From the monthly archives:

May 2018

Henry Sidgwick and the World Unseen

by John Holbo on May 31, 2018

I’m still pursuing intermittent uncanny researches as a result of which – when I’m not reading about the Scottish Enlightenment! – I’m dabbling in late-19th Century Spiritualism. This is rather new to me. As I confessed in comments to that last post, I had this vague idea that there were probably two Henry Sidgwicks (one, the well-known utilitarian ethicist; the other, the guy who did psychic research.) Turns out he was just a busy guy (unless one of them was, like, a crisis apparition, so there really were two.) So I’m reading books like this one [amazon]: Spectres of the Self, by Shane McCorristine. Here’s a bit that really struck me. His fellow SPR psychic researcher, F. W. H. Myers, wrote this as part of his Sidgwick obituary, in 1900:

In a star-light walk [in 1869] which I shall not forget … I asked him, almost with trembling, whether he thought that when Tradition, Intuition, Metaphysic, had failed to solve the riddle of the Universe, there was still a chance that from any actual observable phenomena, – ghosts, spirits, whatsoever there might be, – some valid knowledge might be drawn as to a World Unseen. Already, it seemed, he had thought that this was possible; steadily though in no sanguine fashion, he indicated some last grounds of hope; and from that night onwards I resolved to pursue this quest, if it might be, at his side. Even thus a wanderer in the desert, abandoning in despair the fair mirages which he has followed in vain, might turn and help an older explorer in the poor search for scanty roots and muddy water-holes.

So he spent the next 30 years looking for that!

I’m quoting this the next time I have to teach those bits in Nietzsche about the English utilitarians! It’s like a side-quest between stage 3 and 4 of the main mission in Twilight of the Idols. You find a ‘true world’ that is attainable – but still not discernably consoling, redeeming or obligating?

1. The true world — attainable for the sage, the pious, the virtuous man; he lives in it, he is it.
(The oldest form of the idea, relatively sensible, simple, and persuasive. A circumlocution for the sentence, “I, Plato, am the truth.”)
2. The true world — unattainable for now, but promised for the sage, the pious, the virtuous man (“for the sinner who repents”).
(Progress of the idea: it becomes more subtle, insidious, incomprehensible — it becomes female, it becomes Christian. )
3. The true world — unattainable, indemonstrable, unpromisable; but the very thought of it — a consolation, an obligation, an imperative.
(At bottom, the old sun, but seen through mist and skepticism. The idea has become elusive, pale, Nordic, Königsbergian.)
4. The true world — unattainable? At any rate, unattained. And being unattained, also unknown. Consequently, not consoling, redeeming, or obligating: how could something unknown obligate us?
(Gray morning. The first yawn of reason. The cockcrow of positivism.)
5. The “true” world — an idea which is no longer good for anything, not even obligating — an idea which has become useless and superfluous — consequently, a refuted idea: let us abolish it!
(Bright day; breakfast; return of bon sens and cheerfulness; Plato’s embarrassed blush; pandemonium of all free spirits.)
6. The true world — we have abolished. What world has remained? The apparent one perhaps? But no! With the true world we have also abolished the apparent one.
(Noon; moment of the briefest shadow; end of the longest error; high point of humanity; INCIPIT ZARATHUSTRA.)

In general, I’m having a lot of fun reading about Scottish Enlightenment and late-19th Century Spiritualism. Any book recommendations about the latter in particular? There are a lot of books on the subject and not all of them are good, I’m finding.

Myers, in addition to co-authoring the SPR magnum opus, Phantasms of the Living, was a poet.

Sunday photoblogging: Oslo, near the station

by Chris Bertram on May 27, 2018

Oslo - by the station

The Solution To Slavery Is … More Slavery?

by John Holbo on May 27, 2018

I’m reading about the Scottish Enlightenment. Among other things, How the Scots Invented the Modern World: The True Story of How Western Europe’s Poorest Nation Created Our World and Everything in It [amazon] by Arthur Herman. It’s pop history by a right-winger with a perch at the Hudson Institute. It has an (ahem) boosterish quality, per the title. (As one might say: Schopenhauer’s The World As Will and Representation is rather big on will.) But shameless marketing in the title department seems not to have infected the insides to a hopeless degree. I feel I can factor out the neoliberalism in the frame to extract facts. (Anyone say this book is hopeless bullshit? If so, how so?)

After this, James Buchan, then probably back into good ol’ Jonathan Israel.

Right. I’m amused by this joker, Andrew Fletcher. Christ.

Andrew Fletcher cared passionately about freedom, but it was a peculiar kind of freedom. In 1697 he had called for a compulsory universal militia, creating four camps, one in Scotland and three in England, where every young man, on beginning his twenty-second birthday, would receive military training of the most rigorous kind. “No woman should be suffered to come within the camp, and the crimes of abusing their own bodies any manner of way, punished with death.” The next year he proposed solving Scotland’s economic depression by in effect turning the Scottish peasantry into slaves, dividing up the indigent poor among the local landlords (such as himself), and giving the latter the power of life and death over their human herds.

By instinct and temperment, Fletcher was an authoritarian anarchist.

Fletcher is bitterly opposed to union with England, which he argues will turn Scots into slaves, which would be terrible.

Almost his last words were, “Lord have mercy on my poor Country that is so barbarously oppressed.” Ironically enough, he died in the oppressor’s capital, in London — on his way home from Europe, where he spent most of the years after the Union treaty. Someone had asked him when he left Scotland, “Will you forsake your country?” He answered, “It is only fit for the slaves who sold it.” How strange that the laird of Saltoun, who had once been prepared to turn a large portion of his fellow countrymen into slaves, should use that word to describe the Scots who had repudiated his retrograde vision for the kingdom. How strange, too, that a man who claimed to despise trade and traders should choose to spend so much of his life in large, cosmopolitan cities — London, Paris, Amsterdam — that were built by mercantile wealth. It was precisely that wealth which he had hoped to deny Scotland, for the sake of an abstract and austere ideal of liberty. It was that wealth which Scotland’s urban centers now enjoyed by being part of Britain, and which promised to create a new and very different Scotland.

I get it that maybe Arthur Herman has an axe to grind on Fletcher, about whom I knew not a thing before reading this. And now I know just this, plus Wikipedia.

But I do like a good, explicit ‘in order to free them, we must enslave them’ argument. Anyone want to come out of the woodwork and defend Andrew Fletcher as not the utter tool Herman makes him out to be. Quoting Wikipedia, Thomas Jefferson said: “The political principles of that patriot [Fletcher] were worthy of the purest periods of the British constitution. They are those which were in vigour at the epoch of the American emigration. Our ancestors brought them here, and they needed little strengthening to make us what we are.”

Alisdair Macintyre evidently said: “Almost alone among his contemporaries Fletcher understood the dilemma confronting Scotland as involving more radical alternatives than they were prepared to entertain.”

Oh, plain people of the internet, what should I think of Andrew Fletcher? (And Arthur Herman’s Scotland book.)

I know you’ve all been waiting expectantly …. My book [*Do States Have the Right to Exclude Immigrants?*]( is published in the UK today by Polity Press (those of you in North America will have to wait until Wiley publish it in July). The book challenges the assumption that lies behind most debates on immigration, namely that states have a discretion to do pretty much as they like and may set their policy according to the interests of their own citizens.

The book has three chapters. In the first, I look at migration today and in history, say something about patterns of migration, why people move and how recent many of the restrictions on movement that we take for granted are. In the second chapter I look at the question of state exclusion from an ideal perspective and ask whether the currently accepted norm of unilateral state discretion over immigration is defensible. You’ll be unsurprised to learn that I think it isn’t. Rather a global migration regime has to be justifiable (in some sense) to everyone subject to it. This doesn’t mean that states never get the right to exclude, but it means that the reasons they use have to be justifiable from an impartial perspective. I also reply to some arguments defending the right of states to exclude. In the final chapter I address the worry that this ideal theorizing is all very well, but we don’t live in an ideal world. I defend the idea that states can have some provisional rights to exclude in a world where other states are not acting justly but that to exercise them they must actively work towards the creation of a fair global migration order and must not undermine existing elements like the 1951 Refugee Convention. Where states fail to work towards justice they lose their authority over would-be migrants who have, in turn, no obligation to obey their immigration laws. That’s a very brief summary of 135 pages. It is a short book, and it argues for a particular perspective. It can’t and doesn’t cover all the bases in the space available, but I hope it is engaging and readable for those without a prior background in the subject matter.

The South China Sea: Reposts

by John Q on May 24, 2018

That’s partly because I’m trying really hard to focus on finishing my Two Lessons book, but also because so many of the debates that come up have been had many times before, and I don’t feel like repeating myself. So, I’m going to try reposting older material. The risk is that it will be out of date, but on an early sample, it’s surprising how little I would change if I were rewriting.

I’m going to start with the current topic of hyperventilation in the Australian media: China and the South China Sea

Here are a couple of posts

Feel free to comment, but, unless you have something new to say, try not to reopen topics that have already been done to death in the comments on earlier posts.

Kate Manne on 12 Rules for Life

by Harry on May 24, 2018

If you were considering reading Jordan Peterson’s new book, and no doubt many of you were, here is Kate Manne’s review in the TLS (I think it is free). It is a brilliant piece of writing (Kate’s, not, I assume, Mr. Peterson’s): never uncharitable or ad hominem, starting out light and funny, but then gently drawing us into the darkness at the heart of Mr Peterson’s popularity. I’m not going to give you an excerpt because I want you to read it all (it’ll take 5-10 minutes — less time than a tea break in a test match) and I couldn’t figure out an excerpt that wouldn’t spoil the experience. It probably will make you reconsider your impulse to read the book, but that is probably, as I gather Mr. Peterson might say, not not good. Comment away though.

Frederik Pohl On The Ideas In Science Fiction

by John Holbo on May 23, 2018

A whole page of videos, mostly consisting of old interviews with science fiction authors. I just watched Fred Pohl on “The Ideas In Science Fiction”. I guess I’ll check out the Michael Moorcock one next. (Only on Facebook, it seems, so I guess you have to deal with that if you want to watch.)

I’ve also been reading old 70’s comics. For the dialogue.

Also, this. How can they NOT have called their paper “We Can Remember It For You Whole Snail”? Standards, people.


by Henry Farrell on May 23, 2018

A couple of days ago, Andrew Sullivan delivered a blast against “neo-Marxism”:

The idea that African-Americans have some responsibility for their own advancement, that absent fatherhood and a cultural association of studying with “acting white” are part of the problem — themes Obama touched upon throughout his presidency — is now almost a definition of racism itself. And the animating goal of progressive politics is unvarnished race and gender warfare. What matters before anything else is what race and gender you are, and therefore what side you are on. And in this neo-Marxist worldview, fully embraced by a hefty majority of the next generation, the very idea of America as a liberating experiment, dissolving tribal loyalties in a common journey toward individual opportunity, is anathema.

There is no arc of history here, just an eternal grinding of the racist and sexist wheel. What matters is that nonwhites fight and defeat white supremacy, that women unite and defeat oppressive masculinity, and that the trans supplant and redefine the cis. What matters is equality of outcome, and it cannot be delayed. All the ideas that might complicate this — meritocracy, for example, or a color-blind vision of justice, or equality of opportunity rather than outcome — are to be mocked until they are dismantled. And the political goal is not a post-racial fusion, a unity of the red and the blue, but the rallying of the victims against the victimizers, animated by the core belief that a non-“white” and non-male majority will at some point come, after which the new hierarchies can be imposed by fiat.

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Undergraduate Instruction

by Harry on May 22, 2018

For once, this isn’t directly about undergraduate instruction, but about an event the Center for Ethics and Education is hosting in Madison about undergraduate instruction next Thursday (for locals: Fluno Center on May 31st at 11.30: please come!!!). We were approached by the American Academy for the Arts and Sciences to do an event focusing specifically on undergraduate instruction, in association with an event the Academy is holding here (in Madison) later in the day around the report of the Commission on the Future of Undergraduate Education. I’ve never organised an event on instruction that goes beyond my own department before, but have been to plenty, and too many involve long talks that illustrate the low quality instruction they are attempting to combat. And — almost none actually deploy the voices of undergraduates. So my idea was to invite 4 faculty members (actually 3, plus a high school instructional coach) and 5 undergraduates each to give a very short talk about an instructional strategy that should be more widely shared. The undergraduate piece is work for me, as I want to avoid overlap, and ensure that they do it well (I have complete confidence in the people I invited, but some of them have less confidence in themselves than I have in them). Anyway, I’m sharing this partly because enough locals read CT that sharing it here might boost numbers (free lunch!), but more because I am curious whether others have arranged or attended similar events, and to invite suggestions for subsequent events. Here’s more on the event (with the details about the faculty panel — we have another poster with details of the student panel, but that needs to be updated).

Sunday photoblogging: yellow

by Chris Bertram on May 20, 2018

Dean Lane, BS3

Conservatism and the free market

by Corey Robin on May 19, 2018

National Review just ran a review of my book, which Karl Rove tweeted out to his followers.

The review has some surprisingly nice things to say. It describes The Reactionary Mind as “well researched and brilliantly argued” and praises my “astonishingly wide reading…masterly rhetorical abilities…wizardry with the pen.” But on the whole the review is quite critical of the book. Which is fine. I’ve gotten worse.

But I couldn’t help noticing the appositeness of this.

Here’s the National Review on my book:

At no point in his book does Robin make any effort to account for the influence of Enlightenment-era classical liberalism on modern conservatism….[Adam] Smith’s influence on later conservatives is ignored.

And here’s Bill Buckley, the founder of National Review (and the modern conservative movement), to me, as quoted in my book:


The trouble with the emphasis in conservatism on the market is that it becomes rather boring. You hear it once, you master the idea. The notion of devoting your life to it is horrifying if only because it’s so repetitious. It’s like sex.


by Henry Farrell on May 18, 2018

This New York Times profile of Jordan Peterson is a masterful exercise in giving the subject sufficient hemp to twine into rope and then loop around his neck. This bit provides a nice excuse to talk about one of my favorite books in the social sciences.

Mr. Peterson illustrates his arguments with copious references to ancient myths — bringing up stories of witches, biblical allegories and ancient traditions. I ask why these old stories should guide us today.

“It makes sense that a witch lives in a swamp. Yeah,” he says. “Why?”

It’s a hard one.

“Right. That’s right. You don’t know. It’s because those things hang together at a very deep level. Right. Yeah. And it makes sense that an old king lives in a desiccated tower.”

But witches don’t exist, and they don’t live in swamps, I say.

“Yeah, they do. They do exist. They just don’t exist the way you think they exist. They certainly exist. You may say well dragons don’t exist. It’s, like, yes they do — the category predator and the category dragon are the same category. It absolutely exists. It’s a superordinate category. It exists absolutely more than anything else. In fact, it really exists. What exists is not obvious. You say, ‘Well, there’s no such thing as witches.’ Yeah, I know what you mean, but that isn’t what you think when you go see a movie about them. You can’t help but fall into these categories. There’s no escape from them.”

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Economics in Two Lessons, Chapter 10

by John Q on May 16, 2018

Thanks to everyone who commented on the first nine chapters of my book-in-progress, Economics in Two Lessons.

Here’s a draft of Chapter 10: Market failure -Externalities and pollution. Comments, criticism and praise are welcome.

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Twelve Stars project – join in!

by Ingrid Robeyns on May 16, 2018

So folks, I want to draw your attention to the Twelve Stars project – a project set up up by some (mainly German) philosophers who will publish a book, in the run-up to the European Elections of 2019, in which philosophers will defend a specific policy proposal that that the European Union should adopt. There are 25 propositions that will be defended, including that the EU should not tolerate member states to restrict freedom of religion (defended by Rainer Forst), that the EU should offer citizenship to people from Island nations inundated by rising see levels (Mark Alfano), that the EU should abolish intensive farming (Mara-Daria Cojocaru), that the EU should encourage new forms of governance in which companies are run by employees (Lisa Herzog) and many more. For a list of all propositions, take a look here. Our own Miriam Ronzoni will defend the claim that the European Parliament should be elected on the basis of transnational lists, and I will defend the claim that the EU should institute high levels of taxation on air travel.

An interesting feature of the project is that the authors will try out their proposals in a “change my view” debate with anyone who wants to join the discussion. The first three debates are this Friday, with Peter Dietsch arguing that the European Central Bank should consider the distributive effects of its monetary policy, Clement Fontan arguing that the EU should adopt stricter financial regulations, and Jakub Kloc-KonkoÅ‚owicz arguing that the European Union should involve its national parliaments more strongly when reshaping its institutions and politics. Feel free to join those discussions, and those following over the next weeks!

Our Underachieving Colleges

by Harry on May 14, 2018

At the end of the semester I ask students in my smaller classes to talk for 2 minutes about what they think they have learned. This semester, for the first time, I asked them to write out their reflections before we met, and then just talk for a minute or two in class. This produced a great deal more reflection than usual (and a lot of online interaction, which seems, among other things, to have committed me to hosting a couple of reunions next year). The class was on Values and Education, with the central text being Dilemmas of Educational Ethics: Cases and Commentaries.

Ryan Michaelson asked me for a spring break reading recommendation about higher education and, as always when faced with that request, I recommended Derek Bok’s Our Underachieving Colleges. Here’s an excerpt from his reflection (used with his permission):

For the past 20 years, I thought that simply showing up to class and doing the assigned work would develop me as individual. It could definitely be said that I was being naive or ignorant but to be fair I feel that this how most children are raised. You go to school, get good grades, go to college, get a diploma, and then get a good job. That is the traditional story of development as a person. After reading Derek Bok’s book though, the inklings of doubt that many college students, myself included, have about college and education were finally put into words. Not to sound dramatic but reading Our Underachieving Colleges, for me, laid the final foundational pieces of a new outlook that had been slowly developed throughout the semester.

Not to sound dramatic, but a decade ago Our Underachieving Colleges had similarly powerful impact on me; it has been a major inspiration for me in my practice as a teacher ever since. I long ago promised CB that I’d write a review. It’s a bit late for that, but my student’s comment, especially coming at the end of that particular class, prompted me to give it (yet) another look and think about what I had learned from it. Here’s the somewhat stream-of-consciousness upshot.
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