The Problem: How to discern bullshit in philosophy?

One of my concerns is the existence of an enormous amount of philosophical writings, and the seeming lack of guidance in separating, as is said, the wheat from the chaff, or, truth and importance from bullshit. The situation is this. You go to a bookstore or a library to read some non-fiction . . . what should you read? One answer is: read a textbook. In fields where there is a discernable and agreed to progress, this is a wise suggestion. However, because of the proliferation of textbooks for economic reasons, there is also the problem — perhaps a minor one — of picking the best textbooks.

My field of study has been philosophy. And the situation in philosophy is — what can I say? — very fuzzy. There is, first, the problem of demarcating the field. In some bookstores, philosophy is cataloged together with religion and “new age” literature. Second, there is a vague demarcation between continental and analytic philosophy. Third, there is an avalanche of books and especially journal articles on philosophy. How does one sift through this avalanche of literature?

In 1994 I tried to do a kind of study of influences in philosophy. I was using the computer data bank of Philosopher’s Index, which has a category of “mentioned author.” So, I compiled a list of the 100 most “influential” (meaning, most mentioned) authors from roughly 1940 to 1994. You can look at my findings here.

The thing that struck me at the time — though I did not mention or pursue the problem — was that most articles were never mentioned or commented on. This is — what can I say? — weird, because philosophy, as I conceive it, should be dialectical, meaning that it should engage in critical discussions (dialogues).

This matter of ignoring philosophers and writings needs an explanation. And the only explanation that seems plausible is an economic one. The only job a philosopher qua philosopher can do is teach; so philosophers try to get teaching positions. Since there are more philosophers than teaching positions, there is a competition for jobs. And, other things being equal, what distinguished philosophers in the quantity and quality of their publications; hence, the avalanche of publications. The writings tend to be commentaries on famous philosophers, some are commentaries on contemporaries, and others offer some purported original insight.

Now, as a student of philosophy, how do I sift through this avalanche. One way is supposedly to take a course in philosophy. But, which course? given by whom?

Reading about schools of philosophy and philosophers, there was a tradition in the ancient and medieval world to flock to hear a distinguished philosopher. This was true in a small relatively homogenous community, such as the Athenian and Roman empires, and in the Latin scholarly world of the medieval world.  One also reads of students flocking to hear Hegel or Heidegger in Germany.

But this flocking to hear a philosopher is now very rare. Who are you to read or listen to? About what?  In 1986, Charles S. Yankoski made an effort to provide some guidance, but his experiment failed through lack of money and institutional support.  Take a look at this effort here.

Commentary on Noam Chomsky

Commentary on the political views of Noam Chomsky

What I have to say about the political views of Chomsky is not to challenge anything he says; it is to point out some of the things that he does not say or stress.

He writes from a moral point of view. Practically, this is the point of view of the United Nations, to which the United States government has subscribed. And the greatest immoral act for a country — from an international perspective — is to conduct acts of aggression.

Most of Noam Chomsky’s political writings are detailed accounts of the history of US government’s aggressions — overt and covert.

Chomsky looks for an explanation for this aggressive behavior on the part of the US government. His claim is that the government is in the hands of oligarchs, specifically corporations. And the business of the military-industrial (financial) complex is to make the world safe (soft) for American business.

Chomsky’s political activism started with his protests against the Vietnamese War. And since then, his criticism (condemnation) of US government acts and policies has become quite extensive.

The aim of global capitalism (spearheaded by US corporations) is to create all sorts of tensions and conflicts in the world. The last one with the Soviet Union was called the “Cold War.” Then there was a “War against Drugs”; now there is this “War Against Terrorism.” These give justifications for the US policing the world. Presently, the US has built up a global military presence through some 1000 military bases around the world.

This “War against terrorism” and the intransigent support of the Israeli government has created the Islamic blowback through wars and interventions in the Middle East.

The other support of global capitalism was the loosening of controls over financial markets. The result was the 2008 global depression, resulting in our current age of austerity.

Related to Chomsky’s critique of US policy, is his focus on why intellectuals and the mass media do not participate in this radical critique of the US government’s policies — foreign and domestic. And his explanation is that just like the US government, so the intellectuals and the media have been bought by global capitalism.

Sometimes Chomsky is criticized for not having an alternative to this state of affairs. Such criticism is completely wrong. Chomsky is a self-conscious anarchist, or, as he prefers to say, a libertarian socialist. And he even is more specific is calling himself a syndicalist. This means, first, from an economic point of view, he is against capitalism. He is for worker-controlled enterprises, somewhat is the style of an Israeli kibbutz. He keeps stressing that the early wage-workers saw themselves as wage-slaves.

He is fully conscious of the two great attempts at anarchist communities: the first, during the Russian Civil War (1918-1921) in Ukraine under the leadership of Nestor Makhno; the second, during the Spanish Civil War and Revolution (1936-1939). Both ultimately failed for lack of arms.

I agree with all of this.

What I find unsatisfactory is the things Chomsky does not say or stress.

First, Chomsky rightly criticizes the acts and policies of the US government, but he does not criticize the very nature and structure of the US government as did Lysander Spooner. It seems to me that he is content with the nature of a representative democracy, and perhaps would agree with John Stuart Mill’s recommendations for altering the electoral process. He does not seem to take into account Peter Kropotkin’s critique of parliamentary (representative) government as such. He is, of course aware, of council (soviet) style government (Anton Pannekoek), but does not push for it.

Even if such a proposal for council government (under the circumstances) is utopian, he could realistically, for example, give Switzerland as the better form of a representative democracy. The Swiss form of government is — like the US — a federal bicameral representative democracy.

Chomsky, like many others, justifiably criticizes Trump as a poor pick for a president, and, incidentally, he criticizes all US presidents, but does not propose a Swiss-style Federal Council. He does not criticize the office of a President. I find this odd. I find this odd because it is almost a priori certain that a President — or any single person of authority — can be bribed and threatened. As I see it, giving power to a single individual (in whatever capacity) is the source of corruption. There should be a name for this as a principle of politics:

If a person can be bought, he will be bought!

So, my recommendation is to make all decisional offices into councils. Switzerland does not have a President, a Prime Minister, or a Chancellor, but a Federal Council of seven, which collectively constitutes the
executive office. Chomsky should be recommending councils instead of Presidents, Governors, and Mayors.

Second, the grip of the Federal Constitution, as I see it, can be broken — not by amendments, but by secession of the States. I know that Chomsky is for self-determination of various groups: Palestinians, Kurds, the Basque, Catalonia, etc, But I don’t know if Chomsky is for the secession of  American states.

Third, Chomsky is totally alarmed by the ecological disaster we are heading towards. He is for curtailing carbon emissions. But the main reason for our ecological plight is the necessity of industry to satisfy the needs of an ever- growing population. This overpopulation is not only contributing to pollution, but it is also a factor in the migrations from a devastated Middle East and Africa which are overwhelming Europe.

Fourth, capitalism can exist only if — as was pointed out by Marx and Weber — there is a proletariat, i.e., people who do not have access to free subsistence land. In the United States there never existed a legal free access to land (except for the Homestead Act of 1862), but even if land is acquired, there are property taxes. Such agrarian policies force one to seek wages; hence, as Chomsky notes, create wage-slaves. Unfortunately, I don’t find in Chomsky recommendations for agrarian reform.

The most important sense of “bullshit”

I regard the use of the word “bullshit” as a ubiquitous term of rejection or condemnation.   And I regard the most important type of rejection, the rejection of the trivial and irrelevant — that which is not important or valuable.   I know that what is valuable or important is relative to what one is trying to achieve.  But to achieve anything, one has to be alive — and hopefully, healthy.  In other words, the necessary condition of doing anything is being alive.   So, even if you are willing to sacrifice your life for some cause such as the well being of your loved ones or your country, you must be alive.   So, as I see it, sustaining your life (for whatever cause), is most important, at least as a precondition for anything else.   And to talk of what is necessary for life is to talk about human needs (as contrasted with desires).

What everyone needs is air, water, food, shelter and anything which will maintain necessary body temperatures (e.g., clothes, fire, air conditioning).   We who live in cities, in houses, condominiums, or apartments know that necessities are bought with money, and so we invariably will think of the necessity of a job to get an income.  But is it true that a job is necessary?  And if you lose your job or can’t find one, you picture yourself in the plight of the homeless.  You imagine getting some kind of welfare, soup kitchen, begging, scrounging through garbage, and sleeping in some tunnel or make-shift shelter.

But for millennia,  people have lived off the land — either as hunter/gatherers or as farmers and herders.  And many still do.  So, the alternative to working for a wage is to live off the land.  And to do so one must have free access to land on which to hunt, fish, gather, farm or herd.  Does anyone have such free, legal access to land?

Thomas Skidmore, The Rights of Man to Property! Being a proposition to make it equal among the adults of the present generation: and to provide for its equal transmission to every individual of each succeeding generation, on arriving at the age of maturity, 1829.

Centralization of power is not beneficial to ordinary people; it is bullshit.



 

Leopold Kohr, The Breakdown of Nations, 1957, 1978.

Kohr proposed a breakdown of Europe into smaller chunks, and then federating them together; not unifying them through a central government.

A Europe of Little States:  This map shows approximately the genuine component parts of Europe, historically subdividing the great powers, products not of nature but of force. Being all equal in size they are ideally fit to form a successful federation. Thus Europe’s problem – as that of any federation – is one of division, not of union.

 

E. F. Schumacher, Small Is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered, 1973.