One Small Voice

The Journal of Peter Saint-Andre


Conceptism

2017-04-02

While dipping back into Baltasar Gracián's Art of Worldly Wisdom recently, I got curious about the author, who it turns out was both a practitioner and a theoretician of a 17th-century Iberian literary style called conceptism. My interest was further piqued when I learned that conceptist writers attempted to express intricate conceptual meanings in a very concise form, and that both Schopenhauer and Nietzsche were great admirers of Gracián (in Nietzsche's case perhaps reflected in his aphoristic style). I'm reminded also of Yevgeny Zamyatin's essay Theme and Plot, in which he espoused a concentrated brevity that he called "the art of writing with ninety-proof ink" (Zamyatin, in turn, was a great admirer of Nietzsche). These stylistic currents strike a deep chord with me, given my project of writing six extremely compressed books on eudaimonia. Speaking of which, now that I'm almost done with the book about Thoreau I'm making fast progress on a cycle of philosophical poems about Nietzsche.

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Unethical Philosophers

2017-03-26

Reports and allegations continue to surface regarding widespread sexual misconduct by male philosophy professors, including "stars" such as John Searle and Thomas Pogge (as well as several professors here in Colorado). The sad irony and arrogant hypocrisy of professors of philosophy engaging in such despicable and deeply unethical behavior cannot be passed by in silence. We witness here in a particularly painful form the truth of Thoreau's observation that "There are nowadays professors of philosophy, but not philosophers." According to Thoreau and the ancients, "to be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school, but so to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates" - which these piddling professors clearly fail to do.

Also disheartening is the lack of awareness, even among those who criticize this misconduct, of the true nature of what Nietzsche called the "visible philosophical life". Consider, for example, professor Louise Antony, who has been quoted as saying "The evaluation of the philosophical work - the quality of the arguments - is one thing, and the evaluation of the philosopher’s behavior is something else" and "We take our job to be giving students the tools to make good ethical decisions. But of course, a philosopher can know what the tools are, and still be bad at using them." Both statements are true as far as they go, but they do not go very far because they evade the deeper issue: these men merely profess, but do not live, the philosophies they espouse. In other words: they are not philosophers! I, for one, will cease referring to them as such.

This line of argument implies that it is difficult to determine if someone is a philosopher, or merely a sophist who professes subtle thoughts. This problem is not new, and also goes back to the ancient Greeks. One is reminded, too, of the ancient Greek notion that you cannot call a person eudaimon (successful at living as a human being) until they die, or even afterward. In the case of John Searle, perhaps he had people fooled for a long time but now at the age of 84 the truth is coming out.

Unfortunately, there's a long and sordid history of bad behavior among so-called philosophers: Heidegger was an unreconstructed Nazi, Rousseau dropped his five infant children off at the Paris Foundling Hospital, Wittgenstein caused the death of his 11-year-old student Josef Haidbauer, Foucault was an enthusiastic disciple of the Marquis de Sade, and even Ayn Rand cheated on her husband while publicly avowing that he was her "top value".

So much for the love of wisdom.

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Going Deep

2017-02-19

Three months ago, in a post entitled "Below the Surface", I started a habit of posting in my weblog at least once a week. Although it's been a good run, I've cleared out my backlog of topics to write about. More importantly, I have a big project to finish (The Upland Farm, my forthcoming book on Thoreau) and another one to restart (more on that in the coming weeks), not to mention the need to focus intently on building the team at Filament and bringing our products to market. Because all of these initiatives will require a lot of deep work, my weblog will likely be fairly quiet until mid-summer. See you then.

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Limited Liability

2017-02-12

Someone I know who is an avowed socialist told me he'd be much more sympathetic to libertarian views if we didn't need big government to protect us from big business.

This set me to thinking: are large corporations a necessary feature of a free society?

Big business didn't become a dominant presence in the economy until the 19th century, so something must have happened to make that possible.

While doing some research and thinking on the topic, I think I found the fulcrum: limited liability.

What limited liability does is prevent someone who is harmed by corporate activity from seeking unlimited damages from the owners and directors and managers of the corporation. In effect, limited liability means that losses are limited but profits are theoretically unlimited.

That doesn't sound like a recipe for personal responsibility, does it?

Indeed, the artificial legislative construct of limited liability enables the owners and directors and managers of a corporation to do pretty much whatever they please, secure in the knowledge that they won't be held accountable.

Oh, and the first limited liability legislation was passed in 1811 in New York State (I'd bet at the behest of crony capitalists), followed over the next few decades by other U.S. states, England (in 1855), etc. So the timing works out, too.

In the absence of such legislation, would extremely large corporations exist? I have my doubts, because the owners and directors and managers would not want the organization to grow so large that they could not have direct, personal oversight of its operations (without such hands-on management, they wouldn't understand their potential liabilities).

Thus it seems to me right now that in a completely voluntary society, individuals would not willingly cede their right to seek appropriate damages against organizational activity and thus that our current regime of limited losses and unlimited profits (with its attendant huge corporations) would not exist.

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Forever Jung

2017-02-12

Recently I got to talking with a friend about personality assessments, especially in relation to hiring and talent development. It took me awhile to figure out why we were not in agreement: he was thinking about the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) whereas I was thinking about assessments based on the five-factor model (also called the "big five") of personality traits.

Although your Myers-Briggs results can be a fun conversation-starter, they're not based on science but on Carl Jung's fanciful ideas about psychological archetypes. Specifically, the MBTI is not reliable (people get different results depending on when they take it), it's not valid (it's not predictive of behavior and it's not based on a large set of data that's tied to a falsifiable model), it's conceptually muddled (e.g., it claims that thinking and feeling are opposites, but in fact people with good thinking skills also tend to be better at understanding emotions), and it doesn't provide comprehensive insights into its subject-matter (e.g., it doesn't assess key personality traits like emotional stability and conscientiousness).

In other words, it's junk.

It's unfortunate that so many people continue to put stock in Myers-Briggs, when we have a scientific model of personality that's based on tons of evidence and solid theory.

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Why Do I Think What I Think?

2017-02-11

Most people seem to believe that their thoughts are right, and that this is so because they are righteous people. Those who disagree with them are wrong and have bad intentions; those who agree with them have the truth on their side and have good intentions.

Sadly, this attitude is incredibly naïve.

I've held some strange and unpopular opinions, and I continue to do so. However, I've also changed my mind on certain topics.

For instance, once upon a time I was a virulent defender of intellectual property rights, but over the course of many years I became a strong advocate for the public domain. This change of heart was caused by my experience in the open-source / free software community, as well as significant reading in the history of copyright.

I was once quite opposed to religion of any kind (I suppose I was a militant atheist), but over the years I have become much more tolerant of other people's religious commitments.

Politically, although I've always been quite libertarian, I've bounced around from right-libertarian to left-libertarian, and to some extent I appreciate some of the criticisms and concerns of both the left and the right. These days, I'm pretty much anti-political and I actively doubt if government even exists (speaking of strange and unpopular opinions!).

Above I said that I've changed my mind. Yet sometimes I wonder if it's possible to change my mind: from the inside, it feels like my mind changes on its own. It's not that I actively, rationally decide to change my mind - it's something that bubbles up over time.

When I trace my intellectual history, much of it derives from my early immersion in Ayn Rand, whose books I started to read when I was 12 years old. Yet I was primed for her worldview because I had experienced a crisis of faith and had stopped believing in god when I was 9 years old. The more I reflect on this, the crazier it seems. Was I consciously choosing any kind of intellectual framework at the age of 9? Depending on your point of view, was I right/good or wrong/bad at such a young age? It seems more likely that because various synapses just happened to fire in my brain so early in life, I came to the conclusion that we live in a godless universe. But it's not as if I really chose that thought. (Indeed, it caused me much anguish at the time and for years afterward.)

So I wonder: to what extent are people responsible for the contents of their minds?

It feels to me as if much of what people think comes from habit, tradition, peer pressure, personal advantage, and the general environment in which they live. Sometimes those environments can be quite localized: the nation or religion or family you grow up in, where you go to school, the friends you make, the jobs you take, the books you read, etc. Because of in-group psychology, it can be difficult to break out of the bounds within which your mind operates.

For myself, I know that I have had to deliberately expose myself to viewpoints I would not otherwise encounter; I have done this especially in the field of philosophy (where I'm currently learning about both the Stoics and Vedic/Yogic ideas). Yet even here my explorations began as curiosity about secular philosophies that bear a family resemblance to Rand's ideas in the sense that they respect rationality, individuality, and human liberty. I suppose we all need to start somewhere, but even now I don't deeply challenge many of my mental assumptions or seek out encounters with intellectual traditions that I don't find congenial (say, existentialism, Marxism, skepticism, or hermeneutics). In part this is because life is short and I'd rather spend my time and energy on viewpoints that I'm more likely to apply in my own life and write about in a compelling way (I'll let others write about what they find congenial). However, I try to be aware that my philosophical explorations, although fairly wide-ranging, are also limited - and I try to not assert that I'm more right and righteous because I seem to have a bit more self-discipline (not to mention free time) for expanding my knowledge in a rather small field of intellectual endeavor.

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