Søren Kierkegaard and Hubert Dreyfus on Social Media

Back in 1997, UC Berkeley philosopher Hubert L. Dreyfus offered a diagnosis of the World Wide Web that, in retrospect, predicted with virtually 100 percent accuracy our socially networked democracy’s current predicament. Remarkably, he did this by applying to the Web as it was then an analysis of “the Press” and “the Public” worked out by Søren Kierkegaard in 1846. (See Kierkegaard’s The Present Age.)

Like so many of his colleagues and friends, I was interested in what Bert had to say about anything, and heard him present these views at the time. They eventually appeared in 2001 his On the Internet, which was revised and expanded in 2007 – still too early to understand the impact of social media. Although the book was well-reviewed, it didn’t (so far as I knew) elicit a sustained response, and as the years went by Bert’s reworking of Kierkegaard’s analysis slipped my mind. Recently, though, almost by accident, I ran into the transcript of a lecture he gave on the topic.

Kierkegaard, Bert began, was skeptical of what political philosophers and theorists of democracy call the public sphere. The public “took an interest in everything but were not committed to anything. [Kierkegaard] attributed this growing cultivation of curiosity and the consequent failure to distinguish the important from the trivial to the Press. Its new massive distribution of desituated information, he held, was making every sort of information immediately available to anyone, thereby producing an anonymous, detached spectator.” Continue reading

Patriotism and Creedal America

Sharing a national creed is supposed to enable Americans to avoid the European nation-state model of national identity. In that model, a state is the state of a people, and peoples are defined by a shared territory, religion, language, and ethnicity. A creed, on the other hand, is potentially universal. If what’s required for citizenship is endorsing a creed, then one can belong to any nation or no nation and still be a good citizen.

But if creed is criterial for belonging, it would seem to follow that those who don’t endorse the creed don’t belong.

On the European model, the idea that your nationality would depend on your beliefs is out of place. I don’t believe it has ever occurred to my English wife to worry about the “Englishness” of her beliefs or those of others. In creedal America, things are different. If the creed includes respect for property, does that mean American socialists are somehow un-American? If the creed is egalitarian, are libertarians less than full citizens?

The situation is complicated by the fact that a substantial number of Americans do not regard the country as a creedal polity. One aspect of current partisan hate has to do with changes in what it means to be a Democrat or a Republican. It’s no longer just a matter of left versus right. Now, each party represents a different concept of American national identity. Roughly speaking, these two are in play:

Creedal nationalism, or the cosmopolitan, civic state: American citizenship is based on endorsing a family of principles expressed in the founding documents.

Ethno-nationalism, or the nation-state: Americans are a people based on territorial, religious, racial, linguistic, and cultural commonalities.

What to do? Continue reading

Why do Americans on the left and right hate each other so much?

It’s largely because people increasingly derive their personal identity from their membership in a group, and that makes it much easier to fear and hate members of other groups. There’s more to it, of course, but political identity – whether one is a Democrat or Republican – has become a far more important aspect of personal identity than it once was. And when people see one another as members of groups rather than as individual moral agents, there’s going to be trouble.

If your identity is derived from group membership, and especially if you have no other identity, it is much easier to hate members of other groups than if you regard yourself and others first and foremost as individual moral agents.

If you see others as nothing but representatives of groups, moral considerations based on individual worth are easy to ignore. Members of a group will be held responsible for the injustices you attribute to their group, and the respect you’re required to show members of your group can be denied to members of other groups.

Relatedly, you can hate people, not because they personally are hurting you or your group, but because they belong to a group that is hurting you or your group. Continue reading

The Futures of Political Philosophy

An undergraduate lecture.

What is the status of the tradition of political philosophy? How do we stand in relation to it? What authority does it have for us? Is it a living tradition, or only an object of scholarly inquiry? What can it offer us as we try to make sense of the challenges we face today?

In a narrow sense a tradition is a literature: a canon of texts that have passed the test of time. In a wider sense, a tradition is a network of broadly shared beliefs, values, and dispositions – a common language by means of which we communicate to one another our individual perspectives on the events taking place in the world we share.

In the narrow sense, the tradition includes Locke’s argument in the Second Treatise of Government that there’s no unambiguous biological feature that confers a right to rule on those who possess it and denies that right to those who don’t. In the wider sense, the tradition is what makes it possible for someone who expresses an opinion premised on Locke’s argument to expect a hearing, because Locke’s premise is widely regarded as material to political debate. For example, the argument that the mere fact of being female doesn’t justify preventing women from practicing certain professions can’t be dismissed out of hand, because everyone understands the form of the argument, namely its reliance on the premise that no arbitrary biological feature can be the basis for the distribution of rights.

A tradition is selective, emphasizing continuity and de-emphasizing discontinuity by presenting innovations as extensions, reinterpretations, or criticisms of its core themes and commitments. A tradition is evaluative, singling out what is important to remember and passing over what is not exemplary or illustrative. A tradition is relevant and useful, implicitly claiming that the knowledge it preserves and transmits is essential to understanding issues and events in the contemporary world. A tradition includes interpretations of itself, narratives that articulate the meaning, structure, development, and application of the tradition. Finally, a tradition is, or can be, authoritative. Continue reading

Michael Shellenberger, “San Fransicko: Why Progressives Ruin Cities”

When I finished Michael Shellenberger’s provocatively-titled 400-page book, I was astonished to realize it had taken me only a few sessions over a couple of days to do so. It was, in other words, a page-turner. Clearly, something about it resonated with me. I started the book because, as a resident of Berkeley for over 30 years, I’ve long wondered why, in a city run by self-styled “radicals” and “progressives,” the quality of public space has steadily and dramatically declined. Berkeley’s problems, and the arrangement of political forces, are like San Francisco’s, so perhaps, I thought, what explains the latter will apply to the former.

Shellenberger characterizes the decline of public space in the Bay Area as “the breakdown of civilization on America’s West Coast.” In support of this thesis, he cites the rise in San Francisco’s drug overdose deaths from 19 per 100,000 people in 2014 to 81 in 100,000 in 2020; the 16.2% rise of unsheltered homeless from 2007 to 2020; the practice of mob looting – crowds who ransack stores, seemingly without fear of arrest or prosecution; the proliferation of encampments of drug addicts and alcoholics; open-air drug markets; and the ubiquitous presence of human excrement in the streets and on the sidewalks.

More significant than the public defecation, however (which is becoming more and more common in downtown Berkeley), is how easily residents adjust to the practice. No one, it seems, believes anything can, will, or even should be done about it. We discuss deviant behavior is if we were discussing the weather – a storm, a heat wave, and a soiled sidewalk may be unpleasant, but nothing is called for beyond trying to avoid them. Continue reading

What Did Michel Foucault and Noam Chomsky Disagree About?

I had an opportunity a while back, in the course of answering a Quora question, to revisit the legendary Foucault-Chomsky debate.

Their fundamental disagreement stemmed from the fact that at the time of the debate Foucault was something between a moral relativist and a nihilist, whereas Chomsky was (and is) a moral realist. The question is: What motivated Foucault to adopt such an extreme and untenable position? I don’t believe he would have expressed such nihilistic views in the last several years leading up to his death.

I’ll have something to say about motivation towards the end of the post.

Much of what Foucault says in the debate could be taken as a defense of moral relativism, which of course is a perfectly respectable position. The moral relativist believes that moral principles are relative to some group, such as a society or a class. In some past societies,  apparently, it was true and right that a widow should be burned to death on her husband’s funeral pyre, but in other societies it was true and right that this should not be done. There are no universal or objective moral principles such that it could be true to say of everyone, everywhere that widows shouldn’t (or should) be burned.

As a corollary to the thesis that morality is relative to a group, the moral relativist denies that there are moral facts. There are only social expectations, values, practices, and facts about them. So it would not be true to say of Betty, who promised Sue that she would meet her for lunch today, that she is obligated to do so in the sense that she should keep her promise because that is the right thing to do. Betty’s belief that she should keep her promise is a fact about her and her society, not about morality.

I doubt Foucault ever entertained such thoughts about moral relativism in this form, but some of what he says in the conversation sounds as if he did. For example, Foucault argues that the “bourgeoisie” and the “proletariat” each has its own distinctive morality and that what is true and right for one isn’t necessarily true and right for the other. Continue reading

Democratic Bullshit

Is democracy bullshit?

Actually, the question isn’t whether or not democracy is bullshit, but whether the bullshit of democracy is being put to good use.

First, what is bullshit? As Harry Frankfurt established, lying and bullshitting are not the same, although they may overlap. Let me explain.

Both liar and bullshitter aim to deceive, but in different ways and for different purposes. The liar wants his victim to believe what is not the case. In doing so, the liar necessarily misrepresents himself as believing something he does not believe, but self-misrepresentation is not necessarily his primary aim. In the case of the bullshitter, however, self-misrepresentation is always primary. The bullshitter is up to something, and he does not want his victim to catch on.

The essence of bullshit, in other words, is that it is inauthentic. A bullshitter wants you to believe he knows something he does not, can do something he cannot, and more fundamentally is something or someone he is not. A bullshitter, therefore, may not lie at all. A man may bullshit about carpentry with the aim of inducing you to take him as a genuine carpenter, without saying anything at all false about carpentry. Continue reading

Plato’s “Totalitarian” State

I spent a few months re-reading Plato’s Republic with two friends, one a mathematician and the other a writer of fiction. I’ll write in due course about the mathematical and literary issues that arose; they were the most interesting topics we found. But it was necessary at first to get past some political hurdles. One of them was what might be called the ghost of Karl Popper and his 1945 book The Open Society and Its Enemies.

In it Popper associates fascism and totalitarianism – ideologies that yield what he calls “closed societies” – with some ideas that are ultimately traceable to Plato (and to an extent to Aristotle, whom Popper also subjects to a lot of criticism): holism, essentialsm, and historicism.

Holism, roughly, is the idea that the whole is prior to the parts, that the parts depend on the whole, and that the function of the parts is to constitute the whole. As applied to political theory, this means that state is prior to the individuals in it and that the latter exist to serve the former.

According to Popper, this doctrine is expressed in Plato’s concept of justice, namely a well-functioning state. In Plato’s ideal city, everyone contributes to the state in ways to which they are best suited.

Essentialism is the idea that knowledge consists of an understanding of the unchanging and often hidden reality that is responsible for what we seem to observe in the empirical world. This is Plato’s idea of the Forms, which are discovered by rational inquiry not empirical observation. Continue reading

Judith Butler’s Category Mistake

I respect Judith Butler – however, amicus Plato, sed magis amica veritas.

The claim that sexual differences, and the body generally, as well as agency or personhood, are “socially constructed” is incoherent and misleading. On the contrary, it seems virtually self-evident that sexual differences (and many other features of the body) are not social constructs.

A subsidiary thesis is that the mechanism by which social construction takes place is “power,” and that seems dubious as well. Surely a great deal of social construction takes the form of interactions that are entirely voluntary and mutually beneficial.

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Are we living in Deleuze’s society of control?

Many years ago, on a drive from Berlin to Paris, I found myself talking with an official at the French border. I don’t recall precisely what we had to discuss, but after a brief conversation he tried to express himself in English to inform me that I could enter the country. “I will control you,” he said.

He meant both that he would examine my passport, and see to it that I got across the border. This double sense of contrôle is relevant to Deleuze’s picture of a “post-disciplinary” society.

It’s a world that depends on a constant flow of people, information, commodities, and capital from one part of the planet to another. Controls of various kinds – institutional, electronic, pharmaceutical, and educational – are designed to facilitate the flow, not to inhibit it. The infrastructure invites and encourage individuals – or dividuals, as Deleuze christens them – to divide and distribute their time, skills, and attention among the many different corporate and state enterprises that float freely over the streams, vectors, platforms, channels, and interfaces.

The flow never stops, and there is nowhere that flows do not penetrate. Everything in society bears down on you at once, all the time, and everywhere, although you are apparently bringing this on yourself.

Deleuze was a brilliant philosopher, and that’s putting it too mildly. But his political and social thinking was not of the same caliber as his metaphysics.

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