Category Archives: Philosophy

as if there was necessarily just one transition

Graeber and Wengrove again, referring to archaeological evidence from the soi disant ‘Fertile Crescent’:

If the situation in just one cradle of early farming was that complicated, then surely it no longer makes sense to ask, ‘what were the social implications of the transition to farming?’ — as if there was necessarily just one transition, and one set of implications.


Mm-hmm. This applies to most talk of sociotechnical transition in the times ahead, as well as those in times past.

much more than a dispassionate record of events

The retrospective coloring of historical judgment shows that history is much more than a dispassionate record of events; it is a dynamic, living web of interpretations. We are not doomed to a false choice between purely objective facts and revisionism, with its often-groundless contestation of those fact[s]. Instead, we ought to observe, carefully and critically, who interprets historical materials, how, and for what purpose, as well as when and where. What does the 2022 equation V Day = Z Day in Putin’s Russia convey? Is it a simple betrayal of Soviet anti-Nazi fight? How does this betrayal unfold in the name of the very ideals and people it betrays? Only such precise questioning, which avoids readymade labels and conclusions, is capable of untangling the complexities of the historical web. And this is a lesson in the meaning of history, which Putin has taught us, largely despite himself.

Related reading, with more historical meat, in the latest from Adam Tooze.

infused also with insistence, perdurance, determination

To some, the very notion of a virtue of pessimism may seem absurd. For instance, we may subscribe to Hume’s notion that the mark of any virtue is that it is useful and agreeable, either to the person who possesses it or to others. But surely pessimism is neither useful nor agreeable. It is not useful, the argument goes, because it renders us passive, depresses not only ourselves but ‘our sense of the possible’, as Marilynne Robinson has said of cultural pessimism in particular. And it is not agreeable, since it intensifies our suffering, making us focus on the bad side of life rather than the good (or so arch-optimists such as Leibniz and Rousseau would have it). It is not surprising, then, that certain studies of supposed ‘moral exemplars’ identified positivity, hopefulness and optimism among the characteristics that such exemplars had in common.

But then, think of Greta Thunberg. If there is such a thing as a ‘climate virtue’, she would seem to exemplify it – considering the hard personal choices that she has made, the steadfastness of her vision, and the courage with which she holds world leaders to account and takes them to task for their half-heartedness, their unwillingness to commit fully to the cause. If this is not an exercise of virtues, then I don’t know what is – and yet there is nothing positive or optimistic about Thunberg. If there is hope, it’s a dark, bleak hope, full of rage and grief and pain for what is being lost – but infused also with insistence, perdurance, determination. It is clear that this activist, at least, will continue to strive even if her efforts are doomed to fail. This is not optimism: if anything, it is a hopeful pessimism, and I believe it has every right to be called a virtue in our age.

Food for thought, or confirmation for my pre-existing biases? Probably depends where you’re sat.

on those who cry wolf

Apropos of everything at once and nothing in particular, I found myself thinking this morning—not for the first time—on the interpretations we have of fables and mythical archetypes, and how they don’t always stand up when you think a bit harder about them. One might argue that this is just a limits-of-metaphor issue, and yeah, that’s a valid point—but it also suggests that the limits of metaphor are perhaps tighter than is commonly assumed, and/or that the interpretation of metaphor tends toward confirmation of what the interpreter already assumes, or what they would prefer to be true.

Case in point: we all know The Boy Who Cried Wolf, right? The story about how you should be careful not to lie about a dangerous problem when given responsibility for warning of its arrival?

That’s the interpretation I was given of that story, at any rate, and it is apparently very much the standard gloss. But thinking more carefully about the story to which it is attached suggests a rather different interpretation, which might go something along the lines of:

If your community is aware of the possibility of [wolf], to the extent that it thinks someone should be posted on lookout to warn of the approach of [wolf], then it would be better by far not to assign the look-out shift which is both the period of greatest vulnerability to [village] AND the historically-verified most likely period for the manifestation of [wolf] to an excitable child who is likely too young to have actually encountered [wolf] in any setting other than the collective oral history of [village].

Or, more simply: assigning a nervy and inexperienced kid to do an adult’s job and assuming you can sleep safely, and then blaming the kid’s false alarms for your sleeping through the eventual and destructive appearance of the thing you set the kid to watch out for, is surely less a story about how kids can’t be trusted to raise the alarm about wolves descending on the fold, and more a story about how fobbing off the hard work of protecting a community on its most vulnerable and inexperienced member is really fucking stupid.

Now, the standard moral attached to this story—that serial liars will not be believed at the crucial moment—depends on the assumption that the kid fabricates the wolf sightings he warns of. But this doesn’t hold water, for a number of reasons. For starters, why would anyone tell the same lie a second time, having gained nothing from it the first time but the acute displeasure of the rest of the village? Kids may not be wise, but they’re not stupid.

Furthermore, as recent events have demonstrated all too clearly, serial liars are all too likely to believed at the most crucial of moments, but only when they tell people what they want to hear. This sort of serial lying is not punished, but rewarded, and thus encouraged.

Now, I’m no philologist—though I can think of worse things to spend my time doing, were the opportunity available—so I have no idea at what point in its being-passed-down the fable had that pat interpretation attached. Wikipedia tells me that the story can be traced to Classical Greece, but did it come with that particular 1980s-animation “always remember, kids” moral coda attached to it right from the outset? Maybe it did, I don’t know. But the translation and spread of Classical fables from the C15th onwards suggests to me that it was at least as likely to have been a rather more subtle tale which fell victim to the moralising tendency of Early Modern Xtianity, which was not known for letting narrative plausibility get in the way of making a heavy-handed point about virtue.

But I’m not sure it makes a difference, particularly to interpretations made in our current context: when you deploy an archetype, you rely upon the subconscious apprehensions associated with that archetype. For me at least, the story of the kid who lied wolf is nowhere near as believable an example as the story of a kid who cried wolf in genuine fear in the dark of the night, from beneath the terrible weight of responsibility for the whole community, for the carrying of which he had been woefully underprepared and unsupported… and the moral of the latter story, which admittedly has to be worked a little harder for (and who has the time amirite lololol) also seems better reflected by reality.

On the other hand, the kid who lied wolf is a pretty neat way to scapegoat a destructive disaster on the under-resourced person you burdened with preventing it, eh?

A simpler example of the same dynamic would be the way that critical voices are frequently branded “Cassandra”, because somehow we’ve retained the cultural emblem of the woman (and of course it was a woman!) warning against follies, but jettisoned the rather crucial element of the story wherein Cassandra was actually right.

we’re all gnostics now

At tQ, scathing words from Darran Anderson on the ongoing rehabilitation of Ted Kaczynski, better known as the Unabomber:

… there is no group anywhere on the political spectrum that is not gnostic now. By which I mean, that every single position from furthest left to ‘moderate’ centre to furthest right believes they are the sole possessors of hidden conspiratorial knowledge, and that every other position are dupes. All are anti-establishment now, including the establishment. All are mavericks and rebels, especially those who prop up the status quo. That’s not to say that there is moral equivalence across the board but when every party believes it has uniquely awoken or been [insert colour]-pilled, we have to accept that the Spectacle has absorbed the very idea of escaping the Spectacle. To put it another way, we escape Plato’s Cave and are celebrating our liberation in another cave, perhaps one where we make the shadow puppets but a cave nonetheless. Or to put it another way again, as the sideshow trick goes, the most credulous marks are the ones who think everyone else is a mark.

I find it hard not to agree with Anderson, here, though that troubles me for two reasons. The first is that while I deplore his methods, I can understand Kaczynski’s choice of path, and have some sympathy with Evan Malmgren’s recent piece at Real Life, which I think does a better job of getting at why Kaczynski retains his cultural cachet than does Anderson:

Popular media accounts try to have it both ways, condemning Kaczynski’s terror campaign while elevating his otherwise derivative critique of technology, all while leaning into the bombings as an audience draw. In retreading Kaczynski’s story again and again, they merely underscore his provocative contention that violence was, in fact, an effective means of getting industrial society’s attention.

While Anderson is scathing about the manifesto as well as about the methods, he’s still caught in the cycle Malmgren identifies: deplore his methods as we might, indeed as we must, that we are obliged and driven so to do remakes Kaczynski’s point, which is that violence cuts through the Spectacle in a way that nothing else does.

My second concern is that Anderson seems to be taking aim at specific nihilistic positions from a more generalised nihilism, which is (as I understand it) a contradiction inherent to leftist readings of Nietzsche—which is not to say that Anderson is drawing on Nietzsche here, so much as to say I recognise something of Anderson’s “everyone now claims to be a rebel, and it is by pointing this out that I implicitly become the true rebel and transcend the dialectic” vibe in my own thinking, as well as in ol’ Friedrich. It also feels like the flipside, or at least a phenomenon closely connected to, the paradox of tolerance, which is bugging me in the context of a book I’m reading for review, and the more general issue of epistemology, not so much in the specific Foucauldian sense of the term, but in the more general sense that it’s being used in the literature on teaching and learning in higher education that I’m encountering in an ongoing course.

All of which may amount to little more than the pattern-imposing lobe of what passes for my brain doing a more active job than usual at trying to make connections between things that I just so happen to be encountering at roughly the same time… but there may be something more to it. I guess we’ll see what (if anything) falls out here over the days ahead.