Saturday, March 18, 2006

academic standards, etc.

A little exchange at the Habermas group today and yesterday (Mar. 17-18 messages #1439-1442) about Leo Strauss and neo-conservatism may be validly seen to express more than meets the eye (reading the brief postings). It's like walking past a conversation during a conference recess, not that Fred Welfare (professor of biology?) and Bill Barger (professor of philosophy?) have any long-running philosophical dispute signaled by their recent exchange; rather, the group itself can be seen as a singular long-running conversation (if not conference) returned to mind by any short exchange between members of the group—a conversation/conference which is, perhaps, an ongoing course on Habermas that is mostly freeze-framed, but gets active again briefly.

The general issue here is the medium itself, amid several media: the blog-with-comment vs. the html-friendly discussion group, which is different from an email-based listserv like Yahoo! Groups vs. the chat room. In what online venue can any issue be collaboratively pursued in a focused way by any medium? What's a discussion group to do with expressed impulses to use its medium for chat? (not instanced by the Welfare/Bargar exchange! But the answer here is: an editorial moderator).

The ideal, perhaps, is a transcript of an actual symposium discussion at an academic conference, including extended attention to questions from the audience where the audience is allowed extended reply. But even here, time constraints inhibit detailed focus.

Very differently, a specific academic exchange in a given journal may take place across non-contiguous issues of the journal, extending over a year or more.

The ultimate upshot of this is that the history of philosophy has a singular character, i.e., an undergraduate eventually discovers (be s/he so interested to pursue an issue) that there are paradigmatic ways that a given kind of questioning goes (following from paradigmatic formulations of an issue, i.e., more-or-less full translatability of a proximal issue into a set of standard issues), and there are relatively few unique positions that have evolved for a standard issue, in the sense that an anthology on epistemology can be relatively comprehensive of its domain of issues and comprehensive of important stances on particular issues within the domain (thereby taking a tacit stance on what "important" means for that domain—which I would relate to Bernard Williams' focus on "importances" as a keynote to philosophy).

Back to the Welfare/Barger exchange. It can be seen to relate to a larger context of exchanges. But it's somewhat arbitrary to indicate the beginning (i.e., the proper boundary of the context), just as a notion of "Conversation of humanity" may implicate the university as such.

So, a given exchange is a collaborative episode in the lifelong learning of each participant, albeit in each's own way, yet together implicating, perhaps, a depth of conversation (really belonging to the exchange) that neither participant has overtly in mind.

At least, a larger conversation is specifiable: Bill responds on-group, March 2006, to an apparently dismissive comment by Fred in a private email, which was an earlier response—or part of a response—apparently to Bill's group posting last November, 2005, that was responding to Matthew Piscioneri's response, October, 2005, to Bill's thoughts on "nature", which seem to stand on their own as the beginning of a new topic—albeit apparently inspired by an immediately-previous October exchange between Matt and I on Ryle and linguistic action—and I could hardly begin to characterize the years-long discussion between Matt and I, beginning before 2000, that can be focused around his sense of physicalism (and linguistic behaviorism) during the writing of his dissertation and later focusing on his sense of naturalism in that dissertation.

Last November, I didn't respond to Bill's engaging posting on nature, due to my insecurity about causing the Habermas group to look like my blog-with-comment, which I never intended. I was grateful for the exchanges among Bill, Matt, and Fred—which are credits to the archive of the group! Bill had replied to Matt and not to Fred (which may be relevant to Fred's private dismissiveness?), in which Bill referred to "...Carl Schmitt and Leo Strauss, who have been playing a very problematic role in recent American politics...."

So, now we're at this week's exchange between Bill and Fred. I noted to Bill privately yesterday that I was surprised that Fred questioned the relevance of referring to Strauss relative to neoconservatism. "Gee, the influence of Strauss on key neoconservatives is well-known!," I said to Bill. Today, Fred has a somewhat extended reply to Bill, and Bill wisely lets the issue go.

Bill had mentioned Strauss earlier because [Bill} "I regard philosophy as a perhaps unpremeditated revolt against religion. That's why modern philosophy has provoked the kind of response that came from the post-modernists."

But one might be expected to think that modern philosophy was quite premeditated about its relationship to religion. (Modern philosophy would be the issue relative to "post-modernists," while philosophy's relation to religion goes back to the birth of philosophy and Strauss' favored focus on classics). So, I don't get Bill's point: associating Strauss and Schmitt with postmodernism?

But there should be little doubt that [Bill} "...Strauss...has been playing a very problematic role in recent American politics...," which Fred implausibly disputed.

Because of this, it's not trivial that Bill would emphasize the issue in terms of information about this that he found, apparently months after Fred's private objection.

I'm glad to say I don't know much about Carl Schmitt, but his high valuation of stability over nearly all else in society (thus for legal realism) might be relatable to Plato's sense of the philosopher kingship (secured by a mirroring realm of Ideas) shepherding a republic, which I suppose Strauss lionized.

At the beginning of the 1990s, the Neoconservatives found themselves faced with the stunningly sudden end of the Cold War, which had served as a "M.A.D." deterrent (beyond proxy conflicts for regional influence) over the previous 40 years, i.e., a stabilizing atmosphere after "Hiroshima".

Axiomatic to economics is stability of markets (so that players have a reliable common ground for the investment risks needed for creative productivity). Economies respond to instability via inflation and recession (if not depression), which induces poverty.

The Neoconservatives had few choices for geopolitical stabilization, as the 1990s opened: UN efficacy, multilateral institutional problem-solving outside the UN regime (e.g., GATT, NATO), and crisis-specific coalitions.

A feasible "new world order" for crisis management expressed its potential relative to Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait, 1991. The multilateral containment of Saddamism and the UN-based sanctions regime could have been a paradigm for future crisis management. Later, UN/NATO intervention in the Balkans continued that model. But Saddamism's endless endeavor to invalidate a UN-based sanctions system and the UN's inability to enforce its own sanctions validly and effectively, coupled with the endless instability in the Middle East (and thus for oil markets, as China and India's energy needs were/are accelerating, thus for every other kind of market) forced upon every geopolitical actor (i.e., leading powers) an impending crisis of stability that could make global recession a poverty-inducing norm for decades to come.

No less of a context than this was behind Neoconservative concerns for global stability in the early years of the 21st century, as global recession looked immanent and organized terrorism moved into advanced modes of organization. Meanwhile, Saddamism, Syria, and Iran were buying terrorism in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, as Iran clearly sought to position itself as the center of a new Islamic caliphate concordant with the aspirations of violent Islamist extremism throughout Arabia and southeast Asia.

It's an understatement to say that global stability is important, that the question of stability is critical, and that representative government in the Arab world is important—and desperately lacking. Neoconservatives saw Iraq as a real prospect for representative government in the Arab world (given Iraq's brief experience with democracy and its broad-based experience with market modernization, which is required for democracy). The hope was that Iraq could become a stabilizing model for Arab modernization elsewhere (for Palestine, as well as for Saudi Arabia).

But no one has pretended that Western-style government is likely in Iraq. At best, the theocratic leanings of political leadership within the Shi'ia majority may tend toward a "Platonic" (ayatollahic, so to speak) Islamic republic in the foreseeable future.

Perhaps the fate of Iraq is a tri-section of Kurds (affiliated with a Kurdish regionalism that alarms Turkey), a Sunni consolidation of Jordan, Saudi, and western Iraqi Arabia; and an Arab Shi'ite nation on the Persian Gulf (no extension of Iranian Shi'ism, I agree with Tom Friedman this week). But that would require a peace among the Kurdish, Sunni, and Shi'ite regions that the three societies face now in forming a national unity government, as the abstract notion of "Iraq" (once British, now the region's only hope for near-term peace).

In other words, there has been—and there is no reasonable alternative for—Arab regional social evolution other than an Iraq-like national unity government. This was the Neoconservative view in 2002 (exasperated by 11+ years of UN-based "management" of the situation and exasperated by a Security Council, early 2003, with permanent members secretly benefitting from Saddamism).

Generally, a world without stability has no hope, and a world without UN-enforceable consensus cannot gain and sustain the global stability necessary for addressing poverty in developing regions. The U.S.-British resolve in Iraq has set a precedent: A UN-based global stability will either be respected by its members, enforced by the UN, or, as long as the UN can't enforce its own resolutions, a "coalition of the willing" will do so until the UN is given the resources to be what it was supposed to be in 1945. For this reason, if for no other (e.g., inherent virtue of representative government in Iraq), a post-Baathist Iraq "fiction" has to work.

If "Iraq" works, then Iran's nuclear ambitions can be curbed by UN resolve (so, too, for North Korea). But first, stability in Iraq has to evolve. If that stability is to be valid, then the U.S. has to live with the tragically painful process of helping the Iraqis learn to handle their own Baathist/extremist insurgency. It's a matter of investing stability with homegrown legitimacy. There's no other way than what the U.S. is doing—and suffering—in Iraq, for the sake of global stability (which, of course, includes the "self"-interest in oil price stability—a self-interest shared by every nation!!).

A great contribution of Habermas is to show how homegrown stability (a "kingdom" of demophilic reason) can be philosophically grounded in a globally valid way. This is important for the university (as such), as it is a vital channel (even a great evolutionary power, as a globally-distributed phenomenon) for any knowledge-intensive development of societies.

One might hope for the future of philosophy that it expresses the guiding spirit of the university in a world where education ensures the good governance that serves social evolution, which might be characterized as the essence of any good republic—and for any representative government's prospects for genuine democratic processes, i.e., that education ensures the good governance which serves society's evolution, the health of nations flourishing. One might hope that the university embodies the best hope of humanity designing its future on this planet. I bet that Leo Strauss would agree.

After quantum theology

Earlier today, I sent a letter to Dennis Overbye, New York Times, relating to his response to questions about an article by him earlier this week, "Far Out, Man. But Is It Quantum Physics?".

Subject: After quantum theology

Dear Mr. Overbye,

What fun your whole response-to-questions article is! I imagine you and your editor sharing a big tongue-in-cheek by providing that whole discourse by Ed Reno, which you tacitly covered in your comments prior to the overt response to questions.

Most interesting, though, is the frame: that the NY Times is giving its readers a taste of real philosophical controversy—America's own Die Zeit (though I don't read German anymore). I hope that the Times will do more of this kind of deep controversy. You're probably the Times' best-placed advocate for that.

Actually, the Times does a lot of it, and one could gather the best of that together to render a portrait of Being In America now, combining the "metaphysical" qualms associated with Intelligent Design, when embryonic life becomes human, the conflict of Gods in the "clash of civilization," silence of the SETI results thus far, and other persistent anxieties (and fears).

You know, academic philosophy has made progress; there are settled kinds of issues. But it never does much for the public, as a new generation somewhat fatefully recapitulates old issues. This kind of thing gives developmental psychologists their solidarity with philosophy instructors, and both, perhaps, with evolutionary psychologists. I like to claim that the historical Question of Being (culminating in Heidegger) has been replaced by questions of evolution (taken to heart): Given that, as philosopher John Searle nicely puts it, "the mind is what the brain does" (analogously as digestion is what the stomach "does"), the explanatory challenge of self-understanding—as a species project—remains more daunting than ever, while our fledgling astrobiology increasingly entails that surprises beyond human imagination await (after Ray Kurzweil's "Singularity is near" is kept from overtaking us). [By the way, it's very useful to distinguish reductionism from substitutionism: The prospect that mental events are incalculably "reducible" to biological events doesn't entail hoping to substitute biological events for mental events in explanatory schema. Reductionism doesn't require claiming that biology can disappear into physics, nor that psychology can disappear into neurobiology. Reductionism is usually confused with substitutionism; this is a point made by the editors of Essays in Social Neuroscience, John T. Cacioppo and Gary G. Bernston, MIT 2004, ch. 9: "Multilevel Analyses and Reductionism: Why Social Psychologists Should Care about Neuroscience and Vice Versa."]

I, for one, never really worry in light of the evident fate of the universe (that I enjoyed burlesquing for you a while back ), as the fact that one will die should have no bearing on the meaning of being alive. Nothing we know implies any less reason for getting out of bed each morning.

But being both scientifically literate and in love with living is an elusive prospect for most of humanity. We need our philosophers, and we need our leading journals of the times to give our media generally the cultural leadership that is often so desperately needed.

Cause us to give time to thinking and reading and learning together rather than consuming and watching and causing people to, as David Brooks put it yesterday on the PBS News Hour, "choose the reality that flatters themselves." [Actually, I sent David an email about that earlier today:


You said Friday, 3/17, on The News Hour that, in sum, "people choose the reality that flatters themselves." So, how do you avoid that? I don't mean this as a gotcha or rhetorical question. How do you avoid that? How does one gain confidence about validity claims? Are you saying, in general, that people are lazy about their views and one just has to be vigilant? But it's probably the case that no one believes that they're lazy about their views. So, how does one know that one's "reality" is reasonably valid? Wouldn't your claim entail that few are persuaded by commentary, let alone careful argument, so what's the point of what you do? I'd like to see a column from you that pursues this in depth, perhaps as the issue of promoting critical citizenship. ]

I would like to see you, David, and Tom Friedman running the OpEd domain of the Times!

Gary Davis

Thursday, March 9, 2006

Habermas’s “abstractness”

An online friend (a philosophy professor!) noted that Habermas "needs another translation [besides German to English] making his work clearer and more comprehensible."

I have much fondness for the idiom of saying "you need to [whatever]."

"Gee," I say to myself, "I didn't realize I needed that."