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Posts from the ‘Philosophy’ Category

Book Review: Ömer Aygün’s The Middle Included

I volunteered to review this book for a scholarly review site in a field that is adjacent to mine.  I was asked to rewrite it because it did not accord with the standard ways of speaking about Aristotle.  I pulled the review and am publishing it here.  I mention this background because I think it is worth noting how deep a hold the traditional approaches to Aristotle have.  This hold makes people assume there is no more interpretation to be done on Aristotle.  It makes some scholars resistant to new and fruitful approaches that recover Aristotle from scholastic approaches.  It makes them assume that logic is clearly and obviously distinct from ontology and ethics.  Aygün offers a careful reading of the text to challenge this approach to Aristotle and by doing so contributes to the growing scholarship that unsettles a tradition that takes these questions to be settled.

Aygün, Ömer. The Middle Included: Logos in Aristotle. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2016. xv, 272 p. $34.95 (pb). ISBN 9780810134003

It is a difficult and remarkable task to say something new about the whole of Aristotle’s philosophy.  Such is the project Ömer Aygün undertakes in The Middle Included: Logos in Aristotle to argue that Aristotle is not a thinker of the excluded but the included middle. Aristotle is traditionally understood as the father of logic based on his articulation of the law of non-contradiction.  The law of non-contradiction is both a logical and an ontological principle because Aristotle thinks that what is must be knowable, and insofar as it is knowable, it follows the principles of knowledge.  The law of non-contradiction, that the same thing cannot be said to be and not be of the same thing in the same respect at the same time, is the most reliable principle of knowledge for Aristotle.  But it is also a principle of being because it is not just that it cannot be said, but the same thing cannot be and not be at the same time and in the same way in a subject.  The middle is excluded because if something is said to be of a thing there is no middle position wherein it could also be said not to be.  The middle is excluded because what is and what is not must be held apart.

Aygün offers a novel interpretation of this law by arguing that logos puts into relation that which is opposed and hence, is the middle that has traditionally been thought to be excluded. Logos, Aygün argues, joins what is opposed—contraries–without reducing or sublating what is opposed.  The traditional language of Aristotelian scholarship understands logos in terms of logic as a formal system or speech as a mechanism for communicating personal thoughts to another.  This language distances the contemporary reader from the richness of Aristotle’s language that shows the human being to be formed by logos in a way that conceives of the human as a being that draws the multiplicity of the world into a unity. The apparent strangeness of Aygün’s language is necessitated by the demand to make what we suppose is obvious in Aristotle become a question again.  His account of logos makes the human being “the middle included,” because, through logos, which he describes as a mediation, a synthesis, and a stretching, the human being joins together the difference and multiplicity that constitutes the world.

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The Incompatibility of Democracy and Capitalism

In her book, Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America, Nancy MacLean explains that those who wanted to reap the rewards of unfettered capitalism realized in the mid-twentieth century that democracy and democratic institutions and practices were a threat to their efforts.  In the wake of the New Deal and Great Society, Americans had grown to expect the government to provide a safety net for the most vulnerable citizens–the poor and the elderly.  The government was regularly called upon to rectify historical wrongs, as in the case of racially segregated schools where schools for Black children were not equal to schools for white children.  Labor unions sought collective rights to bargain for better contracts.  Environmentalists sought government regulations to protect water and air and other natural resources from contamination and against climate change.  Americans saw the government as a source of positive change.

In my last post, I lay out MacLean’s case for how libertarians like James M. Buchanan and Charles Koch sought to sow the seeds of nihilism, suggesting that politicians, scientists and educators were not aiming to serve the public good, but for their own interest and therefore should not be trusted.  In this post, I address the recognition that these folks came to have that their dreams of capitalism without restraint were at odds with democracy, and the ways that they employed the rhetoric of democracy to undo the democratic gains of the twentieth century, especially in the areas of civil rights, labor unions, health care and social security, and public support for those in poverty.

As MacLean explains, average American citizens had come to realize that they could have power to influence government by joining their voices into a collective.  Buchanan aimed to break the power of these collectives by casting them as undemocratic special interests.  Following his notion of “public choice theory,” where politicians’ goal is only to be re-elected and not to do what is right and just for the common cause, Buchanan argued that politicians had become beholden to “special interests” of labor unions, including teachers unions, and civil rights organizations who would work to defeat them in elections if they did not do what they asked.  In this way, Buchanan and his cohort turned the process of making politicians accountable to their constituents into a situation in which politicians were held hostage to those special interests.  This rhetorical move is particularly ironic given the Koch brothers active efforts to defeat politicians who supported the Affordable Care Act.  MacLean traces this strategy back to Brown V. Board of Education, when Black families sued counties and states that refused to integrate and were then cast as seeking special protections when what they wanted was equal protection under the law and equal access to high quality education.  This move culminated in Pres. Reagan casting recipients of assistance for poor families as “welfare recipients” who were taking advantage of the government.

By making collective appeals to the government–the only appeals that were effective for those who were historically excluded–by calling these appeals those of special interests, they were able to turn the tables for how to influence government back to those individuals who had the wealth to do so.   If collectives were suspect, and only collectives could make a difference for the working class, then making collectives seem undemocratic returned the power to the undemocratic moneyed individuals who could then use the same “public choice theory” that politicians only cared to keep their jobs to threaten politicians that they would lose their jobs if they voted in support of the collective interests of the common people.

In Politics III.8, Aristotle says that democracy occurs “when those who control [the constitution] do not have much property, but are poor” (1279b18-19).  With this definition of democracy, Aristotle points out the very problem that Buchanan and the Kochs encountered: democracy wants to address the concerns of the poor, who outnumber the rich.  Outnumbering the rich, the practioners of democracy are at odds with the rich who aim  to produce wealth without restraint or concern for others and without having to support the community in which such wealth is produced.  The only recourse for the rich is to make the democratic practices themselves suspect and to replace them with the force of their wealth, which is in fact the current state of affairs.

Herein lies the ruse of libertarianism, whose view of freedom is not unlike the view of freedom that Aristotle associates with the democrats: to do whatever they want without license.  Aristotle implores them to recognize that the law is not slavery, but salvation, as I explicate in a recent article.  The law is considered slavery when it is viewed as coming from somewhere else.  Law is recognized as coming from somewhere else when government is seen as otherwise than the citizens, which is what Koch et al want — to be the source of government and law at the expense of the democratic many.  To the extent that they want to be free of government, they want to be above the collective determination of what is good. Outnumbered, they alone want to say what is good.  Their wealth has made them think that they are not dependent on others and so it has made them, like the Cylcops, as one who is “clanless, lawless, and homeless” (Pol. 1253a4). Following the association of wealth with virtue that can be traced back to the ancient oligarchs, who thinking themselves unequal in one way, supposed they were unequal in all ways, they think that their wealth makes them as the one who is so outstanding in virtue that they should not be a part of the city (1284a4-7).  As MacLean shows, they aren’t really opposed to the city and the law altogether, but they want it to divide the city in such a way that the government serves only their interests rather than that of the democratic majority.  Arguing that the collectives are undemocratic, they aim to make the government undemocratic for their own ends.  They are willing to put their wealth to work to turn the law and government from the public good to their own private goods.  They do this because they suppose they are better than the democratic majority, but it is worth noting that Aristotle will go on to say that the multitude is stronger, richer and better, when taken as a collective (1283a39-41).

The libertarian critique of government works as a ruse: it criticizes democratic efforts as undemocratic in order to undo democracy.  It works to encourage the majority to think it is undemocratic for the government to restrict those trying to make the community undemocratic.  This stealth move puts democracy in chains.

Freedom, Fate, and Being Human: From Aeschylus to Marzano-Lesnevich

In her book The Fact of a Body, Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich employs the legal concept of proximate cause to consider the extent to which the things that have happened to us dictate who we are and what we will do.  Marzano-Lesnevich joins an investigation into a murder and the life of the murderer who was a child molester to her own memoir of growing up in a family in which she was molested by her grandfather.  At 18, she confronts her grandfather about what he had done to her as a child.  He responds that he too was abused as a child.  So, she wonders, is there no escape from this cycle?  Worse, is there no holding to account if the proximate cause continues to recede?

The troubles of the house of Atreus do not begin when Agamemnon sacrifices Iphigenia.  Agamemnon’s grandfather, Pelops, was served in a stew to the gods by his father and rescued by Demeter.  And his father, Atreus, serves up his brother Thyestes’s kids to Thyestes and only one son – Aegisthus — survives.  Aegisthus is the man that Clytemnestra, Agamemnon’s wife, is having an affair with when Agamemnon returns from battle and the man who helps Clytemnestra kill Agamemnon in the bathtub to exact revenge for killing Iphigenia.  Aeschylus writes a final part to this story to address the question of how there can be freedom from what has gone before.  On Aeschylus’ telling, justice is the break of the bloodletting cycle of revenge.  Each actor in the family up until the intervention of Athena into this story has been constrained to seek revenge by what has befallen them or what has gone before them.  Athena introduces freedom into the story by justifying Orestes and refusing the Furies drive to exact revenge on him.  But this freedom for Orestes comes at the real cost of Clytemnestra’s murder going unpunished.  On the calculus of Orestes’ familial responsibility, he must exact revenge for his father’s death, but this revenge will also require its own revenge.  Athena frees Orestes not by ending that familial responsibility, which he does fulfill, but by allowing Orestes not to be held responsible for fulfilling that responsibility. Read more

Power and the Pursuit of Justice

Corey Robin makes the case that we tend to associate virtue with  powerlessness and to see power as a vice, a position which leads us to suppose that to be good we must be without power and that, as he says, “strongmen are strong.”  I think he’s right, and I think this view of virtue as powerlessness follows from an association of power with self-interest that can be traced back to Plato.

As I argue in my last post, the problem of political nihilism is that it seeks power for its own sake, and justifies all power just by virtue of being power.  As Thrasymachus (and Judge Jeanine Pirro) argues, everyone knows you do what you do in order to get power and it is right as long as you can get away with it.  Socrates does not argue that power is bad, but that justice should have the power, rather than pure self-interest, which is divided against itself since lacking knowledge of what is good, one pursues only power.  I’ve long thought that Socrates makes an argument that is itself will-to-power–the power of the philosopher, a power legitimated by the positing of the good, which the philosopher pursues.  Seeking to set up the philosopher as the ruler, Socrates is subject to Thrasymachus’ complaint–he too seems to be acting and arguing for the sake of his own power, just as everyone does.

The difference between Socrates and Thrasymachus is that Socrates thinks that justice should have power, rather than any old person who can get the power.  This point leads to several difficulties.  The philosopher making this case in the cave that justice should rule rather than whoever achieves the rule has to appeal to those who just want power.  The philosopher does not even claim to have access to that justice–or at least there’s a case to be made that Socrates denying that he knows is distinguished from his fellow citizens only in his concern to pursue justice and to pursue the rule of justice rather than power alone.  He has to appeal to the desire of his fellow citizens for power in order to make the case that justice should be the ruling authority.  The lack of knowledge and the lack of desire for justice in his audience requires him to appeal to their desire for power in order to get them to desire justice.  Not being able to directly impute knowledge of justice, not least because Socrates does not have it, Socrates only posits the idea that there is such a thing, and that such a thing would be better for those who rule and those who are ruled.  Again and again, Socrates makes this case to Glaucon and Adiemantus who get on board with a depiction of a city some would call absurd because they think they will rule in this city because they think they can have such knowledge.  Socrates then uses the desire for power to motivate a desire for knowledge and for justice. Read more

Political Nihilism: The Trolley to Hell

This morning I read this in Brian Beutler’s latest piece at the New Republic:

“As someone who’s run for office five times, if the devil called me and said he wanted to set up a meeting to give me opposition research on my opponent,” Judge Jeanine Pirro, the maniacal Fox News host, said on Sunday. “I’d be on the first trolley to hell to get it. And any politician who tells you otherwise is a bald-faced liar.” She added that “there is no law that says a campaign cannot accept information from a foreign government.”

Pirro is referring to the meeting that Donald Trump, Jr. took with Russian nationals claiming to have information that would help his father win.  One of them was a former spy.  Beutler is making a case that our elections and politics require candidates to act above reproach so that not even an appearance of wrongdoing or interference can be seen in order to maintain the full faith and confidence of the American people in our election process.  But Pirro makes the case that politics is just about self-interest, everyone knows it, and everyone who supposes they would act otherwise is lying to themselves.

In March, I wrote here about similar problems in the ways that people were talking about healthcare in this country–as if the various penalties and difficulties don’t matter if you don’t think you will ever be subject to them.  But Pirro takes this notion even further and says, it isn’t blameworthy, it’s what anyone would do because we all know the point is to win.  There is no room here for other possible motivators–say the pursuit of justice or the good.   Read more

Cephalus’s House IS Our House

Two things happened to me today.  A colleague intimated to me that reading Plato is impractical.  Someone on social media told me I was failing my purposes for not thinking reasonable argument was the right approach to defeating Trump.  I don’t want to single out these particular instances, because they are now commonplace.  The first claim seems to be that the things we think about are too theoretical–too far removed from the world–to change the world.  The second is that we are not sufficiently removed from ‘doing something,’ too physically involved in changing things, to engage in rational discourse.  Neither of those points were presented to me as claims that I thought I could reasonably engage in a way that would make a difference.

It is not without some pleasure and amusement then that I reread Ed Kazarian’s post from over the weekend on how Plato himself stages the question of whether trolls should be engaged and to what extent reason can sufficiently address the political question of what is to be done. Kazarian draws a distinction between political and philosophical speech, noting that political speech is not about attempts to produce knowledge or belief, but it presupposes these in the effort to “assemble, organize, mobilize, direct, assert, claim, assent, give notice, etc., or alternately, to decompose, block, interrupt, deny, withhold, refuse, etc.”  Let’s grant that this remains the case–that political speech can presuppose a generally shared knowledge or belief–and that those who believe whatever Trump says or whatever FoxNews says are few, and that most people accept what they hear on the 6 o’clock news or from CNN, Time, Newsweek, and the New York Times.  We begin speaking about what we should do because we share a sense of the facts on the ground. Read more

How Scholars Work and Some Thoughts on the Prime Matter Arguments

I just had one of those moments where all the things that I have previously read on a subject came together with clarity in a moment.  My epiphany was that I realized that several pieces of secondary literature that had become important to me were situated in a scholarly dispute that waged in the literature about forty years ago and this contextualization helped me see what they were actually fighting over.

When I was finishing my dissertation, I would watch The Wire sometimes as I worked.  One day I was slogging through and I was like, omg, I’m a philosophical detective!  I’m trying to figure out how to make a case with the facts in front of me.  That was my feeling this week working through arguments about prime matter.  It was like, I knew the facts of the case, but the way this argument got staked out made sense of things I had been staring out for months.  I think every scholarly new project involves pulling a bunch of pieces together and trying to find ways to fit them together.  This is why it feels like detective work: what allows all these different pieces to add up to some coherent sense?

When I was coming through graduate school arguments weren’t even really made about prime matter, people just kind of dismissed the possibility that there was prime matter.  It was like the case was solved, and everyone knew the answer so they didn’t have to prosecute their case anymore.  For a long time, I didn’t need to know how the case was solved against prime matter in order to do my work.  But now, it turns out, while I thought this was just a side part of my argument, it turns out the arguments about prime matter extend to and influence Aristotle’s metaphysics as a whole.  So to share some of my insight, I thought I’d just list the disputes that emerge from the question of prime matter – really this is for those of you who think that disputes over prime matter are peripheral to Aristotle’s metaphysics, which in some circles it really has become. Read more

The Free Market Will Not Make You Free

One of the most compelling arguments that William Clare Roberts makes in his new book, Marx’s Inferno: A Political Theory of Capital, is that the market dominates not only workers but commodity producers.  Rejecting the moralism of socialism, which suggests that capitalists just need to be kinder and gentler, Marx argues that the subjects of capitalism are not individuals who could make more ethical decisions, but the relations of production.  It is because capitalism is unable to render individuals free that capitalism dominates everyone under its purview.   Read more

Advice for Scholarly Writing From My Experience Refereeing for Journals

Having had some publishing success in my career, I’ve been rewarded with tons of requests to review article manuscripts in the last couple years.  I am still not jaded enough to dislike being called on or not to need the recognition as an expert by editors such requests indicate.  I appreciate having some influence on the field that this work affords.  It also affords me the awareness of some common pitfalls.  To avoid them, I offer this advice. Read more

On Experts and Political Expertise, Again

This cartoon was circulated on social media last week by people concerned that the knowledge of experts is no longer respected in political matters.  Last week I blogged about the hatred of democracy that I think underlies this sentiment.  In November, I blogged about the “best and the brightest” political experts who were supposed to lead us into the path of peace and prosperity but instead enmired us in an unwinnable war.  I’m on an expert on some things.  I think that expertise should be recognized and I bristle when it is not, so I appreciate the concern that experts aren’t taken seriously. Read more