy community, like Nora Berenstain, condemn Rebecca Tuvel for “discursive violence” for publishing an article, and call for retraction rather than debate, it aligns Tuvel with Hypatia of Alexandria, Boethius, von Hochheim, Galileo, Łyszczyński and others as victims of orthodoxical demands for acculturation and censorship in their honest pursuit of advancing understanding.

Berenstain would have been better to react as Tolosani did against Copernicus, attempting to use philosophy and scientific data to dismantle the latter’s controversial viewpoints. Instead, Tuvel’s apparent lack of citations for black or trans authors (though there are plenty of nonwhite philosophers — Quayshawn Spencer, Charles Mills, Meena Krishnamurthy, Esa Diaz-Leon (detailed here) — who have entertained the idea that Dolezal could be transracial) was like a crime to a community not concerned with analysis, as analytic philosophy is supposed to be, but a bizarre appeal toward identitarian ethos. Tuvel says “Calls for intellectual engagement are also being shut down because they ‘dignify’ the article.”

By acquiescing to the complaint, Hypatia has allowed for the possibility of a “chilling effect” on speech in academia: authors may self-censor to fit orthodoxy or risk the hate mail and potential threats to tenure Rebecca Tuvel now faces. This is disastrous for the institution of knowledge and a culture that used to be centered around expression. In the words of Greg Lukianoff, free speech is a cultural value, not just something on the Bill of Rights. “Free speech is the antithesis of violence”: it was created, as an innovation, so that we wouldn’t need the threat of force to settle issues.

Tuvel’s conclusion — “that society should accept such an individual’s decision to change race the same way it should accept an individual’s decision to change sex” (275) — is not violent, nor are her premises or methodology. Censorship in philosophy mirrors censorship on campuses: much like protestors disrupted Charles Murray without engaging with his research (and possibly completely misunderstanding it), philosophers chastised Tuvel for minor semantic offenses or lack of adherence to certain trends; each offender expressed heterodoxy where only homogeneity was desired.

The path of philosophy, from Plato to Putnam, has always been controversial. Race and gender, multicultural studies professors always declare, are exceedingly difficult to talk about: therefore, they are perfect fodder for philosophical exploration. To deal with these concepts, one does not have to be black, white, male, female, cis, trans or non-binary — one must only desire honest discovery, and proceed with argument in a way that is open to debate. The last established orthodoxy in philosophy was Stalin’s enforcement of dialectical materialism in the Soviet Union, when laws of statistics, Einstein’s theories of relativity, evolutionary biology and non-Pavlovian psychology were dismissed as pseudoscience. In a free society, the best way to deal with unfamiliar opinions is to debate them, not to call for censorship.

There are only two ways an argument can be wrong: the premises are false, or the conclusion does not follow. The attacks on Tuvel showed an unwillingness to examine either. Without willingness to argue, philosophy — and clarification on these important, mysterious issues — will suffer.

Alethic relativism and modern physics

As the treasurer of the philosophy club at Chico State, I help organize weekly meetings to either explore topics from class more in-depth, or just argue with each other until the majority wins. As anyone will tell you, a group of philosophers is called a disagreement.

In this century, positions like absolute idealism, transcendental dualism or “free” free will are very marginal, and outside of those that favor the continental and those that favor the analytic schools, philosophy talk at a state college can tend toward groupthink.

One position that never fails to attract criticism is relativism, whose adherents persist to this day about morality. Someone will even come along now and then and claim truth itself is subjective (alethic relativism). Although at least the latter notion seems outright preposterous — it too easily leads to contradictions — Marvel Studios, of all places, recently gave me some insight into this debate.

In Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Black Widow, played by Scarlett Johansson, says “the truth is a matter of circumstance.” Before I’m kicked off this site for talking about mainstream cinema twice in a row, I want to argue that this off-hand sentiment raises some powerful and plausible connotations.

Truth does sometimes seem to be circumstantial. I don’t want to get grouped into the alethic relativists or skeptics quite yet, but sometimes truth at one level (or circumstance) becomes falsity at another. The most obvious example is our dual systems of mechanics. Newtonian physics describes the physical world we function at with excellent approximation, including planetary motion. After its creation, it defined the paradigm for over two hundred years, improved upon by greats like Faraday and Maxwell, until experiments with optics wore heavily on our common sense and prevailing calculus. The nature of light was questioned, and so a new theory of optics was necessary (and thence truth). This would be theorized by Einstein. 

Albert Einstein formalized light as quanta, and went on to pen special relativity to understand bodies approaching the speed of these sometimes-packets, sometimes-waves. And he went on again to redefine our understanding of gravity. Arthur Eddington’s eclipse expedition in 1919 corroborated Einstein’s new theory of general relativity, which predicted light, traveling along the indenture of space-time by massive bodies, would appear curved. In the eclipse observation a star which should have been hidden was shifted outside of the eclipse — confirming that starlight itself, which is massless, had been affected via light deflection. It was a dramatic event in scientific history, akin to Galileo’s confirmation of the Copernican heliocentric universe, or the abandonment of Aristotelian innate qualities.

Just like this early test of light deflection helped cement general relativity a century ago, physicists with LIGO just confirmed gravitational waves, another Einsteinian prediction. Stephen Colbert recently featured Brian Greene (whose online courses I used to learn special relativity) on his show to discuss the pivotal discovery, and Greene does an excellent job modelling the experiment in three dimensions. So exactly a century after Einstein first thought up his theory of the workings of the universe, scientists have transformed the mysterious and radical postulates into the popularly tangible.

The theory of general relativity explained the flaws and limits of Newtonian physics, but did not completely retire the mathematics. It became the new theory of truth for new areas of study. The problem being that general relativity doesn’t work for everything.

Albert Einstein never thought we would be able to practically test for gravitational waves, and he also denied a fundamental discovery of the fresh field of quantum mechanics: nonlocality. After the 19th century two-slit experiment, in which electrons were found to behave with wave-particle duality, quantum probability and nonlocality were introduced, to which Einstein proposed multiple solutions to avoid. These tenets have since been generally accepted. However, quantum mechanics, for all its brilliant complexity, works only to describe the extremely small scale, and fails to describe the universe we live in, which Newtonian mechanics excels in practically predicting, but which in turn fails to with true accuracy describe cosmological characters, like black holes and spacetime itself, in turn best explained by general relativity. The issue of gravity has been a key dissonance between the theories, as the other forces (electromagnetism, strong and weak nuclear) have their explanations in quantum field theory on the fundamental level at certain speeds, but a quantum explanation of gravity has been empirically evasive. Scientists must utilize classical or relativistic or quantum mechanics or quantum field theory, and each has its own domain of validity.

All of our current presiding and college-instructed theories, though compatible in certain contexts, war with each other at others, and ultimately fail to describe everything in every scenario… which is where “the truth is a matter of circumstance” comes to play. What can indisputably be said to be true for one scenario becomes false in another. Meaningfully saying that this is certainly true here, and anything else would be false, but then there, speaking of the same “this,” is false and an anything-else is true, seems to be only a reward of the past century of physics. Truth has a context within our understanding of the scale it admits to. It’s important to notice that, within these conflicting physical theories, a truth doesn’t become a falsity in its same context; it is only when the truth is examined through a different circumstance that, in light of the new circumstance, the truth no longer applies. It would sound like alethic relativism, except that in the example of physics, there are three or so set systems or rubrics from which to evaluate truth-values, instead of the complete toss-up commonly theorized by global relativism, in which there are as many systems as there are individuals or methods of viewing a given system.

The most obvious opposition would be that though we use these distinct theories to describe our reality based on our early place in scientific progression, we don’t assume they are necessarily correct; a final, accurate picture of the nuanced intricacies of the universe is singular and still beyond our experimental comprehension. In which case, parallel to the idea of circumstantiality, there is a vagueness whose truths are still humanly inaccessible (the idea that there is a definite but forever unknowable quality to outwardly-vague systems of speaking or discernment has been defended as epistemicism). This doesn’t get us anywhere closer to truth, however, and for practical purposes it’s as if to say truth is a convention of any given, temporary system of thought: a social construct.

That there is a discoverable and definite system of truth is still hoped for by theoretical physicists. The popular, almost celebrity theory — that one-dimensional oscillating “strings” make up fundamental particles — has most of the platform, as compared to the alternative loop quantum gravity. However, much criticism directed at string theory centers on its nonempirical evidence (perhaps epitomized in the polemic “Not Even Wrong” by Peter Woit that chastises the theory for a purported lack of testability). The use of nonempirical arguments is very controversial in 21st-century science, but they could possibly shed light on truth; in any way we may be forced to accept this consequence of not having the adequate technology to make observations, or retire particle physics altogether.

Now, how concerned should we be with what occurs on a quantum level, as applicable to our own lives? This is relevant for truth as well as our conception of free will. The answer is that the quantum level is just as true as the functional human level, and dismissing it as less valuable or irrelevant is absurd. Not only are special relativity and quantum mechanics necessary for much of our modern technology, they speculate about the very processes that comprise all experience and function and moreover, what it’s like to exist.

I noted at the beginning that mechanics is the most obvious example of a circumstantiality of truth. At this moment I’m unsure of others. But here would not consist of an example of circumstantiality: at a ski resort, someone traveling up the lift might say they were high. However, to the skier already at the top of the mountain, the person in the lift is low and they are high. So we might say the truth is a matter of either of their circumstances; this is not the case however, because in either situation the quality that is being examined for truthfulness (high, low) is a relative quality, and this will be for every example of the sort. A claim we might expose to Newtonian mechanics and quantum mechanics (e.g., the body is moving forward) is subject to criteria concerning momentum, space-time, reference point, locality, and a whole conglomerate of standards to evaluate what’s actually happening. In this sense it takes on a less subjective tone than what is high or low, which can, like the first point about global relativity, be examined by a myriad of individual viewpoints. (Also, from an outsider context, high and low are meaningless.) High and low are dependent on their correlatives, and also dependent on scale for their truth; quantum mechanics without any other size would still have truth, and general relativity without any other size would still have truth, and so on.

So, what does all this mean? It’s support for the idea that truth can be evaluated through different systems, and not just like using the tools of sociology, or psychology, or feminist theory, or Marxist history to read and analyze the same event in different interpretations; physics is a physical science, and its truths are not contingent on lived humanity. The circumstantiality of truth on the scientific level might have some consequences for objectivity and vagueness, allow exploration into what the conditions of truth are, and could be formed into a rubric for evaluating all truth and falsity; all that is work for another day though. Right now, all it tells us is sometimes Marvel can say meaningful things in philosophy.

[Update (6/28/2017): I no longer believe much of what I wrote here, having learned much since.]

Book Review: Hans-Hermann Hoppe – Economic Science and the Austrian Method

I decided to read Hans-Hermann Hoppe’s Economic Science And The Austrian Method (1995) in order to grasp a deeper philosophical understanding of the Austrian School’s methodology of economic inquiry. I was especially interested in Immanuel Kant’s influence on Ludwig von Mises and how Mises had used Kant’s epistemological insights to construct praxeology, the study of human action (economics included) that is purely deductive in nature.

Those who are acquainted with scientific methodologies in the field of economics may have heard of the controversies surrounding praxeology. Living in an empirical age, many people may be inclined to question the validity of a science that claims to arrive at economic laws from pure deduction whose validity can be established independently from observations. Praxeological propositions are indeed much more “like those of logic and mathematics, a priori” (Mises, 1966, p. 32). Such a science may strike the skeptics as being disquietly dogmatic.

In this book review, I will firstly give a brief discussion why it is important at all to discuss the epistemological foundations of economic science. Thereafter, I will discuss Hoppe’s thesis. I will describe the philosophical aspects of praxeology that can be traced back to Kantian epistemology. I will moreover summarize Hoppe’s critique of empiricism and historicism, and why Mises believed that economics is essentially praxeology. Lastly, I will give my personal thoughts on the book.

Why should we discuss the epistemological foundations of economic science?
The most immediate answer to this question is that different epistemological foundations lead to different methodologies and different theories, which can lead to different interpretations of real-life phenomena. Take for example the interpretation of an historical economic event, the Great Depression. Murray Rothbard, because he is working within the context of praxeology makes use of the praxeological Austrian Business Cycle Theory. This theory focuses on the expansion of the money supply as an explanation of the onset of the ‘boom’ in the 1920’s which eventually resulted in the ‘bust’ in 1929. Milton Friedman and Anna Schwartz in A Monetary History Of The United States (1963), while not applying the ABCT, have focused only on the contraction of the money supply and the resulting higher interest rates in 1928 as the main cause of the Great Depression. Their application of different economic methods has led them to look for different possible historical causes of the Great Depression which has effectively resulted in different accounts of the same historical event. It therefore matters what economic methods are employed in economic research.

Now that we have established the importance of inquiring epistemological foundations and methodologies of economic science, I will turn to Hoppe’s thesis.

Kant and synthetic a priori propositions
Working within the rationalist tradition of Leibniz and Kant, Mises attempts to present the proper way through which economic science – a science that according to Mises falls within the broader science of human action, praxeology – should be conducted. He resorts to the Kantian conception of the nature of knowledge and explains praxeology in terms of Kantian terminology. Hence, Hoppe firstly directs the reader to Kantian epistemology.

Kant had developed the idea that all propositions are either analytic or synthetic and either a priori or a posteriori. The difference between analytic and synthetic propositions is that the former is true by virtue of their meaning or as Kant would have phrased it himself, “the predicate B belongs to the subject A as something that is (covertly) contained in this concept A” (Kant, 1781, A:6-7). Take for instance the following proposition: “Bachelors are unmarried.” This proposition is analytic, because the predicate, ‘unmarried’, is part of the concept of a bachelor. Analytic propositions are regarded as tautological propositions; they simply restate the definition or a concept incorporated within a word and therefore they do not tell us anything meaningful about the world. A synthetic proposition on the other hand is a proposition whose predicate concept is not contained in the subject’s concept. It could therefore express something meaningful about the world. An example of a synthetic proposition is: “All bachelors are unhappy.” The concept ‘unhappy’ is not contained within the definition of ‘bachelor’, and expresses something meaningful about ‘bachelors’.

The distinction between a priori and a posteriori is as follows: a priori propositions are propositions whose justification does not rely upon experience, but solely on logical reasoning. The justifications of a posteriori propositions on the other hand, do rely upon experience. Examples of a posteriori propositions are “Some bachelors I have met are unhappy” or “Siddharta Gautama left the palace.”

The big question is: do synthetic a priori propositions exist? Kant certainly believed that they do exist, “and it is because Mises subscribes to this claim that he can be called a Kantian” (Hoppe, 1995, p. 18). In Critique of Pure Reason (1781), Kant contended that synthetic a priori propositions do exist and as an example he took mathematics (Kant, 1781, p. 55). The statement “7 + 5 = 12” is not dependent on experimentation and the concept 12 is not contained in either the definitions of 7 or 5. According to Kant, a priori propositions are derived from self-evident axioms. We can find such axioms by reflecting upon ourselves and understanding ourselves as knowing subjects. However, how can truth claims derived from reflection in our mind have any basis in reality? Is Kant here running into the problem of idealism – a notion that it is the mind that constructs reality and superimposes itself upon reality in such a way that it fits within the mind’s necessary laws?

According to Hoppe, Kant had not given a satisfactory response to this issue and future thinkers would have to take on the challenge of solving this problem. Hoppe believes that Mises had done so successfully when he had averred that action provides the link between mind – body and between mind – external world: “[W]e must recognize that such necessary truths are not simply categories of our mind, but that our mind is one of acting persons. Our mental categories have to be understood as ultimately grounded in categories of action” (Hoppe, 1995, p. 20). It is through action that the mind and reality are related: “[A]cting is a cognitively guided adjustment of a physical body in physical reality” (Hoppe, 1995, p. 70).

Another issue that arises with regards to the possibility of synthetic a priori propositions, and which I have found quite confusing myself is the following: does Hoppe suggest that we can arrive at knowledge without any experience of ourselves or the external world at all? No, according to Hoppe “the truth of a priori synthetic propositions derives ultimately from inner, reflectively produced experience” (Hoppe, 1995, p. 19). This experience is phrased by Stolyarov II as “the mind’s identification of facts about actually existing entities, including the identifier himself” (Stolyarov II, 2007, p. 53). In this sense, the action axiom is experientially-derived, but it is not subjected to the empiricists’ narrow view that all knowledge must be testable, verifiable, or falsifiable.

Empiricism, Historicism, and Praxeology
When Mises systematically constructed the foundations of praxeology, he faced a double-challenge; (A) empiricism which was quickly becoming the main influence in the economics discipline, and (B) historicism which was then a prevailing ideology at German-speaking universities.

(A) Empiricism
Empiricism is the “philosophy which thinks of economics and the social sciences in general as following the same logic of research of that, for instance, of physics” (Hoppe, 1995, p. 28). Hoppe writes that empiricism is governed by the following two related basic propositions:

(1) that empirical knowledge, knowledge about reality, must be subjected to falsifiability and verifiability by observational experience;
(2) and that empiricist research formulates their explanations in terms of causality, i.e. “if A, then B”. (Hoppe, 1995, pp. 28-29)

Hoppe continues to write that the validity of empirical statements

can never be established with certainty… The statement will always be and always remain hypothetical… Should experience confirm a hypothetical causal explanation, this would not prove that the hypothesis was true. Should one observe an instance where B indeed followed A as predicted, it verifies nothing… Later experiences could still possibly falsify it. (Hoppe, 1995, p. 29)

Empirical knowledge is hence contingent on historical facts. Neither confirmation nor falsification by observational experience can prove that a relationship between phenomena does not or does exist. By emphasizing that our knowledge of reality must stem from observational experience, they directly deny a science that avers that a priori knowledge can give us any meaningful explanation of real phenomena. However, as Hoppe and Mises point out, the statement that meaningful synthetic a priori propositions cannot exist is itself a synthetic a priori proposition. Mises has put this empiricist contradiction the following way in The Ultimate Foundation of Economic Science (1962):

The essence of logical positivism [logical empiricism] is to deny the cognitive value of a priori knowledge by pointing out that all a priori propositions are merely analytic. They do not provide new information, but are merely verbal or tautological, asserting what has already been implied in the definitions and premises. Only experience can lead to synthetic propositions. There is an obvious objection against this doctrine, viz., that this proposition that there are no synthetic a priori propositions is in itself a … synthetic a priori proposition, for it can manifestly not be established by experience. (Mises, 1962, p. 5)

Hoppe mentions a second contradiction of empiricism which regards historical events. Empiricists believe that particular events may cause any particular human action. They attempt to find such causal relationships in order to explain historical events. However, in order to do so, empiricists must assume that causality within historical sequences exists through all times. This assumption itself is not based on experiential observations, and must presuppose a priori knowledge that “time-invariantly operating causes with respect to actions exist” (Hoppe, 1995, p. 36). In addition, Hoppe identifies a third contradiction with respect to social phenomena. The empiricists believe that in order to confirm and falsify hypotheses, one must be able to learn from historical and social experience. If one would deny this, then why should one engage in empirical research at all? This however presupposes that “one admittedly cannot know at any given time what one will know at a later time and, accordingly, how one will act on the basis of this knowledge” (Hoppe, 1995, p. 37). Admitting that humans learn from historical and social experience, one cannot deny that empirical causal constants in human action do not exist. “The empiricist-minded social scientists who formulate prediction equations regarding social phenomena are simply doing nonsense” (Hoppe, 1995, p. 38). Predicting human action is not a science according to Hoppe.[1]

The empiricists are mistaken in applying the methodology of the natural sciences into the fields of social science in order to predict human actions. Unlike natural elements, human beings can and do act differently under equal conditions. Thus, social history cannot yield any knowledge that can be employed for predictive purposes. Relating this to the quantity theory of money; if the money supply for instance increases, one can still not predict whether the demand of money will change as this is entirely dependent on human action. Nonetheless, one could assert that if the demand for money stays constant and the money supply increases, then the purchasing power of money will fall (Hoppe, 1995, pp. 44-45).

(B) Historicism
Historicism, the second challenge that Mises had to face, does not take nature as its model but literary texts. Historicists believe that there are no objective laws in economics, and that “historical and economic events are whatever someone expresses or interprets them to be” (Hoppe, 1995, p. 54). Historicism is therefore extremely relativist. However, according to Hoppe also historicism is fundamentally self-contradictory. If there are only interpretations and hence no constant time-invariant relations, then there is also no historicist constant truth about history and economics. If historicism does not give us any reason to believe in its doctrine, why should we adhere to its epistemological philosophy if its proposition implies that they themselves may not be true?

Next to his refutations of empiricism and historicism, Mises had hoped that he could demonstrate the existence of true synthetic a priori propositions. Such propositions would (1) not be derived from experience, and (2) they must yield self-evident axioms so that when one tries to deny it one is involved in self-contradiction. Mises believes that these two requirements are met by the axiom of action – the proposition that human beings act and display intentional behaviour (Hoppe, 1995, pp. 60-61). According to Mises, purposeful human behaviour exhibits a person’s pursuit of an end which he attempts to reach through the employment of particular means (at least time and body). The fact that a person pursues a particular goal with his action reveals that he places a relatively higher value (preference) on the goal than any other goals of action that he could have thought of at the beginning of his action. Human action also happens sequentially, implying that the actor can only pursue one goal at a time in which he has to forego other valuable goals temporally. Action therefore also implies choices and costs. An action furthermore implies loss (and profit), because every action accompanies a certain degree of uncertainty, whether the goal achieved has resulted in the value one has expected can only be known in retrospect. All these categories of action – values, ends, means, choices, preferences, costs, profit, loss, and time – are at the heart of economics (Hoppe, 1995, pp. 61-63). This insight establishes economics as a science of human action. Or as Hoppe asserts more precisely,

all true economic theorems consist of (a) an understanding of the meaning of action, (b) a situation or situational change – assumed to be given or identified as being given – and described in terms of action-categories, and (c) a logical deduction of the consequences – again in terms of such categories – which are to result for an actor from this situation or situational change (Hoppe, 1995, pp. 63-64).

The existence of the categories of action is derived a priori from the axiom of action, and not through observation. Any attempt to disprove it is futile, since “a situation in which the categories of action would cease to have a real existence could itself never be observed or spoken of, since to make an observation and to speak are themselves actions” (Hoppe, 1995, p. 63).

My thoughts on Hoppe’s book
The book serves as an excellent summary of praxeological philosophy and is a must-read for anyone who wants to start learning more about the subject. Reading the book, one feels that it is extremely concise (around 80 pages), but also dense. Hoppe directly discusses the essential philosophical aspects that one must know in order to understand praxeology as developed by Mises, and fortunately he leaves many footnotes for further reading.

I believe that Hoppe has skillfully shown that economics is part of praxeology, and that it indisputably deals with such categories of human action as values, ends, means, choices, preferences, profit, loss, time, and causality. He has furthermore provided a well-reasoned critique of the empiricist and historicist-hermeneutical interpretations of economics by showing that they are necessarily self-contradictory.

Understanding that economics should not be conducted within the methodological framework of the natural sciences has severe implications to the ways we should deal with data of real world phenomena. If, like praxeologists claim, we cannot predict human action then there is also little reason to believe that effective social engineering is possible. The fundamentals of the praxeological methodology are therefore also immediately relevant within discussions on the roles of the state in planning the economy.

[1] Hoppe calls it entrepreneurship.

Friedman, M. & Schwartz, A.J. (1963). A Monetary History of the United States 1867-1960. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Hoppe, H.H. (1995). Economic Science and the Austrian Method. Auburn: Ludwig von Mises Institute.
Kant, I. (1781). Critique of Pure Reason. (W.S. Pluhar, Trans.) Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc.
Mises von, L. (1942). Social Science and Natural Science. In R.M. Ebeling (Ed.) Money, Methods, and the Market Process (pp. 3-15). Retrieved from
Mises von, L. (1966). The Ultimate Foundation of Economic Science. Retrieved from
Stolyarov II, G. (2007). The Compatibility of Hoppe’s and Rothbard’s Views of the Action Axiom. The Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics, 10, 2, pp. 45-62.

Sartrean Questions and Answers

Jean-Paul Sartre is probably of special interest to those in the liberty movement, as his radical affirmation of complete and total freedom is the animating principle of his philosophy (certainly the earlier, non-Marxist works such as Being and Nothingness). However, Sartre’s work is laden with jargon and confusing, paradoxical concepts, so that he is notoriously difficult to understand. As such, I am posting a few questions and answers that I wrote up in preparation for a test on the philosopher I will be taking.

Because of Sartre’s inscrutability, and my largely amateur understanding of his work, I understand that many of the things I argue he is saying, he may not actually have said. Please correct me in the comments if I have gotten anything wrong. Furthermore, I dont answer the theoretical implications of his ideas in most of my responses, mainly out of laziness, as this was more of a study guide than a polished work. So, if you would like me to expound on that, ask and I will certainly do so.

1. In his presentation of Bad Faith (BF), Sartre claims that in order to be capable of Bad Faith, humans must have a special kind of existence, namely, “to be what I am not, and not to be what I am.” Using Sartre’s examples from his section on “the patterns of bad faith,” explain how Sartre understands bad faith to be possible on this condition that “we are what we are not and are not what we are.” Then, critically discuss (some aspect of) his account of BF, noting what you take to be the strengths, weaknesses, or ethical implications of his account.

Sartre begins his discussion of bad faith by positing that, in order to have bad faith, human beings must be of such a nature that “we are what we are not, and we are not what we are.” Thus, in order to understand how he conceives of bad faith, we must first unpack this intentionally paradoxical and cryptic statement. The entire statement encapsulates Sartre’s definition of the Being-for-itself, which is what it is not, and is not what it is, a Being that is at its core a nothingness, and that which brings forth nothingness into the world.

The first clause, which states “we are what we are not,” refers to the transcendence of the Being-for-itself, and the second clause, which states, “we are not what we are,” refers to the Being-for-itself’s facticity. These two terms must be considered together, and in keeping with the paradoxical nature of the statement, the second clause must be defined first. A facticity is the sum of what we were and what we are now, it is the history that stretches before our birth and up to the present moment, all the choices we have made for good or for bad, and it also includes what we are physically. For example, I am a man, young, 21 years of age, pale complexion, Jewish, charming, and any number of factors (notice the presence of that word, “fact,”?) that I could potentially enumerate here – this is what Sartre calls my “situation.” Why, then, does Sartre say, “We are not what we are?” when it is patently obvious that I am these things?

In order to understand this point, I must also define transcendence, which broadly construed is the overcoming of facticity, the surpassing of our situation through the exercise of our freedom, in order to create a new situation which we then must surpass again. Indeed, this constant process of surpassing, equilibrium, and surpassing again is constitutive of our life as people. So, when Sartre says “I am what I am not,” he is referring to this capacity to transcend my facticity, to exercise my freedom and create a new situation where I am no longer these things which I previously was.

Putting this all together, when Sartre says I am what I am not, he means the possibilities I have before me of surpassing my transcendence, of becoming something different through the exercise of my freedom. Presently I am factically a charming Jewish man of 21 years, but tomorrow I could decide to be baptized, I could lose my charm, and I would be a grumpy Christian man of 21 years and a day. Yet, I am not what I am, because I am these things factically, but I am not them transcendentally, for as these new factors define my current situation, I will inevitably have to surpass and transcend them again, thus I am not what I am now, and I am not what I was previously. What I really am is potential, fluidity, change, or more precisely, the constant nihilation of my facticity by my transcendence.

How does this bear on bad faith? Bad faith is, fundamentally, the inability to understand this paradoxical statement. Or, better yet, the inability to understand how the clauses in this statement function and are related to each other. Taking the example of the waiter, the waiter is not actually a waiter, but he is merely playing at being a waiter, according to Sartre. Factically, of course he is a waiter, the same way factically I am a charming 21 year old Jewish man. However, I also understand that being a charming 21 year old Jewish man is not the summation of my being, I am not entirely these facts, but I am something more, namely my ability to nihilate, my ability to transcend, my freedom. This is precisely what the waiter qua pretender is denying, for his facticity merely provides him with a factical starting point for his freedom; indeed, instead of coming to work at the same time everyday, starting the espresso machines, serving meals, all in the service of merely playing a waiter, he might decide to go on a killing spree, to blow up the espresso machines, to bark like a dog and wag his behind as if it were a tail.

He must make the decision to be a waiter everyday anew, but in attempting to be what he is not (a facticity), he is not being what he is (a transcendence), and so he is vainly attempting to reach security by turning himself into a Being-in-itself. However, in order to even attempt to turn himself into a Being-in-itself, he is implicitly recognizing that he is both factical and transcendent, a Being-for-itself, which is totally inescapable because we could never not make choices – thus, while he wants to have the security of the in-itself he is exercising the for-itself simultaneously, and this is what Sartre means when he says we are trying to be like God, for only God could be this impossible combination in our conception. By being unaware of the contradiction and attempting to turn himself into an in-itself, he is denying his Being as freedom, denying his fundamental nature as both transcendence and facticity, and so imprisoning himself in his condition.

Now, assuming all of this is true, what are some of the ethical implications involved in this account of bad faith? On its head, it does not seem that there is much practical difference between someone acting in bad faith, and someone not acting in bad faith (the contrary word, sincerity, cannot be used here as Sartre has his own meanings for the term) – there could be a waiter in bad faith, and a waiter not in bad faith, and they both could show up to work every day and do all the things waters are known to do. However, probing deeper, there are many important ethical implications involved.

To know what you are doing and why you are doing it, and to affirm this as your own choice, is an extremely difficult thing to do. Let me give an example: in the Second World War, many former Nazis attempted to excuse their behavior in death camps or on the battlefield with the limp excuse “I was only following orders.” Now, this is true in a certain sense, but in a Sartrean reformulation of that statement, the Nazi is really saying “I am merely my facticity, my mode of being what I am not, that is, being a soldier. Thus, I am the object of my commanders, who have ordered me to kill this village of Jews. To be the best object possible, I must flee my freedom and objectify myself, and so it wasn’t me who killed the village, it was my commanders, who were really free to make choices! After all, I could have been killed myself, I had no choice in the matter…” By denying his freedom, the Nazi must also affirm it, for in fleeing into the in-itself he is showing his fundamental nature as a free, factical and transcendent in-itself. If he recognized himself as he ought, as a nihilating being with freedom at his core, he would not make this fundamental mistake; rather, he would understand that his evil actions were completely and totally his own.

In this, Sartre perfectly captures the moral starkness of what some may claim to be moral ambiguity. The fundamental freedom of an individual, though it is set up in certain directions by facticity, is in no way pre-determined by that facticity. The German soldier could at any time refuse, he could run off, he could even kill himself – any of these choices he is free to take, but in confusing his facticity with his transcendence, he is making the fatal error of saying “I am determined; therefore, I could not choose otherwise.” There is nothing further from the truth.

2. For many readers, Sartre’s account of love is both provocative and frustrating. In your essay, first, explain what Sartre considers the motivation for engaging in the project of romantic love. Second, explain the strategies he sees as being used to accomplish this goal. Third, explain why for him love is subject to a “triple destructibility.” Finally, critically discuss his account, pointing out what you find to be its strengths and/or weaknesses. (You may, but are not obligated to, include in your discussion a comparison or contrast with his account of sexual desire.)

To understand Sartre’s ideas about love, I must first lay out how he conceives of love as a relationship between the for-itself and the Other. Fundamentally, the relationship between the for-itself and the Other is one of conflict, a question of who shall control the meaning of the world – me, the for-itself, or you, the Other – a conflict that no one really wins. This is so because, in my conflict with the Other, I want contradictory things: I want what only the Other can give me, my Being as an in-itself, I also don’t want him to have a choice in the matter. I want to force him to recognize me as an in-itself, to give me the security I crave, because his freedom is a threat to my own, for in his freedom lies his ability to not recognize me, to not objectify and therefore fully define my being. Thus, in my relations with the Other I want him to be both free to give me recognition, and also constrained to give me the right recognition, an impossible state of simultaneous freedom and slavery. Not only that, in Sartrean terms I want the Other to be both in-itself and for-itself, and thus to be God, adding a religious dimension of redemption and justification through his Look.

There are two ways for me to do this: I can force the Other to deny his own freedom and thus objectify himself, or I can force the Other to affirm his own freedom and objectify me. However, both of these options are impossible. In the first instance, the Other is never truly forced to objectify himself, it is always his own choice to flee or affirm his own freedom. In the second instance, the Other is never truly forced to affirm his own freedom, because just as I cannot force the Other into viewing himself in a certain way, I also cannot force the Other to view me in a certain way. In Sartre’s own words, “we shall never place ourselves concretely on a plane of equality – that is, on the plane where the recognition of the Other’s freedom would involve the Other’s recognition of our freedom.”

Having dispensed with this brief introduction to Sartre’s theory about our concrete relationships with others, I can now elucidate what he thought romantic love was, and how it might be achieved. For Sartre, love is motivated by the desire to be loved, to be made whole through this love, which is a form of the For-itself’s fundamental project qua desire for being. The For-itself “seeks a coincidence with [the In-itself] that is not possible,” and so the desire for being is perennially unsatisfied.

How does one achieve this as an ideal? The short answer is, such an ideal is impossible. When this desire for being takes the form of romantic love, the lover seeks to capture the beloved and shore up his own freedom through that Other by integrating her into his being. He wants her to objectify herself and view him as a freedom, while she wants him to objectify herself and view her as a freedom – thus, both of their consciousnesses are alienated through mutual objectification of themselves before the Other. That is, he wants to possess her freedom and make it the ground of his identity by becoming that freedom. Through this, he attempts to maintain her as an independent freedom, while simultaneously grounding his own existence with her freedom at its base – in this way, he is able to turn himself into an In-itself, for only her freedom is able to name and define him, while maintaining his own freedom as a For-itself. At the same time as he desires her for her freedom, he also wishes her to be outside of him as his object of desire, so that he may maintain the situation of desiring. Thus he wants contrary things: on the one hand, the freedom of the Other qua beloved to join with him in this union, and the facticity of the Other qua beloved to be his object of desire. He wants her to be both a for-itself and an in-itself simultaneously; he wants her to be God, and thus he wants the impossible.

The long answer is, we still try anyway, so let me give an example. Jean-Paul loves Simone, and he loves her to the degree that he is willing to objectify himself for her, to force her to affirm her freedom by recognizing him as an object. However, Simone doesn’t particularly like Jean-Paul, she doesn’t want to objectify him, and so Jean-Paul is incapable of forcing her to affirm her freedom through objectifying him. There are a few possible outcomes here: Simone is free and rejects Jean-Paul’s advances; Simone is free and accepts Jean-Paul’s advances, thinking that having a willing object is rather nice; or, Simone is free and accepts Jean-Paul’s advances by falling in love with him. In all possible outcomes, Jean-Paul fails in his goal, but the third option most spectacularly, because at this point, she will do anything for him, therefore becoming his object. This is part of the reason why Jean-Paul considers man to merely be a “useless passion,” but more on that later.

These three factors correspond to define the “triple-destructibility” of love. In the first place, the motivation for romantic love results in love’s destructibility, as the desire to be loved is an infinite regress – as the fundamental project of Being is defined by the desire to be whole and the consistent impossibility of this desire, so too is the desire for romantic love defined by the desire to be whole in Being, which is perpetually thwarted by the impossibility of ever truly being whole. In the second place, the Other qua beloved may always reject me, may always opt out of the reciprocal structure of mutual free consciousness we have purportedly set up together – instead of being both objectified and free simultaneously, the Other can always define me solely as an object. In the third place, “love is always an absolute perpetually made relative by others,” which dovetails with the second point, that this absolute structure the Other and I have set up is precarious because it depends on our common, mutual, and ongoing affirmation of it. If either of us objectifies the Other, love is lost. Similarly, it seems that other people (not just te beloved Other!) are able to objectify this love as well, so it is never truly possible to be whole unless the beloved Other forms the totality of your world. Otherwise, we are continually subject just to being objectified by their Look.

3. In his discussion of freedom and responsibility, Sartre claims that while I am condemned to be free, I am responsible not only for myself but for the whole world. He goes so far as to say I am even responsible for my birth, and for the war that is taking place around me. At the conclusion of the very next chapter, however, Sartre asserts that “man is a useless passion.” In his final remarks concerning “Ethical Implications” of his philosophy in Being and Nothingness, Sartre claims that all human activities are equivalent, so that “it amounts to the same thing whether one gets drunk alone or is a leader of nations.” In your essay, first explicate what Sartre means by these provocative claims. Then, working with the text, develop your own critical philosophical interpretation of Sartre’s position, showing where you think he is consistent or inconsistent, or articulate what you take to be the most important truths he is trying to convey.

For the first statement, Sartre believes that complete and total responsibility for our actions follows from our completely unbounded freedom, for “what happens to me happens through me, and I can neither affect myself with it nor revolt against it nor resign myself to it.” For example, the Second World War is ongoing, and this war is not some non-human event that is happening to me, it is my event completely and totally. This is not to say that I am completely responsible for this war, because it is obvious that a war is much more than a single combatant serving in a single area – it is a concatenation of thousands if not millions of people, environmental factors, etc. Rather, I am completely responsible for the war insofar as it is mine, mine because every action I do in it is mine, and everything that happens within it happens through me. Perhaps I did not have to shoot the German, perhaps I did not have to mine the road, perhaps I did not have to flee from combat – perhaps I should have just killed myself and spared myself all these travails? If I do one thing or another, if I stay and fight or if I desert, that choice is mine, and as he says, “for lack of getting out of it, I have chosen it.” This war is mine because “it arises in a situation which I cause to be and that I can discover it there only by engaging myself for or against it.” That is, any choice I make cannot be distinguished from myself or from the war – the choice, the war, and myself are inextricably linked. Finally, this war is mine because my facticity is such that I am put in the epoch of war, and so all my choices begin from the starting point of the war. I could not be otherwise, and because of this, my decisions cannot fail to engage from this standpoint.

In line with the previous sentiments, I choose to be born because I choose to prolong my birth, to end it, to rejoice over it, et cetera. Any reaction towards birth is merely another way of making it my own, for any such attitude is merely a way of “assuming this birth in full responsibility of making it mine,” mine in the sense of choosing how I shall react based on my factical situation: I am born, and my birth does not constrain my freedom, so I may act in any which way from this standpoint. I could kill myself, I could prolong myself, etc. In Sartre’s distinctive turn of phrase, “my facticity consists simply in the fact that I am condemned to be wholly responsible for myself.”

Sartre considers man to be a “useless passion” because the fundamental project of man is desire for the wholeness of Being, which is another way of saying that the For-itself (freedom, nothingness, transcendence) desires the concrete security of the In-itself (static, defined, factical), which is another way of saying that the self wishes to be God. The For-itself can never be the In-itself, for in attempting to objectify oneself and thus end existential anguish, end the endless cycle of transcendence and surpassing, and finally reach security, one must always negate – it is impossible for freedom to negate freedom, for such would be an act of freedom! Because Sartre defines God as something that is both For-itself and In-itself simultaneously, what we are really doing is trying to become God, because only god has complete existential certainty. Yet, for reasons listed above, it is impossible to be God, and so God does not exist. Man’s fundamental project, the desire for wholeness of Being, is fundamentally flawed and unattainable. Thus, man is a useless passion.

In his final statement, Sartre considers all actions to be equivalent, to the degree that the man drinking alone and the leader of nations are fundamentally the same. In his first statement in “Ethical Implications,” he says that “ontology itself cannot formulate ethical precepts… [ but] ontology has revealed to us the origin and nature of value, [which] is the lack in relation to which the for-itself determines its being as a lack.” This lack is the same lack driving the self’s fundamental project, the union of For-itself with In-itself, and as such animates all the self’s actions – the lack of meaning drives the search for meaning, and this search for meaning is what creates value. Ontologically man is a unceasingly striving passion, and so from his facticity he abstracts meanings: the bread is necessary to live (a value) because it is nourishing (a fact). The value is important because I, a human being, need to live, and so I attach this value to the factical being of the bread in order to make sense of it as an object for my consumption. And this is why “it amounts to the same thing whether one gets drunk alone or is a leader of nations.” For, the drinking or the leading are simply facts, simply behaviors, when we consider them strictly as phenomena. However, because value is a lack, we are forced to give these behaviors a meaning, and this meaning is wholly self-made and contingent on ourselves; perhaps the drunk is superior to the leader of nations, at least he hasn’t killed people or fleeced the citizenry! This is all to say, of course, that the moral agent “is the being by whom values exist.”

Now, Sartre is operating on the same basic claim with all three statements: that man is what he is not, and is not what he is, which leads him to the vain endeavor of attempting to unite For-itself with the In-itself, or in other words, to become God. In the first statement, man’s responsibility for war is contingent on his responsibility for himself, on his Being which is fundamentally nothingness, fundamentally something that is nothing (that nihilates), and so it cannot help but make the war its own. Whether it runs away from it, or embraces it, or passively lets it go by, all of these options are its own because they are freely chosen – they are even more one’s own (if that can be said) because man’s facticity places him in the situation of war, and he must respond and make it his own regardless of any conflicting desires. In the second statement, man is a useless passion precisely because, as a For-itself, he attempted to unite himself with the In-itself, to become existentially secure, to become God – but this is impossible, for in trying to become an In-itself, he is really trying to get rid of his nihilating capacity by nihilating it, which is impossible. In the third statement, Sartre is saying that this constant search for wholeness of Being is what creates values, values which must exist and be imposed on bare facts: the bread is nourishing (a fact) because it is necessary for me to live (a value). Facts are never just facts, but are always categorized into a system of value by the For-itself.

Thus, in all these statements, Sartre is consistently using the same premise to argue that all of these conclusions issue from it, so in that sense he is certainly consistent. The question now becomes, do these conclusions really issue from the premise? The first conclusion, that man is responsibility for war and even his birth, is consistent with the premise, for Sartre does not literally imply that an individual man is responsible for his own birth, as it is factically obvious that his parents “made” him. Rather, he is arguing that a man’s birth has special significance to him, that he freely chooses what that birth means to him and what he will be as a development from that point. In essence, to be responsible for one’s own birth is to be responsible for the factical situation one finds oneself in. The second conclusion follows from the premise in a much clearer way, and is simply a concise statement of value placed on this ontological principle of being: man qua For-itself wants to be united with In-itself, but this is impossible, though throughout life he will continue to struggle and surpass himself in this goal. Sartre’s value judgment is pessimistic, “man is a useless passion,” but he could have just as easily said that “man is a delightful passion” or “man’s great perseverance in response to this existential impossibility is at turns puzzling and admirable.” He could have even referenced Camus’ essay on Sisyphus. Incidentally, the second statement ought to be considered as a result of the third, that to be a drunk or a ruler of nations is to be equivalent, for the only difference between them can be found in their value as an imposition by the For-itself in response to its own factical situation. Sartre looks on man’s striving pessimistically, but the fact (man strives) only presupposes that a value (man’s striving is a useless passion) will be placed upon it, though because man is free, such a value could really be anything, as I showed above. Thus, it seems safe to conclude that Sartre consistently used one principle in making each of these statements, and each statement was a valid conclusion to take from that principle as a premise.

4. At least partly motivated to undermine the philosophical “Problem of the Existence of Others,” Sartre presents his famous account of “The Look.” But rather than offering us relief that the problem has been definitively dissolved, Sartre leaves us with the conclusion that we engage in hopeless and inevitable conflict between ourselves and Others. In your essay, first, relying on explicit references to Sartre’s text, explain in detail how Sartre argues on phenomenological grounds that the “Philosophical Problem of the Existence of Others” was fundamentally misguided. Then, develop your own critical discussion of his account of “The Look,” noting where you agree or disagree with his presentation.

First, I must begin by defining what a traditional formulation of the “Problem of Other Minds” (or as Sartre calls it, the “Problem of the Existence of Others”) and then examine what Sartre calls the “Look,” his response to and recasting of this skeptical problem, before I am able to analyze whether his reformulation on the one hand and dismissal on the other is justified.

In brief, the Problem of Other Minds is the question: “If I observe that I have a mind, and I see other people walking around who do things similarly to me, how do I really know that they have minds? How do I know that they are not just “philosophical zombies,” wandering around and interacting with me in a way I might interact, but with the important difference that they don’t actually have minds like I do?” He sidesteps the initial problem as misguided, because in the setup it is given, and with the metaphysical assumptions it implies about how one attains knowledge or ascertains reality, it is impossible to solve – we really cannot prove or disprove the existence of other minds when it is set up this way.

In his chapter “The Existence of Others,” Sartre argues from analogy that just as we are ashamed not reflectively, but before someone, we can become aware of that someone through our response to their presence or, as he will call it, their “Look.” As he says, “by the mere appearance of the Other, I am put in the position of passing judgment on myself as on an object, for it is as an object that I appear to the Other.” He goes on: “this object is not an empty image in the mind of another, [because] that would be wholly imputable to the other… [however] shame is by nature recognition. I recognize that I am as the other sees me.” What he is saying here that even if the Other existed, and I was his object, I would not be an object solely to him, but I would recognize that I have become his object, we would be connected in this way through this mutual experience: recognition of an act by the Other, and a recognition of that act as shameful by the self.

Having shown how Sartre recasts the Problem of Other Minds, I will now endeavor to show his solution with the concept of the “Look.” The “Look” for Sartre is, briefly, the experience of one consciousness, one For-itself, being viewed by another consciousness, or the Other, which creates the mode of Being Sartre calls “Being-for-others.” Sartre uses the example of the man in the park to illustrate this most cogently. The man in the park is a man sitting on a park bench, minding his own business, and you are also there, minding your own business. Suddenly he looks up and into your eyes. You become instantly unnerved. Why is this? According to Sartre, up to this point the entire world has been constituted by your own consciousness, arranged according to your view, organized entirely around you. However, at this point the world “comes on to you differently.” The man is threatening you with his look, threatening in the sense that it is disruptive to your own solipsistic order of things. Really, the threat is the recognition of another point of view, another consciousness, which on principle you can never occupy, and so the world must also revolve around the Other’s point of view as well as your own. Both you and the Other constitute the world, but now you see the Other, and the Other sees you, and so your own private point of view has suddenly and rudely been intruded upon by this Other. Furthermore, this intrusion is completely beyond your control – it is unequivocally and entirely his. Fundamentally, his freedom does violence to your freedom, because he objectifies you. This is not an attempt, like one’s own fundamental project, but a successful endeavor – the entire project of your life is a “useless passion” according to Sartre, but the Other is able to quickly and easily define you as an object in his world, of great or limited significance depending on his independent and free assessment. Because of this, you are exposed and vulnerable to his judgments, and thus “I recognize myself in the Other’s judgments of me, even though I may not know what they are. His judgments cut me to the core.” I recognize his judgments but they are entirely beyond my control.

This is Sartre’s response to the Problem of Other Minds. Instead of facing the problem in the way that it is formulated, Sartre says that “the fundamental way I come into contact with other minds is not by knowing they are out there, but by means of feelings of shame, pride, etc,” feelings that only manifest in a social sphere in response to the “Look” of the Other. Thus, we can infer that other minds exist because, if they did not, we would not be affected in the way that we are by their presence and gaze. This also implies a very important point, which is that our Being is not isolated but is fundamentally social. We exist in relation with and in contrast to other people, and so our lives can be defined in their terms; this Sartre calls the “Being-for-others,” the situation where I recognize that the Other is a subject, thereby becoming his object and thus a Being-for-him.

In more formal terms, Sartre solves the problem in the following way:

A consciousness can only constitute given things its own way – a subject cannot project any other consciousness on a given but its own

Nevertheless, the world we experience does include references to others

Because only I can constitute the world, yet there are things in the world that are constituted by others, how did they get there? The conclusion is: someone else put them there.

A (very) Quick Primer on Natural-Rights.

by Adam Magoon

The first step in understanding natural rights theory is to ask a simple but profound question.  Do you own yourself?

Well, let’s start with the definition of ownership. gives us “the act, state, or right of possessing something.” Digging deeper we find the definition of possession as “the state of having, owning, or controlling something.” The last part of that definition is key; controlling.  There is a modicum of truth in the old adage possession is 9/10ths of the law.  Nine times out of ten to own something is to control it.

Now getting back to our original question: Do you own yourself?  Well do you control your own body and mind?  We do not need to delve into psychology to answer this question.  I alone can move my arms up and down, I can choose to stand, walk, eat, think, write, create, or to do nothing at all.  I alone am in control over my body.    This is an indisputable fact.  The very act of questioning this fact proves it true; for if you do not have control over your thoughts and actions how could you possibly disagree?

Self-ownership is the cornerstone of libertarian natural rights philosophy and what the libertarian means when he uses the term “natural rights”.

To quote Murray Rothbard: “The fundamental axiom of libertarian theory is that each person must be a self-owner, and that no one has the right to interfere with such self-ownership”

Under this philosophy of self-ownership there are two important subcategories that I will just touch on for further elaboration at another time.

The Non-aggression Principle: is an ethical stance which asserts that “aggression” is inherently illegitimate. “Aggression” is defined as the “initiation” of physical force against persons or property, the threat of such, or fraud upon persons or their property.

This is why the threat of violence cannot be used to negate the concept of self-ownership.  Holding a gun to my head and telling me to raise my arm does not mean you own the right to raise my arm any more than a thief owns the jewelry he stole.  Ownership cannot be transferred through violent means.

And the concept of homesteading which is best explained by John Locke:

“[E]very man has a property in his own person. This nobody has any right to but himself. The labour of his body and the work of his hands, we may say, are properly his. Whatsoever then he removes out of the state that nature hath provided, and left it in, he hath mixed his labour with, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property. It being by him removed from the common state nature placed it in, it hath by this labour something annexed to it that excludes the common right of other men. For this labour being the unquestionable property of the labourer, no man but he can have a right to what that is once joined to. . . .

He that is nourished by the acorns he picked up under an oak, or the apples he gathered from the trees in the wood, has certainly appropriated them to himself. Nobody can deny but the nourishment is his. I ask then when did they begin to be his? . . . And ‘tis plain, if the first gathering made them not his, nothing else could. That labour put a distinction between them and common. That added something to them more than nature, the common mother of all, had done: and so they become his private right. And will any one say he had no right to those acorns or apples he thus appropriated, because he had not the consent of all mankind to make them his? . . . If such a consent as that was necessary, man had starved, notwithstanding the plenty God had given him. We see in commons, which remain so by compact, that ‘tis the taking part of what is common, and removing it out of the state Nature leaves it in, whichbegins the property; without which the common is of no use”

Very quickly I will also mention a couple of the more common arguments that arise when natural rights are discussed.

First, natural rights do not extend from god or any other supernatural or theological forces.  They are based on rational and philosophical thought.  They are what is known as an “a priori”  argument.  To put it simply, natural rights are a logical deduction based on a number of easily recognized facts, primarily the concept of self-ownership.

Second, governments do not, and indeed cannot, grant any rights that natural rights have not already granted.  Let’s look at a current event that everyone always seems to think about backwards; the legalization of drugs for personal consumption.  Because of the right to self-ownership each and every individual already has the right to do whatever they choose with their own body as long as they do so with their own property and do not violently harm others in the process.   Even if the U.S. government “legalized” the use of drugs tomorrow, they are not granting anyone the right to do drugs, they are merely removing their own restrictions on something that is already a right.   The idea that law comes from the state is known as ‘legal positivism’  and proponents are hard pressed to defend actions such as slavery and extermination that were made legal by many nations throughout the course of human history.


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