Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Human Nature

Even creatures immersed in and obsessed by amour-propre, or constitutionally prone to self-deception and the deception of others, to chronic wishful thinking and prolonged states of denial, to bouts of anger and despair, even we need small victories, however episodic and evanescent … along with symbols or portents of change and hope, however ambiguous or fragile; tokens and symbols of possibility and progress, however obscure or tentative; beacons on the horizon, however faint and distant; models of emulation, however contingent or imperfect; dreams and wishes, however surreal and unreal; desires and expectations, however inchoate or presumptuous; all surrounded by and interrupted and suffused with moments of pure silence, with occasional if not assiduous observing and witnessing, with daily chores and tasks, with attentive acts of loving and helping, sharing and caring, with spontaneous acts of performing and playing; all the while striving to think and feel with indissolubly conjoined minds and bodies, heads and hearts, with souls and spirits willing to consciously confront uncertainty or danger, to risk some things or everything.

Sunday, December 03, 2017

Alchemy of the Mind: deliberate misrepresentation leading to unconscious but motivated transmutation

Background Fact: The recent GOP tax bill “rammed through the Senate” in the middle of the night (technically, early morning) is “filled with perks for America’s wealthiest individuals and largest corporations, many of them paid for by closing loopholes that benefit middle-class people. By 2027, the top one-fifth of earners would receive 90 percent of the tax bill’s benefits, according to an analysis by the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center.”
Repeat a lie enough in public, and you (the liar) may come to believe it (whether members of the recipient public come to believe it as well may be an open question, but it appears that at least some of them do). This possibility has been discussed and explained by Jon Elster as exemplifying the wider psychological phenomenon of “deliberate misrepresentation and unconscious but motivated transmutation” and assumes that “people are capable of keeping their private beliefs and their publicly professed ones in separate compartments” [weak mental modularity].
Yesterday evening, I serendipitously came upon the following passage from Jon Elster’s Alchemies of the Mind: Rationality and the Emotions (1999):
“In a society with progressive taxation, those with higher incomes have a strong interest in low taxes. In defending this system, however, they cannot simply appeal to their interest. They cannot say, publicly, ‘Taxes should be low because that’s good for me’ [or in the case of Republicans and the very rich interests they represent, ‘good for us’]. By appealing to trickle-down effects and supply-side considerations they can claim that everybody will be better off if the rich get a tax break [In our case, the Republicans keep calling their overhaul of the tax code a ‘middle class tax cut,’ as well as making the general argument, in spite most economists believing otherwise, that dramatically cutting the corporate tax rate will result in increased economic growth (akin to the post-war decades) that, in turn, provides far more jobs and higher wages.] If they make this argument repeatedly, they may end up believing it themselves. Most people do not like to think of themselves as liars or cynics. To say one thing and think another is a source of tension and discomfort [e.g., cognitive dissonance] that can be removed by aligning one’s thoughts on one’s utterances. In fact, that tension need not even arise. Most people do not like to think of themselves as motivated only by self-interest. They will, therefore, gravitate spontaneously towards a world-view that suggests a coincidence between their special interest and the public interest. This example suggests not only that people have the options both of misrepresentation and of transmutation, but if the former is chosen it may induce the latter.”
So it seems we might conclude that it is likely more than a few Republicans have arrived at the belief—perhaps by way of reducing cognitive dissonance—that their tax bill will in fact benefit the middle classes (they won’t, however, pretend that it will benefit the poor).
As Elster points out in a footnote, “Marx asserted that ideology could be understood as the tendency to assert the special interest of one class as the general interest of society.”

Saturday, December 02, 2017

Trump’s “re-tweeting” of inflammatory and unverified anti-Muslim videos and “incitement to genocide” in international criminal law

It happened this way in Germany, Cambodia, Rwanda, and countless other sites of genocide, ethnic cleansing, and mass persecution. The pamphlets, megaphones, and radio broadcasts came before the pogroms, murders, and forced relocations. The pamphlets, megaphones, and radio broadcasts came before the pogroms, murders, and forced relocations. And today, we have even more effective ways to reach millions of people at a time, as the president’s more than 43 million followers on Twitter can attest; the established media only magnify his reach.—Daniel Altman*
As Larry May explains in his book, Genocide: A Normative Account (Cambridge University Press, 2010), “[i]n international law, genocide has a specialized meaning that is not necessarily consonant with that of the public’s understanding of genocide, because it includes acts that do not involve mass killing.” To wit:
Article II: In the present Convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:
(a) Killing members of the group;
(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group. 
Article III lists the following acts as punishable:
(a) Genocide;
(b) Conspiracy to commit genocide;
(c) Direct and public incitement to commit genocide;
(d) Attempt to commit genocide;
(e) Complicity in genocide. 
For our purposes, that is, in examining the possible criminal character of Trump’s “re-tweeting” of inflammatory and unverified anti-Muslim videos, (c) immediately above is germane. Incitement means “encouraging or persuading another to commit an offence.” May cites the Akayesu Trial Chamber for the two principal ways such incitement is understood in criminal law: “’Under common law systems, incitement tends to be viewed as a particular form of criminal participation, punishable as such,’ whereas ‘in most civil law systems, incitement is most often treated as a form of complicity.’ If incitement is treated merely as a form of complicity, then it may not be charge and punished in its own right.” Both the Genocide Convention and the more recent Rwanda Tribunal Statute favor the common law view. As May reminds us, “the hardest element to establish for the crime of incitement to genocide is mens rea [‘guilty mind,’ i.e., either the intention to commit a crime or knowledge that one’s commissive act or omissive act will result in a crime].” In our case, this means “[t]here is a desire to create in others a desire to commit a crime.” This rather stringent and somewhat awkward requirement is, as May says, “especially hard to prove, because in effect we must peer into the mind of two different people, or infer from their behavior what the mental states of two different people are [it also implicates a causal connection so as to be logically sufficient].” The ICTR’s [International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda] Akayesu Trial states: “The prosecution must prove a definite causation between the act characterized as incitement … and a specific offence.” May points out that the Media Case Trial Chamber expressed a somewhat less stringent requirement, for “[T]he Chamber is of the opinion that the direct element of incitement should be viewed in light of its cultural and linguistic element,” thereby allowing what May terms “indirect forms of proof.” And here’s the most significant part as it applies to our—i.e. Trump’s—case: The Media Case Trial Chamber stated that “[i]t is the potential of the communication to cause genocide that makes it incitement.” This seems not to effectively eliminate the direct causation element, in that, in May’s words, “the crime does not require a successful instigation for prosecution.” The Appeals Chamber of the ICTR later more or less reinstated the “direct incitement” element in causal terms as such speech must “directly call for the commission of genocide.” As some have correctly noted, this still does not mean that incitement is necessarily tied to a commissive act as such, thus incitement need not result in genocidal acts for prosecution!
As May’s analysis proceeds to inform us, the above legal elements for incitement to genocide bring it within the class of “inchoate crimes,” “such as attempted murder, that do not require the completion of a harmful act in order form criminal liability to be assigned. [It just so happens that there are two books on one such category of these, “attempts:” R.A. Duff’s Criminal Attempts (Oxford University Press, 1997) and Gideon Yaffe’s Attempts (in the philosophy of action and criminal law) (Oxford University Press, 2010); May cites material from the former book.] The standard list of inchoate crimes includes attempt, conspiracy, solicitation, and incitement.” In all such cases, there may be sufficient warrant for punishment, but at a minimum, “[t]here has to be an anticipated harm that is foreseen.” May, after Duff, thinks incitement should entail a “causal element closely related to the intent element” as well as a notion of “explicit endangerment” that falls short of the actual commission or occurrence of the “primary harm.” This leaves incitement looking something like “recklessness rather than like a straightforward intent crime.”
One of May’s conclusions is that “on both deterrence and retributive grounds, the inchoate crime should be punished severely only when there [is] a high likelihood that harm might result from the act of incitement.” He furthermore notes the lag time that often exists “between when the racist hate speech is broadcast or printed and when the violence ensues,” a conceptual problem insofar as incitement “derives from the Latin word citare, which means to set in rapid motion.” I now quote in full a paragraph of May’s that completes much of his argument for clarifying the notion of incitement to genocide in international law:
“In my view, incitement makes the most conceptual sense when it is linked with its Latin root, namely, where a person’s actions begin a causal chain, and soon thereafter there is, or would normally be, a certain harmful result. In the case of incitement to genocide, the result, of course, is a series of genocidal harms. Incitement is not best understood as preparing the ground for harm, but rather as initiating a causal process. It is also to do so intentionally, although … the intention is only to take a risk, not to do that which is risked. And here is where the inchoate nature of the crime arises, for if one were to start such a causal chain by one’s words, spoken or written, and to intend that these words would have a certain result, then this is enough for incitement, as long as the so-called proximity condition is met, namely, the condition that states that the act must involve causation that is more than mere preparation.”
It seems confusing to highlight the “proximity condition” of this inchoate crime in as much as it need not “lead to completion in a harmful outcome.” May attempts to clarify this, however, in his final summary of the principal elements in the incitement to commit genocide:
“Incitement involves the intention to take certain actions that initiate a causal chain that is known to risk serious harm, but where the harm need not be intended, and in addition the harm need not be effected. Incitement is thus an inchoate crime in that harm need not result from the inciter’s action, but incitement is not like most other inchoate crimes in how the proximity test is to be met. There is a very limited sense in which preparation must be taken, in that the inciter must in fact do those things that, by strongly affecting others, risks causing these others to engage in harms. But this is not best thought of in terms of preparation because it is not as if the inciter need be planning to do things that those who are likely to be affected by his or her actions may cause, nor that he or she intends there to be a plan to produce these harms.
There will be degrees of incitement [….] [and thus the severity of punishment will hinge] on a secondary element, namely, whether the specific harm is intended or merely the result of recklessness or negligence. Incitement is thus what is often called a crime of specific or special mens rea. Incitement to genocide is thus to be understood as the kind of crime where there must be both the intent to do an act of broadcasting or publishing or public speaking in a highly prejudicial way about a group’s members, and where the risk of harm so created is at least known by the inciter.”
* Please see Daniel Altman’s article in Foreign Policy, “This Is How Every Genocide Begins,” November 30, 2017.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

President Donald Trump & Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD)

Assuming, as I think we should, that Trump egregiously displays all of the standard symptoms of narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) or, simply, pathological narcissism, we should begin to direct more attention, anger, disgust, impatience, and the available means of persuasion toward members of Congress who, by their silence and inaction (with very few exceptions to this generalization), are now absolutely complicit and thus individually and collectively responsible for his behavior in office, including the myriad harmful consequences that directly and indirectly follow therefrom. It is not likely that Trump will experience, without therapeutic intervention, spontaneous remission of his mental illness, which means he will continue to exhibit a conspicuous inability to distinguish facts and reality from wishful thinking and illusions (perhaps occasional delusions as well), which means he will continue to lack a disposition to truth, indeed, he will continue to shamelessly lie (and lack any sense of guilt for same) in both private and public fora, and the office of the Presidency and the actions of the President will continue to be, first and foremost as well as in the last instance, in his mind, all about who he is, how he is perceived, what he thinks and believes, how everything in the social and political world redounds in the first place to the effects on his self-esteem and esteem. Perhaps this explains why Trump seems to particularly relish meeting with monarchs and those of royal background generally, in addition to displaying a feckless fondness for authoritarian leaders. Encounters with those holding executive power in democratic regimes, however, he finds deeply discomforting.
Trump’s tenure is quite troubling and (potentially if not already) extremely dangerous to our individual and collective welfare and well-being, as well as to the welfare and well-being of countless people all over our planet. Trump should voluntary leave office or be impeached, plain and simple: any alternative at this point makes a mockery of even the pretense to minimally legitimate democratic governance, which itself is considerably more than that which flows, for better and (and more often for) worse, from the pinnacle of power in our government enshrined in the office of the Presidency.
Further Reading:
  • Alford, Ryan. Permanent State of Emergency: Unchecked Executive Power and the Demise of the Rule of Law. McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2017.
  • Kernberg, Otto F. Borderline Conditions and Pathological Narcissism. Rowman & Littlefield, 2004 (1975).
  • Kernberg, Otto F. Severe Personality Disorders: Psychotherapeutic Strategies. Yale University Press, 1984.
  • Moore, Burness E. and Bernard D. Fine, eds. Psychoanalysis: The Major Concepts. Yale University Press, 1995.
  • Morris, Alex. “Why Trump Is Not Mentally Fit to Be President,” Rolling Stone, April 5, 2017.
  • Wills, Garry. Bomb Power: The Modern Presidency and the National Security State. Penguin Press, 2010.

Sadder but … Wiser

In Alchemies of the Mind: Rationality and the Emotions (Cambridge University Press, 1999), Jon Elster notes two psychological assumptions we routinely hold: “that depressed people tend to believe that things are worse than they in fact are and that those in more exuberant moods tend to believe they are better.” Elster believes the second clause after the conjunction is valid, while the former clause “is probably wrong,” a conclusion based largely on “striking psychological findings over the past fifteen years:”
“[T]he only persons who are capable of taking an unbiased view of the world are the depressed. They are ‘sadder but wiser,” a research finding we can classify as “depressive realism” theory. While Elster characterizes the aforementioned experimental findings as “far from final,” he understandably sees them as robust, according them presumptive truth. Elster highlights some typical findings within this theory:
“In experiments designed to test subjects’ understanding of their control in situations with imperfect correlation between their responses and an observable outcome, non-depressives exhibit an ‘illusion of no control’ when the outcome is associated with failure. Furthermore, depressed subjects accurately assess their chances in dice-rolling experiments, whereas the non-depressed tend to overestimate their chances. Depressed subjects tend to be more evenhanded in the causal attribution of credit and blame, whereas non-depressives typically attribute negative events to other and positive events to their own intervention. Non-depressive subjects see themselves more positively than they do others with the same objective characteristics, whereas the depressed are not subject to this self-serving bias, nor to the opposite, self-deprecating bias. Depressed subjects have an accurate idea of how other people perceive them, whereas non-depressives exaggerate the good impression they make on others.”
Elster cautions us about attempting to derive any moral psychological imperatives from these research findings if only because “the depressed are not very motivated to do anything. The reason there is no sand in their machinery of action is that the engine is idling.” The rest of us have to “get on with the business of living,” in which case we accept that there will be “sand in the machinery,” which may or may not be the fault of the emotions, and thus it behooves us to accept that we act with something considerably less than an aspiration to “full cognitive rationality” (this does not mean we necessarily act in an irrational manner), thereby avoiding  “the cost of lacking anything we want to be rational about.”

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Jealousy and Envy

Is there a difference between “jealousy” and “envy?” It seems we often use these terms interchangeably but some have thought or argued that they’re not quite the same. When we discussed the parable of the “prodigal son” in my class, I asked the students if the “older brother” was feeling jealousy or envy (or possibly both?!), or if the distinction was at all meaningful. Most students believed these terms were different words for the same emotion. I was inclined to argue otherwise. In any case, and apropos of the material I’m reading, consider La Rochefoucauld: “Jealousy is in some measure just and reasonable (raisonnable), since it merely aims at keeping something that belongs to us or we think belongs to us, whereas envy is a frenzy (fureur) that cannot bear anything that belongs to others.” 

Aaron Ben-Ze’ev says the meaning of these two terms overlap and that “some languages do not even have separate names for these emotions.” Following Ben-Ze’ev, emotions

“toward the fortune of others constitute a common group whose prevalence is related to the importance we attach to the comparison with other in assessing our own value and happiness. This group is divided according to others’ good or bad fortune. The major items in the group of negative emotions toward the good fortunes of others are envy and jealousy; the major emotions in the parallel group directed at the bad fortune of others are pity and compassion.” [….]

Here is a brief introduction to these two emotions from Ben-Ze’ev’s chapter on same which is quite helpful toward distinguishing between jealousy and envy, while conceding some of their common features:

“Envy involves a negative evaluation of our undeserved inferiority, whereas jealousy involves a negative evaluation of the possibility of losing something—typically, a favouable human relationship to someone else. Envy and jealousy would seem to address a similar emotional attitude. Both are concerned with a change in what one has: either the wish to obtain or the fear of loss. The wish in envy is for something one does not have, while in jealousy it is something one fears losing. This distinction is not negligible: the wish to obtain something is notably different from the wish not to lose it. Another difference is that jealousy is typically associated with exclusive relationships. Envy has no such restrictions. The focus of concern in envy is our undeserved inferiority. Because inferiority can stem from a variety of factors, envy may be born of any or all of them and not merely from the threatened loss of some human relationships.”

Please see: Aaron Ben Ze’ev, The Subtlety of Emotions (MIT Press, 2000): 327-352. Another useful but far briefer treatment of these two emotions is found in Robert C. Roberts, Emotions: An Essay in Aid of Moral Psychology (Cambridge University Press, 2003): 256-265. The best analysis of the “parable of the prodigal son” (and all of the parables and principal saying of Jesus for that matter) is Ann Wierzbicka’s What Did Jesus Mean? (Oxford University Press, 2001): 300-309, although she does not focus on our two emotions as they apply to the older brother in the parable.   


Saturday, November 11, 2017

The Left: Secular, Spiritual, Utopian and … Pragmatic

I was quite moved upon reading the following passage yesterday from Vincent Geoghegan’s persuasive and profound book, Utopianism and Marxism (Methuen, 1987): 

“In moments of despair [Rosa] Luxemburg was driven to conceive of happiness in terms of a rejection of politics: 

‘I cursed the damn “politics” that stopped me from answering father’s and mother’s letters for weeks on end. I never had time for them because of those world-shaking problems…. And my hate turned against you because you chained me to the accursed politics…. Yesterday I was almost ready to give up, once and for all, the goddamn politics (or rather the bloody parody of our ‘political’ life) and let the whole world go to hell. Politics is inane Baal worship, driving people—victims of their obsession, of mental rabies—to sacrifice their entire existence.’ 

Part of this is clearly the inevitable degree of hardship and sweat associated with any conceivable form of political activity—but it is also testimony to the deep psychic wounds inflicted on many militants by the constrained, positivist politics of the Second International.” 

Luxemburg’s agonizing thoughts on her political experience will resonate with many activists on the Left whose personal lives have often experienced considerable turmoil or neglect as a result of their devotion, as we say, to the cause. Indeed, it is such “accursed politics” or politics as “inane Baal worship” that Gandhi hoped to transform with his creative and arduous attempt to introduce the “āśrama” ideal into political life, in his case, as a form of karma yoga, of a piece with the larger endeavor to “spiritualize politics.” Identical or analogous attempts to overcome the tensions, contradictions, and divides between the values and identities cherished in everyday life and political work are found, for example, among “engaged” Buddhists, Deep Ecology Greens, the praxis of Liberation Theology, as well as the prefigurative politics and integrative education found in the history of anarchism. It also a “central theme” animating a book by one of the founders of the SDS (Students for a Democratic Society), the sociologist Richard (‘Dick’) Flacks, who today remains active in local politics. Flacks devotes a considerable portion of Making History: The Radical Tradition in American Life (1988) to exploring the “disjunction experienced between making history and making one’s own life.” 

Over at the U.S. Intellectual History Blog* there is a Roundtable on Leilah Danielson’s American Gandhi: A.J. Muste and the History of American Radicalism in the Twentieth Century (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014) that provides us with a peak into the life of an activist who seems to have more or less finessed and perhaps transcended the aforementioned “disjunction” in an exemplary manner, with provocative implications for activists on the Left. I’ll be writing more on this in the near future, inspired in part by a recent issue of the journal Rethinking Marxism. I hope to explain why and how the contemporary Left in this country should and can be a social movement at once secular, spiritual, (non-pejoratively speaking) utopian, and pragmatic as part of the global struggle for liberté, égalité, fraternité and our national variation on this struggle in the fight for racial justice, socialism, and a non-violent (anti-militarist) society.   

* The latest post in the seven-part series, part 5, is here.            

Friday, November 10, 2017

The Right to Resist (especially violent) Oppression & Just Revolutionary War

To date, and rather surprisingly given the violent (and non-violent) struggles of oppressed peoples around our planet in the twentieth century, those who specialize in normative political theory and the ethics of war (or just war theory) have had precious little to say, at least in any systematic or theoretical sense, about what constitutes a “legitimate, armed, non-terrorist resistance to oppression” (in particular, when such oppression takes the form of violence by the state), in other words, “what are the moral rules or constraints and parameters of justifiable armed resistance and revolution?” Christopher J. Finlay’s book, Terrorism and the Right to Resist: A Theory of Just Revolutionary War (Cambridge University Press, 2015), addresses these questions by providing us, in the words of one reviewer, with “a lucid, persuasive and comprehensive extension of revisionary just war theory to cases of resistant violence.” The morality of revolutionary war is given a fair hearing and just defense. With regard to a possible warrant for terrorism, Finlay argues that “some such justification is conceivable.”

“But at the same time, the conditions that would need to be present to warrant such a justification are such that it is very seldom likely to occur in reality. It is necessary to specify what those are, not only—or indeed, not primarily—in order to recognize justified terrorism if it should ever arise, but also to reinforce the assurance with which we may condemn its use in the vastly greater number of case where it is not justified.”

I have only skimmed through the book for now, and it appears to be first-rate. The fact that it references some of my favorite political philosophers (as well as others whose work I’m not nearly as familiar): Allen Buchanan, C.A. J. Coady, and Robert E. Goodin, for example, also inclines me to view it with favor.

Finally, I found the title—while provocative and thus market-savvy—misleading. It should rather be A Theory of Just Revolutionary War: The Right to Resist and Terrorism. The change would better reflect the extent and significance of the respective arguments, as the treatment of terrorism does not have pride of place in the book.

I have two bibliographies at my Academia and ResearchGate pages directly relevant to Finlay’s argument: “Violent Conflict & the Laws of War,” and “Terrorism.”

Sunday, November 05, 2017

Wen and the Odes in Confucianism: possible lessons for a democratic polity?

 In the political domainacts of knowing and persuading rested upon wise use of the Odes.
… [I]n any social gathering, true virtuosi of the Odes, whether male or female, could safely express their innermost feelings without fear of offending others. (Early traditions attributed a number of odes to women.) [….] Regarded as the product of suitable emotions aroused in the singer, the odes served as a versatile rhetorical tool by which to arouse sympathetic emotions in audiences public or privileged, lettered or unlettered.
Just as the odes taught that skillful and rewarding relations depend on a proper appreciation of the objects deserving admiration, so the deeper pleasures available to humans—self-knowledge, friendship, sexual pleasure, and connoisseurship—relied on an extraordinary capacity to cultivate in oneself and others the desire for more refined social interplay. In the end, the ethical followers of Confucius claimed this province of ordinary human interaction, with its marvelous potential for imbuing men with greater vision, as their own special area of expertise, in contrast to those thinkers now labeled Legalists, Mohists, or Daoists. — Michael Nylan

Apologia—I don’t speak here to the question posed in the title (see the second list of titles below for works that address, in one way or another, this topic), but I was thinking of prominent politicians in existing democratic regimes as well as “leaders” of sundry kinds in contemporary society while reading about the role of the Odes among elites in ancient China. Suffice to say, our standards for knowledge and understanding, etiquette (as inextricably bound up with virtue), and moral charisma are far lower and perhaps ill-understood as well; at the very least, our expectations are rather different than those articulated in and inspired by Confucian models.
*       *       *
I have been reading afresh about the function of the Odes in ancient and early imperial China among the elites (ruling and otherwise). The Odes (poems that were chanted) are one of the so-called Five “Confucian” Classics (the others: Documents, Rites, Changes, and Spring and Autumn Annals), although it so happens that these works pre-date Confucius. The Confucian appellation owes to their significance for Confucian pedagogy, as they were essential to the ruist tradition that is later synonymous with individual and collective Confucian identity. One’s knowledge and facility with the odes in both public and more intimate fora were signs of erudition and suasive power (or charisma), an effective display of social skills and intuitive discernment that, in turn, revealed abilities related to an understanding of moral and psychological character as well as the specific dynamics and exigencies of the situation at hand. The social graces evidenced in one’s mastery of the odes was said to resonate with the “sound of virtue,” thereby “influencing others for the good.” Michael Nylan elaborates:

“… [T]hose who could chant odes and respond appropriately to them were considered ‘qualified to become great officers,’ who would ‘turn their merits to account.’ Conversely the lack of such abilities was deemed sure proof of the person’s loutishness, ignorance, insensitivity and lack of suasive influence, in that ‘words lacking pattern and refinement do not go far [in persuading others].’ Based on his knowledge of odes, one could get a grasp of a man’s training, self-discipline, and resourcefulness. And this ability to know men via their knowledge of the Odes was considered the most valuable type of knowledge available to the ruling elite. To know others and be known favorably by them was the one skill essential to those wishing to acquire or retain high rank. At the same time, those already in power needed to exercise their powers of discernment in knowing others, lest they fail to measure merit accurately, employ it suitably, and reward it proportionately, for only thus can a superior attract good men to his service and secure their loyalty.”

The Odes, and the Five Classics in general were part of wen: originally, line or pattern; to inscribe, to embellish; the arts or culture; generally speaking, wen makes reference to the patterned regularity or symmetry, harmony and beauty found in 1. (the dao of) tian (‘Heaven’), 2. (the dao of) the natural world, and 3. (the dao of) a properly humane culture (i.e., one suffused with ren). With regard to tian and the natural world one might say that, in the scientific language of today, wen is evidenced in the physical laws (or normative regularities) of nature (cf. Anthony Zee’s Fearful Symmetry: The Search for Beauty in Modern Physics, 1999), or the mathematical and aesthetic elegance of the Golden Ratio—Phi—throughout human history (see Mario Livio’s The Golden Ratio, 2002). For Confucius, wen entailed the six arts,” namely, rites (li), music, archery, charioteering (the previous two being martial arts), mathematics and calligraphy. Of course given Confucius’ commitment to the Five Classics, we can assume poetry and dance were likewise essential. In Analects: 7.6, Confucius says, “Set your sights on the way (dao), sustain yourself with virtue (de), lean upon benevolence (ren), and sojourn in the arts (wen).”

Confucius’ position on the role of tradition in an appreciation of the arts is gleaned from 3.14, wherein he normatively discriminates between the respective dynasties: “The Chou [Zhou] dynasty looked back to the Hsia [Xia] and the Shang dynasties. Such a wealth of culture! I follow the Chou [Zhou],” In the Book of Rites (one of the Five Classics) we are reminded that “the perfection of virtue is primary, and the perfection of art follows afterward.” Put differently, the arts are enlisted in the Confucian perfectibilist or open-ended, hence lifelong project of moral and spiritual self-cultivation. They serve to integrally and holistically discipline or train the body and heart-mind (xin) of the would-be junzi (Confucian ‘gentleman,’ a meritocratic designation no longer tied to ‘nobility of blood’).

In thinking of the role of the Odes, we should keep in mind with Edward Slingerland the fact that “music was considered by the early Confucians to be one of the most powerful tools for shaping the emotions, and the metaphor of musical perfection also served for Confucius as a metaphor for the perfected state.” Xunzi understood wen as essential to harnessing or disciplining the “natural and irrepressible” emotions that “burst forth in words, poems, songs, and dances:”

“There is a danger, however, that this effusion of passion may overstep its proper bounds by violating the principles of the Way, and what began as a natural human tendency may metamorphose into a source of chaos. But the Sage Kings took steps to address just that problem: they established rituals of artistic expression, ensuring that poems and song conform to the Way. For when the people of a state sing and hear proper music, they are influenced by its power to bring themselves in line with the Way as well.”(Paul R. Goldin)

Confucius and his followers were well-known for reciting the three hundred odes, playing them on strings while singing and dancing. His devotion to the Odes exemplifies his understanding of wen. The Odes had variegated epistemic, political, ethical, aesthetic, psychological, and cultural functions in ancient China, only some of which we’ll mention here (see the excellent if not unsurpassed treatment provided by Michael Nylan in her 2001 study, The Five “Confucian” Classics). Not surprisingly, “all traditions portray the Odes’ vital importance as a cultural repository of eminent utility and as a teaching tool for the social graces” (Nylan). The Odes could arouse the emotions of others, allow for the acute perception of others’ feelings, enhance a fraternal sense of community, “diplomatically” express grievances or critiques so as not to offend or humiliate their targets, serve as a display of character and erudition. Formally or stylistically speaking,

“the inherent ambiguity and the multivalence of the odes allowed song-makers and audience alike to thrill to witty displays of learning, imparting a single meaning to lines quoted with a specific context. In effect, then, an ingenious, flexible, yet guided response, reaching ever higher levels of insight, became both the prerequisite for and the end product of Odes’ learning. (Nylan)

We might choose to characterize the Confucian project of self-cultivation itself in aesthetic, or more broadly, artistic terms, as Hall and Ames do in Thinking Through Confucius (1987) and Nylan does here:

“Moral self-cultivation is itself a kind of exquisite taste: the truly cultivated have learned to delight in the moral Way [Dao] and to appreciate the beauty and utility of ritual [li]. Such sophisticated powers of discrimination keep them on the path of full humanity (jen), painstakingly refining their initial impulses toward sympathetic understanding, like the jade cutter who cuts and files, chisels and polishes the precious material. People who know enough to take pleasure in the Way find that the end products of their efforts, their lives or their jades, have become exquisite works of art.” (Nylan)

Little noticed, at least from my vantage point, the Confucian conception of wen has much in common with the Platonic if not classical Greek understanding of the role of music and dance in paideia (moral education; aretē, or the moral habituation to virtue; education directed toward ‘the Beauty and the Good’): “As an instrument of paideia, ritual dancing, in which the customs of the group are encoded, implied the acquisition of moral virtues and a sense of civic responsibility, of mature allegiance to the community, an espousal of its traditions and virtues” (see Steven H. Lonsdale’s Dance and Ritual Play in Greek Religion, 1993). For Plato, music and dance were “the first and fundamental steps of education,” constituting a form of “unwritten laws” that complement or sustain the written laws of the polis. These unwritten laws might helpfully be identified as a subset of Confucian wen or simply li. Substitute the Confucian heart-mind (xin) for “soul” in the following and the identification is transparent: Plato believed music and dance contributed to moral education and civic virtue, in other words, to ends motivated by an intimate knowledge of the Good, “because rhythm and harmony penetrate most easily into the soul and influence it most strongly, bringing with it decorum and making those who are correctly trained well-behaved” (Lonsdale). 

Music and dance in ancient Greece, like the composition and performance of the odes in classical China, “made moral learning at once the most natural and so most delightful of all human activities—far more than a polite accomplishment, a significant source of gratification or fulfillment [in Greek terms, eudaimonia].” (Nylan) 

References & Further Reading

  • Ames, Roger T. and Henry Rosemont, Jr., trans. (1998) The Analects of Confucius: A Philosophical Translation. New York: Ballantine Books.
  • Confucius (David Hinton, tr.) (1998) The Analects. Washington, DC: Counterpoint.
  • Eno, Robert (1990) The Confucian Creation of Heaven: Philosophy and the Defense of Ritual Mastery. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.
  • Fingarette, Herbert (1972) Confucius: The Secular as Sacred. New York: Harper Torchbooks.
  • Goldin, Paul Rakita (1999) Rituals of the Way: The Philosophy of Xunzi. Chicago, IL: Open Court.
  • Goldin, Paul Rakita (2011) Confucianism. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
  • Hall, David L. and Roger T. Ames (1987) Thinking Through Confucius. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.
  • Ivanhoe, Philip J. (2nd ed., 2006) Confucian Moral Self-Cultivation. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett.
  • Kline, T.C. and Justin Tiwald, eds. (2014) Ritual and Religion in the Xunzi. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.
  • Nylan, Michael (2001) The Five “Confucian” Classics. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
  • Van Norden, Bryan W., ed. (2002) Confucius and the Analects: New Essays. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Xunzi (Eric L. Hutton, tr.) (2014) Xunzi: The Complete Text. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

The following titles speak to the actual and possible relevance of Confucian philosophy to contemporary politics, political philosophy, ethics, and moral psychology:

  • Angle, Stephen C. Sagehood: The Contemporary Significance of Neo-Confucian Philosophy. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. 
  • Angle, Stephen C. Contemporary Confucian Political Philosophy. Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2012.
  • Bell, Daniel A. and Hahm Chaibong, eds. Confucianism for the Modern World. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003.
  • Chan, Joseph. Confucian Perfectionism: A Political Philosophy for Modern Times. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2014.
  • Chong, Kim-chong, Sor-hoon Tan, and C.L. Ten, eds. The Moral Circle and the Self:
  • Chinese and Western Approaches. Chicago, IL: Open Court, 2003.
  • de Bary, Wm. Theodore and Tu Wei-ming, eds. Confucianism and Human Rights. New York: Columbia University Press, 1998.
  • Ivanhoe, Philip J. Confucian Reflections: Ancient Wisdom for Modern Times. New York: Routledge, 2013.
  • Kim, Sungmoon. Confucian Democracy in East Asia: Theory and Practice. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2014.
  • Kim, Sungmoon. Public Reason Confucianism: Democratic Perfectionism and Constitutionalism in East Asia. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2016.
  • Neville, Robert Cummings. Boston Confucianism: Portable Tradition in the Late-Modern World. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2000.
  • Rosemont, Henry, Jr. Against Individualism: A Confucian Rethinking of the Foundations of Morality, Politics, Family, and Religion. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2015.
  • Shun, Kwong-loi and David B. Wong. Confucian Ethics: A Comparative Study of Self, Autonomy, and Community. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004.
  • Tu Wei-ming. Humanity and Self-Cultivation: Essays in Confucian Thought. Berkeley, CA: Asian Humanities Press, 1979.
  • Tu Wei-ming. Way, Learning, and Politics: Essays on the Confucian Intellectual. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1993.

Monday, October 30, 2017

Monday Morning Musings: The Unavoidability of Anthropomorphism

All descriptive, explanatory, and normative language is, in one (I hope) nontrivial sense, “anthropocentric.” Indeed, language itself is anthropomorphic by definition, even if it need not be strongly anthropocentric (as in concepts of impartiality, objectivity and truth, for example, or in scientific endeavors to understand the natural world). Poets, philosophers and scientists, as well as the rest of us, depend on human language to communicate, and thus we are necessarily implicated in anthropomorphic and often anthropocentric expressions, conceptualizations, and characterizations or, at the very least, anthropomorphic presuppositions, assumptions and presumptions. Even the “deepest” ecologist and the most devoted Daoist cannot free themselves from, or avoid the constraints of, anthropomorphism. Consider, for instance, the latter: although the Daodejing of the Daoist—one of the most exquisitely profound expressions of classical Chinese philosophy—includes many (evocative) suggestions or “imperatives” to follow (literally and figuratively) the course or order of nature, it too is unavoidably anthropomorphic. In conceding this, we need not deny the text’s desire, wish, or quest to transcend, as it were, an anthropomorphic perspective.1 To keep with our example, the Daoist is insistent that the nature of Dao cannot be put into words, that all “names” are perspectival and limiting … and often misleading. And yet the Daoist is perforce compelled to speak about the Dao, even if enigmatically, aphoristically, and metaphorically, while simultaneously attempting to have us bear in mind the limitations of language and conceptualization, much like, if not identical to, the motivating rationale of poetry, which at once exploits the possibilities and limitations of linguistic expression.
Perhaps the words and formulations of the non-theistic mystic come as close as is humanly possible to avoiding conceptual anthropomorphism when endeavoring to “point to” or characterize as best as possible, the nature of mystical (i.e., the heights of spiritual) experience.2 And one might plausibly argue that “the misanthrope,” insofar as he can be truly systematic or consistent (e.g., avoiding all-too-human behavioral and emotional dispositions or following through on the behavioral consequences or conclusions of such thoughts and sentiment) in his dislike of or contempt for human beings, can more or less steer clear of all species of anthropocentrism and anthropomorphism. Finally, nothing said here denies our ability and frequent need to distinguish crude from sophisticated anthropomorphism or weak from strong anthropocentrism.
The following passage from Hilary Putnam’s chapter, “Values, facts and cognition” in his book Reason, Truth and History (Cambridge University Press, 1981), well illustrates our contention regarding the ubiquity of the anthropomorphic bias if you will, or what I prefer to call the unavoidability of anthropomorphism:
“[F]act, (or truth) and rationality are interdependent notions. A fact is something that it is rational to believe, or, more precisely, the notion of a fact (or a true statement) is an idealization of the notion of a statement that it is rational to believe. [….] [B]eing rational involves having criteria of relevance as well as criteria of rational acceptability, and…all of our values are involved in our criteria of relevance. The decision that a picture of the world is true (or true by our present lights, or “as true as anything is”) and answers the relevant questions (as well as we are able to answer them) rests on and reveals our total system of value commitments. A being with no values would have no facts either. The way in which criteria of relevance involves values, at least indirectly, may be seen by examining the simplest statement. Take the sentence ‘The cat is on the mat.’ If someone actually makes this judgment in a particular context, then he employs conceptual resources—the notions ‘cat,’ ‘on,’ and ‘mat’—which are provided by a particular culture, and whose presence and ubiquity reveal something about the interests and values of that culture, and of almost every culture. We have the category ‘cat’ because we regard the division of the world into animals and non-animals as significant, and we are further interested in what species a given animal belongs to. It is relevant that there is a cat on the mat and not just a thing. We have the category ‘mat’ because we regard the division of inanimate things into artifacts and non-artifacts as significant, and we are further interested in the purpose and nature a particular artifact has. It is relevant that it is a mat that the cat is on and just something. We have the category ‘on’ because we are interested in spatial relations. Notice what we have: we took the most banal statement imaginable, ‘the cat is on the mat,’ and we found that the presuppositions which make this statement a relevant one in certain contexts include the significance of the categories animate/inanimate, purpose, and space. To a mind with no disposition to regard these as relevant categories, ‘the cat is on the mat’ would be as irrational as ‘the number of hexagonal objects in this room is 76’ would be, uttered in the middle of a tête-à-tête between young lovers. Not only do very general facts about our value system show themselves in our categories (artifacts, species name, term for a spatial relation) but, our more specific values (for example, sensitivity and compassion), also show up in the use we make of specific classificatory words (‘considerate,’ ‘selfish’). To repeat, our criteria of relevance rest on and reveal our whole system of values.”—Hilary Putnam
1. Cf. the well-known passage from chapter 5: “Heaven and earth are not humane, they regard the ten thousand things as straw dogs [As Hans-Georg Moeller explains, ‘straw dogs … were highly revered elements in sacrificial rituals, but after the ritual they lost all their meaning and were simply discarded.’]. The sage is not humane. He regards all the people as straw dogs.”
2. See, for example, the argument(s) on behalf of “pure consciousness events” (PCE) in Robert K.C. Forman, ed., The Problem of Pure Consciousness: Mysticism and Philosophy (Oxford University Press, 1990).

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Radical Catholicism (The Catholic Worker Movement, Liberation Theology…) — A Bibliography

My latest bibliography is on Radical Catholicism (The Catholic Worker Movement, Liberation Theology...). It is available at either or ResearchGate. Here is the introduction:

Some of these titles are outside Catholicism proper although the forms of Protestant Christianity they exemplify have much in common (as recognized by the respective members of the concerned parties) with Catholic radicalism. I included a few of these works if only to avoid the impression that Catholicism has a monopoly on this Christian mode of religious radicalism! Like most of my bibliographies, this one has two principal constraints: books, in English. And it is intended to be representative (thus not exhaustive) of the literature. [And no, I am not a sales representative for Orbis Books.]

You should be able to access all of my bibliographies, listed below, at these two sites.    
  1. Africana & African American Philosophy
  2. After Slavery & Reconstruction: The Black Struggle for Civil Rights, Freedom, and Equality in the U.S.
  3. B.R. Ambedkar
  4. American Indian Law (this list goes considerably beyond ‘law’)
  5. Analogy & Metaphor
  6. Anarchism: Philosophy & Praxis
  7. Animal Ethics, Rights, and Law
  8. The Arab World: Modern & Post-Modern
  9. The Bedouin
  10. Beyond Capitalist Agribusiness: Toward Agroecology & Food Justice
  11. Beyond Capitalist-Attenuated Time: Freedom, Leisure, and Self-Realization
  12. Bioethics
  13. Biological Psychiatry, Sullied Psychology and Pharmaceutical Reason
  14. Blacks and Food Justice: A Guide to Resources
  15. Blacks on the (Radical) Left
  16. The Black Panther Party
  17. On Boxing — Sweet Science & Brutal Agon
  18. Buddhism
  19. Buddhism & Psychoanalysis
  20. Capital Punishment
  21. César Chávez & the United Farm Workers
  22. Christianity
  23. Classical Chinese Worldviews
  24. Comparative Law
  25. Conflict Resolution and Nonviolence
  26. Constitutionalism
  27. The Corporatization of Higher Education
  28. Criminal Law
  29. Death & Dying
  30. Democratic Theory
  31. Detroit: Labor & Industrialization, Race & Politics, Rebellion & Resurgence 
  32. Dreams and Dreaming
  33. Ecological & Environmental Politics, Philosophies, and Worldviews
  34. Emotions
  35. Ethical Perspectives on Science & Technology
  36. Frantz Fanon—A Basic Reading Guide
  37. Freudian Psychology
  38. The Life, Work, & Legacy of Mohandas K. Gandhi
  39. Global Distributive Justice
  40. The Great Depression & The New Deal
  41. Health: Law, Ethics & Social Justice
  42. Hinduism
  43. The History, Theory & Praxis of the Left in the 1960s
  44. Human Rights
  45. Indic (or Indian) Philosophy
  46. International Criminal Law
  47. International Law
  48. Modern Iran
  49. Islam & Muslims in the United States
  50. Islamic Studies
  51. Israeli-Palestinian Conflict
  52. The Jain Tradition
  53. Judaism
  54. Law and Literature
  55. Toward an Understanding of Liberalism
  56. Marxism
  57. Marxism (or ‘the Left’), Art & Aesthetics
  58. Marxism and Freudian Psychology
  59. Mass Media
  60. Nonviolent Resistance in the Middle East (with an emphasis on the Palestinian struggle)
  61. Nuclear Weapons
  62. Pan-Africanism, Black Internationalism, & Black Cosmopolitanism
  63. Philosophy of Law and Legal Theory
  64. Philosophy, Psychology, & Methodology for the Social Sciences
  65. Philosophy & Racism
  66. Punishment and Prison
  67. Radical Catholicism (The Catholic Worker Movement, Liberation Theology…)
  68. Science and Religion
  69. Science and Technology
  70. Slavery
  71. Social Security & the Welfare State
  72. South African Liberation Struggles
  73. Sullied (Natural & Social) Sciences
  74. Terrorism
  75. Torture: moral, legal, and political dimensions
  76. Transitional Justice
  77. Utopian Imagination, Thought & Praxis
  78. The Varna & Caste System in India
  79. Vietnam War
  80. Violent Conflict & the Laws of War
  81. Women as Intellectuals in the European Enlightenment
  82. Workers, the World of Work, and Labor Law
  83. Zionist Ideologies

Saturday, October 21, 2017


“We live, we are told, in a ‘knowledge society’ during the ‘Information Age.’ Indeed, we carry small devices that give us access to an enormous portion of human knowledge and allow us to share information, virtually instantaneously, with people around the globe. But our era has also been called the ‘Age of Ignorance.’ Thoughtful observers decry the contemporary ‘culture of ignorance’—especially, but not solely, in the United States. The contradiction is troubling and puzzling. Ignorance, it seems, is trending.
The sort of ignorance sparking concern is what might be termed public ignorance, by which I mean widespread, reprehensible ignorance of matters that are significant for our lives together. Functional illiteracy and innumeracy are examples. Such ignorance might once be explained, if not excused, by lack of educational opportunity; but that seems obtuse when applied to countries with rich educational resources. Besides, the rate of functional illiteracy may be higher in today’s America than it was in colonial New England. Stubbornly high rates of illiteracy and innumeracy are a public shame, no doubt. This is remediable ignorance. The need is for learning—except that many such forms of ignorance thrive despite years of schooling.”— Daniel R. DeNicola, Understanding Ignorance: The Surprising Impact of What We Don’t Know (MIT Press, 2017).