November 13, 2008

Dirty jokes

A dirty joke is not, of course, a serious attack upon morality, but it is a sort of mental rebellion, a momentary wish that things were otherwise. So also with all other jokes, which always centre round cowardice, laziness, dishonesty or some other quality which society cannot afford to encourage.

-- Orwell, "The Art of Donald McGill."

November 11, 2008

A god(lessness)-intoxicated man?

I could wish your friend had not denominated me an infidel writer, on account of ten or twelve pages which seem to him to have that tendency: while I have wrote so many volumes on history, literature, politics, trade, morals, which, in that particular at least, are entirely inoffensive. Is a man to be called a drunkard, because he has been seen fuddled once in his lifetime?

-- Hume, in a letter (circa 1761); reprinted in An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, ed. Peter Millican.

... We may notice that the force of the argument is the same inadequacy of reasoning from a limited effect to a more general cause, which Hume typically deployed against religious dogma. The irony must have amused him.

November 10, 2008

What prevails is truth

It is central to the idea of a liberal society that, in respect to words as opposed to deeds, persuasion as opposed to force, anything goes. This openmindedness should not be fostered because, as Scripture teaches, Truth is great and will prevail, nor because, as Milton suggests, Truth will always win in a free and open encounter. It should be fostered for its own sake. A liberal society is one which is content to call "true" whatever the upshot of such encounters turns out to be.

-- Richard Rorty, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (emphasis his).

But I tell you, Winston, that reality is not external. Reality exists in the human mind, and nowhere else. Not in the individual mind, which can make mistakes, and in any case soon perishes; only in the mind of the Party, which is collective and immortal. Whatever the Party holds to be truth, is truth.

-- O'Brien, in Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four.

... Rorty's devoting a chapter of his book to Orwell and O'Brien does not change the fact that there is not much daylight between Rorty's position and O'Brien's. We get the limiting effect of words vs. deeds, persuasion vs. force; but there are all kinds of words and persuasion.

What the two positions indubitably share is that in neither of them does truth inhere "in the individual mind." From the position of the individual, it is not much more reassuring to know that truth exists only in the mind of the Liberal Society than that it exists only in the mind of the Party.

All men being created equal

An Amazon reviewer complains about John Gray's little book on Liberalism:

Finally, I think Gray could have mentioned (at least once?) that women, and slaves in the US and European colonies, were initially excluded almost entirely from the liberal project.

My passing, perhaps bloggable, thought is that this "initial exclusion" tends to be treated as an oversight. All we do is redefine "all men are created equal" to include, first, all men, and then those other, female "men" as well. Nothing fundamental here, just shaking the scales from our eyes.

The more interesting possibility, of course, would be if this oversight were more than just an oversight; if there were something about liberalism that actually explained why it was so slow to catch onto the implications of its own program.

Another book by Gray may indirectly suggest an answer. (Note that, thanks to modern technology, we no longer need to read books; we can just read about them on Amazon. Something similar, n.b., happened with Kant's "reading" of Hume, as well as Kant's hypothesis that the Milky Way is our own galaxy.)

In any event, the other book by Gray simply reminds us of a familiar divagation in liberalism, judging by its (back) cover:

... John Gray argues that liberal thought has always contained two incompatible philosophies. In one, liberalism is a theory of a universal rational consensus, which enables the achievement of the best way of life for all humankind. In the other, liberalism is the project of seeking terms for peaceful coexistence between different regimes and ways of life.

How much of the bias in liberalism is due to the uneasy suspicion of the "universally rational" that a single way of life wouldn't work so well outside the sphere of white European (bourgeois) men? If you're defining your project in terms of universal consensus, and some groups seem to have goals that are incompatible with your own, then the temptation is to label those troublemakers as "irrational." Which is pretty much how it went.

We are now somewhat more prepared to admit that women, blacks, etc. might be "rational" after all ... not without some disparagement of "reason" in the first place that itself may have a whiff of sour grapes about it. But the modus-vivendi school of liberalism seems potentially more inclusive.

November 9, 2008

Space heaters needed

The inside of the White House doesn’t have the luminous quality that you might expect from television or film; it seems well kept but worn, a big old house that one imagines might be a bit drafty on cold winter nights.

-- Barack Obama, The Audacity of Hope.

The drift of life

Easy to sense the trend in the drift of life,
Hard to compel one creature out of its course.

-- Tu Fu, "The Autumn Wastes," tr. A.C. Graham, Poems of the Late T'ang.