Bertrand Russell: “. . . the fundamental concept in social science is Power, in the same sense in which Energy is the fundamental concept in physics.”

Bertrand Russell, Power: A New Social Analysis, 1938.

I like to read axiomatized versions of books

First, what does it mean to “axiomatize” an argumentative book? It is to divide the propositions of the book into two parts, called “axioms” and “theorems.” The axioms will be statements which are asserted, but which cannot be derived deductively or inductively from other statements; the theorems will be those statements which can be derived from the axioms by deduction and induction. When philosophers treat a book in the above manner, they normally do not use the word “axiom”; instead they talk about “foundations,” “premises,” “assumptions,” “presuppositions,” and such.

The paradigm of this “axiomatic” approach as applied to argumentative books is Bertrand Russell’s book A Critical Exposition of the Philosophy of Leibniz (1900) in which Russell claims that Leibniz’s metaphysics is based on five premises. Here are Russell’s words:

The principal premisses of Leibniz’s philosophy appear to me to be five. Of these some were by him definitely laid down, while others were so fundamental that he was scarcely conscious of them. I shall now enumerate these premisses, and shall endeavour to show, in subsequent chapters, how the rest of Leibniz follows from them. The premisses in question are as follows:

  1. Every proposition has a subject and a predicate.
  2. A subject may have predicates which are qualities existing at various times. (Such a subject is called a substance.)
  3. True propositions not asserting existence at particular times are necessary and analytic, but such as assert existence at particular times are contingent and synthetic. The latter depend upon final causes.
  4. The Ego is a substance.
  5. Perception yields knowledge of an external world, i.e. of existents other than myself and my states.

The fundamental objection to Leibniz’s philosophy will be found to be the inconsistency of the first premiss with the fourth and fifth; and in this inconsistency we shall find a general objection to Monadism.

What am I driving at with this? Let us take as an example John Rawl’s book A Theory of Justice (1971). It is a massive book of over 600 pages. It is very difficult to keep track of everything which is being asserted and argued for. But a reader has to have an understanding of the book before making an assessment. What is needed is some kind of skeletal structure of the book — a digest, divided into, what I am calling “axioms” and “theorems.” Such an analysis is provided by R. M. Hare in two articles, consisting of 22 pages: “Rawl’s Theory of Justice.”

Other such “axiomatizations” are provided by C. D. Broad in his Five Types of Ethical Theory (1930), especially of Sidgwick’s monumental Methods of Ethics.

What is the merit of such axiomatizations? It makes understanding and critical assessment easier.


The philosopher who was most conscious of this approach was James W. Cornman, who presented his arguments in the form of explicit premises and conclusions.

The World of the “Intelligentsia” and the World of the Common Person

I am reading Karl Popper’s “Open Society and Its Enemies” (1943), which is a critical examination of views on politics and history, and I am overwhelmed by his scholarship.  Reading him, and checking on some of his sources, makes me realize how “unread” I am.  I keep learning from authors like him, of various great books which were never mentioned in any list of “great books” which I am familiar with. So, I keep learning.  But I also reflect on the following.  Suppose Popper has — say — a “solution.”  Who will read his book? What difference will it make, and to who?  OK, so I read it, and write something about it, as here. Who will read me, and follow up by reading Popper?  The circle of people who I will influence — in even a miniscule way — is very small.    
There is a European term for the reading public, and it doesn’t mean someone who has mastered literacy and reads fiction, but a reader who has cultural and political interests. The term is “intelligentsia” and is broader than the term “intellectual.” So, there is this class of readers and writers who feed off each other.  But, I think, the circle of this class is small and closed.  I mean that the impact or influence of this class on the wider public is, practically speaking, near zero.

In response to Jordan Peterson’s claim for the evolutionary benefit of religious stories

Aristotle made the observation that nature abhors a vacuum. I want to extend this by saying that minds abhor a vacuum of beliefs. As I was listening to Jordan Peterson saying that there surely must be an evolutionary benefit to religious stories, it struck me that he is probably right but at the wrong level. He seems to be claiming that there is some evolutionary benefit to particular stories  and rituals.  By contrast, I would like to claim that even on the animal level — of say cats, there is a benefit in constructing a map of the world.  I don’t know how to talk about the behavior of cats and other animals without invoking the language of perception, desires, and beliefs.  C.D. Broad introduced the concept of a “quasi-belief” which he explained as trying to understand the behavior of an animal or a human on the model, analogy, or fiction of  a belief.  In other words, to say that an animal or a human has a quasi-belief, is just another way of expressing the idea that the animal or human is acting “as if” it had the belief.

I would like to advance the hypothesis that in some animals there is an innate drive to construct a quasi-Weltanschuung. For example, I have a cat, and I believe that it has formulated a complete picture of its proximate environment — the interior of our house.  At first the cat was relatively slow in moving around the house; but now it moves around the house with speed and confidence, and it seems to know the properties of the objects it encounters.  Furthermore, it has a picture of the house composed of substances and causal properties — perhaps we can call them quasi-substances and quasi-causes. In my Ph.D. dissertation, I called this view Animal Realism.

I bring up the powers of the cat to point out the evolutionary powers which we share with the cat in addition to our conceptual powers embodied in our mastery of language.  What am I driving at?  Just as the cat can and does map the house, we also have the ability, but more than an ability — we seem to have a drive to map and explain our universe.  This drive is aided by imagination.  I am saying that we have a drive to have beliefs about the workings of the whole universe, and this drive is such that what we do not know by experience, we supplement with imagination. This work of the imagination is called myth and religion.  Now, we would now call it the ability to form scientific hypotheses.

I am as skeptical about the evolutionary benefits of particular mythical beliefs, as I am of initial scientific hypotheses — i.e., until they have failed refutation.

I make no claims about the origin of our conceptual abilities, but judging by the nature of myths, I think that Wilfrid Sellars was right in postulating for humans an Original Image — a Weltanschauung in which everything is a person. If animism is the view that everything in the universe is alive, then Sellars is a radical animist in making a more specific claim that everything is a person. And I think that it suffices to say that such a power of imaginatively constructing a Weltanschauung is an evolutionary endowment of man, without having to resort to the additional burden of explaining particular myths in evolutionary terms.

If there is this drive in humans to have a total world view, it would explain the proclivity of people to utter bullshit.  They cannot help it. They always will give you some answer as an explanation. President Trump is almost the perfect example of this. The man is obviously quite ignorant of many things, but when asked he never says “I don’t know.”  Instead he makes up an answer on the spot without any qualms about the truth. He is a bullshitter as described by Harry Franfurther. Apparently it takes some sophistication and courage to say “I don’t know.”

On Reinventing the Wheel

I am troubled by the fact that many  speakers and writers do not acknowledge or are ignorant of previous relevant writings on a topic, and really repeat saying what others have written; thus, “reinventing the wheel.”

What can explain this phenomenon? Well, it is obvious that people want to have personal success and income from their speaking and writing, and so, they try to get attention.  They want people to view their videos, read their books, and be invited to various interviews, debates, and lectures.

They succeed, in part, because they appeal to a wide ignorant audience, which is attracted by the speaker’s or writer’s entertainment qualities, rather then by his or her scholarship.

For example, what do I want from a writer on a topic such as ethics? I want him to begin with something similar to what C. D. Broad did in his Five Types of Ethical Theories (1930). This is what he wrote: “Sidgwick’s Methods of Ethics seems to be on the whole the best treatise on moral theory that has ever been written, and to be one of the English philosophical classics.” p. 143.  And the bulk of Broad’s book — 113 pages our of a total 285 — is devoted to a critical examination of Sidgwick’s ethics.

Instead of jumping right into a topic, I would like an author to start by identifying what he considers to be the best work to date on a topic and write a critique of this work.

I had tried to do something like this in my dissertation in the fields of epistemology and metaphysics . I did not outright say that Wilfrid Sellars is the best contemporary thinker on these topics, but I did so implicitly by choosing to critically examine his views and claiming that he had verisimilitude. Here is what I wrote: “The examined philosopher provides an occasion for developing one’s own philosophy, and this is especially rewarding if the examined philosophy has verisimilitude, as does that of Wilfrid Sellars. The conclusions I reach are very close to Sellars’ own — so close, in fact, that I am not certain whether what I am offering as correction are of things I am only misinterpreting.” Andrew Chrucky, “Critique of Wilfrid Sellars’ Materialism,” 1990.

I myself have not done any systematic work in ethics, but it seems that being able to pursue a critical examination of morals assumes a cultural and political  context of such things as having had an education which gives one the critical acumen to pursue such studies, as well as the leisure to do so; rather than working at some unrelated area for a wage; and the means to pursue such a study — as access to a suitable library or the means to purchase necessary books. And, most important, there is the necessity of cultural tolerance and the political right of free speech.

Although I have a concern with ethics, there are also the more basic problems of how to cope with people who do not have a concern with morals and how to cope with institutions which allow such people to flourish. It is a question how to wage war against such people and such institutions.

Criticism of Murray Rothbard and Natural Rights (2)

David Ritchie in his book Natural Rights: A Criticism of Some Political and Ethical Conceptions, 2d ed. 1903, on p. 65,  gives the following description of one kind of anarchism, which he identifies with the French Radicals associated with the French Revolution of 1789.  I see no difference between this description and that of Murray Rothbard’s anarcho-capitalism.

“Anarchists are of three kinds. First of all, there is the old-fashioned Radical who repeats the revolutionary creed of 1789 in changed times, to whom an association called a government is an object of suspicion, whilst an association called a joint-stock company is an object of admiration. This old-fashioned Radical does not think himself a survival, but imagines that
he has the verdict of the newest science on his side.  He would abolish legislation, but would leave the judicial functions of government to enforce what he calls natural rights, but what are really the legal and customary rights resulting  from ancient legislation or want of legislation. He professes to give every one a fair start, but does not notice that the runners are unequally weighted. He calls himself an individualist, and is only a half-hearted Anarchist. His anarchy is anarchy based on the existing economic structure of society.  He believes in Nature, but forgets that it is a Nature that has been operating for ages among human beings. Nature to him really means human society under a completely triumphant  “Manchester School.” He would contribute to the amelioration of the species by abolishing all sanitary legislation, but would perhaps leave the tender-hearted private philanthropist a free hand in encouraging the propagation of beggars in order to give scope to his altruistic sentiments.”

Criticism of Murray Rothbard and Natural Rights

Let me start off by saying something about the phenomenon of the so-called “reinventing the wheel.” Sometimes people come up with old ideas (claims and theories) as if they created them.  (I am talking about ideas which have been published previously.) Now there are two ways of relating to previously published materials: either the person does not know of the previous publications, or he does. If he does, then he should give credit; otherwise, he is a plagiarist and a fraud. If, on the other hand, he does not know of the previous publication, then he is not a scholar — though he may be an original thinker. And scholarship — as I am too much aware — comes in degrees. (There is just too much being published.)

What is prompting me to think about this is the debate between Peter Joseph and Stefan Molyneux on capitalism.  Molyneux is in the business of making a buck on the Internet as a self-proclaimed philosopher who claims to be an abyss of wisdom. In other words, he is posturing as if he has invented the wheel. And boastfully he characterizes himself as being, among other things, an anarcho-capitalist.

Because of the apparent popularity of anarcho-capitalism, I am interested is assessing  its merits; so I will turn my attention to the writer who came up with this label in the first place: Murray Rothbard.

I will limit my focus on the beginning chapters of his Ethics of Liberty (1982) where he lays down the foundations, or as Hans-Hermann Hoppe, in his introduction (1998), wants to put it, the axioms of anarcho-capitalism.

Incidentally, there is a trivial sense of axiom in which any claim which is not derived from any other claim in a piece of writing is an “axiom.” If, however, this so-called axiom can be derived from some other claim not made by the author, then it is not an axiom. “Axiom” is then a relative notion within some system of claims.

As one begins to read Rothbard’s book, it is explicitly acknowledged by Rothbard that he is squarely in the Natural Rights tradition.

Rothbard, however, is definitely not a dialectical thinker. By a “dialectical thinker” I mean someone who will discuss alternative hypotheses and criticisms of the view he is defending. These alternatives and criticisms he can cull from published materials or through the consideration of possible alternatives. Such a procedure was used by Aristotle, by Abelard in Sic et Non, and by Thomas Aquainas.  Mortimer J. Adler recounts how he
discovered and was impressed by this approach in reading the Summa Theologica of Aquinas, where alternatives and criticisms are taken stock of and answered.

However, when we look at Murray Rothbard’s approach, we find at work what may be called Appeal to Authority. A claim is advanced and then a roster of famous authors is drawn up which supports the claim. This is not a dialectical examination. It is fine to cite and use the arguments of others for a claim. In that way the claim can be formulated in its best light. But the dialectical author will then want to summon the best critics of this claim, and answer the critic, like did Aquinas.

Rothbard is working from a natural rights perspective, which seems to culminate for him in John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government.

As to dialectics, i.e., taking stock of alternatives and answering criticisms, Rothbard’s approach is best described as composed of straw man and red herring tactics.

Why do I say this? First, because the only opponent which he deals with is called by him “Positivism.” He understands positivism to consist of the claim that all meaningful statements are either analytic or empirical; metaphysical claims are meaningless, while ethical claims express emotions.

Second, he cites Hannah Arendt, out of context, as a representative of “scientific philosophy”, to the effect that there is no human nature. Now, even if he were correct about Arendt — which he isn’t — to use one example of a philosopher to condemn a generation of philosophers is a very serious hasty generalization.

Not only is Murray Rothbard not a dialectical philosopher, but he is not even a respectable scholar. Why do I say this?

If I were to write about natural rights, I would look for some critical literature on this topic. And I don’t know how it is possible for a scholar to miss David Ritchie’s book Natural Rights: A Criticism of Some Political and Ethical Conceptions, 2d ed. 1903. This is both a very scholarly book (full of references to previous scholarship) and a dialectical treatment — taking into account alternatives and criticisms.

As to more recent work, how could he miss Margaret Macdonald’s “Natural Rights,” (1946-47)?

A more serious scholarship should have included George Henrik von Wright’s “Deontic Logic” (1951), and his subsequent expansion of his ideas in Norm and Action and in The Varieties of Goodness (1963).

The conclusion all these writers reach is that talk of rights makes sense only in a social context. [“But the rights, in any case, are
determined by a society, and do not exist prior to the society.”  David Ritchie, Natural Rights, p. 267]. Rights are either granted by some authorities, or are agreed to by some group.  Rothbard’s alleged two property rights of self-ownership and homestead rights, and the non-aggression principles, are all a matter of decisions between people. What this means is that one can opt for or prescribe such rights, but without an agreement or coercion from others, these prescriptions are powerless.

[to be continued]