Jan 162014

This letter was written to the NYRB in response to Michael Hofmann’s recent review of The Kraus Project: Essays by Karl Kraus (translated and annotated by Jonathan Franzen, with assistance and additional notes from Paul Reitter and Daniel Kehlmann):


Early in his review of The Kraus Project, Michael Hofmann observes that “most of Kraus’s writing was ad hominem.” My initial, naive assumption was that Hofmann intended this as a criticism. But it appears instead to be an acknowledgment of common ground, as he goes on to inform us that Kraus was a hypocrite (“Is he the wretched, off-the-peg French-hater in ‘Heine and the Consequences’ or the much-garlanded visitor to Paris fifteen years later, suspicious of Prussia now, and happy to be proposed for the Nobel Prize by nine professors at the Sorbonne?”), a litigious bully, a dictatorial snob (“Kraus is writing to enforce—to inflict, I would almost say—his authority on randomly chosen terrain, along the lines of ‘the very popular is very bad, the popular is very good, only for reasons you need me to understand'”) and most damningly, a self-hating Jew guilty of “dog-whistle anti-semitism of the foulest kind.”

If this has an oddly familiar ring, it may be because it is more or less the same indictment leveled by Walter Kaufmann in a letter to the New York Review of Books in 1973; and even then—as Erich Heller wrote in his lucid response to Kaufmann, still probably the best rebuttal of the charges raised here—it was “not so ‘recent’ that it [did] not tediously repeat arguments that are as old as the shocks of the first readers of Die Fackel.” But what is more troubling than this familiar litany of complaints, is Hofmann’s blithe assurance that they release us from any troublesome obligation to take Kraus seriously, allowing us instead to substitute the free play of elegantly expressed contempt for actual criticism:

It was suggested in 1976, and again in 1986, by Karl Kraus’s early torch-bearer in English, Harry Zohn, and by others at other times, before and since, and probably in between as well, that there is a particular timeliness about the work of this Viennese Jewish writer, who was born in Bohemia in 1874 and died in Vienna in 1936. […] As for “Kraus’s timeliness,” just when was it? Was it 1900, the year after he started his magazine Die Fackel (The Torch)? Or 1910, when he phased out other contributors…Or 1920, when his “vibrant pacifism” would have had, as the Germans say, Hochkonjunktur —a boom? Or 1930, when he was shading into irrelevance and repetitiousness (again)?

One possible answer to this question is that a writer may have something important to say to us now, and still have something important to say to us a decade later. It is suggested with remarkable frequency that Shakespeare, Goethe, and indeed Heine are “timely” as well, and these claims are not usually treated as prima facie absurd or mutually contradictory. And after all, the source of Kraus’s continued relevance is not such a mysterious thing: he was not a “helpless priest of language,” as Hofmann puts it, but its custodian, fanatically alert to its distortion by journalistic mendacity, political and bureaucratic double-speak, and the self-perpetuating jargon of ideologues. His great subject, then, was the tragedy of language’s corruption by power, reflected in his aphoristic remark, with its paradoxical evocation of Faust, that “he who encourages deeds with words desecrates both word and deed and is doubly despicable.” This passage, from his anguished protest in Die Fackel against the outbreak of the First World War, epitomizes the true Krausian aphorism: not an arbitrary witticism surrounded by laborious waffling, as Hoffman would have it, but a flash of insight that emerges with seeming inevitability from the surrounding argument, crystallizing its import and driving it home with terrific force.

Kraus’s concern for language was thus always a passionately moral one. In his role as scourge of the press, he defended prostitutes against the hypocritical censure of the Viennese, striking out at newspapers that condemned prostitution in print while advertising for “escort services” in their own back pages. As a critic of psychoanalysis, he lambasted the psychiatrists’ collusion with the state in horrifying abuses of individual freedom. In each case, what he found most terrible was the ease with which language could be made to paper over atrocity. This is not a unique insight—it is at least as old as Thucydides’ description of the civil war in Corcyra, and is of course found in Orwell—but Kraus was perhaps the single person most possessed by it, and he pursued its implications with remarkable (and frightening) tenacity. It is this, rather than his status as some kind of shadowy influence-broker, that accounts for the esteem in which he was held. It is true that this is not fundamentally a “literary” insight, and in this sense Hofmann is correct to say that Kraus’ place is not in the history of literature. But why should this count against him? Kraus’ Vienna produced not only Hofmann’s favored triumvirate of “Artur Schnitzler in drama, Georg Trakl in poetry, [and] Robert Musil in epic prose,” who had little use for Kraus, but also Adolf Loos in architecture, Arnold Schoenberg in music, and Ludwig Wittgen­stein in philosophy, all of whom admired him deeply (if not without reservations.) The works of Schoenberg and Wittgenstein, at least, would have assumed a vastly different form without him, which is to say that much of music and philosophy in the twentieth century would have as well. For a man who belongs “in the history of aggression, Publizistik, boosterism, feuding, polemics, [and] PR,” and whose intellectual milieu was a “pissing contest,” this is a rather impressive accomplishment. I can only conclude that we need more such pissing contests.

What is at issue here, in any case, is something more important than Kraus’ “historical” importance, however broadly or narrowly construed. Does it even need to be said that the abuses of language against which he protested have only multiplied over the intervening century? We spend each day amidst a welter of comfort­able phrases—examples of which most of us could easily cull, according to our political persuasion, from the dialects of the military, politics, advertising, business, journalism, academia, or countless other sources—that conceal and beautify realities which, if we confronted them directly, we would find unbearable to look upon. The question, then, is not why Kraus is timely, but how, in the foreseeable future, he could possibly stop being so.


Nov 112012

So this is to announce that Charles S. Peirce on the Logic of Number has been pub­lished by Docent Press. It was originally written over 30 years ago.

Charles S. Peirce on the Logic of Number

Here are some extracts from the Introduction:

In 1881 the American philosopher Charles S. Peirce published a remark­able paper in The American Journal of Mathematics called “On the Logic of Number.” Peirce’s paper was a watershed in nineteenth cen­tury mathematics; it contained the first successful axiom system for the natural numbers. Since scholarship has traditionally attributed priority in this regard to the axiom systems of Richard Dedekind, in 1888, and Giuseppe Peano, in 1889, we will show that Peirce’s axiom system is actually equivalent to these better known systems.

It is not generally known that Peirce’s 1881 paper provided the first abstract formulation of the notions of partial and total linear order, that it introduced recursive definitions for arithmetical operations, nor that it proposed the first general definition of cardinal num­bers in terms of ordinals.

Peirce was probably America’s greatest philosopher, and his interest in the foundations of mathematics was closely tied to his main philosophical concerns. Some of his most characteristic philosophical positions – his synechism and his phenomenological categories – bear the direct imprint of his research into the theory of sets and transfinite numbers. Peirce’s 1881 paper, in particular, is important for understanding his view of the nature of mathematics and its relation to deductive logic. It was published concurrently — in the same issue of AJM — with his father’s famous definition of mathematics as the science which draws necessary con­clusions.

In the course of tracing out the implications of Peirce’s 1881 paper, we address the problem of locating his mature philosophy of mathematics vis-à-vis the traditional triad of logicism, formalism, and intuitionism. Although we show that Peirce’s view had similarities to and differences from all three, his understanding of mathematics was essentially sui generis.  Perhaps the most characteristic aspect of Peirce’s approach is that he did not conceive mathematics to require any sort of epistemological foundation, whether in logic, intuition, or by means of constructive completeness proofs. This is why Peirce, in his scheme of categories, characterized mathematics as a First. “There is no more satis­factory way of assuring ourselves of anything,” Peirce said, “than the mathematical way of assuring ourselves of mathematical theorems.”


Oct 222012

Now in his 80’s, George Steiner has written a new book called The Poetry of Thought: from Hellenism to Celan.  This book is the topic of a provocative essay in the Kenyon Review by poet Amit Majmudar. Majmudar describes Steiner as a “brilliant student” who asks what he calls “Steiner Questions” — questions that have no definite answer, but interrogate a tradition in a way that opens up new insights and new possi­bil­ities for synthesis. The ultimate Steiner Question, Majmudar suggests, concerns the place of Steiner himself in the western tradition. He proposes that:

Dante was the beginning of something, and that something—the Europe of the thinkers and novelists and poets—will end with the man who contains it whole, the last European, George Steiner.

Majmudar also has an interesting blog at the Kenyon Review site.


Sep 272011

One of my deep satisfactions during the past decade has been reading Donald Kagan’s The Peloponnesian War. I realize that not everyone shares my obsession for Greek his­tory, and it probably makes more sense anyway to start with Thucydides.  But Yale has clearly done a great service in making available the lecture videos for Donald Kagan’s: Introduction to Ancient Greek History. There are 24 lectures, ranging from the Dark Ages to the Twilight of the Polis — a breathtaking journey with a great historian.

Donald Kagen is Sterling Professor of Classics and History at Yale University. George Steiner called his four volumes on the Peloponnesian War “the foremost works of history pro­duced in North America in this century.” Here is a nice site which celebrates Kagan’s Jefferson Lecture in 2005. It has a biography, an interview, an appre­cia­tion by Barry Strauss of Cornell, and the text of Kagan’s lecture: In Defense of History.


Sep 262011

Walter Russell Mead is James Clarke Chace Professor of Foreign Affairs and Hu­man­i­ties at Bard College, and Editor-at-Large of The American Interest.  Mead, the son of an Episcopal priest, was educated at Groton, which he calls “Pundit High”, and Yale, where he still teaches International Security Studies. From 2003 until 2010 Mead was the Henry A. Kissinger Senior Fellow for U.S. Foreign Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations. His books include Special Providence: American Foreign Policy and How it Changed the World (2001), and God and Gold: Britain, America, and the Making of the Modern World (2007).

Mead is also the author of an energetic and well-written blog, Via Meadia, in which he discusses a broad range of foreign and domestic issues. In a recent essay Mead says that his motivation for this blog is “a sense that the world is moving faster than our thought about the world,” a point he also makes in Global Weirding Coming at Us All. Mead describes himself as a Democrat who voted for Obama in 2008. But he often argues against orthodox liberal positions. For instance, he criticizes what he calls “the blue social model” in Beyond the Big City Blues and Why Blue Can’t Save the Inner Cities Part I and Part II. He supports school choice, and he lacerates the green move­ment in such essays as More Green Madness on the Plains. There is a distinctive re­ligious sensibility in his writing, perhaps best illustrated in He Plants His Footsteps on the Sea: Faith Matters.

I find Mead’s blog refreshing, and appreciate his attempt to move beyond the ideological conformity of the aca­demy. His advice to first year college students is given in Back to School.


Jun 192011

The internet and social media have greatly extended the range of choices available in modern life. This is usually taken to be a good thing — or at least to be harmless. We can now more easily transcend limitations of physical location and spatial dis­tance, not only to access goods and services, but also to make connections and form rela­tionships with a variety of people of our own choosing. Such an increase in choices is not entirely new. In important respects the rise of internet communities has merely in­ten­sified a process that urbanization began long ago. Cities not only brought a vari­ety of goods and services to their inhabitants, but they also brought together people of diverse reli­gions, classes and ethnicities, and allowed a greater variety of possible associ­ations and self-selected relationships.

In the Discourse on Method, Descartes describes moving to Amsterdam in the seven­teenth century, “where in the midst of a great crowd actively engaged in busi­ness, and more careful of their own affairs than curious about those of others, I have been enabled to live without being deprived of any of the conveniences to be had in the most populous cities, and yet as solitary and as retired as in the midst of the most remote deserts.”[1] What is remarkable and revealing about the account Descartes offers is the ironic way that the increase in choices is directly linked to a detached aloofness, a disen­gaged anonymity. Being submersed in social possibilities coincides with an asocial isolation and solitude. But Descartes is not disturbed, or even con­cerned, by this result. In fact, Descartes describes such asocial detachment as an ideal oppor­tunity for objective reflection: “where, as I found no society to interest me, and was besides fortunately undisturbed by any cares or passions, I remained the whole day in seclusion, with full opportunity to occupy my attention with my own thoughts.”[2] The absence of family and friends, of meaningful employment, and of emotional ties, seems to open up possibilities, allowing the individual greater freedom of thought, and ultimately, of association and action. This is a deep and seductive idea in modern western societies, going all the way back to the Hebrew prophets, who literally fled to the desert to escape the constraints of family and community and to redefine their personal identity and sense of purpose. Amsterdam allowed Descartes to achieve this result without having to give up the conveniences of civilization.

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  1. Rene Descartes, Discourse on Method and the Meditations, trans. John Veitch (Buffalo, N. Y.: Prometheus Books, 1989), p, 29. []
  2. Ibid., p. 17. []
Nov 222010

I first read George Steiner in my twenties, and he made a lasting impression. He was a remarkable critic; his writing was transparent and his learning prodigious. Recently, after many years, I reread In Bluebeard’s Castle: Some Notes Towards the Redefi­ni­tion of Culture, and can report that it still has the elo­quence and power that I remem­bered. One of my favorite Steiner books, his controversial novella The Voyage to San Cristobal of A.H., forms the backdrop for the best discus­sion of Steiner that I know: “Interrogation at the Borders: George Steiner and the Trope of Translation” by Ronald Sharp, for­mer Dean at Vassar. Other works by Steiner that I recom­mend are After Babel: Aspects of Language and Trans­la­tion and Real Presences.

So, why didn’t the music say no?


Nov 172010

In a letter to William James on November 25, 1902, Peirce spoke of “the completely developed system, which all hangs together and cannot receive any proper presen­tation in fragments,” and he went on to describe synechism as: “the keystone of the arch.”[1] Now synechism, according to Peirce, is just “that tendency of philosophical thought which insists upon the idea of continuity.”[2] Hence, in order to make sense of Peirce’s synechism, and its role in his “completely developed system”, it is essential first to understand what Peirce meant by the idea of continuity.

Peirce was far from reticent on the topic:

If I were to attempt to describe to you in full all the scientific beauty and truth that I find in the principle of continuity, I might say in the simple language of Matilda the Engaged, “the tomb would close over me e’er the entrancing topic were exhausted” . . .[3]

Yet, even though much of Peirce’s writing was devoted to this idea, there is not much in the secondary literature on his technical definitions of continuity.[4] In this paper we will show how these definitions changed as Peirce’s thinking on con­ti­nu­ity evolved. This should be valuable not only to scholars expressly concerned with Peirce’s work in the foundations of mathematics, but also to those mainly interested in other aspects of his thought.

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  1. Charles Hartshorne and Paul Weiss, eds. The Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce, vols I-VI, Belknap Press, Harvard, 1931-1935, and Arthur W. Burks, ed. vols. VII, VIII, Belknap Press, Harvard, 1938,  8.255-257. The Collected Papers will be referenced by the conventional volume and paragraph number. []
  2. 6.169 []
  3. 1.171 []
  4. Some important works are Murray G. Murphey, The Development of Peirce’s Philosophy, Harvard U. Press, 1961, and George A. Benedict, The Concept of Continuity in Charles Peirce’s Synechism, Ph.D. Dissertation, SUNY Buffalo, 1973. We have found Murphey’s book invaluable, although we disagree with him on important points. We also look forward to the appearance of Carolyn Eisele’s edition of Peirce’s mathematical writing. []
Jul 302010

Photograph by Steven Pinker

I very much enjoyed Rebecca Goldstein’s  36 Argu­ments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction. It is a novel of ideas — one that explores the intersec­tion between in­tel­lec­tual and spiritual life. The protagonist, Cass Seltzer, is an academic, a psychologist of religion whose sur­prise best-seller, Varieties of Religious Illusion, has led to his acclaim as “America’s favorite atheist.” More­over, Cass has just been offered a job by Harvard — the pinnacle of aca­demic success. In contrast to this professional tra­jec­tory, however, Cass’s private life reveals a preoccu­pation with issues of mean­ing and trans­cen­dence. We notice in Cass those “obstinate question­ings of sense and out­ward things” that are characteristic of the religious percipient. So if this is athe­ism, we wonder, how does it really differ from theism?

Goldstein describes her point of departure for the novel as follows:

Dinner party hostesses used to be warned to steer the conversation away from politics and religion. I used to wonder why, but I don’t anymore. There are some differences that reveal rifts so deep that dialogue breaks down. Among these are the current debates that have been raging between God-believers and the so-called new atheists. It often seems that people on one side can’t begin to grasp what the world is like, what it feels like, for those on the other side. When the person with whom one is conversing appears utterly opaque, then mistrust and contempt are easily aroused: How can he be saying that when the opposite seems so obvious to me? Is he stupid, dishonest, maybe just a touch evil? These are not the sort of suspicions that the gracious hostess wants intruding at her candle-lit dinner table.

But for me, as a novelist, it’s differences like these, indicating entirely different orien­tations toward the world, which are the most tantalizing to explore. Arguments alone can’t capture all that is at stake for people when they argue about issues of reason and faith. In the end, I place my faith in fiction, in its power to make vividly present how dif­fer­ent the world feels to each of us and how these differences are sometimes what is really being expressed in the great debates of our day on the existence of God.

[from amazon.com]

The 36 chapters of Goldstein’s novel have titles that refer to Cass Seltzer’s interior life: The Argument from the Improbable Self, The Argument from Lucinda, The Argu­ment from Dappled Things, The Argument from the Irrepressible Past, The Argument from Reversal of Fortune, The Argu­ment from Intimations of Immortality, The Argu­ment from Soul-Gazing, The Argu­ment from the Existence of the Poem, The Argu­ment from the Eternity of Irony, etc. Her appendix provides 36 parallel philosophical arguments for the existence of God (and discusses their weaknesses). One historical argument that seems to be missing — although perhaps it is subsumed by others — is C. S. Peirce’s neglected argument. The number 36 is significant, being the number of the Lamed Vav, the just men who assume the weight of the world and its sorrows. According to Talmudic tradition, without these just men God would lose pa­tience with humanity and the world itself would come to an end.

Something I have always liked in Goldstein’s writing is her deft satire of academic pretensions and foibles. The culminating debate between Cass Seltzer — who keeps forgetting about it — and the Nobel-prize winning theist Felix Fidley, for instance, is sponsored by the Harvard “Agnostic Chaplaincy”; and the portraits of Cass’s erstwhile academic mentor, Jonas Elijah Klapper, “Extreme Distinguished Professor of Faith, Literature and Values”, and the beautiful Lucinda, “goddess of game theory”, skewer recognizable academic types. Nonetheless, there is a rare seriousness to Goldstein’s project, a recognition that meaning is not just constructed but encountered. This is particularly noticeable in her description of Azarya, the young Hassidic mathematical prodigy who must choose between his love for mathematics and his role in a religious community. It is also true of the relationship between Cass and Roz. To be human, Goldstein says, “is to inhabit our contradictions.”

Rebecca Goldstein earned her Ph.D in philosophy from Princeton University, and has taught philosophy at various schools on the east coast. Her first novel was The Mind-Body Problem, which I liked very much, and she has also written Properties of Light: A Novel of Love, Betrayal, and Quantum Physics and several other novels. Two (non-fiction) philosophical works that I admire are Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew who gave us Modernity, and Incompleteness: The Proof and Paradox of Kurt Gödel. She was chosen a MacArthur Fellow in 1996.


May 012010

It is a recurrent trope in writing about Thucydides to place him in opposition to Plato. I would like to consider some of the ramifications that this opposition may have for our understanding of Thucydides, and to evaluate its limitations. But first we must try to disentangle the various guises that it assumes.

At the most specific level, the contrast between Plato and Thucydides may be broken down into various small polarities, in each of which the two thinkers do indeed seem to hold irreconcilable views. Thus the Socratic maxim that no one does evil knowingly seems to directly contradict Thucydides’ tragic vision of human nature, as the Platonic search for universals stands in opposition to the Thucydidean concern with the con­crete particular. None of the individual contrasts between Plato and Thucydides, how­ever, adequately capture the opposition that historians and philosophers have argued exists between them. This opposition is taken, rather, to arise from a funda­mental difference in one’s way of seeing, which subsumes all of these smaller dis­tinctions, and which leads the two thinkers to systemically different conclusions.

This opposition dates back at least to Nietzsche’s vision of Thucydides as a “cure for Platonism,” which is discussed at length in Darien Shanske’s Thucydides and the Philosophical Origins of History, and, following Nietzsche, is generally formulated in antagonistic terms. There are notable exceptions to this, such as David Grene’s Greek Political Theory, in which Plato and Thucydides are regarded as complementary oppo­sites.[1]  But most writers who have made the comparison, including Heidegger and Shanske himself, have done so in Nietzsche’s terms. I will return to Grene’s com­par­ison of Plato and Thucydides, in order to consider the ways in which it complicates the picture presented by Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Shanske. But first I would like to look more closely at Nietzsche’s description of Thucydides. This passage, despite its length, is worth quoting in full:

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  1. The “polarity of their intellectual configuration defined the range within which, in my judgment, all political speculation in the West can be seen to move…the completeness of the view of man, historically and politically, attained in these two different ways, is a kind of alpha and omega.” David Grene, Greek Political Theory: The Image of Man in Thucydides and Plato.  (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1950), vii-viii. []
Apr 202010

The name “positivism” comes from the writing of Auguste Comte, the 19th century philosopher of science and founder of sociology.  In his Course of Positive Philosophy, published from 1830 through 1842, Comte de­scribed human history as progressing through three distinct stages which he called the theological, the meta­physical, and the positive — the final stage corresponding to the ordering of society by modern science. Comte’s positive philosophy was quite influential in the nineteenth century. According to Michel Bourdeau:

It is difficult today to appreciate the interest Comte’s thought enjoyed a century ago, for it has received almost no notice during the last five decades. Before the First World War, Comte’s movement was active nearly everywhere in the world. The best known case is that of Latin America: Brazil, which owes the motto on its flag ‘Ordem e Progresso’ (Order and Progress) to Comte and Mexico are two prominent examples. The positivists, i.e., the followers of Comte, were equally active in England, the United States and India. And in the case of Turkey, its modern secular character can be traced to Comte’s influence on the Young Turks.[1]

Like Marxism, Comtean positivism heralded a new age — an age in which the super­stition and religion of the past would be replaced by a society organized entirely upon scientific principles. Comte’s philosophy was less a philosophy of science than a social and poli­tical movement with a program for human progress. Un­sur­prisingly, it gra­du­ally turned itself into a sort of religion — with public wor­ship ser­vices, a liturgy derived from Ca­tholicism, and a calendar of posi­tivist saints.[2] The Comtean move­ment survived the century but was eventually extin­guished by the First World War.

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  1. Michel Bourdeau, “Auguste Comte”, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2010). []
  2. Bourdeau notes that Comte’s founding of the Religion of Humanity, in 1849, accomplished “a tour de force by uniting both believers and non-believers against him.”  The theoretical justification for this direction was the “complete positivism” of the System of Positive Polity in 1851-1854, in which Comte argued that the claims of science should become subservient to “the continuous domination of the heart.” []
Apr 172010

benjamin_peirce_1857Benjamin Peirce, the father of Charles Sanders Peirce, taught mathe­matics and astronomy at Harvard from 1831 until his death in 1880. He was probably the leading American mathe­ma­ti­cian of his time. He is best known in the annals of mathe­ma­tics for his pioneering Linear Asso­ci­a­tive Alge­bra in 1870, and for his proof, as a young man, that there is no odd perfect num­ber with fewer than four distinct prime factors. [1] Benjamin pub­lished over a dozen other mathe­matical works, in­clu­ding his well-known System of Ana­lytical Mechanics in 1855. He helped to cre­ate a modern science curri­culum at Harvard, and was an important force behind the profes­sion­al­iza­tion of mathe­matics and sci­ence educa­tion in America. [2]

Benjamin’s personality made a powerful impression on those who encountered him. Lawrence Lowell, president of Harvard from 1909 to 1933, described him as follows:

Looking back over the space of fifty years since I entered Harvard College, Benjamin Peirce still impresses me as having the most massive intellect with which I have ever come into close contact, and as being the most profoundly inspiring teacher that I ever had. His personal appearance, his powerful frame, and his majestic head seemed in harmony with his brain. [3]

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Jan 052010

Stephen Toulmin died last month. He studied with Wittgenstein and was a reader, with Kolakowski, of Phil’s dissertation. Toulmin was probably best known for his 1958 book, The Uses of Argument, and for his seminal work on the philosophy of science. In a long and distinguished career, he taught at Oxford, Melbourne, Leeds, Brandeis, Columbia, Michigan State, Chicago, Northwestern, and USC. Here is the NYT obituary.

All three of us have been greatly influenced by a book that Toulmin wrote with Allan Janik in 1973 called Wittgenstein’s Vienna. A fasci­nating account of Viennese culture at the turn of the century, it is an indispensable book that everyone should read.

In 1997 Toulmin was honored by the NEH with the Jefferson Lecture.

Nov 262009

Last week an unknown hacker — or inside whistleblower — distributed on the internet emails and documents apparently taken from the computers of the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia in England. The CRU and its director, Phil Jones, have been central players in promoting the theory of anthro­pocentric global warming that is endorsed by the IPCC. In conjunction with the Hadley Centre of the U.K. Met Office, they maintain HadCRUTv3, one of the main datasets of global temperature.

By now the purloined files have been disseminated throughout the internet, and have created quite a stir. The original zip file (62 MB) is here; when unzipped it contains about 160 MB of information, with over 1000 emails and 2000 other documents. The blogosphere has primarily focused on the emails, which include exchanges between Phil Jones and many leading climate scientists. There is now a searchable database of the emails and Bishop Hill provides a synopsis of some of the more interesting cases. The other documents — with data, code, and financial records — will probably have a greater impact over the long run. There are questions, for instance, about coding practice — see here. Evidence so far seems to indicate that all of this material is genuine; many recipients have confirmed the accuracy of emails, and as yet nothing has been disputed.

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Oct 232009

Ludwig Wittgenstein once asked rhetorically, Do we bring up our children because we have found it pays? [1] This sounds absurd, yet in many ways our expressed thinking about children is utilitarian and fails to take them seriously as ends in themselves. Perhaps we are no longer driven to produce family heirs, but when we want to draw attention to the importance of educating children we still speak of them as “the leaders of tomorrow.” If we argue that the importance of children derives from the fact that they are future adults, we neglect to recognize any inherent value to child­hood itself. We look back with horror at Puritans who expected children to behave like little adults and viewed play as sin, but many developmental theories are still prone to analyze childhood as a series of stages leading to adulthood. In this case the mature adult remains the measure and the end of analysis, and childhood is just a means. Play is acceptable in children because we have recognized that through play various capacities are developed that we value in the mature adult. Does such thinking respect childhood, or have we raised the reductionism of our Puritan fore­bears to a new level of sophistication and subtlety? This is not to suggest that developmental models are not important and illuminating, but only that taken alone such models are inherently reductive and that perhaps we have not yet earned the right to look down on Puritans.

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Sep 262009

We learn history not in order to know how to behave or how to succeed, but to know who we are.  –Leszek Kolakowski, from “The Idolatry of Politics”, 1986

We were saddened to learn this summer of the death of Leszek Kolakowski, the bril­liant Polish philosopher and historian of ideas. As a professor at Warsaw University, Kolakowski’s courageous criticism of Marxism in the 50’s and 60’s resulted in his books being banned and the loss of his job — and led to his emigration to the West in 1968. Kolakowski taught briefly at McGill University and at Berkeley before settling at All Souls College, Oxford. He was also on the Committee for Social Thought, at Chi­cago, and was a reader for Phil’s disserta­tion. Here is the NYT obit­uary.

In 1978, Kolakowski published his monumental Main Currents of Marxism, an ex­haus­tive analysis (beginning with Plotinus) of such notions as the labor theory of value, dialectical materialism, and the concept of class struggle. He claimed that Stalinism was not an aberration, but a natural consequence of Marxist utopian­ism. Kolakowski was an eclectic scholar whose interests were not confined to political philo­sophy; his books included: Positivist Philosophy (1971), The Presence of Myth (1972), Husserl and the Search for Certitude (1975), Bergson (1985), God Owes Us Nothing: A Brief Remark on Pascal’s Religion and on the Spirit of Jansenism (1995), and The Two Eyes of Spinoza (2004). Nathan’s and my initial exposure to Kolakowski was through Tales from the Kingdom of Lailonia, satirical fairy-tales written while he was still in Poland. Phil recommends Metaphysical Horror (1978), a collec­tion of essays on the history of philo­sophy, and Nathan recommends Religion: If There is no God… (2001).

Like some of Kolakowski’s other recent writing, Modernity on Endless Trial (1990) is concerned with the direction of our intellectual culture. The preface illustrates his sure­ness of touch and self-effacing sense of humor:

The essays selected for this book were written on various occasions and in various languages between 1973 and 1986.  They do not purport to offer any ‘philosophy.’  They are, rather, semiphilosophical sermons in which I was trying to point out a number of unpleasant and insoluble dilemmas that loom up every time we attempt to be perfectly consistent when we think about our culture, our politics, and our religious life.  More often than not we want to have the best from incompatible worlds and, as a result, we get nothing; when we instead pawn our mental resources on one side, we cannot buy them out again and we are trapped in a kind of dogmatic immobility.  We might imagine our­selves to be treasure hunters in a forest, but we spend our effort on evading ambushes.  This is a net gain, of course, but not the one we were after.

Therefore these essays are not edifying.  They are rather appeals for moderation in consistency — a topic which I have been trying to look at from various angles for many years.

Since these texts were written separately and without any idea of them appearing together in one volume, some remarks might be repeated here and there.  This does not worry me much, for who — apart from myself, under duress — would be persistent enough to wade through the whole thing, anyway?  3/3/1990 [Modernity, preface]

Later in the book, Kolakowski talks about the significance of Kant:

I am not a Kant expert and no Kantian but, I should say, a Kant sympathizer — espe­cially where conflicts between Kantian and so-called historicist thinking are concerned, both in epistemology and in ethics.

…being human is not a zoological, but a moral concept.

The belief that good and evil are not determined in the context by historic accidents but precede all contingent facts is a precondition of any living culture.

[“Why Do We Need Kant”, Modernity, pp. 45-48]

It was characteristic of Kolakowski to acknowledge the legitimacy of a philo­sophical impulse or motif, but resist the tendency to hypostasize and mold it into an ideology. He advocated intellectual moderation. Phil tells the story of how Kolakowski once suggested that newly minted philosophy Ph.D.’s should immediately be made full professors and gradually work their way down — with a dock in pay for every book they publish.

There is not a lot of Kolakowski on-line. As an example of his polemical writing, you might be interested in his rejoinder to Edward Thompson from The Socialist Register in 1974:  My Correct Views on Everything. His more ruminative The Death of Utopia Recon­sidered, was delivered at The Australian National University in 1982, and con­tains the following:

The cultural role of philosophy is not to deliver truth but to build the spirit of truth and this means: never to let the inquisitive energy of mind go to sleep, never to stop ques­tioning what appears to be obvious and definitive. . .

Finally, there is available electronically an extract from The Alienation of Reason on The Culture of Logical Empiricism.

Kolakowski has become a national hero in Poland, celebrated as a spiritual father of the Solidarity movement. In the US, he was awarded the highest federal honor in the humanities, the Jefferson Lecture, by the NEH and in 2003 the Library of Congress named him the first recipient of the John W. Klug prize for lifetime achieve­ment in the humanities. He was a MacArthur award winner in 1982.

May 152009
God created the integers; the rest is the work of man.
Leopold Kronecker


What are we saying when we talk about music?

This question captures the paradox that lies at the heart of musical theory. Put in its most basic form, the problem that has dogged musical theory since Boethius has to do with the relationship between reason and the esthetic sense. The earliest theories show that the coexistence between the two was never an entirely easy one:

In the final analysis, it was to this that the Pythagoreans’ harmonic analysis of the universe led: the discovery of incommensurables. And no matter how they might juxtapose the numbers, no matter to what lengths they might extend their mathematical circumlocutions, one fact remained, a fact that has ever since proved resistant to mathematical rationalization: there is no fraction m/n that will divide the whole-tone into two equal parts.[1]

The Pythagorean construction of music was an attempt at reconciling the rational and the beautiful — at showing that they are, indeed, one and the same. In this sense it was a corollary to the impulse behind the Parthenon: the Athenians believed that the golden ratio, applied to every dimension of a structure, would create something that was beautiful precisely because of its mathematical perfection.

In music, as mentioned in the previous quote, this dream was quickly shown to be illusory. While the Parthenon was constructed ex nihilo, and could perfectly mirror the rational dreams of its designers, the Pythagorean theorists of music were con­fronted from the beginning with a stubborn fact: there were pre-existing and deeply engrained notions of what constituted the proper and beautiful in music — the whole tone, the semi-tone, the modes, the tuning of the lyre — and, although they hovered tantalizingly close to the realm of reason, they ultimately eluded its grasp.

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Mar 172009

I am an admirer of Charles Murray, a good man whose extra­ordinary political cour­age captures what is best in the Quaker tradi­tion. His recent essay, The Europe Syn­drome and the Challenge to American Exceptionalism, makes a case for American ex­cep­tion­alism based upon the idea that the purpose of government is to faci­litate the pursuit of happiness — as understood in the Aristotelian sense:

My argument is drawn from Federalist Paper No. 62, probably written by James Madison: “A good government implies two things: first, fidelity to the object of government, which is the happiness of the people; secondly, a knowledge of the means by which that object can be best attained.” Note the word: happiness. Not prosperity. Not security. Not equality. Happiness, which the Founders used in its Aristotelian sense of lasting and justified satisfaction with life as a whole.

Murray observes that there are only four “institutions” in society within which human beings can achieve this kind of deep satisfaction: family, community, vocation, and faith.

The stuff of life — the elemental events surrounding birth, death, raising children, fulfilling one’s personal potential, dealing with adversity, intimate relationships — coping with life as it exists around us in all its richness — occurs within those four institutions.

The goal of social policy, according to Murray, should be to ensure the robustness and vitality of these four institu­tions. He argues that the European model of the state does not do this — that despite its material successes, “it is not suited to the way that human beings flourish — it does not conduce to Aristotelian happi­ness.”  

Murray predicts that science in the 21st century will reinforce these observations.  He cites Edward O. Wilson’s Consilience in support of the idea that “social sciences are increasingly going to be shaped by the findings of biology; specifically, the find­ings of the neuroscientists and the geneticists.” 

Finally, Murray suggests that America needs another political Great Awakening, a re­discovery “in the gut” of what is most valuable in life.

There are some big ideas in this essay.  Read it for yourself.


Feb 232009

Alasdair MacIntyre’s recent book, Dependent Rational Animals, offers us a picture of the human situation as fundamentally dependent and derives from this a corresponding picture of the relationship between rationality and various virtues. In the last chapter he concludes that “we are able to become and to continue as practical reasoners only in and through our relationships to others,” and hence that, “rational enquiry is essentially social.” It is “not something that I undertake by attempting to separate myself from the whole set of my beliefs, relationships, and commitments and to view them from some external standpoint. It is something that we undertake from within our shared mode of practice” (MacIntyre 1999 156-157). While I ultimately share these conclusions, it is valuable to consider how some of MacIntyre’s specific arguments and discussions undermine this general insight. At various points he himself falls prey to what he calls “illusions of self-sufficiency” by supposing that critique requires transcendence, that accountable practical reasoners must be independent practical reasoners, and that speaking with “my own voice” must replace “my originally infantile desire to please others.” I will suggest that these assumptions are residues of a Kantian picture of reason and morality which are inappropriate to the essentially social nature of being dependent rational animals.

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