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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
The last weekend in October of last year, I was at the former Labyrinth Bookstore in New York City where I picked up Jacques Rancière’s The Hatred of Democracy. Ten days later, the country would elect Donald Trump to the presidency. Since then (and well before), the cries against democracy have come in from many corners. Jason Brennan, philosopher at Georgetown, wrote a book Against Democracy in which he calls for an epistocracy. Andrew Sullivan argues that democracies end when they are too democratic in New York Magazine. Caleb Crain discusses the case against it in The New Yorker in the issue published the week before the election. Crain quotes the famous Winston Churchill line, democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others that have been tried from time to time. That line put me in mind of what Chesterton said about Christianity, that it hasn’t been tried and found wanting, it has been found difficult and not tried. Or perhaps not difficult, but scandalous. This I believe is what Rancière is arguing about democracy.
Rancière makes three relevant points. First, the people are dismissed as problematic because of a process that divides democratic politics from democratic society and then denigrates all that is associated with democratic society. Second, democracy is a rule without measure, without legitimacy (which is why lottery is the most, perhaps the only true, democratic form of choosing leaders). All efforts to establish legitimacy set up a rationale for rule that make that measure and not the people as such, the source of legitimacy. Third, voting in representative governments is a ruse that gives cover to oligarchic regimes. I argue on the basis of this analysis that blaming democracy or the people in a situation that is not democratic legitimates anti-democratic policies and processes in a system that already was anti-democratic. Read more
I learned about the Feminist Epistemologies, Metaphysics, Methodologies and Science Studies (FEMMSS) 6th conference at the GLCA Women’s/Gender/Sexuality Studies workshop in Ann Arbor last May from someone who works in science studies. FEMMSS is the feminist epistemologists and metaphysicians equivalent to the Feminist Ethics and Social Theory (FEAST) conference. Since FEAST meets every other year, FEMMSS meets on the off year. What’s great about this conference is how interdisciplinary it is — people from physics, neuroscience, philosophy, anthropology, history and sociology are here. I have enjoyed the interdisciplinary conferences I’ve attended in the last several years, from HASTAC to PODNetwork to Wonder and the Natural World at IU this last June. The conversations are lively and cross-pollinating, and the intradisciplinary anxiety and intensity seem softened by the interdisciplinary engagements. Read more