You start a conversation, you can’t even finish it

by Michael Bérubé on June 18, 2009

… as, for example, when the conversation is <a href=””>an exchange between Gail Collins and David Brooks</a> on “Guns, Gays and Abortion” that begins,

<blockquote><b>Gail Collins:</b>  David, can we talk hot-button social issues for a second? I know this is not really an area where you fly the conservative colors, but <i>you’re the go-to guy on how America lives</i>, and I’d like to hear your thoughts even if we can’t work up a fight.</blockquote>

This just makes me want to lie down on top of the <a href=””>Applebee’s salad bar</a> and never get up again.

[click to continue…]

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. [click to continue…]