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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Remembering George Spencer-Brown

George Spencer-Brown’s The Laws of Form (1969) made a big impression of me when I encountered it a half-century ago.

What I got from the book on a first reading was the idea that the most elementary form of thought consists in drawing a distinction.

[A] distinction is drawn by arranging a boundary with separate sides so that a point on one side cannot reach the other side without crossing the boundary. For example, in a plane space a circle draws a distinction.

In drawing a distinction, one also does several other things: one indicates the spaces, states, or contents on either side of the boundary, attributes different values to what is indicated, establishes the possibility of indicating the values by naming them, and establishes the possibility of crossing from one side of the boundary to the other.

Now, it is possible to draw a “first distinction” only because something is distinguishable. For example, the plane surface on which one draws a circle is itself already distinguished from other surfaces. Were it not, it would not be possible to isolate the surface on which one arranges a boundary, or to establish its value.

In other words, a distinction has always already been drawn.

At least, for we mortals. The very first distinction must have been drawn by God. And that is indeed what the Bible seems to indicate: “And God separated the light from the darkness. And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening, and there was morning: a first day.” A distinction is drawn (“God separates”), values are attributed (“light” and “darkness”), values are named (“Day” and “Night”), and boundaries are crossed (“there was evening, and there was morning”). God creates by drawing distinctions. And as we were made in His image, so do we. Continue reading

Philosophy and/or Literature: The Case of Nietzsche

Which is more important: the artistic merit of Nietzsche’s writing, or its philosophical content? A similar question could be asked about Plato. Dialogues such as the Apology and Republic are works of art that also convey philosophical arguments.

Let’s take a look at a passage from The Anti-Christ §11. (I’ve compressed it a bit.)

A word now against Kant as a moralist. A virtue must be our invention; it must spring out of our personal need and defence. In every other case it is a source of danger. That which does not belong to our life menaces it; a virtue which has its roots in mere respect for the concept of “virtue,” as Kant would have it, is pernicious. Quite the contrary is demanded by the most profound laws of self-preservation and of growth: to wit, that every man find his own virtue, his own categorical imperative. Nothing works a more complete and penetrating disaster than every “impersonal” duty, every sacrifice before the Moloch of abstraction. Continue reading

Art, Adorno, and Communism

In Negative Dialectics, Theodor W. Adorno famously wrote that “[p]hilosophy, which once seemed obsolete, lives on because the moment to realize it was missed.” He’s alluding to Marx’s eleventh thesis on Feuerbach: “philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.” (I like Baudrillard’s riposte: “activists have only changed the world in various ways; the point is to re-interpret it.”)

The realization of philosophy was the reconciliation of theory and practice, i.e. concrete, real-world freedom for all, a “polis without slaves.” The missed opportunity – the point at which freedom for all could have been achieved – was presumably the Bolshevik Revolution, which led to totalitarianism.

Personally, I’m skeptical of the idea that the Bolshevik Revolution would have resulted in a worker’s paradise but for the perfidy of the West, which Adorno seems to have believed at least as of his discussions with Max Horkheimer in 1956 (see Horkheimer and Adorno’s Towards a New Manifesto, 2011). But that’s another matter.

Adorno appears to have settled down in the view that although capitalism was bad, “actually existing communism” was worse, and the best we can hope for is the life provided by the liberal democratic welfare state – what Herbert Marcuse called the “smooth, comfortable unfreedom” of “one-dimensional society.” We can forget about the reconciliation of theory and practice. Instead, we should devote ourselves to alerting the victims of one-dimensionality to their oppression, from which they are distracted by the culture industry. There’s no viable path to communism, and attempts to act on the delusion that there is will provoke the “system” to turn from the soft power of consumerism to the coercive instruments of the police state – as Adorno thought the student movement of the 1960s was causing it to do.

Communism, then, was a failed dream, and political utopianism of any kind was downright dangerous. Are Adorno’s views on art analogous? Continue reading


Young Saul questioned Russell on names,
And refuted quite all of his claims.
A name’s not a description,
It’s just a baptism.
And with that Russell went down in flames.


Charles Taylor found fault with modernity
Because it had short-changed fraternity.
The Self, he opined,
Was much more than just Mind.
With deep meaning it must be combined.


Robert Brandom inclined to infer
The commitments he thought that there were.
But his normative attitudes
Struck many as platitudes,
Which complaint he dismissed as a slur.


The philosopher Rawls would commence
By sparing the worst-off some pence.
Robert Nozick demurred,
Thought Rawls’ notions absurd.
And that was their principal difference. Continue reading

Heidegger: Some Basics

Heidegger’s philosophical interests were originally stimulated by reading canonical figures such as Aristotle and Kant, but he was also inspired by Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, who at the time were not really regarded as philosophers. They were deeply critical of the philosophical tradition, especially in the form of what Nietzsche called “Platonism.” Heidegger too adopted a critical perspective on what he saw as insufficiently examined presuppositions of Western philosophy.

The reflections stimulated by these thinkers (along with Dilthey and Husserl, to whom Heidegger was an assistant) culminated, by some extraordinarily original process of philosophical imagination, in Being and Time (1927). Continue reading

Nietzsche on the Intellectual Conscience

By “intellectual conscience,” Nietzsche means the idea that it is wrong to believe something unless you have good reason to think that the belief is true. Someone with an intellectual conscience will form and endorse beliefs by applying the best epistemic standards known to him or her.

Most of us, Nietzsche thinks, lack an intellectual conscience:

[T]he great majority of people lacks an intellectual conscience. […] I mean: the great majority of people does not consider it contemptible to believe this or that and to live accordingly, without first having given themselves an account of the final and most certain reasons pro and con, and without even troubling themselves about such reasons afterward…. (The Gay Science §2.)

Exercising the intellectual conscience, if one does possess it, doesn’t necessarily lead to certainty; on the contrary. The more you subject your beliefs to scrutiny, the less certain you will become about them. This is good, because searching for the truth, as well as finding it, is good. Bernard Reginster puts the point as follows:

[T]he seeker after knowledge must want both knowledge and uncertainty or ignorance. He cannot be a genuine seeker after truth unless he actually wants to find it, but since what he cares about is the search after truth, he must also welcome the uncertainty and ignorance that supply opportunities for it. (The Affirmation of Life: Nietzsche on Overcoming Nihilism.)

Although intellectual conscience is a necessary condition, it is not, Nietzsche seems to think, a sufficient one. The “last idealists of knowledge in whom alone the intellectual conscience dwells today,” namely the scientists, have rendered Christian belief untenable, but they shrink from questioning their own values. “These are by no means free spirits: for they still believe in [the value of] truth.” (On the Genealogy of Morals, III §24.) Continue reading

Why did Nietzsche call Kant a “theologian in disguise”?

Nietzsche meant that Kant established the validity of Christian morality by making philosophical arguments that didn’t rely on Christian beliefs.

In The Gay Science, Nietzsche writes:

Kant wanted to prove, in a way that would dumbfound the common man, that the common man was right: that was the secret of this soul. He wrote against the scholars in support of popular prejudice, but for the scholars and not for the people. [§193.]

Kant held that all rational persons have an a priori understanding of the basic principles of morality. These consist of duties, both to oneself and to others, and above all the duty to respect rational agents. Most persons, however, do not understand that morality is a priori, and their moral commitments are therefore vulnerable to corrosive skeptical criticism. In The Metaphysics of Morals Kant formulates the ultimate standard for moral judgment, namely universalizability, and establishes the rational necessity of morality.

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