Utopophobia and Other Freedom Beefs

by John Holbo on June 18, 2009

Thanks for those podcast links to the talks from the Cohen conference, Harry. Very interesting. Let me talk briefly about one. David Estlund’s paper on “Utopophobia” – which, I see, is also available as a PDF download in draft form. The title gives you the right general idea about the topic: why are people hostile to utopian thinking – to ‘ideal theory’ in political theory and philosophy? To what degree is such hostility justified; to what degree unjustified?

It’s a good paper.

Let me begin with a mild expression of total difference of opinion. Estlund naturally addresses the concern that ideal theory is a waste of time because it’s useless. ‘It’s never gonna happen.’ He makes a comparison to higher mathematics, which is also generally acknowledged to be pretty inapplicable to anything that might be empirically real. He doesn’t push this analogy, so it’s not like weight is resting on it. Still, it seems to me so much more natural to say that ‘ideal theory’, if useless, is probably useless in the way a painstakingly-constructed model train system in your basement is useless – or that writing Mary Sue-style fanfic about the Form of the Good is useless. That is, it’s a rather indulgent, mostly harmless private make-believe sort of affair, but really not much like higher mathematics, honestly. I guess I’m impressed that you could be enough of a Platonist about it to presume the higher maths angle, in passing, with all the attendant implications of precision and purity and truth. (As someone who just wrote a book about Plato, part of me is happy that the old ways never die. But the part of me that is a die-hard later Wittgensteinian can only shake its head in wonder that the old ways never die. Back to the rough ground!)

Right. That’s out of the way. (You can’t refute an incredulous stare, nor does one count as an objection. We’re done.) Overall, it seems to me that Estlund says a lot of smart stuff that is relatively small-bore – stuff about how certain applications of ‘ought implies can’ can be fallacious. I found myself nodding and saying: ‘yes, I never noticed that before. It seems right.’ So: good. But these generally good points don’t feel large enough, in the aggregate, to cover the grand area staked out by the title: “Utopophobia”.

Estlund makes one good point that might be grand enough. But I think it needs amplification. And he leaves a really big point out. I’m going to use that as an excuse to tell jokes.

The good point that needs amplification grows out of his distinction between concessive and aspirational styles of political theory. Concessive theories, as the term suggests, concede some class of ‘bads’, by way of theorizing, ideally, how to deal with such bads. Maybe: you concede that there will be wars and criminals. Then you theorize about how, ideally, to fight wars and prosecute/punish/incarcerate. As Estlund points out, you can now get nested varieties. Ideally, prison guards should behave like this. So you can have ‘ideal prison guard’ theory, which is an ideal theory within the scope of a concessive theory. But, realistically, there will be abuses … So you get concessiveness about concessiveness. And you could have gone in the other direction right at the start. Why assume there have to be wars? Why not try to design an ‘ideal’ system in which wars won’t be possible?

Between truly, maximally ideal theory and what Estlund identifies, at the other end of the spectrum, as an absurdly realistic approach (which just tells you things are the way they are, flatly begging the question in the context of normative theory) you find a rich range of mixes and blends of concessive and aspirational impulses and intellectual moves. On some level we appreciate this complexity even if we don’t label it as such. But I think our intuitive appreciation of the fact that we are conceding some things, idealizing others, tends not to be up to the job of keeping track. A perfect example is Cohen’s critique of Rawls. The reason ‘justice needs rescuing’, allegedly, is that Rawls has failed to notice how his own theory is highly concessive. Which may not be a bad thing. But it is a thing that should be noticed. Reading Cohen I had the minor epiphany: ‘he’s right. Rawls is giving us semi-concessive ideal theory.’ Estlund gives us these handy terms for this thought.

Anyway, I think it would be interesting to mount a defense of ‘ideal theory’ by exploring, in detail, all the ways in which concessive theory is self-concealing and, thereby, a breeder of illusions. There are a lot of ways in which this is true. Example: ‘realism’ (in IR theory, say) tends to begin by conceding that it isn’t a theory of justice. It’s a theory of politics, of the art of the possible. By implication: it should mark the bounds of possible theories of justice. This sounds vaguely sensible in an ought-implies-can way. (Justice cannot demand the impossible.) But then: somehow, there’s nowhere for a theory of justice to go at the end of the day. Realism sort of seals itself off, seeming somehow sufficient unto itself. This has to do with the fact that it is, indeed, a normative theory. But it isn’t a normative theory of justice. A lot of individualistic ethical advice may fall into the same category. (I found myself making this point again and again in my Plato book, actually. Cephalus and Polemarchus and Meno are not opposed to a theory of justice. But their highly concessive mindsets don’t play well with a certain level of idealization. They aren’t opposed to it so much as they just plain find their thoughts sliding off of it.)

So there’s a characteristic pseudo-self-sufficiency to concessive theory – a characteristic pseudo-completeness. (A feeling that when you’ve said all there is to say about how to be an effective leader, or an effective person, in a rather instrumental way, there isn’t anything left to be said.) There’s also a characteristic bait-and-switch quality to it, in that it is normative, so it is easier to miss that it may not be normative in all the ways that we need it to be. (From the fact that Machiavelli is telling princes how they ought to behave, it obviously does not follow that he is advising them to behave justly, let along telling them what justice is. Then again, it’s often easy to miss the ethical incompleteness of instrumental advice about how to ‘succeed’ in certain ways.) Here’s what may be even a simpler point: concessive theory appeals to the human desire to be irreproachable on the cheap. We find it easy to make out how some middle floor is as high as the normative elevator goes, just because that is in fact the floor where we get off. There ought to be some impressive name for this cluster of error-producing characteristics: crypto-confabulatorico-concessive-normativity. Or perhaps not.

Anyway, it strikes me that the best defense of ideal theory – the really impossible stuff – from charges that you are just writing fanfic about the Form of the Good is that it is a knife for cutting through concessiveness. The idealism has the use of compensating for sources of bias and error in the other direction. (Not that there’s anything wrong with concessive theory, per se. Clearly you need lots of different kinds.)

Now, on to the point that Estlund misses – or at least says nothing about. It seems to me that one of the strongest sources of hostility to utopian thinking is the basically romantic (so I would say) intuition that a perfectly just society would be an ethical nightmare, not for 1984ish reasons, but for Brave New Worldish reasons. It would be insipid, lacking in adventure, human authenticity, character-building hardship and so on and so forth. Nietzsche’s ‘last men’, blinking. “Man does not wish to be happy. Only the Englishman wishes that.” That sort of thing. “Fight on, fare on, there as here.” So: utopias are reductiones on their own ethical ideality.

This is obviously not at all the same as the concern that ideal theory is useless because it will never happen. (If it’s never going to happen, the the problem that it would be a nightmare if it did happen solves itself.) It’s also not really a response to the characteristically 20th Century concern that the people who want to set up ‘utopia’, in practice – not just on paper – are always dangerous lunatics.

This strong, almost instinctive revulsion at the very notion of ‘utopia’, as inherently ethically inauthentic, is a pretty complex cocktail. It is, to repeat, an ethic of authenticity; in part an ethic of pluralism (the ‘best’ is undefined); in part it’s an impulse that ‘I have a right to do wrong’. It’s a virtue ethic. As often happens, virtue ethics is hard to interlock with social theory. Whether or not you think this cluster of negative recoilings from ‘utopia’ has much intellectual merit (I think it certainly has a lot), it is maybe the strongest source of utopophobia in the face of ‘ideal theory’. (Fallacious patterns of reasoning about ‘ought implies can’, although interesting, come a distant second, in terms of actual psychic force.)

Now, the jokes. Oddly enough, I’m actually discussing the same thing over at J&B tonight, because I put up a post – with YouTube links and even sillier stuff about how much my youngest daughter loves the Powerpuff Girl mini-rock opera “See Me, Feel Me, Gnomey”. Which has never been shown on US television! Long story short: Gnomey offers to establish utopia in Townsville in exchange for the girls’ powers. They take the deal. He eliminates crime and badness, just banishes the villains, and everyone pretty much just sits around harmoniously and happily adoring Gnomey. The townspeople start wearing cultish red gowns. Professor Utonium snaps them out of it by means of his “Freedom Beef” number (a true, semi-coherent classic of utopophobic tunesmithery):

“Can’t you see they’re blinded by the light?
Don’t you think that it’s time that you fight
For freedom?
Can’t you see there’s evil in the world?
Don’t you know you’re the Powerpuff Girls
For freedom?
Do the people have to be
Freedom beef?”

The girls realize that it is actually bad for things to be this perfect, ergo Gnomey broke the deal and they still have their powers. They make a Yin/Yang argument while backing Gnomey off the edge of his high tower. He gasps out, as he falls (back to the rough ground!): “As I descend to the earth/And I view the universe above me/I realize that life evolves, revolves, and dissolves/Completely around the opposites/Therefore, I conclude that I cannot exist/In my utopian mind.” And so he ceases to exist, qua perfectly good being, in a flash.

The episode ends on the higher irony that it’s really no better for the people to adore the Powerpuff Girls, who only use more violent methods of keeping the streets safe. That is, the ethical fantasy of the superhero story is actually no less toxic than the utopian saviour story. But: what the hell. We love the girls and we hate Gnomey. Philosophy discussion here, maybe. Silly Powerpuff stuff at J&B. Or do as you like.

{ 72 comments }

1

JSE 06.18.09 at 3:43 pm

Note that the paper says at the top “DRAFT: Please do not cite or distribute.” You might want to ask Estlund whether he wants it linked.

2

John Holbo 06.18.09 at 3:50 pm

Hmmmm, good point. I always assume that linking is ok to anything posted. The idea with such announcements is that you don’t want to separate the thing from the clear statement that it’s a draft. Don’t want it handed around as something it isn’t. (I figure the fact that there’s an audio recording of him reading it is some argument in favor of acceptability of distribution … but I’ll email and ask.)

3

Matt Heath 06.18.09 at 5:03 pm

Are you saying that mathematics isn’t a “model-railway/fanfic”-type activity? It often feels that way to me.

4

John Holbo 06.18.09 at 5:11 pm

Maybe I’m just not good enough at mathematics or model railway building.

5

bianca steele 06.18.09 at 5:16 pm

I want to read this again more slowly, but a couple of thoughts:

– “Utopia” sounds especially childish now that SF has become popular

– Anti-utopian ideas were an important part of US anti-communist liberalism in the 1950s: developed at length and also opposed by leftists like Norman Mailer and the New Left, taken up in large part by neoconservatism. These ideas are now part of the culture but they might not form a coherent theoretical whole.

– As anyone who’s spent too much time giving credit to NRO’s The Corner knows, there’s the whole “immanentizing the eschaton” thing, which all utopias are supposed to be, which is supposed to be bad and unconservative. Pretty obviously, this is a theological, Christian idea–yet, its badness doesn’t seem to be important to Christians–and my guess would be that its something non-Christians are sometimes asked to take account of, in order to be inclusive, but is a distinction that’s actually mostly only theoretical. In any case, I don’t know what it actually means (it obviously doesn’t describe, say, the Left Behind books, because conservatives don’t reject those).

Sorry if this goes into too much detail on stuff most people find boring.

6

bianca steele 06.18.09 at 5:17 pm

Retry:
I want to read this again more slowly, but a couple of thoughts:

1. “Utopia” sounds especially childish now that SF has become popular

2. Anti-utopian ideas were an important part of US anti-communist liberalism in the 1950s: developed at length and also opposed by leftists like Norman Mailer and the New Left, taken up in large part by neoconservatism. These ideas are now part of the culture but they might not form a coherent theoretical whole.

3. As anyone who’s spent too much time giving credit to NRO’s The Corner knows, there’s the whole “immanentizing the eschaton” thing, which all utopias are supposed to be, which is supposed to be bad and unconservative. Pretty obviously, this is a theological, Christian idea–yet, its badness doesn’t seem to be important to Christians–and my guess would be that its something non-Christians are sometimes asked to take account of, in order to be inclusive, but is a distinction that’s actually mostly only theoretical. In any case, I don’t know what it actually means (it obviously doesn’t describe, say, the Left Behind books, because conservatives don’t reject those).

Sorry if this goes into too much detail on stuff most people find boring.

7

Matt 06.18.09 at 5:20 pm

Rawls is giving us semi-concessive ideal theory

I’ve not read Eslund’s piece, so maybe he discusses this. But, I’m curious if you think that, in Rawls’s account, this is so _other than_ the restrictions put in place by the “circumstances of justice” stuff- moderate scarcity, real but moderate altruism, etc. Those parts are in the open in the account, it seems to me, and not at all implausible. Do you think there are other significant “concessive” elements?

8

JoB 06.18.09 at 5:45 pm

I don’t think Rawls is conceeding anything & I think it’s conceeding far too much to be dichotomizing into utopian and concessive. Rawls as an example starts with individual liberty and the rest of it, afaik, is just an attempt at giving the broad outlines of context in which nothing essentially is conceeded with respect to individual liberty.

The issue is not that we’ve grown to be afraid of utopic ideals. The truth is that we have grown out of them, knowing that any fixed ideal of the context in which ‘ought’ to be is inevitably leading to a situation where it takes precedence over individual liberty. And inevitably leads to some strange utilitarianism where people get ‘sacrificed’ for ‘greater good’.

John’s point on BNW & at the end of the post is to the point: anything that’s alive can’t but be at odds with a fixed static ideal.

9

Neel Krishnaswami 06.18.09 at 5:46 pm

Are you saying that mathematics isn’t a “model-railway/fanfic”-type activity? It often feels that way to me.

Can you think of any areas of mathematics without practical applications? I can’t — the idea that there is “pure” mathematcs, unsullied by the gross demands of the world, might have been sustainable in Hardy’s day (c.f., A Mathematician’s Apology), but it’s not any more. Even the most apparently abstract and unworldly bits of mathematics (algebraic topology, say) have deep and wide connections to fields like physics, statistics, and computer science.

10

dsquared 06.18.09 at 6:45 pm

Can you think of any areas of mathematics without practical applications?

String theory and option pricing.

boom-tish. I’ll be here all week.

11

qb 06.18.09 at 7:00 pm

“I’m not an idealist, I just think individual liberty should always take precedence over every other value.”

12

Patrick S. O'Donnell 06.18.09 at 7:22 pm

I said (or, rather, share) a few thing about utopian thought and imagination at Ratio Juris that might interest John and others: http://ratiojuris.blogspot.com/2008/07/utopian-thought-imagination-part-1.html

and here: http://ratiojuris.blogspot.com/2009/01/utopian-thought-imagination-part-2.html

13

Currence 06.18.09 at 7:32 pm

This strong, almost instinctive revulsion at the very notion of ‘utopia’, as inherently ethically inauthentic, is a pretty complex cocktail. It is, to repeat, an ethic of authenticity; in part an ethic of pluralism (the ‘best’ is undefined); in part it’s an impulse that ‘I have a right to do wrong’.

I wouldn’t think that a belief in a (idealized) clean sectioning off of politics from ethics is concessive, and therefore non-utopian. By which I mean: it’s not concessive to acknowledge that there are wrongs that are merely ethical wrongs and not political wrongs at all. (Intuitively all political wrongs are ethical wrongs.) Nothing is conceded by the acknowledgment that justice is a good distinct from, and attainable apart from or before, other goods. The thesis of the disunity of virtue is not, by itself, concessive. So, in a political utopia you will have things that you won’t in an ethical utopia: people destroying themselves or good things in politically non-relevant ways, etc. Thus, I don’t see how aversion to Brave New World motivates aversion to political utopia, unless it’s also coupled with something like a thesis of the unity of virtue/good, or the thesis that the Just cannot be cleanly separated from other goods.

14

JoB 06.18.09 at 8:03 pm

qb, mind sharing with us who you’re quoting?

15

D.R. Foster 06.18.09 at 8:27 pm

As an undergraduate, I was always tempted by this strategy: give an ideal theory of justice, but build into it some room for moral failure – a reasonable (if vague) rate at which it is acceptable to do wrong (by the lights of the theory) while still being just. As stated, this would apply to assigning praise or blame to moral agents for the corporate whole of their deeds; but I figure it can be worded, mutatis mutandis, to apply to regimes. This comports with a strong intuition a lot of us have that justice is more than the limit condition.

Maybe it’s a sort of virtue ethics in that it could be said to assign praise and blame for habits and practices as opposed to individual acts or “basic structures”. I don’t know enough about virtue ethics to say any more on that score. I also remember thinking that such an approach could hybridize realist/objectivist and expressivist/subjectivist theories: The justness of acts are determined by the facts, but our standards for praising and blaming individuals are conventional.

In any event, what I wonder is this: is there any substantive difference between starting with an ideal theory of justice and building in room for human frailty, and starting with a concessionary theory but leaving no room for error? Or is the distinction superficial?

16

qb 06.18.09 at 10:50 pm

Meh, the sentence I was mock-paraphrasing turned out to be unparsable. Were you claiming that we should rule out utopian ideals on the grounds that pursuing them inevitably threatens individual liberty? Because that, to me, looks like it implies its own fixed ideals, and their corresponding utopia–perhaps one where individual liberty is treated as an absolute right, one which cannot, at any cost, be infringed. Rawls does not go that far, although at times he pretends to.

17

John Holbo 06.19.09 at 12:28 am

“I’ve not read Eslund’s piece, so maybe he discusses this. But, I’m curious if you think that, in Rawls’s account, this is so other than the restrictions put in place by the “circumstances of justice” stuff- moderate scarcity, real but moderate altruism, etc. Those parts are in the open in the account, it seems to me, and not at all implausible. Do you think there are other significant “concessive” elements?”

He didn’t talk about this in the paper, actually, but I had in mind what we discussed regarding Cohen: namely, he argues that the difference principle – rather than expressing a normative condition for the achievement of justice – is more like a ‘concessive’ principle for pegging how much you should aim to get, given that you won’t get justice. (That’s not quite right, but I’m running out the door in haste this morning.) The thing to think about are the kidnap cases Cohen talks about. He wants to say that high-fliers who demand exorbitant salaries are kind of like kidnappers. Namely, it’s best for them to be paid off (or at least it may be) but that isn’t to say that it’s JUST for them be paid off. So there’s concessiveness in Rawls’ account that isn’t labeled as such.

In short, Rawls implicitly concedes that people won’t care enough about justice (as opposed to their own gain) for us to get justice. Nevertheless, it’s worth stating what justice would be if people cared enough. That’s sort of Cohen’s line, and it fits well with what Estlund says, although – again – Estlund actualy doesn’t make Cohen his case in point. (The fact that he read the paper at a Cohen conference, however, suggests this point is probably not lost on him.)

18

John Holbo 06.19.09 at 12:40 am

“I think it’s conceeding far too much to be dichotomizing into utopian and concessive.”

Well, I don’t think anyone is proposing a dichotomy. The point of my post is that the advantage of the distinction between aspirational and concessive is that it actually helps us avoid an unhelpfully stark dichotomy between realism and utopianism. Estlund puts it a bit differently than I do in the post, but he clearly sees a continuum of cases.

19

Matt 06.19.09 at 12:49 am

In short, Rawls implicitly concedes that people won’t care enough about justice (as opposed to their own gain) for us to get justice.

It would certainly be convenient for Cohen’s position to assume this, though it would be question-begging, and I thought the discussion on the blog (and in lots of critiques of Cohen, as well) showed that he wasn’t entitled to this conclusion. So, I don’t think this is shown, at the least. (I’m pretty sure that Estlund doesn’t agree with this claim, given his own quite strong critiques of Cohen on this sort of point.) It’s probably not worth going over it all again on the blog, but I do want to insist that this its far from obvious that Rawls’s version of the difference principle is vulnerable to this objection, if it means something more than that we have limited altruism. But if we don’t work withing the circumstances of justice, the the theory might be more “ideal” in a sense, but one that makes it pointless- like working out a theory of justice for people who can’t be harmed physically, say- a fun exercise in shmess (or whatever Dennett’s term was for the game just like chess, except the king can move two places), but not something to care much about.

20

John Holbo 06.19.09 at 6:49 am

Matt, I don’t know what Estlund thinks about Cohen vs. Rawls. The example was mine, not his. I merely inferred from the fact that the paper was read at a Cohen conference that he took it to be generally relevant to Cohen-related discussions, which it surely is.

“I do want to insist that this its far from obvious that Rawls’s version of the difference principle is vulnerable to this objection, if it means something more than that we have limited altruism.”

I think it means just that and nothing more, and that is supposed to be enough.

I take the objection to be that assuming we have limited altruism is a ‘concessive’ move in ways beyond those explicitly spelled out in the general statement of the conditions of justice. It is a concession of moral weakness, as opposed to a concession of material scarcity, or a concession that conceptions of the good are plural. That doesn’t mean it’s bad to ‘concede’ it because it’s highly realistic, after all. But it’s a way of saying: yeah, people may not care about justice THAT much. So what are we going to do about it? The answer: relax the standards of justice to some realizable level. That’s fine. But then don’t mistake your relaxed standards of justice for justice itself. (I don’t say that no Rawlsian response is possible, merely that this is the Cohen point, as I understand it.)

21

Matt Heath 06.19.09 at 10:02 am

Neel Krishnaswami @9
Agreed, but I don’t think that makes the doing of it any less model-trainy (at least for many of us). Building a model train set might it self conceivably have applications (say for transport planners) but that’s not typically what’s on people’s mind doing it. I think it’s often the same in maths: define your construction, play around with and see what it can do, all just because it’s interesting. Often those constructions are flexible enough that if you choose the right example it can model something real, but even then it’s not rare to be more interested in maths thrown up by doing the applications than the actual models.

22

Matt 06.19.09 at 11:06 am

It is a concession of moral weakness, as opposed to a concession of material scarcity,

I’m not sure this is right. (I’m not sure what Rawls would say, but to my mind it’s not right.) I don’t think this in just the “it would be bad to be good all the time” way discussed above, but rather that in fact it’s not, and couldn’t be, a moral requirement to always take the universal perspective. Why should it be? At the very least it’s not obvious and would need to be argued for. But, even beyond that, it does seem to me that limited altruism isn’t something that’s going to change. Given this, you can say that this makes justice impossible, but I’ll just think you’ve got the wrong idea of what justice is, as if you said justice was impossible so long as anyone ever died. There’s lots of room to argue here, about how limited our limited altruism is, what we can or should do about it, etc. We can’t just invoke this claim and be done, of course. But to imagine that it’s not something we should consider in a theory of justice, like other factors about us (that we can be hurt, that we have families, that we die, etc.) seems to me to not to make a more pure theory of justice but to change the subject altogether.

23

Yarrow 06.19.09 at 12:04 pm

It seems to me that (1) to say that one society is more just than another implies that we have a metric of justice, that (2) we can’t calibrate that metric without examining the extreme cases, and that (3) since we aren’t in fact perfectly just, it’s particularly important to contemplate cases that are more just than we think possible. Otherwise we may give ourselves more slack than we deserve: “Slavery may be wrong according to some abstract theory of perfectly just beings, but in the real world we need a theory of just slave-holding.”

On revulsion at the very notion of ‘utopia’: to me this is tied to the fact that most utopian novels, whatever their merits as arguments, are terrible novels. (“As you know, Bob” for hundreds of pages.) On the other hand, Le Guin’s The Dispossessed is a pretty good novel. Perhaps that’s because it’s concessive in that the folks on Anarres have all our human flaws; on the other hand, no prisons, no armies, no mountains of wealth.

Certainly my own hope is that people a few generations from now will think of prisons and armies and mountains of wealth the way we think of slaves and slave-holders.

24

John Holbo 06.19.09 at 1:52 pm

“in fact it’s not, and couldn’t be, a moral requirement to always take the universal perspective. Why should it be? At the very least it’s not obvious and would need to be argued for. But, even beyond that, it does seem to me that limited altruism isn’t something that’s going to change. Given this, you can say that this makes justice impossible”

Well, I’m just summarizing Cohen’s position, not giving a full dress argument for his anti-Rawls conclusions. So, as to needing to be argued for: most definitely. As to ‘always taking the universal perspective’, that’s something else entirely. Cohen himself doesn’t think that makes moral sense, but he still thinks Rawls’ view is not morally demanding enough. So you are leaping to the extremes without considering possible middle positions.

“But, even beyond that, it does seem to me that limited altruism isn’t something that’s going to change. Given this, you can say that this makes justice impossible”

Well, yes and no. This is sort of what the Estlund paper is about. Suppose you are lazy and you just won’t get it done on time. Does it follow that it isn’t true that you ought to get it done on time? There are things that won’t change for which, perhaps, people ought to be help responsible. (That’s at least a possibility.)

“But to imagine that it’s not something we should consider in a theory of justice”

But no one is suggesting that, I should hope. The only question is whether it’s inclusion has been conceptualized properly.

25

JoB 06.19.09 at 3:14 pm

John-18,

As you profess to be a ‘late’ Wittgensteinian, you’ll understand that you need not propose that there is a dichotomy for you to basically play a game based on that dichotomy. More directly: you’re conceeding too much to Utopianism by using the terms ‘concessionary’ & ‘aspirational’. Non-utopian thought need not be measured along the dimension proper to utopian thought. It is precisely in doing this that, whatever realism is added, the intrinsic fallacy of utopianism will be (and is, as far as the traditional ‘left wing’) institutionalized.

Even shorter: the dichotomy between utopian and non-utopian thought is helpful.

Other than that, yes, it still makes sense (after discarding utopian thought) to do as you propose (& it was an interesting post). After all, even Rawls’ theory is a self-professed ‘ideal theory’ – and in any non-utopian thought, some utopian elements will (unavoidably?) be present. Is that bad? Not necessarily, as long as we don’t dogmatize the utopian elements thus reverting to a standard utopian (‘fundi’) theory with some pragmatic (‘realo’) concessions.

26

Chris 06.19.09 at 5:35 pm

Suppose you are lazy and you just won’t get it done on time. Does it follow that it isn’t true that you ought to get it done on time?

If justice can’t demand the impossible, how can it demand diligence from the lazy any more than it can demand jumping jacks from the paraplegic? If it’s certain that you won’t get it done on time, then it’s impossible that you will get it done on time. (At least, by modal logic interpretations of “certain” and “impossible”.)

If laziness is a property of your brain (and it’s hard to see what else it could possibly be), then wanting your brain to be wired differently is likely to be about as effective as wanting your legs to work again.

That way, of course, lies a full frontal assault on free will, and if free will goes, then it seems rather pointless to judge any act as ethical or unethical since the actor could not have acted otherwise than according to his/her nature. (Of course, neither could the judge, pointlessness notwithstanding.)

Or is this line of questioning impolite even by philosophers’ standards?

27

harold 06.19.09 at 9:07 pm

It is interesting that Marx and Engels tried to give legitimacy to their own theories by disparaging supposed “utopians” and that the National Review (basically Christians who believe in pie in the sky) are now doing the same thing.

28

John Holbo 06.20.09 at 2:41 am

“That way, of course, lies a full frontal assault on free will”

Well, yes, and that’s definitely a big issue. But there’s a long way to go before we are, strictly, engaging it at that level. We do in fact hold people responsible for the bad effects of their laziness. It may be wrong to do so, but – if this is all Cohen is doing in effect – it’s hardly a departure from ordinary patterns of thinking about morality.

29

Patrick S. O'Donnell 06.20.09 at 2:56 am

harold,

Just for the record, or in case unwarranted inferences are culled from your comment, both Marx and Engels had a deep if not abiding appreciation of “utopian socialists” like Owen, Fourier and Saint-Simon (e.g., in 1874 Engels wrote that Marxism ‘rests on the shoulders of Saint-Simon, Fourier and Owen’) although their disenchantment with “utopian socialism” as such was more a result of their eventual involvement in working-class politics of a kind and corresponding dissatisfaction with the (‘subjectivist’) politics of the latter-day disciples of these early socialist visionaries as well as their comparative neglect of grand history or at least (‘objective’) historical movements or tendencies (largely Hegelian in inspiration if not substance):

“[A]lthough the originators of these systems were, in many respects, revolutionary, their disciples have, in every case, formed mere reactionary sects. They hold fast by the original views of their masters, in opposition to the progressive historical development of the proletariat.”

Nonetheless, it is true, as Vincent Geoghegan has explained, that “their desire to stress the political distinctiveness of their own stance led [Marx and Engels] to be less than fair to their ‘utopian’ predecessors.” Hence, not surprisingly, “Marx and Engels’ ambivalent relationship [to put it mildly if not feebly] to Owen, Fourier and Saint-Simon haunts their mature work” (as both Paul Ricoeur and, earlier, Ernst Bloch well appreciated).

In addition to Geoghegan’s treatment in Utopianism & Socialism (1987) from which the above quoted material was taken, there’s a compelling portrait sketched and a persuasive assessment drawn by Michael Harrington in his chapter “Socialisms” in Socialism: Past and Future (1989).

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Stuart 06.20.09 at 12:14 pm

If laziness is a property of your brain (and it’s hard to see what else it could possibly be), then wanting your brain to be wired differently is likely to be about as effective as wanting your legs to work again.

Although in most people laziness suddenly disappears if they think their boss is watching, so it seems a somewhat different property than being a paraplegic.

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Neel Krishnaswami 06.20.09 at 10:42 pm

Matt Heath @ 21

I agree that many mathematicians don’t care about the practical implications of their work. However, the work itself usually does have those implications, which makes the analogy John H. talks about in his second paragraph somewhat problematic — you can’t say “X does not necessarily have immediate practical applications, but then neither does higher mathematics,” when every branch of mathematics we can name does have immediate practical applications. What’s really interesting, though, is that this is an analogy that used to work, but doesn’t any more.

Seventy years ago, when Hardy wrote A Mathematician’s Apology, there genuinely were fields of mathematics, such as number theory, that had no obvious applications. Today, however, there aren’t — science and engineering have grown vastly more hungry for mathematics since then. For example, number theory, once “useless”, now provides the foundations of secure electronc commerce via cryptography.

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jholbo 06.21.09 at 4:04 am

It’s worth noting, simply, that ‘utopian’ has become ambiguous, in a pejorative sense. It can mean either the imagining of an ideal order, or it can mean failure to recognize that attempts to get there are going to fail. If you are scrupulously sticking to the former, it can be a tiresome chore to be having to unstick yourself from the accusation of inherent error.

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Walt 06.21.09 at 4:17 am

It depends on how narrowly you want to define field, but there are fields of mathematics with no applications, and most other fields have maybe 1 application that is related to 5% of the research. Number theory is an example: a small part of it is useful in cryptography, but that part is unrelated to what 95% of mathematicians in that field work on.

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JoB 06.21.09 at 10:12 am

John, It can mean either the imagining of an ideal order, or it can mean failure to recognize that attempts to get there are going to fail. But what’s the difference in both? Unless you talk about some innocent imagining divorced from any attempt to get there. In that case, surely you’re right but then you render the term meaningless, or at least coextensive with any theories that idealize. It is a huge order to idealize for the purpose of theory and insight and to idealize for the purpose of a better society, it is the normal use of utopian to do the latter.

Why do you want to rescue utopian from its hard-earned pejorative feel? Why either extending its meaning (your first horn) or shrinking it (your second horn)?

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Jock Bowden 06.21.09 at 11:05 am

When we are talking about fiction, the distinctions between utopia and dystopia can work very well. But once these Utopian enthusiasms leave the pages of novels, films, etc., the meaning of Utopia becomes Dystopia.

We have enough data on the fates of Utopian programs never to go one near one again.

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JoB 06.21.09 at 11:42 am

It’s also worth noting that it really is realism that has become ambiguous, in pejorative sense. The case at hand here seems to be Rawls vs. Cohen – but more actual these days are the examples in the area of the environmental problem (or, on the right side, on an Islamic context). Realists need to continuously unstick themselves from an accusation that they’re just accepting the status quo, which is mostly not the case as they are most concerned with making sure change is in the right direction without prescribing where it specifically needs to end (i.e. egalitarian or no-growth or de-Islamized).

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Jock Bowden 06.21.09 at 12:08 pm

JoB

I’m not sure how ambiguous the Chinese, Russians, East Germans, Cambodians, Romanians, Polish Jews found the reality of the mid 20th century.

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Salient 06.21.09 at 12:25 pm

“It depends on how narrowly you want to define field, but there are fields of mathematics with no applications,”

This depends, in turn, on how narrowly we want to define applications.

If we’re careful / if we’re not sufficiently general, i.e. if we say “X has applications” means “X is necessary/useful when building certain kinds of technology,” we’ll eliminate every field of study outside engineering and its immediate precursors from consideration.

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Patrick S. O'Donnell 06.21.09 at 1:05 pm

Jock,

I think you’re wrong (for some of the reasons outlined in the references found in no. 12 above).

In any case, utopias and “utopian programs” are two very different things (cf., for instance, the work of Ernst Bloch on utopian imagination; it’s rather clear that the there is nothing ‘progammatic’ about the non-literary material whatsoever) and it’s the failure to make or appreciate the distinction that often (although not invariably) leads to troubling if not nefarious consequences. I find Galston’s normative description of utopian thought more than plausible:

“Utopian thought attempts to specify and justify the principles of a comprehensively good political order. Typically, the goodness of that order rests on the desirability of the way of life enjoyed by the individuals within it; less frequently, its merits rely on organic features that cannot be reduced to individuals. Whatever their basis, the principles of the political good share certain general features:

First, utopian principles are in their intention universally valid, temporally and geographically.

Second, the idea of the good order arises out of our experience but does not mirror it in any simple way and is not circumscribed by it. Imagination may combine elements of experience into a new totality that has never existed; reason, seeking to reconcile the contradictions of experience, may transmute its elements.

Third, utopias exist in speech; they are “cities of words.” This does not mean that they cannot exist but only that they need not ever. This “counterfactuality” of utopia in no way impedes its evaluative function.

Fourth, utopian principles may come to be realized in history, and it may be possible to point to real forces pushing in that direction. But our approval of a utopia is not logically linked to the claim that history is bringing us closer to it or that we can identify an existing basis for the transformative actions that would bring it into being. Conversely, history cannot by itself validate principles. The movement of history (if it is a meaningful totality in any sense at all) may be from the most desirable to the less; the proverbial dustbin may contain much of enduring worth.

Fifth, although not confined to actual existence, the practical intention of utopia requires that it be constrained by possibility. Utopia is realistic in that it assumes human and material preconditions that are neither logically nor empirically impossible, even though their simultaneous co-presence may be both unlikely and largely beyond human control to effect.

Sixth, although utopia is a guide for action, it is not in any simple sense a program of action. In nearly all cases, important human or material preconditions for good politics will be lacking. Political practice consists in striving for the best results achievable in particular circumstances. The relation between the ideal and the best achievable is not deductive. [….]

Thus, the incompleteness of utopia, far from constituting a criticism of it, is inherent in precisely the features that give it evaluative force. As has been recognized at least since Aristotle, the gap between utopian principles and specific strategic/tactical programs can be bridged only through an inquiry different in kind and content from that leading to the principles themselves. If so, the demand that utopian thought contain within itself the conditions of its actualization leads to a sterile hybrid that is neither an adequate basis for rational evaluation nor an accurate analysis of existing conditions.”

There is no logical or necessary connection between the Tolstoyan idea of “Heaven on Earth” as it were and a teleological belief and commitment to its utter materialization. It is possible to keep in mind and appreciate the importance of the ineluctable gap between socio-political vision and imagination on the one hand, and a kind of practical idealism on the other, the latter entailing concrete programs of political action. Utopian models need not–and by definition should not–be seen as definitely realizable conretions. The gap is analogous to that between the theories and models of science and a hard-headed (or unqualified) realism about the “unobservable” world (hence our theories are like maps and cannot avoid recourse to analogies and metaphors; or as Sophie Allen has explained, ‘we do not know, in a broad metaphysical sense, what is really there,’ there exists a gap between the ‘terms of our theories’ and ‘really existing entities;’ science in theory and practice being more ‘metaphysically flexible’ than realist ontology simpliciter).

JoB,

Your references to Islam (or things ‘Islamic’) here seem rather gratuituitous, tendentious and simple-minded.

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Patrick S. O'Donnell 06.21.09 at 1:09 pm

Erratum: gratuitous

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JoB 06.21.09 at 1:38 pm

Patrick, maybe, but please explain why. Anyway, in your city of words, it is against the utopian programs I argue and against the easy way out of the utopia without program – which is in my city of words just a thought experiment, science fiction or imagination.

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Patrick S. O'Donnell 06.21.09 at 1:52 pm

Because the references presuppose or assume a monolithic or essentialist picture of things “Islamic” which is neither normatively, prescriptively or descriptively accurate (or true).

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JoB 06.21.09 at 3:42 pm

Patrick, Oh! Quite the reverse was intended. It was against a de-Islamizing Utopianism, a brand of right-wing Utopianism in which everybody is and/or beliefs the same. But, I will not defend that my cursory reference was clear in that regard.

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harold 06.21.09 at 3:57 pm

Conservatives have degraded the meaning of Utopian so that it now means “don’t mess with God’s providence” by instituting reforms or improvements. A cynical ploy to maintain the status quo. It’s sort of like the 19th century obstetricians who wouldn’t wash their hands after Pasteur discovered germs.

Utopias are moral thought experiments that are very useful in identifying values and imagining consequences.

Reforms and revolution are something else entirely. They might work or they might not.

Marx and Engles might have admired Fourier (how enthusiastically is arguable), but their desciples decidedly did (and do) not. Ironically, Marx and Engles thought that Providence was on their side and you shouldn’t mess with it.

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virgil xenophon 06.21.09 at 6:48 pm

bianca steele@5 & 6:

Eric Voegelin wouldn’t have found it boring. :)

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bianca steele 06.21.09 at 9:23 pm

virgil,
I feel bad for derailing John H.’s comment thread before it got started, but: I’d guess Eric Voegelin would say “who’s that idiot woman talking about my ideas,” and (b) Voegelin probably doesn’t read Crooked Timber, nor does Jonah Goldberg.

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harold 06.21.09 at 10:38 pm

If Islam is “Utopian” then so are all the other major world religions. Calling Islam utopian cynically dilutes the meaning of the word.

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Jock Bowden 06.22.09 at 1:05 am

harold

Your conflation of “conservative” with believers in “god’s providence” is both bizzare and a category mistake.

Patrick

There is no doubt that Islam provided concrete examples of Utopian ideas, literature, and projects in the current day. Hamas, for example is a Utopian project to restore a strict sharia-based caliphate.

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Patrick S. O'Donnell 06.22.09 at 1:12 am

I rather suspect, like judging a religious tradition in toto, that calling Islam or any other religious worldview utopian or dystopian makes no sense. Instead, we might speak of a Muslim, or group of Muslims, or an Islamic treatise, (perhaps, for example, Al-Fārābī’s The Virtuous City [al-Madīnah al-fādilah] etc., as utopian (or dystopian)….

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Jock Bowden 06.22.09 at 1:18 am

Harold

Ah, now if you want to talk about REAL Judeo-Christian providentialism or Utopian eschatology, what better exemplar than Marxism?

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Jock Bowden 06.22.09 at 1:20 am

Or Augustine’s City of God, which is sublime.

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Patrick S. O'Donnell 06.22.09 at 1:44 am

Jock,

In the parliamentary elections of 2006, Hamas candidates did not run on a platform advocating restoration of a “strict sharia-based caliphate.” In any case, that phrase is far too vague and indeterminate to be meaningful. Which historical case is the exemplum of the caliphate? Similarly, shariah can mean and has meant any number of things in Muslim countries, what does it mean in this instance? Hamas (and Hezbollah)are often rather different (e.g., more pragmatic and strategic than doctrinal or dogmatic in their politics) from other or earlier Salafi Islamist groups, especially insofar as their politics are “nationalized” and they’ve demonstrated a willingness to participate in electoral politics (i.e., will play by democratic rules), among other things.

I would not call Hamas’ political orientation utopian (in either a non-pejorative or pejorative sense).

And while some species of Marxism may exhibit “messianic” tendencies (as did Marx’s rather spare musings about communism as the ideal society), I don’t think it’s correct to call this “providentialism,” which is something different.

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Jock Bowden 06.22.09 at 10:05 am

Patrick

Hamas’ character, existence, and motivations do not begin and end with its 2006 parliamentary election platform(s), which you do appear a little ignorant or naive about.

As for sharia and caliphate these are hardly arcane words or concepts. There would be few educated people anywhere on the globe of any faith, ethnicity, or language group who was not comfortable when these words enter a discussion.

And to give a sense of how very ordinary they are, let’s read it from the course; Hamas itself. In case, you are not familiar with it, the passage is from the Hamas Charter, an absolute hoot.

If you still think things are “vague” let me know. There is soooooo much more.

Part III – Strategies and Methods

Article Eleven: The Strategy of Hamas: Palestine is an Islamic Waqf

The Islamic Resistance Movement believes that the land of Palestine has been an Islamic Waqf throughout the generations and until the Day of Resurrection, no one can renounce it or part of it, or abandon it or part of it. No Arab country nor the aggregate of all Arab countries, and no Arab King or President nor all of them in the aggregate, have that right, nor has that right any organization or the aggregate of all organizations, be they Palestinian or Arab, because Palestine is an Islamic Waqf throughout all generations and to the Day of Resurrection. Who can presume to speak for all Islamic Generations to the Day of Resurrection?

This is the status [of the land] in Islamic Shari’a, and it is similar to all lands conquered by Islam by force, and made thereby Waqf lands upon their conquest, for all generations of Muslims until the Day of Resurrection. This [norm] has prevailed since the commanders of the Muslim armies completed the conquest of Syria and Iraq, and they asked the Caliph of Muslims, ‘Umar Ibn al-Khattab, for his view of the conquered land, whether it should be partitioned between the troops or left in the possession of its population, or otherwise. Following discussions and consultations between the Caliph of Islam, ‘Umar Ibn al-Khattab, and the Companions of the Messenger of Allah, be peace and prayer upon him, they decided that the land should remain in the hands of its owners to benefit from it and from its wealth; but the control of the land and the land itself ought to be endowed as a Waqf [in perpetuity] for all generations of Muslims until the Day of Resurrection. The ownership of the land by its owners is only one of usufruct, and this Waqf will endure as long as Heaven and earth last. Any demarche in violation of this law of Islam, with regard to Palestine, is baseless and reflects on its perpetrators

http://www.thejerusalemfund.org/www.thejerusalemfund.org/carryover/documents/charter.html

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Jock Bowden 06.22.09 at 10:09 am

Patrick

Oh for goodness sake, Marxism is quintessential providentialism.

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ejh 06.22.09 at 10:57 am

Really?

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JoB 06.22.09 at 12:38 pm

Jock-37, Huh!?

Jock-54, ‘Really?’, indeed.

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Patrick S. O'Donnell 06.22.09 at 12:52 pm

Jock,

As more than a few of the relevant analysts and experts have noted in some detail, for all intents and purposes, Hamas has in many respects ignored and even regretted the wording of its Charter. It’s clear you have not read any of the well-known and representative studies of Hamas: by Tamimi, and by Mishal and Sela, for instance. For further works, see the the titles under “Culture, Economics and Politics,” pp. 80-102 (among other sections) of my bibliography for Islamic Studies: http://ratiojuris.blogspot.com/2009/06/islamic-studies-bibliography.html

As Mishal and Sela note, “Hamas’s victory can be explained by social and economic considerations of the Palestinian electorate rather than ideological identification with the Islamic movement’s political agenda.” And: “Hamas is well aware that it had not been elected on the basis of its Islamic Charter and its hostility to Israel as much as the hope that it would deliver its promises in the election campaign for better government as well as improved social and economic life for the population in the Palestinian territories.” Finally, despite its ideology, which has clearly adapted to circumstances and evolved over time, “the movement has adopted a policy that [is] more pragmatic than dogmatic and more reformist than revolutionary.”

Or cf. Tamimi: Since Hamas’ Charter was published in August of 1988 “less than nine months after the foundation of the movement,” “it has hardly even been quoted or referred to by the Hamas leadership or its official spokesmen.” Indeed, those who quote from the Charter most frequently are non-Muslims looking to confirm their overweening ignorance about and biases against the organization and social movement. As Kahlid Mishal has said, “the text of the Charter does not reflect the thinking and understanding of the movement.” And there has been belated recognition of the fact that this may constitute “an obstacle, or a source of distortion, or a misunderstanding regarding wht the movement stands for.”

For a better description of what motivates Hamas and the principles that underpin their strategy, see the statement issued by Dr. Abd al-Aziz al-Rantsi just ten days prior to his assassination by Israelis found in Tamimi’s Hamas: A History from Within (2007): 147-148.

Finally, I did not say the conceptions of the caliphate and shariah were arcane, but their meaning has varied and they’re both eminently “contestable,” particularly the latter notion. I would qoute my entry on the latter from my study guide to illustrate this for you but it is far too long (I can send it to you if you’d like). Again, for the relevant literature, you may want to consult the section on “Jurisprudence” in the aforementioned bibliography, pp. 31-39.

That otherwise fairly well educated people can speak about the caliphate and shariah with appalling ignorance and confidence at the same time (as you have done here with Hamas) is commonplace and hardly surprising to anyone who works in the fields, say, of Near and Middle Eastern Studies or Islamic Studies.

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engels 06.22.09 at 9:31 pm

once these Utopian enthusiasms leave the pages of novels, films, etc., the meaning of Utopia becomes Dystopia

That really is remarkably trite.

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harold 06.23.09 at 4:45 am

Belief that the (Flying-Spaghetti?) Market will always provide is another kind of belief in Providence — dating from the (pre-Darwnian) time when people thought evolution always proceeded in a positive direction.

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JoB 06.23.09 at 7:50 am

Harold, I would have thought that in pre-Darwin days people did not think of evolution. And I am confident that Darwin not only thought but demonstrated that evolution always proceeded in a single direction. That still leaves the choice between a positive and a negative direction for sure, but you’ll be hard pressed to find Darwinian quotes on the latter direction. Anyway, don’t known who brought Providence into this discussion but, providentially, it is orthogonal to this topic of Utopianism (both utopianists & non-utopianists going in for it, & not all utopians going in for it).

As this is a thread dedicated to the recalibration of existing words; what’s wrong with it anyway? After all, if you’re optimistic that humanism will prevail because it’s the best idea out there then you don’t need to believe in Providence to be reasonably convinced that things will turn out in a way that can be labeled, after the facts, as having been very providential.

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Phil 06.23.09 at 9:56 am

Darwin most definitely didn’t believe, let alone demonstrate, that evolution “always proceeded in a single direction”. Darwin didn’t like the term ‘evolution’ – which literally means ‘unfolding’ & implies progress from lower to higher forms – and avoided using it, for exactly that reason; what he wrote about was descent with modification through natural selection.

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belle le triste 06.23.09 at 10:27 am

pre-darwin evolutionary theory = hegel (for example)?

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derek 06.23.09 at 10:28 am

Utopian programs are like treason. For if they prosper, conservatives don’t dare dismiss them as “utopian”.

(unless they’ve first arranged for them to stop prospering)

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JoB 06.23.09 at 11:53 am

Phil, he was quite explicit in that modification was going irreversibly in one direction. I did not say higher or lower, I just reacted to harold; there is no way that one can read Darwin as saying that regression is possible (reversion to ‘some’ older characters maybe but that’s another thing alltogether). What it does imply is that one cannot be at a stand-still, things cannot but move in nature, however imperceptibly, and this is indeed counter to utopian thinking, imho.

belle, surely there were precursors but pre-Darwin there was no consensus on any evolution, & as far as Hegel, it was a dynamic yes, but within a context of movement to something Ultimate; and that’s exactly what Darwinian evolution (if Phil allows me to use the anachronism) is not, it moves, but not to something ultimate, or even something predictable.

(talking of Darwin will attract biologists – can somebody help me whether one of Darwins non-essential secondary hypothesis was ever tested: the supposed fact that organisms under duress were more apt to create offspring that presented significant modifications? No tricks, just want to know and not being a biologist an answer here could save me a lot of time)

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Phil 06.23.09 at 2:06 pm

I think the point Belle and I are making is that the idea of evolution predated Darwin, & was explicitly an idea of progress. The idea was very much one of the progressive evolution – unfolding – of a potential for higher (or greater, or wiser, etc) being which had been implicit in Life from the outset; a process which culminated in the human race, of course. Darwin didn’t just deny Creation, he deconsecrated evolution. Hence Darwinians getting a bit jumpy when people talk about evolution (as we now use the term) having any kind of direction.

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JoB 06.23.09 at 2:37 pm

Phil, point taken. Correct. I just objected to harold’s view that pre-Darwin the consensus was on any sort of dynamism. But, on my own account (not Darwin’s), I think we can make sense of the Darwinian model and optimism without falling into utopianism or alfa/omega type thinking and I believe there is always some ‘-est’ notion implicit in Darwin (and no – I don’t think that fittest is synonimous with ‘best’) – so in this limited sense it is a model of progression towards being more competitive, better adapted and directionality. But all of the latter is me, not Darwin, & it’s very confused but that doesn’t mean it’s going nowhere, I hope.

(are you a biologist? can you answer my question in 64? really, you would be a life-saver!)

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Phil 06.23.09 at 3:47 pm

I believe there is always some ‘-est’ notion implicit in Darwin

I don’t – to me natural selection is all about getting the edge on the next population along (or, to some extent, the next individual along) within a given ecological niche. (I’m not a biologist, btw.) Roll forward a few thousand years and what were previously adaptive features may have become maladaptive, and vice versa. The only ‘best’ is ‘best fit to a particular niche’, and that’s only really another way of saying ‘better than the others around at the time’.

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Jock Bowden 06.23.09 at 4:31 pm

Patrick

As more than a few of the relevant analysts and experts have noted in some detail

How many is a “few” and what criteria do you use to decide which of these alleged “analysts” are ‘relevant’ or not?

for all intents and purposes, Hamas has in many respects ignored and even regretted the wording of its Charter.

If there are “many respects” how about sharing one or two with us? Perhaps Hamas’ idea of “regret” differs from the rest of humanity, who would expect the Charter to be officially torn up and many apologies for both its evil intent and hysterical historical howlers, that make The Protocols look like a Disney cartoon.

It’s clear you have not read any of the well-known and representative studies of Hamas: by Tamimi, and by Mishal and Sela, for instance.

From what I have posted here, how do you infer what I have read? But I will say my choices in reading rarely take into account whether the book is “well-known” and by whom? What could you possibly mean by a “representative study of Hamas”?

Call me old-fashioned, but I simply do not rate academics in general who write on contemporary politics.

What I do pay careful attention are the acts and pronouncements of the groups themselves. And allow me to tell you, you are wrong. Both sharia and the caliphate rate very highly in the cognitive spaces of the Hamastanian.

As Mishal and Sela note, “Hamas’s victory can be explained by social and economic considerations of the Palestinian electorate rather than ideological identification with the Islamic movement’s political agenda.”

As you clearly rate the analyses of academics, I am afraid to inform you that this is common garden variety ‘orientalist’ stereotyping and trivialising of Sunni Arabs. Like much of the western marxist left, it simply refuses to respect the agency of religion in the Arab world, instead seeing Islam as an expression of false consciousness; a reaction against the alleged centuries-old imperialist injustices and crimes of Europe and its racist white christian imperialists.

And: “Hamas is well aware that it had not been elected on the basis of its Islamic Charter

Once more, as I said above, this is irrelevant to the thread topic of Utopia. And as I said above, you do not have access to the events, speeches, interviews, rallies, writings. etc. of that election.

As this post is getting a bit long, I shall return to the remainder later.

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JoB 06.23.09 at 5:57 pm

Phil, I can see where you’re coming from but I think you’re reducing the ‘-est’ a tad too much. Darwin clearly talks about competition and those organisms that won out (were most numerous) at some point in time having an edge over others. He also speaks with care about the ‘perfection’ of some features (like the eyes). He gives examples of how a retreat into some previous climatal environment wouldn’t lead to the reappearance of characters that dominated in the previous time. All of this is not coincidental following his theory and, in fact, the deconsecacration you rightly mentioned requires this drive towards ever more competitive organisms (and an implciit comparison over times that you seem to deny). On his view – nothing can be perfect because everything will always modify through descent to something ‘perfecter’ still.

Anyway, a pity you’re not a biologist – but a pleasure to exchange views nonetheless.

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Patrick S. O'Donnell 06.23.09 at 6:50 pm

Jock,

The dialogue is going nowhere, so suffice to say from my end that you’re absolutely wrong to claim that I, or Mishal and Sela, stereotype and trivialize Arab Sunnis in some “orientalist” manner. Your ignorance in this regard is glaring and clearly reflects a lack of basic acquaintance with the relevant literature. Having been trained in Religious Studies (with Islam one of my areas of focus) as well as taught “comparative religions” for many years (i.e., having been a student of religions–and specifically Islam–for over three decades now), this is the very first time anyone has ever accused me of having “refused to accept the agency of religion in the Arab world.” For the record, I’m not a Marxist when it comes to religion even if there was more than a little truth in some of the things Marx himself had to say about religions (the late Ninian Smart [brother of J.J.C.–“Jack”–Smart] and the contemporary philosopher John Cottingham comes closest to articulating what I think about such things). I suppose my putative denial of such agency is why editors have solicited articles from me on, for example, constitutionalism, democracy and civil society in the Islamic world, and why I’ve been asked to write on the likes of Hasan al-Banna (founder of the Muslim Brotherhood), Sufis (Islamic mystics) and Islamic philosophers for edited volumes. Where you are wise in such matters they, alas, judged poorly.

Please feel free to pass along copies of your published work in this field and let me know of courses you teach on these topics as further evidence of the considerable knowledge and expertise you clearly possess on matters about which you’ve expressed yourself with such confidence here.

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harold 06.24.09 at 3:17 pm

Pre-Darwinian evolution: Lamark, Goethe, Burke (society is organic), Hegel, Spencer — to name a few.

Biologists today often talk about variation in order to avoid the implication of “progress” in evolution.

As for progress. There is progress and there is regress. These are relative terms.

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Z 06.25.09 at 6:44 am

Just to say that I found this post really excellent. It induced exactly the kind of minor epiphanies you described. Thanks a lot.

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