John Locke on escaping from bullshit

“. . . The commonwealth of learning is not at this time without master-builders, whose mighty designs, in advancing the sciences, will leave lasting monuments to the admiration of posterity: but every one must not hope to be a Boyle or a Sydenham; and in an age that produces such masters as the great Huygenius and the incomparable Mr. Newton, with some others of that strain, it is ambition enough to be employed as an under-labourer in clearing the ground a little, and removing some of the rubbish that lies in the way to knowledge;– which certainly had been very much more advanced in the world, if the endeavours of ingenious and industrious men had not been much cumbered with the learned but frivolous use of uncouth, affected, or unintelligible terms, introduced into the sciences, and there made an art of, to that degree that Philosophy, which is nothing but the true knowledge of things, was thought unfit or incapable to be brought into well-bred company and polite conversation. Vague and insignificant forms of speech, and abuse of language, have so long passed for mysteries of science; and hard and misapplied words, with little or no meaning, have, by prescription, such a right to be mistaken for deep learning and height of speculation, that it will not be easy to persuade either those who speak or those who hear them, that they are but the covers of ignorance, and hindrance of true knowledge. To break in upon the sanctuary of vanity and ignorance will be, I suppose, some service to human understanding; though so few are apt to think they deceive or are deceived in the use of words; or that the language of the sect they are of has any faults in it which ought to be examined or corrected, that I hope I shall be pardoned if I have in the Third Book dwelt long on this subject, and endeavoured to make it so plain, that neither the inveterateness of the mischief, nor the prevalency of the fashion, shall be any excuse for those who will not take care about the meaning of their own words, and will not suffer the significancy of their expressions to be inquired into…..”

(John Locke, Epistle to the Reader, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, 1689)

Blurriness of Political and Economic Language

Political and economic talk is totally blurry because of ambiguity and vagueness. The only way to make one’s way through it is to tag these terms to particular persons. In other words, make them relative to the person using the term.

But even this will not solve the muddle because of psittacism — talking like a parrot without any understanding. And a related problem is that of what Susan Stebbing called “potted” or “canned” speech [Chapter 6, Potted Thinking, Thinking to Some Purpose, 1939]. This is the use of catchwords and slogans without any backing. So, it is pointless to talk to someone who uses words and phrases without the ability to supply a clarification through a definition.

I don’t know why, but the following TED presentation by Kajsa Ekis Ekman in 2014 sticks with me as an example of someone who wants to sincerely give a definition, but fails. She talks instead about the strategies and effects of a capitalist economy, and recommends democratization of the workplace.

Now, compare this talk with that of G.A. Cohen: Criticism of Capitalism by G. A. Cohen, reflecting on Al Capp’s creature, the Shmoo

Some of my favorite Protest Songs

Mireille Mathieu singing: La Marseillaise

Mykhailo Khoma (Dzidzio) sings: Ukrainian National Anthem

The Turtles sing: Eve of Destruction

Paul Robeson sings: Joe Hill

Joe Glazer sings: Pie in the Sky

Hazel Dickens sings: The Rebel Girl

Al Jolson sings: Brother can you spare a Dime

Buffalo Springfield sings: For What It’s Worth

Pete Seeger sings: We Shall Overcome

Bob Marley sings: Get Up, Stand Up

Billie Holiday sings: Strange Fruit

Johnny Paycheck sings: Take This Job and Shove It

Green Day sing: American Idiot

John Lennon sings: Imagine

Logic-Chopping, Nitpicking, Quibbling, and such

I keep returning to Alexander Gray’s, The Socialist Tradition (1946) with praise for his scholarship and with reproval for his analyses and emotive disparagements.

As I was reading his account of Robert Owen (pp. 197-217), I came upon the following passage: “Perhaps those parts of his arguments which rest on general humanitarian considerations, rather than on logic-chopping discussions on Man’s will, make a stronger appeal to our generation, if only because here Owen is more universally human.” p. 208.

I want to reflect on this kind of criticism which is expressed by the phrase “logic-chopping” and its near synonym “nitpicking” or “quibbling.”This is criticism of something being done in excess of what is appropriate to the context. And a person who engages in excessive criticism is a “pedant.” And one who is oblivious to a need for any analysis at all and the need to make appropriate distinctions is a “philistine.” [I have put links for the meaning of these words.]

What is too much or too little depends on the context.

I personally have been constantly accused of “nitpicking” because I — almost invariably — ask: “What do you mean?” And I usually ask for the meaning of abstract words which have the suffix “-ism” (and for most political terms for parties and so-called “schools”), but also for the meaning of — what seem to me to be — names of fictions, like “God.”

I suppose the consequence of stirring up controversy in inappropriate contexts is being forced (in a metaphoric way of speaking) to drink hemlock.

Three films which linger with me

I have enjoyed watching many movies, but I can think of only three that have left a deep impression on me. They are: Zorba the Greek, Seven Samurai, and Apocalypto. Now, I am not going to focus on their aesthetic merits, which all three have in abundance, but on their didactic features.

Zorba the Greek reminds me of Nietzsche’s distinction in ancient Greek drama between the Apollonian and Dionysian traits of man. [See: Nietzshe, The Birth of Tragedy] Bates, playing the English gentleman, is full of conventional habits and beliefs which inhibit his emotional life; whereas Quinn, who plays the role of the vagabond Zorba, is in touch with his somewhat uninhibited emotions. What I got from the film is the need to unite — so to say — the head with the heart.

Seven Samurai is about a peasant village in Japan which is yearly assaulted by a band of horsed bandits who extort from the village most of its food supply, leaving them in a miserable condition. The villagers decide to obtain a defense against these yearly intruders by soliciting the help of seven samurai. The result is that in the ensuing defense most of the samurai are killed, but the village is saved. What I got from the film is the crucial need of weapons to defend oneself from enemies.

I value Apocalypto not for any didactic message as for a realistic depiction of historical and cultural realities. First, it depicts the life of hunter/gatherers as happy and fulfilling. To use Marshall Sahlins’ phrase, it depicts an “affluent society.” Second, it depicts the fact that other tribes took slaves; which is how African slaves were obtained by Europeans. Third, it shows a harsh contrast between the life of hunter/gatherers and the life of the inhabitants of the city, who are depicted as crowded, filthy, obedient, and poor. Fourth, the movie depicts the consequences of superstition: human sacrifice.

Together, these movies show the realities of human nature and of life.

My road to escaping from bullshit

Let me start by say something about how I came to appreciate the great benefit of having digitilized books and other media on the internet.

I remember the incident which revolutionized my thinking about the computer. It was sometime in the 1980ies when I was talking to a secretary at Keystone Junior College in Pennsylvania. I complained to her that I was working on a dissertation and had cut up my typed pages into various snippets and was assembling them all across the floor for rearrangement. In response she went to a huge computer and proceded to “cut and paste” written material on a screen. Wow!

Shortly after, I browsed through a book on the Basic programming language, and immediately the similarity to symbolic logic hit me. Shortly after this — I think it may have been 1984 that I bought my first computer, a Kaypro, with two disc drives : one for the operating system (CP/M) and the other for data.

Kaypro II
Released: 1982
Price: US $1595.
Weight: 26 lbs
CPU: Zilog Z80, 2.5 MHz
RAM: 64K
Display: 9″ green phosphor screen. 24 X 80 text only
Ports: Serial port Parallel port
Storage: Two internal 5-1/4″ SS-DD 195K drives
OS: CP/M, SBASIC

Soon I learned that there was a competitor operating system (DOS) on IBM computers, and a whole row of IBM clones was on the market. And the Kaypro company abandoned CP/M and went over to DOS.

I witnesses the emergence of the internet with a browser called Lynx (text-only), with which I learned to access a library catalog. Wow!

And then I bought an IBM clone which ran Windows 3.1, and soon came a browser from Cornell called Cello which introduces images. Wow!

Then came the web browser Mosaic in 1993 (with sound?), and the Web sprouted for me, followed by the brower Netscape, AOL, and the Internet Explorer — and here we are.

In 1990 I received my Ph.D. degree in Philosophy from Fordham University in Bronx, NY. One remark of one of the philosophers on the defense committee made a deep impression on me. He said something like this: “Too bad that such a fine dissertation will sit in the bookshelves picking up dust.”

I don’t remember the date, but I noticed that a graduate student at the University of Chicago was given space on the university’s computers for philosophical projects. I contacted him and received some space which I turned into a Wilfrid Sellars site. Soon however I purchased the domain “ditext.com” (url search reports 1998 as the year of registration) and transferred the material to this domain, giving my main web page the title “Digital Text International.”

Seeing the international reach of the internet, my ambition was to make everything about Sellars available, refusing to let my dissertation and other works “pick up dust on a library shelf.” And I was inspired to do other projects — like the Meta-Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

However, my sort of endeavor to make literature available on the internet has totally been superseded by such depositories as Wikipedia, Gutenberg, Archive.org

Since moving to Chicago in 1999, and discovering anarchism (which was never mentioned in any of my courses — ever), I have become an advocate of anarchism. And since bibliographies on anarchism, Switzerland, secession, and land rights are not sufficient to inspire readers, I decided a couple of years ago to do a Blog, in which I propagate my views. You see, while teaching introductory courses in philosophy at Wright College, Chicago, I came to realize from all my informal writings that I have ever done that my concern — private and philosophical — has always been to escape from bullshit.

Yuval Noah Harari’s conflation (lumping together) of “common imaginations”

I have now read Harari’s book Sapiens: A Brief History of Mankind (2014), and have watched him giving lectures and interviews. From an overarching perspective, he is a very clear writer and well informed, and reading him was a “smooth” process. However, in his reflections on human history there are intertwined different interests which left me somewhat confused as to his overarching concern, especially with the last chapters which were reflections on happiness and the prospects of various types of engineering of “sapience.”

So, as a first attempt at understanding his book, these various strands of interest should be distinguished. Here I will concern myself only with one major and fundamental confusion, which is embraced or covered over by the use of the word “fiction” and by the phrase “common imagination.”

To clear up this confusion, we must start — as does Harari — with the distinction between humans beings and animals.

Watch the following video in which Herari tries to explain this difference (as well as other topics).

Commentary: He says that the difference between humans and animals is the fact that humans can cooperate more widely than, lets say, chimpanzees. That is true. But this cooperation is possible because we humans have a “human” language which no other animal does or can have. This allows us to share information with others and to make agreements. But from this elementary truth, he quickly jumps to the idea that we tell each other stories which gain acceptance. And he calls these stories “fictions,” giving the institution of money as a prime example. But then, in the same vein of thinking, he talks about religions and their “fictions.”

This is confusing. The word “fiction” is a pejorative term which suggests that what is talked about is not real in some sense of “real.” I was similarly confused by the title of the book, Bentham’s Theory of Fictions, until I realized that Bentham was referring to abstract (non sensorial) concepts as “fictions” and reserved the term “fables” for mythological stories. Harari, unfortunately, does not make this distinction, but conflates it.

With the use of language, humans can make agreements. However, we must distinguish those agreements which make a language possible in the first place, from the kinds of agreements which we can make by the use of language. An elementary feature of language is the existence of names. An animal is able to associate a sound with some object or activity, but only a human is able to understand that the sound “water” is, let us say, a common name in a language for water.

With the working of a language, which could be described, though not happily, with Harari’s phrase as existing in a “common imagination” and as a “fiction” (= creation of the mind), different activities are possible through Speech Acts. As an antidote to what Harari writes, I urge the reader to get acquainted with what John Searle had written and lectured on Speech Acts. See:

John Searle explains how social reality is created

Searle distinguished five types of speech acts: Assertives, Expressives, Directives, Commissives, Declarations.

Harari’s confusion is explicitly present in the following summary paragraph:

“Yet none of these things exists outside the stories that people invent and tell one another. There are no gods in the universe, no nations, no money, no human rights, no laws, and no justice outside the common imagination of human beings.” (Sapience, p. 28)

The claim that there are or that there are not gods is an Assertive which can be true or false — no matter how many people believe it. But to make such an assertion requires possession of a language, and a language exists — so to say — in a “common imagination.” But this is simply to note that an assertion can be made only is a language, and that a language exists only in humans. But the question of whether the assertion is true or not, is independent of what anyone asserts or believes. By “common imagination,” can only mean here that a community subscribes to some assertion or claim.

As concerns the term “nation,” it is a term of classification. In one sense, classes exist outside of human classification, but humans can choose which classes to use. As I use the term, a nation is composed of all the people who use a common language and give that language a preferential status. This could be my idiosyncratic understanding, but if others agree with me, then that is the meaning of the term for us. But here we are dealing with the elementary level of what does a word mean, and not with any assertion as is done, for example, with religious beliefs. I also know that the term “nation” or “nationality” is used by others in something like a disjunctive manner: A person is a member of the nation (or nationality) N if A or B or C or . . . And various things can be put for the variables. All this shows is that the terms “nation” and “nationality,” as commonly used, are ambiguous and vague.

As to rights and laws, these are the result of implicit or explicit Declarations. And declarations are either by common agreement, or by the declaration of some authority, such as a legislature or a judge. Justice, as I conceive it, is simply the abiding by agreements.

Harari has managed to conflate all these distinctions by saying that they all depend on a “common imagination.” And this conflation is not confined to some segment of his book but pervades it.

Further commentary on Ian Shapiro’s course: “Moral Foundations of Politics”

There is much in his course that I admire, and I appreciate his summaries, and various insights. But still I have fundamental disagreements.

These disagreement are based on the fact that I have my own independent outlook which acts as a base for evaluating the views of others, including the history of political thinking of others, and views of Shapiro himself.

To begin with, I am wary of ambiguous and vague abstractions and hasty generalizations as, for example, giving a historical period names, i.e., periodizations, placing thinkers into Schools and Movements. Shapiro classifies his course into three idiosyncratic parts: Enlightenment, Anti-Enlightenment, and Democratic Theory. By doing this, he is answering his fundamental question as to the moral foundation of politics with the following general answers: (1)[Enlightenment] the moral foundations of politics are x, y, or . . . z. (2)[Anti-Enlightenment] there are no moral foundations of politics, and (3) [Democratic Theory] the best form of current politics is some form of democracy.

Furthermore, His whole course seems to be based on an idiosyncratic concept of the Enlightenment, which he says is based on two claims. The first is that science can provide foundations for morality and politics. The second is an endeavor for freedom. But the nature of this freedom is left unspecified.

Concerning the first claim. If science seeks the truth, and truth concerns what is; while morality concerns what ought to be the case and what I ought to do, and David Hume, who lived during the Enlightenment, observed that “is does not imply ought,” [as Shapiro himself point out] then at least one Enlightenment thinker did not subscribe to the claim that science can provide moral foundations for politics.

As to Shapiro’s second characteristic of the Enlightenment — as a search for freedom — suffers from ellipsis. More precisely it should be formulated as freedom from … and freedom to do …

And Shapiro could have done better in his description of the Enlightenment by citing Immanuel Kant’s essay “What is Enlightenment?” in which the whole endeavor of the Enlightenment is expressed as: critically assessing all opinions; with a call to the government for freedom for everyone to publicly express their opinions.

My blog “Escaping from bullshit,” exemplifies this Enlightenment project.

From this perspective, the Enlightenment project started in ancient Greece through the systematic use of the principle of non-contradiction. This is the principle that two contradictory claims cannot be true simultaneously. This principle was used in the Middle Ages to systematize theology. However, the period up to the 17th century was loaded with all sorts of mythologies which could not be assessed simply on the basis of non-contradiction.

But with the scientific discoveries in the 17th centuries, an additional principle was established for determining superstitions (mythologies). This extended rationality from just relying on non-contradiction to an appeal to empirical scientific claims as providing better explanations.

The other serious problem was the existence of censorship — both religious and secular. Religion persecuted heretics (which still persists in Muslim countries); while the Monarchs favored the myth of a divine right of kings, and suppressed any political criticism — again, a problem which persists even today.

However, during the 18th century one unsolved problem remained which gave succor to theology — the existence of a complex, law-regulated cosmos, especially the existence of life forms, culminating in human beings. This mystery of life and lawful complexity left room for God, for free will, and room for an immortal soul. Thus, if one was free from contradictory beliefs and from the fact that science was limited, one could be justified in being at least a Deist.

This problem of the existence of life forms was solved by the theory of evolution, with the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859), which ushered in an Age of Secularism or Materialism.

The achievement and progress of the Enlightenment is scholarly expressed by Andrew Dickson White’s book: A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology (1896-7)