Why David Bowie Is Important to Me

The Thin White Duke

The sickness of my generation is a zealous attachment to “authenticity.” It is stultifying, oppressive, maybe even deadly, and premised on false assumptions about the nature of personal identity. Bowie is the antidote. He taught that persona is performance. If there is anything like authenticity, it is fidelity to a higher-order sensibility, a sort of governing taste, which is mutable but in some sense still coherent, which regulates the style in which you perform yourself, but leaves open the question, maybe even sets aside the question, of who you really are. Rather than demanding authenticity, which is inherently paradoxical–trying to be real is embarrassing and fake–Bowie-ism instead asks for playful imagination in the artful construction and performance of persona. You can’t aspire to Bowie’s level of virtuosity in this regard, but it is liberating, especially for a Gen X-er drawn toward the grimly earnest misguided intensity of the authenticity cult, to see life as a playful pageant of role-playing that can be done with more or less art. Bowie is why I tell my writing students that there is no “voice” to find, no voice that belongs to the true you, because there is no true you, only ever versions of yourself you have learned to perform, and the voice of the character you play on the page is up to you. The question is not who you are but what connects, how much courage you have, how much guile, what you can manage to get away with.

Libertarianism and the Politics of Everything

It is a precept of Athenian philosophy in the Socratic tradition that the impetus to philosophy begins with wonder at the heavens, but the attempt to actually philosophize begins with what is near to hand–with what is ordinarily said. The presocratics are in error when they attempt to begin with and build up from a speculative ontological basis. Theorizing human life with the materials of cosmic speculation tends to produce disdain for the norms of ordinary conduct and leads us to ignore or forget what we already implicitly know about how to live together. Good philosophy begins with the question of how to live and then builds from there out to the encompassing cosmos. Our most urgent ordinary questions are political questions. What should the rules of our common social life be? What should the laws be? To answer those questions we need to know what a good human life is, and how the rules of a community can help people live well. But to know these things we’ve got to ask what sort of thing a human being is and what sort of thing a human community is. And that pushes us out toward questions about how humans fit within the larger natural order and toward questions about how communities must function in order for people to live well within them. Which calls in turn for a grasp of general principles about the forces that explain observed patterns, beneficial and pathological, in human organization. And on and on.

Perhaps my favorite insight of Leo Strauss is that when we do philosophy like the presocratics, and put metaphysics first, our resulting theory risks failing to account for politics, leaving us to muddle through with untutored common sense, or, in the worst case, leads us to over-abstractly theorize politics in a way that does terrible violence to significant truths of untutored political common sense, setting us up for tyrrany. I think this is true and that overly abstract and idealized political theory is not to be much trusted. Good philosophy just is political philosophy in the sense that the implicit wisdom of ordinary social life is where we begin, and consistency with that wisdom is a standard against which to judge the adequacy of further efforts to theorize the world. Strauss thinks philosophy is inherently political in a different sense as well. Humans are political animals, and philosophy as a human practice devoted to the rational evaluation of the regime and its laws is, if the philosopher is doing it right, threatening to those with a vested interest in the status quo. In certain very common illiberal circumstances, the philosopher has to play a certain kind of politics–has to philosophize politically–just to survive. Strauss is correct about this, too. But that’s not what I mean here when I say that good philosophy is political from the start. I mean that philosophy ought to begin not with an inquiry into the basic furniture of the cosmos, but with common sense about everyday human life, which is political.

When you assume this stance and take the rules that govern ordinary life as the starting point of philosophy, the sense in which everything is political becomes clearer. By political I mean contested, negotiated, and normatively binding. Coercion is a limiting case of rule enforcement and not the essence of the political, in this sense.

So, I made coffee this morning. The exact way this came about reflects a vast set of rules that are political in my broad sense, but also political in a libertarian’s narrower sense. The coordination of the production and distribution of my coffee and my coffee maker depended on a system of property rights that is, in fact, politically defined. And the interface between different national regimes of property rights that got my beans from Guatemala to Chattanooga was probably mediated by politically negotiated trade agreements. And my coffee machine is what it is and cost what it did in part due to politically-determined patent law. And the coffee was processed, and my machine functions, in a manner in part determined by politically-implemented health and safety regulations. And so on and so on. Politics in every drop.

Let me now suggest that libertarianism, in its purer forms, is partially a result of going at politics a bit too much metaphysics first, rather than the other way around. I think one consequence of this is that libertarians generally don’t like the idea that politics pervades every sip of coffee. Libertarians tend to see this sort of insight as evidence of a lamentable and unnecessary over-politicization of everything. (But I, Pencil is a glorious story of apolitical complex market coordination!) Libertarians do not, however, deny that law and regulation structure our relationships or everyday interaction with the world. They agree that it does, and think it’s a problem. They tend to see life within the ubiquitous life-structuring matrix of state-backed legislation as a distortion of natural or ideal human relations in much the same way that Marxists see private property as a distortion of natural or ideal human relations. It’s interesting to contrast radical libertarians and Marxists on this score. Radical libertarians think that if you get rid of politics, you end up with only private property and “natural” and/or “ideal” market relations. But these “natural” market relations, according to Marxists, are what is inherently distorting, oppressive, and political. It’s only when we get rid of bad, distorting market relations, by getting rid of the politics of private ownership of capital, that we can have “natural” and/or “ideal” political community.

Anyway, what would undo the distortion, according to libertarians? Interestingly, the only answer is politics. Libertarian think tanks advise emendations to current public policy. These changes can only be implemented through the political system. Even to recommend them is a fundamentally political act. Free Staters coordinate to take over the state politics of New Hampshire. The seasteaders and champions of startup cities are directly involved in the very complicated geopolitical realities of founding new city-states. Founding a new sovereign or semi-sovereign polis is, of course, politics par excellence.

In practical effect, libertarianism is a force or tendency within the existing political order that creates pressure not for the abolition of the state, but for different laws within current states, or new states with new laws. The main libertarian argument is that people have certain rights, and certain current laws violate those rights. So new laws replacing those bad laws ought to be passed, or newly instituted. Of course, we all understand that the law constrains and enables behavior, so we worry about the effects of changing the law. Libertarians speak to these worries. Libertarianism is a voice in the public square constantly making the claim that changing this or that law so that it will better accord with the libertarian notion of rights will not harm the public good, but will probably enhance it. (There are libertarians who skip rights altogether and argue for these changes simply on the grounds that they will have good consequences, but these people count as libertarians rather than ideologically neutral, pragmatic utilitarians because their policy recommendations so closely track those implied by libertarian theories of rights.) The argument over what rights people have isn’t just a philosophical matter, and libertarians don’t treat it as simply philosophical, either. They want the law to reflect it. Public policy follows opinion, and opinion is largely a matter of what people think is wrong and right. Making arguments about what the laws ought to be is the fundamental political, and philosophical, task.

Yet libertarians tend to affect a disdain for practical politics, and tend to see themselves as criticizing politics from a politically untainted place of ideal community beyond politics. But this is a mistake–a mistake that hobbles the effectiveness of the libertarian program, which is thoroughly and comprehensively political. Libertarians qua libertarians do nothing but politics, arguing for the active political revision of current law, or the founding of new polities with new laws, on the basis of a philosophical theory about what the laws should be. The widespread libertarian idea that actively participating in politics lacks dignity, or, worse, involves an intolerable complicity with injustice, has probably helped libertarianism maintain a certain uncompromised ideological purity, but has also made it strangely self-neutralizing as an effective political force.

When libertarians do stumble into some political power, they tend to get confused about what to do with it, because they’ve spent most of their intellectual lives hammering away at the status quo with their ideal theory, and basically no time whatsoever thinking about the implications of that theory for practical governance in a smashmouth pluralistic democracy. What shall we do first? Audit the fed?

What does libertarianism look like when it takes seriously the fact that it is one ideological faction among others acting politically to renogotiate the terms of the pervasive matrix of political rules within which we are always already enmeshed and from which there can be no escape? Does it become finally effective as a political force? Or does it become something else altogether?

An Ideological Turing Simulation of Certain Straussian Ideas

My last post expressed some confusion over the Straussian identification of philosophy and reason with the practice of Socratic rationalism. On one interpretation of Strauss, the philosophical life, so conceived, is the best human life. The argument for the bestness of the Socratic life is elusive, to say that least. As I mentioned last time, Socratic reason is relatively weak and the grounds of its authority as a source of true belief are rather numinous. I suggested that the Athens vs. Jerusalem aspect of the theologico-political problem is not a problem with a more robust conception of reason and philosophy. In this post, I’m interested in why Strauss and his followers eschew a stronger form of reason, and I try to think it through. This is not scholarship. It’s an imaginative, psychologizing reconstruction of a certain syndrome of belief. Though I’m very interested in the scholarship of this stuff, my immediate purpose is to build a fictional character with a Straussian cast of mind. That said, the constraints of scholarly method can be an impediment to real understanding, and well-informed speculation can be more illuminating.

A Problem of Semi-Mystical Rationality

Strauss, like Heidegger, thinks the ancient Greeks knew something we have forgotten. Heidegger seems to think to think the forgetting begins with the abandonment of pre-Socratic metaphysics. Strauss seems to think the forgetting begins with Plato. The biggest oddity in Strauss’s many commentaries on Plato is his neglect of the theory of the forms. One gets a strong sense that Strauss thinks Plato projects the theory of the forms back onto Socrates, osbscuring the genuine Socratic conception of the nature of reason, and thereby the activity of philosophy. At the same time, Strauss seems to assume that the real Socrates is there in the dialogue, if you can abstract from the Platonic overlay. What Plato gives us that Socrates doesn’t is a theory of knowledge based in the apprehension of universals. Platonic rationalism is itself slightly mystical, because what are the forms exactly? Where are they? How do we grasp them? With souls that are, like the forms, incorporeal and eternal? Aristotle naturalizes the forms and the soul, if not all the way, and gives us immanent universals and souls as the functional principle of animals. We recognize pure Platonic reason. It is math. And we recognize Aristotelean pure reason. It’s syllogistic logic operating on premises established by apodictic induction or refined common sense. Philosophy 101.

The problem with Philosophy 101 is that it tends to unwittingly treat this trajectory in conceptions of reason as a sort of progress. Suppose however that real philosophic reason is the messier reason of the sort we get in Aristotle’s N. Ethics. We can’t always start from self-evident premises. In ethics and politics, we have to start from opinion, from the things people say, spot the internal inconsistencies, identify the unstated assumptions, and edge toward something more certain than mere opinion by a process of reflective equilibration. (Straussians obviously wouldn’t put it that way, but it’s the right way to interpret Aristotle.) This is pretty much what Socrates does. But this sort of philosophical method looks a lot different if you jettison both Platonic and Aristotelian universals as unduly speculative and metaphysical. (Can these theories really survive Socratic scrutiny?)

Strauss often mentions Socrates’ insight that knowledge of the “the whole” requires “noetic heterogeneity.” The world isn’t all air, or all fire, or all love and strife, or whatnot, but instead encompasses many fundamentally different kinds of things. To know something of the whole is therefore to know something of the nature of its various kinds. Theories of universals are theories that account for the fundamental ontological heterogenity of nature as well as the unified whatness of beings of the same natural kind. Crucially, universals are stable semantic anchors. With the right sort of complementary theory of mind, you can build theories of reference, truth, truth-preserving inference, causal regularity/law, induction, and so forth, on top of them. Which is to say, universals provide the metaphysical ground for a conception of reason as an authoritative means of arriving at truths about the world.

But what if you give that all up? Suppose you’re a mid-century German prone to standard mid-century German narratives about the history of philosophy. So you think Platonic rationalism leads to Aristotelian rationalism leads to Scholastic rationalism. And the Schoolmen lead, on the one hand, to Cartesian rationalism, which leads to the skepticism it fails to save us from, and, on the other hand, we get English empiricism and its fairly straightforward devolution into skepticism. Oh no! Skepticism everywhere! (You will have paid no attention to “common sense” non-Hume Scots who have diagnosed the common ground of empiricist and rationalist skepticisms. They are glib, and probably cheap.) So here comes Kant to save us from skepticism by putting the structure of the world inside the mind, so that it’s no problem for the mind to get to it. But then what accounts for the transcendantal stability of this structure? Huh? Nothing. Oh no! Which leads to Hegel historicizing the structure of mind, which is sort of worse than skepticism, and then we get disaster after disaster. Hegel and then Marx and … tyranny. Hegel and then Nietszche and … tyranny. Hegel and then Husserl, who really pays attention, but just can’t decide if he’s inside his head or outside his head. And then, in your lifetime, Heiddegger’s all, “Guys Nietzsche’s right and we have royally fucked this up! The terms of the game are rigged for failure. No more inside the head or out! No more subjective and objective. Back to the presocratics and poetry and BEING. Oh, and let’s all be Nazis.” And then Sartre’s all, “You just decide how to live, which might mean joining the Resistance, but also might not. It’s all cool. Just try keep it authentic, man. Freedom, dig? So, obvs, support the Soviets.” Meanwhile, the logic-chopping nouveau empiricists in Cambridge and Vienna aren’t really doing so great saving us from skepticism by rebuilding the world out of sense data and logically perfect languages. Moreover, they have nothing of use to say about all this tyranny, about all the incinerating of trainloads of people and all the revolutionary mass-starvation of the people for the people, except maybe for moving to America and noting that people use moral words to express their feelings.

Suppose all that. You might be tempted to think Heidegger was right and that there was some kind of giant mistake at the outset of the tradition. You will not sense the disreputable Hegelianism of a grand this-leads-inexorably-to-that reading of the history of ideas because you are a German philosopher trained by German philosophers. This means you will be tempted, just as Heidegger was, to go back to the beginning and attempt to rebuild. But you will implicitly assume a version of the historicism that you explicitly reject. So you will worry that you can’t simply deploy your highly-trained philosophical prowess to diagnose the problem, find a fix, and move forward. Your second-nature Hegelianism leads you to worry that your own operative conception of reason and philosophy has been corrupted by the very mistake you seek to diagnose. If you put your historicized philosophical reason to work uncritically, you risk not only missing but recapitulating the old errors. What to do!? What to do!?

Well, (1) Don’t try to philosophize your way out of it. (2) Form a hypothesis about the origin of the BIG MISTAKE. So then you’ve got to (3) Go back to the beginning. But you’ve also got to keep (1) in mind. You can’t simply pick apart old texts like the dumb Anglophone philosophers do, ridiculously assuming your inherited method of philosophizing is more authoritative or sound than the author’s. Stupid. Stupid. Stupid. Instead you’ve just got to try to (4) Understand the text as it was meant to be understood. It’s hard, but you can do it! Then you (5) Look out for PROFOUND INSIGHTS that appear to have been later dropped or forgotten. Heidegger is right. The forgetting of a PROFOUND INSIGHT is a good candidate for the BIG MISTAKE. But how to spot PROFOUND INSIGHTS having done one’s best to divest oneself of potentially tainted philosophical and methodological baggage?! Hmmm. Big problem. If you get it wrong, you might end up alonside Heidegger rooting on the Holocaust. Must be careful. Go back to (4). How do you do that? You keep yourself open. You make yourself receptive. You are not a radical skeptic or you wouldn’t think to try. You are simply wary of smuggling in the corrupt presuppositions of your genocidically tyrranical age. Very wary. You need to minimize your presuppositions. So, (6) Leave behind everything other than that which is strictly required to really understand a philophical text. One thing to keep in mind, which may help with the problem of presuppositionlessly intuiting which lost insights are PROFOUND, is the possibility to there may be something substantive and important implicit in philosophical method or form. So, (7) Pay close attention to these changes in form.

Let’s get to work! Well, the Presocratics are just too mystifying, and Heidegger’s got you scared. So on we go to the first post-pre-Socratic, Socrates. What do we really know about this fellow, anyway? It’s all hearsay, mostly Plato. Plato we know has his own funny neo-Pythagorean agenda, and all his business about the forms and the apprehension thereof is arguably the first domino in the standard this-leads-to-that cascade responsible for the present horror of mechanized genocidal tyranny and the looming nuclear annihilation of mankind. Okay, so what is Plato doing? Pay attention. Stay receptive. So much poetry bashing, for one thing. Doesn’t he protest rather too much about the superiority of philosophy? I mean, all he writes are queer plays, mostly starring Socrates.

Interesting to think about what it is to philosophize at this juncture? Two options. (a) To do what Socrates does. (b) To do what Plato does, which is to dramatize what Socrates does. These are not the same thing. But neither of them is (c) what Aristotle does, which is write didactic, closely-reasoned lectures and treatises. But that’s our prevailing model of philosophical reason. Maybe the BIG MISTAKE is philosophizing like Aristotle. Just an idea. Who taught Aristotle? Plato. Why does Plato philosophize as he does? Probably something he learned from Socrates? Why doesn’t Aristotle philosophize like Plato? Either he didn’t learn what Plato learned from Socrates or something he learned from Plato led him to disregard it. Seems like it might be important then to understand the teaching of Socrates that Aristotle either never learned or dismissed.

Here’s your mindspace, then. You don’t have ANY idea of what it is to reason philosophically, but you desperately want to know. You assume Aristotle has it wrong. Only Plato and Socrates can tell you. It’s just an assumption, but you’re taking it very seriously. Be wary of Plato, though. He’s responsible in one way or another for Aristotle going wrong. So you look askance at Platonic doctrine, but pay CLOSE attention to Plato’s method.

Why does Plato write dialogues? They are imitations of Socratic practice. He is sticking close to Socratic practice, so he must think it is important. Socratic practice is to go out among the people, among the aristocracy, at least, and reason with them, debunking their ideas though a distinctive method of rational cross-examination. Why does Plato write down dialogues rather than have them? Well, conversations are ephemeral. What Socrates taught deserves to be preserved. But if the teachings could be preserved by writing treatises, he would have written treatises. Doesn’t this by itself tell us something profound about philosophical reason? The method of the dialogues suggests that the teaching cannot be abstracted from the embodied human context of the conversation. Because mimesis requires abstraction, something might be lost in the dramatization. But something might be gained as well. No doubt Socrates’real conversations were often partial, and really took place over several meetings and long stretches of time. And no doubt much was lost in asides and irrelevances and interruptions. Plato’s literary art, in addition to preserving Socrates’ teachings, probably made them more intelligble by leaving out the inessential and perfecting and heightening the representation of those aspects of the dialectical situation that are essential to the overall meaning of the dialogue. Plato thinks that knowing is having the right relationship to a Platonic form. Who knows if Socrates did. But even Plato’s method seems to say that coming into that relationship isn’t a matter of reading theory out of a textbook. Philosophical reason puts us at the doorway of the forms through a fairly consuming form of intimate conversation, or at least through the imaginative reconstruction of such conversations.

So what is philosophical reason for Socrates? Inherently relational, inherently moral, inherently political. It exposes ignorance, opening the way for knowledge, but it does not claim to deliver new truths to fill the nooks it has emptied of false idols. Reason is a methodical form of applied logic, but it’s useless unless it’s motivated by the right sort of desire and will-to-virtue on all sides of the conversation. Philosophical reasoning is a sort of seduction! It’s rooted in eros. Philosophical eros is both a sort of immoderation and a sort of madness not too far from the divinatory madness of poets. The ongoing practice of Socratic reason, for Socrates, has an oracular impetus and stays on the rails through occasional semi-divine interventions of his daimon. Philosophy is not poetry, but it doesn’t work without it. Socrates tells stories and myths. Plato tells stories of Socrates. Philosophy is not revelation, but the stroke of rational insight, the capacity to see through a dense web of argumentation straight to the logical error, is revelatory. What you have, once all this debunking and myth-telling, all this erotic push and pull, has put you at the doorstep of truth, and you reach out, because you ache to know, and you open the door … what you have is a revelation.

This is Socratic rationalism. This is philosophy. If it’s not the big thing we forgot, then it’s a big thing. If you can convince yourself that the model of philosophical reason from Aristotle onward somehow leads to huge problems, and that this forgotten alternative is adequate to prevent those problems from arising, well, “big if true,” as they say on Twitter. And if this is the sort of reason at the heart of the authentically philosophical life, can philosophy rule out the possibility that revealed scripture tells the truth about how to live? Maybe! It’s actually impossible to say in the abstract without going through the whole embodied, erotic Socratic hurly burly. Strauss’s abstract arguments to this effect, offered in the standard Aristotelian mode, cannot possibly be dispostive if you buy in whole hog to Socratic rationalism. If you buy into Socratic rationalism, an abstract philosophical argument is just one of many available moves in the intimate game of reasoning erotically toward truth.

But you can vaguely imagine the whole Socratic hurly burly, without actually going through it. It does seem plausible that Socratic reason won’t be able to prove much for sure, much less its superiority to revelation or poetry, which it turns out to resemble more than one might expect. Socrates in the end is a lousy lover, all foreplay and no finish. He gets you hot to trot for truth but can’t deliver. He takes you to the threshold, and eagerly you open the door. You are bathed in a glorious warm light of insight. But what is this light the light of? If you read past Plato’s agenda, there’s no specifically Socratic account of what makes the resulting insight true. So how is the light of philosophical insight different from the light of poetic epiphany or religious inspiration? There are possible answers, but none really satisfy.

Plato couldn’t stand the Socratic blue balls. So Plato does not leave a guy hanging. He is a finisher. You want truth? Here’s truth. You open the door and that which makes beauties beautiful or the pious pious or circles circular – the ontic basis of predication, truth, and knowledge – activates the slumbering native knowledge built into your eternal soul, and then you know. Unnnf!

But no. This is a BIG MISTAKE. There is no such secure satisfaction of the erotic longing to know. At least, we can’t know for sure that there is. Not according to Strauss’s Socrates. There is something suspiciously metaphysical about universals. Maybe there are such things, but who knows? So we are left with the fact of “noetic heterogeneity” without any reliable method of coming to know the essences of kinds. If we had a true account of noetic heterogeneity in terms of universals, then a practice of reason, a philosophical life, grounded on knowable essences would be authoritative. Philosophy so construed would stand a good chance of ruling out the authority of revelation. But we don’t know for sure that there is such an authoritative reason, so we’re stuck with the undefeated possibility that revelation reveals the truth about how to live.

The Theologico-Political Problem

I’ve been reading a lot of Leo Strauss and Strausseans lately. The novel I’m working on is told from the perspective of the son of a famous (fictional) Straussean academic, and his inherited Strausseanism, his oddly philosophical way of seeing the world, shapes the narrative. Anyway, it’s a weird thing to pickle in, Strausseanism, if you’re not disposed to believe in it, and I need to get a few thoughts off my chest.

I find that I’ve badly underrated Strauss as a subtle and stimulating thinker about the down-and-dirty reality of politics. Yet the preoccupations that divides Strausseans are bizarre, and seem to be based on the worst in Strauss. The best one can say for the so-called “theologico-political problem,” which Strauss a couple times said was the central theme of his work, is that he’s up to some kind of sophistical mischief he expects his brighter readers to see through. But even when you see through it, what you see is crazy.

Strauss is intoxicatingly romantic about PHILOSOPHY. For reasons that remain obscure to me, Strauss suspects, if he does not quite believe, that the philosophic life, the life of unrelenting rational inquiry, best exemplified by Socrates, is the best human life according to nature. I like this thought a great deal. I feel the draw. I may even irrationally believe it. But the only way I can make sense of the idea is to dwell on the mystery of reason. That reason actually can, as a matter of fact, infer through a rigorously tortuous chain the existence of the Higgs particle, or get very close to estimating the frequency of the cosmic background radiation – well, that’s stupendous. The fact that pure(ish) reason ever works so well is the greatest of all mysteries. How does it work? How could natural selection, that great force of the merely adequate kludge, leave us with these mystifying powers? Nobody knows! It puts me in a very heady Aristotelian mood. Reason seems very unlikely and very special and it’s not so hard to imagine that the point of it is just to participate in, or even to constitute, the thought that thinks itself thinking, which is just what the Aristotelean universe is, what God is. It’s an idea so beautiful it makes me hyperventilate. Bring the salts. If I thought this was strictly, literally true, then I might be tempted to say that that’s what we’re for – to be that through which the cosmos achieves self-conscioussness, the window inside the whole onto the whole, and that therefore the life of reason is the life that is naturally right, every other mode of human existence a bit disappointing, a failure to live up to our grand, cosmic telos. Swoon.

But Strauss isn’t this romantic about philosophy. He slags on modernity, because he’s a man of his time, a German post-modern critic of the power of Enlightment reason. All his alarmed warnings about the nihilism implicit in “positivism” and “historicism” do not add up to any great confidence in the reliability of reason to arrive at significant truth. Strauss has no time for Plato’s forms. He has no time for Aristotle’s divine theoria. His beloved reason, the only hope held out against the Heideggerian abyss, is a modest reason. His rationalism is Socratic rationalism. He believes in the power of reason to find the flaws in convention, to debunk the dogmas of the folk, but not to to do much to establish any big useful facts beyond the fact of our ignorance. It’s the life of skeptical, debunking Socratic reason that Strauss suspects is the best answer to the question how to live, the one endorsed in some sense by nature. No doubt I’m missing something profoundly important and of the utmost gravity, but I really don’t get it.

I get and very much like the skeptical, anti-theoretical thrust of Strauss. I like his deep wariness of ideal theorizing, his exhortations to pay attention to the political life we are always already living. He’s right to see reasoning with others about about how to live as an inherently political activity. He’s right to insist on honoring the distinctive excellences of those sensitive to the texture of real political life and expert in its ceaseless negotations. He’s right that social scientific theories about politics are less politically valuable then good political judgment, and that people who think they’re going to govern “scientifically” are dangerously stupid. (Paraphrasing, here.) And, yes, when philosophy is merely a handmaiden to the dogmas of our age, pursued under the “ecumenical supervision” of the universities, it is profoundly compromised. To be a philosopher is not to have a job you clock in and out of. To be a philosopher is simply to be, philosophically, always. Right! But the Socratic life is the one very best life? The naturally right, life? Nope. Nope. I’ve read and read and never quite follow how we end up there. I mean, I think this is a great life, beyond wonderful. But nope.

Anyway, Strausseans are strangely obsessed with this idea that the philosophical life, so construed, is the best human life, full stop, and are therefore obsessed with the tension between the best life, which is in the business of exposing bullshit, and the political life, which is built on it. (Under certain conditions, then, philosophers will need to be discreet and hide what they really think. It’s amazing that this was ever a controversial idea!) The tensions between philosophy and politics is real, and it’s easy to see. But then there’s a parallel obsession with the putative tension between reason and revelation – the life of philosophy and the life of faith, Athens and Jerusalem. What’s the problem? Well, Strauss says reason can’t rule out the possibility of bona fide revelation, and therefore can’t rule out that scripture contains the truth about how to live. The philosopher can’t so sure he’s living the best human life, because there’s the Bible. Say what now? This is nuts.

First, that reason can’t disprove the possibility of revelation without begging the question against it isn’t what you really ought to be worried about if you’re a Straussean worried about establishing the claim that the life of Socratic rationalism is the best human life. You ought to be worried that the Straussean case for philosophy as the best way of life, if it’s not simply missing, is very hard to credit. Anyway, Strauss’s arguments to the effect that reason can’t rule out revelation are just bad. His smarter acolytes see that they’re bad, and assume the whole business is exoteric squid ink intended to leave religion open as an option for those who require its consolations, and thereby to maintain a buffer of goodwill for secretly atheistical Socratic philosophers who might otherwise experience the hemlock wrath of a superstitious public. The funner but perhaps less plausible interpretation is that, in this hollow, Godless age, Strauss’s “secret” atheism is actually the exoteric doctrine, and that the really real hidden esoteric teaching is that divine law is the only truly authoritative law. Edgier, I think. The boring, safe, middle-ground view is that there’s really a problem after all, and there’s something nourishing about inhabiting the irreconcilable tension between Athens and Jerusalem. Live the tension! Teach the controversy!

In any case, the supposed stalemate between Athens and Jerusalem – neither being able to rule out the authority of the other – seems largely an artifact of putting a weak conception of reason, verging on global skepticism, next to a quite strong prior conviction about the likelihood of the existence of God. Start with a stronger, more authoritative notion of reason, a weaker prior probability of divine communications, or both, and the supposed problem dissolves.

Now, if you don’t think that the advent of modernity was some sort of disaster that threatens to hasten the eschaton, it’s going to seem fairly obvious that, since the enlightenment, there have been a multitude of advances in the various methods of reason, and that this has led us to learn a great deal more about our world than we used to know, to excellent practical effect. Cures to diseases, men in space, countless incremental innovations in material production leading to a vast reduction in suffering and early death. Etc. Here Strauss types will grumble about modernity’s “lowering of sights” and harumph some evidentially arbitrary, completely speculative claims about the loss of the noble and virtuous and the “high,” and maybe make some noises about the forgetting of nature, and what is truly in accordance with nature, in the quest to conquer nature by reducing it to a collection of mechanisms. Yadda yadda. It’s all smokescreen. None of it changes that we’ve gotten a great deal better at knowing things, or that reason in its several guises is the way we’ve achieved this. Strausseans moan about the emptiness of a politics aimed at “the relief of man’s estate,” but the fact is that man’s estate has been greatly relieved, and reason is why. This ought to win for reason some real positive authority, and not just Socratic debunking authority.

Revelation has made no such strides in establishing its authority as a way of knowing. Conflict between sects in doctrine and religious law raises an ancient, obvious, and ongoing problem that weighs heavily against the credbility of revelation as a source of knowledge. Even if one takes up an epistemology that gives a lot of weight to personal religious experience, such that it can count as evidence of the supernatural, and can establish the rational permissibility of religious belief, that won’t get you too far. It will remain that revelation does little to no work in our best and most authoritative accounts of the physical and human world. In cultures where the epistemic authority of rational methods are widely recognized, even people of faith tend to accept anthropological, cultural, and psychlogical explanations, rather than religious explanations, of other people’s religions. I don’t think it’s going out on a limb to say that, given the well-demonstrated epistemic authority of the methods of applied reason, it is not irrational to adopt an ontology that contains no god and therfore no revelation. If you happened to think that the life of reason is the best human life, a modest, moderately naturalistic worldview is all you really need to not worry about the possibility that, really, the Bible contains the real answer about the best way to live. You don’t need to “prove” the impossibility of revelation, as Strauss sometimes said. You don’t need to be in possession of a comprehensive true account of “the whole” that excludes god, as Strauss sometimes said. You just need it to be the case that it’s not irrational to adopt a partial account of “the whole” according to which the best explanation of the content of scripture is not supernatural.

Suppose that it’s the case that you, personally, believe that (a) the existence of God is at least as likely as not. Furthermore, (b) you take divine revelation to be at least as likely as any other explanation for the contents of scripture. However, (c) you take the authority of reason so seriously, that you suspect that living according to the dictates of reason alone is the best human life. Additionally, you take it be the case that (d) reason and revelation cannot possibly be reconciled. Now, if (a), (b), (c), and (d) are true of you, then you’ve got Strauss’s Athen-Jerusalem problem. But how likely is (a) and (b) in light of (c)? If you start with (c), Strauss’s problem is unlikely to arise for you. No devoted rationalist who’s not already Mormon, for example, thinks that divine revelation is remotely likely as an explanation of the contents of the Book of Mormon. Its existence, the vague, remote logical possibility that the Book of Mormon is more than a human artifact, is not a challenge and a rebuke to your commitment to Socratic reason and philosophy. There is no fruitful “tension” here between reason and revelation to dwell within or draw upon as a source of intellectual inspiration and moral deepening. Now, if you start with (a) and (b), temporally, logically, and your idea of reason is already wrapped up in the idea of yourself as a divine creation and reason as a divine endowment, then (c) might remain plausible. You might be a Thomist. You might be Harry Jaffa. But then you have to give up (d). You’d never think (d) in the first place. Seriously, I don’t know if it’s even possible, as a psychological matter, to get all these propositions in one’s head at once. Even if it’s possible, it’s hard to see how this sort of thing could be the general condition of mankind.

I think probably it’s true that Strauss intended the problems inherent in this stuff to point to some deeper teaching. But it’s not just that the framing of the exoteric problem is specious, it’s that if you can really see what’s really wrong with it, you ought to be able to see that the esoteric interpretative options Strauss’s followers lose friends fighting over inherit the same basic problem, which is that, in the light of reason, neither socratic rationalism nor adherence to divine law look like very good answers to the question of how to live. What are these people doing?

Okay. Feel better now. Back to noveling. Back to living the tension.

Are Conditional Transfers Paternalistic?

Jessica Flanigan defends an unconditional basic income (UBI) against standard strings-attached welfare transfers on the grounds that the strings, such as work requirements, are paternalistic. Brink Lindsey defends conditional, strings-attached transfers against Flanigan’s paternalism charge:

I don’t think the paternalism charge really gets us anywhere. After all, the purpose of both a UBI and wage subsidies is to help people who are failing to support themselves adequately. In one sense, then, both policies are paternalistic, since in both cases the state is assuming a paternal role of providing for dependents. Viewed from another angle, though, neither policy is properly considered paternalistic. Paternalism, after all, is about reducing people’s choices for their own good. But either a UBI or wage subsidies would expand the choices of their intended beneficiaries relative to what they would be in the absence of any government provision at all.

I’m not sure Brink has fully engaged Flanigan’s argument here. I take it that Flanigan is arguing that work requirements do reduce people’s choices by taking off the table the option of having an adequate income without working. Brink argues persuasively that, ceterus paribus, unemployment makes us unhappy and so it’s better for people to work. However, unless he can establish that it is not the case that a certain threshold-level of income without working is an option to which people are generally entitled–unless he can establish that people don’t have some sort of right to an unconditional income–his argument does look like classic paternalism. You might prefer to surf all day and get a check from the government, but we’re not going to leave that option open, because not working is bad for you. In order to defend against the paternalism charge, Brink needs to take the right to an unconditional income head on. It’s not paternalism to close off that option because it’s not an option we’re due.

This argument is simple for a standard libertarian. To be entitled to a work-free income is to be entitled to other people’s money. But people are entitled to dispose of their legitimately acquired property as they see fit. To make good on a putative entitlement to an unconditional income would require violating property rights–would require something tantamount to theft.

However, matters are not so simple for bleeding-heart libertarians who have conceded the justice of redistribution. I think what Brink needs is something like a standard liberal contractualist argument against unconditional transfers.

The rules governing our institutions need to embody ideals of reciprocity and mutual respect. Welfare transfers are required to ensure that the system works more or less to the benefit of everyone. But those who are able but unwilling to contribute to the commonweal have limited claims to the product of the system. The same principles of reciprocity and mutual respect that underwrite the safety net prohibit taking out without putting in. Reciprocity is essentially conditional. I’ll be good to you if you’ll be good to me. So it would seem that an unconditional claim on some portion of a society’s resources necessarily violates principles of mutual respect based on fair reciprocity. Therefore people cannot be entitled to an unconditional income. Furthermore, because having an income without working is not an option people are generally due as a matter of right, taking that option off the table cannot be paternalistic.

Searle on Universal Human Rights

In an NYRB interview with Tim Crane, John Searle makes some intriguing comments on human rights within the context of his theory of social ontology.

Are you skeptical of the idea of universal human rights?

No, I’m not skeptical about the idea of universal human rights. I’m skeptical about what I call positive rights. You see, if you look at the logical structure of rights, every right implies an obligation on someone else’s part. A right is always a right against somebody. If I have a right to park my car in your driveway, then you have an obligation not to interfere with my parking my car in your driveway. Now the idea of universal human rights is a remarkable idea because if there are such things, then all human beings are under an obligation to do—what? Well, I want to say that with things like the right to free speech it just means not to interfere. It’s a negative right. My right to free speech means I have a right to exercise my free speech without being interfered with. And that means that other people are under an obligation not to interfere with me.

Now, when I look at the literature, I discover that there is a tradition going back to the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, where not all of the rights listed are negative rights like the right to free speech, or the right to freedom of religion, or the right to freedom of association, I think all those negative rights are perfectly legitimate. But there are supposed to be such rights as “every human being has a right to adequate housing.” Now I don’t think that can be made into a meaningful claim.

The claim that “every human being has a right to seek adequate housing,” or that there are particular jurisdictions where the British government, or the government of the State of California, can decide “we’re going to guarantee or give that right to all of our citizens”—that iseems to me OK. But the idea that every human being, just in virtue of being a human being, has a right to adequate housing in a way that would impose an obligation on every other human being to provide that housing, that seems to me nonsense. So I say that you can make a good case for universal human rights of a negative kind, but that you cannot make the comparable case for universal human rights of a positive kind.

Now I come up with one counter-example. One exception to that is that it does seem to me where life and safety themselves are concerned, we’re all under an obligation, where we can, to help people whose life is threatened. If someone has been hit by a car, he has a right to expect that he will receive assistance from us, and we have an obligation to afford him assistance. And the reason that’s an exception is that a condition of anything else in life is that you have rights of survival. But in general, I think it’s a big mistake in contemporary political thinking to suppose that there is a list, an inventory, of universal human rights of a positive kind. I don’t think I can make sense of this.

I think that Searle, given his ontology of institutions–which has had a huge influence on me–ought to be more skeptical of universal negative rights as well. Positive and negative rights aren’t that different. In the case of positive rights, such the right to adequate housing, it’s impossible to fulfill the correlative obligation without the right sorts of institutions in place. As Searle notes, it’s hard to understand what it might mean to say that everybody everywhere–Ghanians and Vietnamese and Dutch–is somehow party to the violation of my rights if my housing should turn out not to be “adequate.” It’s rather easier to grasp how everyone everywhere might meet their obligation not interfere with me in various ways. Still. The noninterference I am owed is by no means obvious. We may have compelling “natural,” pre-institutional reasons to refrain from various form interference. If a negative right is simply a sort of structure of natural reasons with strong normative authority, then I can see universal negative rights. Yet it seems to me that the decisive step is the move from reasons to the general recognition of reasons. Rights, including negative rights, have an essentially social ontology.

Having rights of non-interference in the absence of a social fact that says so–in the absence of general convention to the effect that non-intereference is due–seems to me the same thing as saying that there is, as a matter of actual social fact, no effective rights. It seems better to say that, on the basis of certain natural reasons, everyone ought to adopt certain norms or conventions of non-interference–which is a way of saying that people would have rights if people acknowledged the force of these reasons. Just as it is conceivable that there could be global institutions that could make good on universal positive rights, it is conceivable that everyone everywhere could adopt certain norms of noninterference that would make good on universal negative rights. But in both cases, reality falls short of conceivability.

A further complicating factor is that there may be no natural reason to, say, acknowledge negative rights to property in the absence of the systems of social and institutional facts that make property claims clear, enforceable, and advantageous to more or less everyone. Our reasons to adopt certain norms or conventions of noninterference may depend on a substructure or scaffolding of prior social and institutional facts. In that case, it would seem odd to say these sorts of negative rights exist independently of the institutions that bring into being the reasons that supply those rights with their normative force. If universal positive rights are problematic because the reasons and institutions that can make good on the entitlements implicit in those rights are not universal, then universal negative rights are similarly problematic.

I think it’s easy to confuse the constitution of rights with the recognition of rights precisely because the constitution–the construction of the social fact of rights–has depended historically on a rhetoric of recognition. The first step toward rights with a real social and institutional existence has often been the propagation of the belief that the aspirational right has a freestanding, natural, preinstitutional existence we are obliged to recognize and honor. The defense of universal human rights is a good strategy making rights more universal. Fake it ‘til you make it.

My sense is that as a piece of political rhetoric, the UN Declaration’s notion of universal positive rights has done a lot of good, so I see no particular reason to abandon the strategy of trying to bring rights into existence by pretending they already exist.

I have a conference paper somewhere that I presented in front of Searle in I think 2004, which combined his theory of social ontology with Doug North and John Rawls to interesting effect. Searle said, approvingly, that he’d never thought of applying his theory to political philosophy in that way. Really wish I could find where I put that thing.

Understanding Observer Narration

In the Fall, I’ll be satisfying my “later American” lit requirement for the MFA through an independent study I’ve arranged with the brilliant Pete Turchi. I’m working through a pile of novels–mostly 20th c. American, requirement in mind–featuring an “observer narrator,” i.e., a character narrator who is not obviously the protagonist of the story. I say “not obviously” because observer narrators have a way of insinuating themselves into the emotional heart of their narratives, even as they cast themselves as secondary characters, watching the real hero of the real story from the wings. This is one of the things I find weird and captivating about observer-narrator tales, and one of the aspects of the form, among others, that I’m trying to get a handle on, since I’m trying to write an observer-narrator novel and would prefer not to fuck it up.

Lawrence Buell’s “Observer-Hero Narratives” and Kenneth Bruffee’s “Elegiac Romance” offer some theoretical guidance with which to get oriented, but as far as I can tell there isn’t a ton to go on, otherwise.

Anyway, my plan is to work through the books on my list, recording my comments here as I go. If anyone would like to read along, or chip in about books they have read, I should be delighted. So here is my (evolving list) in roughly chronological order.

  • F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby, 1925.
  • Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises, 1926.
  • Willa Chather, My Mortal Enemy, 1926.
  • William Faulkner, Absalom, Absalom, 1936.
  • Glenway Westcott, The Pilgrim Hawk, 1940.
  • Robert Penn Warren, All the King’s Men, 1947
  • Mark Harris, Bang the Drum Slowly, 1956.
  • Wright Morris, The Huge Season, 1956.
  • Vladimir Nabokov, Pale Fire, 1956.
  • Ken Kesey, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, 1962.
  • James Salter, A Sport and a Pasttime, 1967.
  • Joan Didion, The Book of Common Prayer, 1977
  • William Styron, Sophie’s Choice, 1979.
  • John Irving, A Prayer for Owen Meany, 1989.
  • Donna Tartt, The Secret History, 1991
  • Philip Roth, The Human Stain, 2000.

Not American, but probably going to (re)read anyway

  • Joseph Conrad, Lord Jim, 1900.
  • Ford Madox Ford, The Good Soldier, 1915.
  • Vladimir Nabokov, The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, 1941.
  • Thomas Mann, Dr Faustus, 1943.
  • Graham Greene, The Quiet American, 1955.

I’d like some more recent stuff, and would love some tips.

I’m not going to do this in order. I’ve just read The Sun Also Rises, about which more next week. I’m in the middle of All the King’s Men, which is exceeding expectations. Jake Barnes seems to me a creature of formal and narrative vacillation. Jack Burden–his combination of self-effacement and self-obsession, his incessant essaying–hits the sweet spot of my own concerns.

It’s funny that a number of the books on my list were recently recommended by Brooks, and for the elegiac tone! All the King’s Men is not, by the way, “nominally a novel about Huey Long.” Oh, Brooks.

On the SOTU

Here’s my take on the SOTU at Aljazeera America. Excerpt:

Obama brought upon himself the circumstances requiring such a constrained, insipid speech. The scandal of his IRS targeting tea-party activists suggested that his administration was either corrupt or mismanaged. Had he honored his campaign pledge to restore the civil liberties eroded in George W. Bush’s war on terror, Edward Snowden would not have had evidence of the NSA’s massive violations of the Fourth Amendment to leak. The Afghanistan surge was an ultimately ineffective face-saving operation that sent more than 1,000 Cory Remburgs to early graves — an operation that his then–secretary of defense openly doubts he really believed in. Finally, the catastrophically inept rollout of the Affordable Care Act has sown doubt in the electorate about Obama’s honesty and competence to govern.