Wednesday, June 13, 2012
Today I let my firm know that I will be entering into an accounting PhD program. I have been an auditor for almost three years now, and the experience has been very good for me, even if I came to the conviction that my future lies elsewhere.
To return to the academy was not an easy choice, and it was the first time in my life when I've made a major choice with misgivings. I think that just means that I've been a lucky man. I return to the academic world, however, with a different mind than I left it. I am not exploring the meaning of life or trying to define truth, beauty, and goodness. At least I'm not doing these things generally. I return to the academy as a member of the accounting profession, and I intend for my work to be useful to that profession, both in terms of my research and my teaching. I return with a competitive fire. Philosophy was meditation. This is not.
I am not entirely sure where this path takes me. I live only for the future these days, although I hope to find my way such that I can look back again upon my past with equanimity. I find no peace or solace in the past right now, however. The dead have not spoken to me in awhile. The dead, like everyone else, are all too ready to take credit during victory. They like their statues and nice speeches. Now they are silent, but perhaps not powerless, for what lies underneath still works its way into the world. They are satisfied though to let me bear the uncertainty and possible shamefulness alone.
Eddie 8:22 PM
Monday, July 04, 2011
Churchill has a famous quotation: "It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried." Lest we think that Churchill didn't really have disparaging thoughts about democracy, consider this statement attributed to him as well: "The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter."
The history of philosophy is full of people trying to draw conclusions about the world that have as much certainty as the conclusions of geometry. ("Knowledge" and "science" used to have higher standards than they do now.) Unfortunately, these efforts were generally failures, not because philosophers lacked the conviction of geometers, but because their arguments were too ridiculous to persuade anybody but themselves.
I, however, have succeeded where others have failed. I present the following argument about how bad democracy is and claim that its conclusion is as airtight as any offered in geometry:
1. Democratic elections are significantly affected by the amount of money spent by the candidates. This point is accepted by all, I believe, even if there are disputes about the size of the effect. People wouldn't fight about campaign finance laws if they didn't think that money matters.
2. Campaign advertisements and other forms of solicitation are among the most banal forms of communication that human beings have invented. They are largely devoid of content and untrustworthy to the extent they do have content. This point is perhaps not accepted by all. If you don't believe this already, however, then I'm guessing you struggle with geometry too.
3. Democratic elections are significantly affected by communications that are largely devoid of content and untrustworthy. QED.
Let us celebrate our political independence, as Churchill was right that every other choice is worse. But let us also celebrate a certain independence from politics, which surely makes us all a little stupider than we would be otherwise. We have the Internet for daily evidence of that point, but I won't claim geometric certainty there.
Eddie 10:18 AM
Wednesday, November 01, 2006
Yeah, I pretty much sat out the month of October, blogging wise. Apparently I have settled upon my mid-life crisis: I am studying in a number of business-related fields primarily centered around investing and accounting. If nothing else, these studies should help me become a smarter investor and help me to prepare for retirement and whatnot down the road. It is possible too that I might take these studies far enough to go into a different line of work than teaching. I like what I do, but I don't like not having choices. Besides, if I'm honest with myself I think I would have to say that I am in teaching mostly for myself. It gives me the time and situation to think about things that matter to me, but I have doubts about how much of that thought ends up being of benefit to my students. Furthermore, I am in a different place intellectually than I was 20 years ago. It was unthinkable then for me not to focus my energies in philosophy. I had to come to terms with my existence so as not to waste it. Now, I have mostly settled those concerns. In other words, I think my studies in philosophy have accomplished most of what they are likely to accomplish for me. I do it more out of intellectual curiosity now than out of existential need. And this may be a waste of my talents, frankly. So, I am a student again (though still teaching), something I thought would never happen. Isn't that what a mid-life crisis is supposed to do for you?
Eddie 1:22 AM
Tuesday, October 03, 2006
[Note: Some time ago I wrote a short blog entry on the concept of sovereignty as it is developed within the tradition of classical liberalism. Tomorrow night I am giving a lecture as part of a political philosophy lecture series on this same topic. Below is the "speech," although I expect to be winging it some. It follows the thoughts of that original post but has a much more extended, and somewhat pedestrian, look at some of the political philosophers of that tradition.]
What is Sovereignty?
To be delivered on Wednesday, October 4, 2006
Since 9/11, the United States has been engaged in extensive military and civil operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, much of it in the name of nation-building. The idea is that healthy, democratic nations will not wish to harbor terrorists and will have the political strength to keep the terrorists from using their land as a base. Of course, to build a nation up requires that whatever is there already be torn down. That the United States would decide which regimes are worthy and which ones are not concerns more than a few people, and this concern is often voiced as a concern about the rights of sovereign nations. It is my intent in this talk to examine the notion of sovereignty as expressed by these critics of our current foreign policy, and to show that it is inconsistent with the tradition of classical liberalism that grounds our own political consciousness. To show an inconsistency is admittedly not the same thing as a refutation, but nonetheless it may open our eyes to what is at stake.
Noam Chomsky, in various lectures, has defined sovereignty as “the right of political entities to follow their own course, which may be benign or may be ugly, and to do so free from external interference.” (“Control of Our Lives,” February 26, 2000, Kiva Auditorium, Albuquerque, New Mexico) Chomsky is certainly a believer in the rights of individuals, but notice the ambiguity in the phrase “political entities.” The right he speaks of is a right between nations, or perhaps between international bodies, like the European Union, or maybe even between tribes, but not apparently a right of individuals. From this point of view, it seems, we have a globe with settled political boundaries, and the right of sovereignty is the right of the ruling power of a nation to act of its own accord as long as it keeps its business within those boundaries. And how is it that these boundaries come to be settled? Presumably, by an act of international recognition. Collectively the nations of the earth decide upon their limits and hold those limits against all encroachment.
I have a different tale to tell, a different way of conceptualizing sovereignty, and I wish to tell my tale by looking at three modern political philosophers: Machiavelli, Hobbes, and Rousseau.
Let us begin with Machiavelli. Even if you have never read his infamous work, The Prince, which is a series of essays providing advice to an aspiring ruler, you probably know of Machiavelli’s reputation. By reputation, he is a philosopher who recommends power for the sake of power; the end justifies any means, no matter how vile or vicious. If you need an image of what it means to be a Machiavel, you can look at a number of Shakespeare’s villains, such as Edmund in the tragedy of King Lear. Edmund is the perfect Machiavel: to overthrow his half-brother Edgar, he puts on the appearance of virtue, so as to win the trust of his father, while committing acts of betrayal against the brother.
On this matter, perhaps we should turn to Machiavelli’s text directly. In the fifteenth essay of The Prince, Machiavelli writes:
It remains now to see what the modes and government of a prince should be with subjects and with friends. And because I know that many have written of this, I fear that in writing of it again, I may be held presumptuous, especially since in disputing this matter I depart from the orders of others. But since my intent is to write something useful to whoever understands it, it has appeared to me more fitting to go directly to the effectual truth of the thing than to the imagination of it. And many have imagined republics and principalities that have never been seen or known to exist in truth; for it is so far from how one lives to how one should live that he who lets go of what is done for what should be done learns his ruin rather than his preservation. For a man who wants to make a profession of good in all regards must come to ruin among so many who are not good. Hence it is necessary to a prince, if he wants to maintain himself, to learn to be able not to be good, and to use this and not use it according to necessity. (p. 61, Mansfield’s translation)
Notice here that the prince must “learn to be able not to be good.” Most of us are probably of the opinion that here is something that we are quite good at already, with no formal instruction whatsoever! Machiavelli’s prince, however, must learn how not to be good, because he must learn how to appear good without actually being so.
Let us hear the words of Machiavelli again:
...it is not necessary for a prince to have all the above-mentioned [virtues] in fact, but it is indeed necessary to appear to have them. Nay, I dare say this, that by having them and always observing them, they are harmful; and by appearing to have them, they are useful, as it is to appear merciful, faithful, humane, honest, and religious, and to be so; but to remain with a spirit built so that, if you need not to be those things, you are able and know how to change to the contrary. This has to be understood: that a prince, and especially a new prince, cannot observe all those things for which men are held good, since he is often under a necessity, to maintain his state, of acting against faith, against charity, against humanity, against religion. And so he needs to have a spirit disposed to change as the winds of fortune and variations of things command him, and as I said above, not depart from good, when possible, but know how to enter into evil, when forced by necessity. (p. 70)
But wait. What does this have to do with the concept of sovereignty? Be patient.
I would like to turn next to the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes and his great work Leviathan. In the course of this work, Hobbes entertains a very fundamental question: how can it ever be rational for an individual to forfeit his God-given, natural liberty to do whatever he wants in exchange for the constraints of living in society with others? Perhaps you are thinking: I didn’t know I had a choice in the matter. Where on this planet can I live without the constraints of society? For Hobbes, however, the question was very much a real one. Having experienced the reality of civil war, Hobbes was very aware that civil society cannot be taken for granted, and that people can easily fall into what political theoreticians like to call the state of nature, that is, a state of lawlessness. Hobbes’ experience with civil war also provided him with the clear rationale for why one chooses the constraints of civil society over the condition of natural liberty, namely, for the sake of security. Not only does insecurity bring fear, but it also frustrates the healthy impulses of our humanity. Those who are insecure do not trust, and are therefore untrustworthy themselves, thereby diminishing the possibility of communion with others. Those who do not trust are also unlikely to undertake any venture that requires a great deal of time and energy, for who would put themselves into a work that might be taken from them at any moment? So all of the great accomplishments that people are capable of are threatened in the state of nature (the state of lawlessness). What we are left with, in Hobbes’ famous formulation, is a life that is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” (p. 100, Touchstone edition)
For Hobbes then, civil society is not something that we are simply thrown into, even if most people treat it that way. Instead, civil society has its legitimate foundations in human nature and human reason. If we properly grasp those reasons, then we should realize that we do choose civil society, that is, we have the choice of whether to affirm it or just live within it. In choosing this civil order that we are already a part of, we might be said to be passing from our adolescence into adulthood, leaving behind youthful rebellion and taking up our responsibility. In other words, we should sign the social contract.
What is the social contract? In some sense, it is a fiction like the state of nature. Just as most of us do not find ourselves in a state of lawlessness, so most of us will not sign any actual documents by which we recognize the appropriateness of the power that we give to the state to provide order for our existence. Insofar as it represents the act of maturity that I just mentioned, that is, the act by which we affirm what we are a part of already, then it is no fiction at all. By willing the appropriateness of the state’s power, we make ourselves equals to the original founders, the ones who did sign actual documents outlining the constitution of a new society. Spiritually we re-enact the origins.
If Hobbes had stopped there, I suspect we would praise him without hesitation, whatever we might think of the useful fictions that he employs. But Hobbes goes on to make a claim that rubs most of us the wrong way: he claims that, for the sake of civil order, the signers of the social contract must hand over the authority of the state to a ruler, a sovereign, who is independent of them. (Finally, we hear something about sovereignty! It is about time.) Hobbes reasons that if the sovereign is one of the signers of the social contract that it will just breed faction and dissension. By collectively handing over power to someone outside the contract, the people decide to share the same fate.
To make matters worse (for the contemporary reader), Hobbes goes on to point out the extent to which the sovereign is independent of the commonwealth that he rules. In a chapter entitled “Of the Rights of Sovereigns by Institution,” Hobbes makes the following claims:
1. The subjects cannot change the form of government. If the subjects can change the form of government, they aren’t really bound by anything, right? For Hobbes, this is invitation for civil war, as those who are disaffected with the way things are convince themselves that they are right to overthrow it.
2. Sovereign power cannot be forfeited. Hobbes writes: “…because the right of bearing the person of them all, is given to him they make sovereign, by covenant only of one to another, and not of him to any of them, there can happen no breach of covenant on the part of the sovereign, and consequently none of his subjects, by any pretence of forfeiture, can be freed from subjection.” (p.135) To put it in contemporary English, the contract signed is not between the people and the sovereign; it is between the people themselves. The sovereign is thus bound by no contractual promise.
3. No man can without injustice protest against the institution of the sovereign declared by the major part. Insofar as the sovereign’s power rests with the original covenant of the subjects, to protest the sovereign is to break the covenant. Insofar as the covenant was originally formed as a rational response to the danger of insecurity, however, it cannot be rational to break the contract, even if you happen to dislike the sovereign’s actions.
5. Whatsoever the sovereign doth is unpunishable by the subject. The sovereign, as the guarantor of the security of the state, is the maker of the law. As the maker of the law, he must be free to craft it as he best sees fit, which means that he is not bound by law himself.
At this point in the talk, I have promises left to be fulfilled. I said that I was going to argue for a notion of sovereignty from the tradition of classical liberalism, but so far the liberality of liberalism is hardly present at all. We have Machiavelli advising princes, i.e., sovereigns, to be able to act against virtue, and we have Hobbes defending the rights of sovereigns to act against virtue as well. Where is freedom to be found in this tale I’m telling?
Let us take note of some important points. Notice first the approach that Hobbes takes toward political power. The power of the sovereign is not justified by tradition, or by God’s will. The power of the sovereign is justified only by the rational act of the individual subjects to form a covenant with one another. Whatever we might think of Hobbes’ sovereign, his power is founded upon Hobbes’ consideration of what each person should understand to be in his or her own welfare. To use a term from modern political philosophy, it is the forming of the covenant that gives legitimacy to the power of the sovereign. Hobbes asks each of us to reflect upon our own welfare, and realize that the social contract is essential to that welfare.
Let us take note of another point, one that will bring Machiavelli back into the discussion. Like Machiavelli’s prince, Hobbes’s sovereign is above the law. In Machiavelli’s account, that the prince must sometimes act above the law is something the prince should mainly keep to himself. With Hobbes, however, the sovereign being above the law is a rational consequence of the covenant itself, not something that needs to be covered up. The source of the law cannot itself be bound by the law.
One final point before we move on to Rousseau. I didn’t mention this before, but Hobbes acknowledges that there are different forms of political rule, and thus different forms of sovereignty. Generally speaking, Hobbes refers to the sovereign as if he were speaking of a monarch, but he also discusses the possibility of rule by the few (aristocracy) and rule by the many (democracy). What could it mean, however, to say that a democracy could be sovereign? How could a democracy be both subject and sovereign at the same time? Furthermore, how could a democracy, as sovereign, be above the law? If the people are above the law, who is under it? Hobbes speaks to these matters somewhat, but not enough perhaps to answer all these questions. To find an attempt to answer these questions, we will turn to Rousseau.
One of the most famous of Rousseau’s works is The Social Contract, so we know we are on familiar ground. Like Hobbes, Rousseau raises the question: why would anyone in their right mind give up their natural liberty in exchange for the constraints of society? Rousseau believes, however, that Hobbes has given a poor account of the state of nature. By focusing on civil war, Hobbes is looking not at something prior to the social order but at something that arises from the breakdown of the social order. According to Rousseau, if we were to imagine man before being socialized, we would see a creature who is, in some ways, quite satisfied to be alone. Solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short is not such a bad thing, especially since man in the state of nature enjoys his solitude, is ignorant of death, and doesn’t compare himself to others enough to be bothered about being poor or nasty or brutish.
Since the state of nature is not such an abject existence, according to Rousseau, individuals can rationally demand more of the social order than just security. What they can rightfully demand is civil freedom, which is not the natural freedom to do whatever you want, but the freedom to do what you find acceptable for others to do as well. With civil society, human beings lose some of the goods of the state of nature, but they make other gains that make it worth it, such as finding love and a sense of morality and dignity.
It is irrational therefore to hand over everything to an external sovereign. Instead, Rousseau makes an important distinction that we find in the American constitutional tradition as well: a distinction between the sovereign and the ruling power. It is not just that the people give legitimacy to the sovereign; the people are the sovereign. Any ruling power, any government, not based on the sovereignty of the people is illegitimate. Furthermore, it is not enough for a government to be popularly elected. If it fails to protect the civil rights of the individual, the social contract has been broken and the individual has no further obligation to it.
Rousseau’s account of the relation of ruler and ruled is much closer to our ordinary sensibility. The ruler, that is, the government official, is a public servant, and serves as long as the true sovereign, the people, find it reasonable for him to do so.
Nonetheless, Rousseau’s account has some parallels with Machiavelli’s and Hobbes’s that we might find surprising. In chapter 1 of book 2 of The Social Contract, Rousseau makes the claim that sovereignty is inalienable. Since sovereignty is not an external bond, but is rather the internal bond that constitutes the people to begin with, it cannot be taken from the society without the society already having been dissolved. Furthermore, according to Rousseau, that sovereignty is inalienable means that the sovereign can never bind itself toward any future action, for otherwise it would not be the ultimate legitimate source of power. To put it differently, Rousseau’s sovereign, like Machiavelli’s prince and Hobbes’s sovereign, is above the law as well, and for a similar reason: the source of the law cannot be bound by it.
So how can the people be both sovereign, i.e., above the law, and subject to the law as well? For Rousseau, we are above the law as makers of the law, so we are above it whenever we act as a collective body to shape the law, which happens primarily through voting. As individuals, however, we are also subject to the law as crafted by the society generally. Together, the law is not binding upon us – we can always change it as we need to– but individually it is.
Consider the preamble to the United States Constitution:
“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
“We the people” ordain and establish this Constitution. It is not the source of us, but we are the source of it. What started out as the immorality of Machiavelli’s prince becomes ultimately the purest expression of political freedom.
Let us return now to the beginning of this lecture where I described a contemporary notion of sovereignty. In fact, let me repeat myself. Noam Chomsky defined sovereignty as “the right of political entities to follow their own course, which may be benign or may be ugly, and to do so free from external interference.” Then I added:
“The right [Chomsky] speaks of is a right between nations, or perhaps between international bodies, like the European Union, or maybe even between tribes, but not apparently a right of individuals. From this point of view, it seems, we have a globe with settled political boundaries, and the right of sovereignty is the right of the ruling power of a nation to act of its own accord as long as it keeps its business within those boundaries. And how is it that these boundaries come to be settled? Presumably, by an act of international recognition. Collectively the nations of the earth decide upon their limits and hold those limits against all encroachment.”
As someone who affirms the tradition of classical liberalism and the notion of sovereignty that I have tried to show to be a part of it, let me respond directly to this contemporary notion of sovereignty with a series of points.
First, there is no such thing as a nation’s right of sovereignty. Nations rule by the sovereign right of the people, in which case they are legitimate, or they do not and are not. Between nations, however, there is no claim to sovereignty at all, because there is no common people between nations to provide the basis of that claim. As social contract theorists generally recognize, nations are to each other as individuals in the state of nature. It may be prudent or wise for one nation to respect another’s sovereign will, but the notion of sovereignty does not itself demand that that respect be given.
A corollary of this first point is that the concept of international law is an absurdity. There is no sovereign to give such a law its legitimacy. Furthermore, sovereignty is inalienable, so agreements between nations must always be understood as provisional, i.e., each nation will hold to these agreements as long as they construe it in their best interests to do so.
Second, the sovereignty of a nation is not determined primarily by internationally recognized political boundaries. This follows in part from the first point, which is that there is no legitimate international political body in the first place. It also follows, however, from the fact that sovereignty arises from the people themselves, not from the point of view of other nations.
A corollary of this second point is that nations in which the ruling power does not follow from the sovereign will of the people are not sovereign nations. Even if we did take upon ourselves an obligation to show deference to other sovereign nations, we certainly shouldn’t consider ourselves obligated in the same way to nations run by despots and other forms of power that do not represent the popular will. By this standard, I will claim that whatever the wisdom of our presence in Iraq may be, the overthrow of Saddam Hussein was most definitely not a disturbance of the sovereignty of Iraq.
I would extend this corollary to those cases where there may be a sovereign political body of some sort but one which is too weak to police the terrorist forces in its midst. In such a case, I would say that the sovereign body is not the ruling power. Consequently, efforts to remove the terrorist element from it constitutes no diminishment to its sovereignty, insofar as its sovereignty did not extend to that element to begin with.
During this so-called war on terror, there has been a great deal of concern about the possibility that, through legislation such as the Patriot Act, we are a greater threat to our own political liberty than the terrorists are. I believe that we should add to this concern a further concern: in the name of world peace and order, we are subverting the concept of sovereignty, which was, in its final development as part of the tradition of classical liberalism, a concept used to justify revolution.
Eddie 3:36 PM
Sunday, September 17, 2006
A week or so ago I went to a party that was composed mainly of academics. In the course of one conversation, someone spoke of Culture and elevated matters such as philosophy. I suppose it could have been worse; at parties with non-academics, saying that I teach philosophy usually brings an awkward pause. Nonetheless, I was struck by this impression that philosophy, or culture generally, is something elevated above ordinary life.
Socrates supposedly said that the unexamined life is not worth living. I don't think I agree, but even so it is worthwhile to consider what is being said here and what is not. Perhaps our humanity only emerges out of a certain thoughtfulness, a kind of thinking that is not problem-solving (the normal mode of being thoughtful) but a gathering-together that brings one's entire existence into view. Perhaps. Even so, it does not follow that the examined life is a life consisting mainly of examination. Philosophy, at least the kind I'm most familiar with, certainly enjoys thinking about itself, but this really can turn into the kind of navel-gazing that some like to criticize it for. I would say instead that philosophy, like other "cultural" acts, intensifies our attention to ordinary life, thereby disrupting our natural consciousness which only pays attention to something when it is going wrong.
In other words, if this world bores you, I don't think philosophy or literature or art are going to rescue it for you. It may well be interesting to be absorbed in someone else's representation of the world for awhile. As Pascal would put it, however, this is just another kind of diversion, no different really from watching television. (Not that I have anything against television!) The philosophical life is not a life of reading philosophy as much as it is a life of finding interest in what too many people overlook -- the mud and hair that Parmenides told Socrates that he needed to consider.
Why do some people think otherwise? How did philosophy get the reputation among some as being an elevated matter?
Frankly, I think much of this opinion comes from the difficulty of philosophy. It is hard to put into words a kind of thoughtfulness that words were not made to describe. It is easy to take pleasure in philosophy's weirdness. (Yes, it is weird to pay a lot of attention to ordinary things. Their being ordinary means, as I said already, that our natural consciousness doesn't consider them worthy of giving energy too.) It is easy to mistake confusion for initiation into the mysteries.
I face this problem sometimes with my students. Non-majors don't like philosophical questions. Majors don't like answers to those questions. Not that I have answers to give, exactly, but they enjoy the search more than any insights that the search might produce. They are enjoying their self-examination -- this could be put more crudely -- but they do not recognize how this examination might open up the world to them. The propositions of philosophy obscure what is being proposed.
Eddie 12:59 AM
Tuesday, September 05, 2006
Glenn Reynolds has a brief post about a new consequence of McCain-Feingold: the elimination, starting this Thursday, of political speech that is critical of members of Congress up for re-election. Let's hope so. It is hard for me to imagine that such a development wouldn't lead to a challenge that goes all the way to the Supreme Court, and it is hard for me to imagine that this court wouldn't strike it down. Too often our liberty diminishes in small drips. In this case the regulators of free speech have, I believe, overplayed their hand. To use my new-found language from the markets, I look forward to the correction.
Eddie 10:36 AM
Wednesday, August 30, 2006
Bill Cara provides a valuable link to a government report on the price of oil. (The report can be found here and is worth a read.) In brief, the report argues that a sizable chunk of the rise in oil prices over the past couple of years has come, not from the usual sources of supply and demand, but from increased speculation in oil futures. Basically the rise in prices has been a self-fulfilling prophecy: speculators think the price of future oil deliveries will rise so they buy these deliveries, thereby driving up the price. The report suggests that $20 dollars of the current price (today around $68 a barrel) comes from speculation.
The writers of the report want increased regulation, at least in the form of records kept. I have no strong opinion on whether that is desirable, although my instincts are usually that markets will work themselves out. Every bubble will burst eventually. (Am I being naive? Cara suggests so.) Either way, the report puts forward the real possibility that gas prices will not keep rising over the intermediate term. If the speculation were to be removed from the market, either through regulation or natural market forces, gas might decline more than it has recently.
It doesn't seem that long ago that I read people saying that $3/gallon of gasoline is now a permanent part of our life. Maybe not.
Eddie 2:37 PM
Thursday, August 17, 2006
I once heard psychology described as one of the talking cures, i.e., a cure where you don't actually do anything to make someone better, you just somehow talk them out of their problem. I may be wrong, but my sense is that this kind of talking cure is on the decline, as it is being replaced by pharmaceuticals. My students, interestingly enough, are more comfortable telling me about the drugs they take than any therapy they might be receiving, so my estimate may be off. I'm guessing that the drugs do them more good too.
Diplomacy is another example of a talking cure, and the kind of people who distrust psychology are likely to distrust this form of therapy too.
The talking cure I am most familiar with, however, is philosophy. Philosophy looks a lot like psychology from a distance; my father still sometimes is confused about what I have my doctorate in. The difference, I think, is that psychology ultimately aims at getting us to become more bearable for everyone else, whereas philosophy aims at getting everyone else to be more bearable for us. Or, to put that point a little differently, philosophy seeks some kind of reconciliation with the world, some way of dealing with the alienation of the modern world.
Psychology has its materialist counterpart in pharmaceuticals, and diplomacy has its counterpart in war, but I'm not sure what philosophy's counterpart is. Alcohol, perhaps? It might be religion, but that looks like a talking cure too.
I am reminded now of a song from Harry Nilsson called "Coconut":
Brudder bought a coconut, he bought it for a dime
His sister had anudder one she paid it for de lime
She put de lime in de coconut, she drank 'em bot' up
She put de lime in de coconut, she drank 'em bot' up
She put de lime in de coconut, she drank 'em bot' up
She put de lime in de coconut, she call de doctor, woke 'im up
Said 'Doctor, ain't there nothin' I can take?'
I said 'Doctor, to relieve this belly ache'
I said 'Doctor, ain't there nothin' I can take?'
I said 'Doctor, to relieve this belly ache'
Now lemme get this straight
You put de lime in de coconut, you drank 'em bot' up
You put de lime in de coconut, you drank 'em bot' up
You put de lime in de coconut, you drank 'em bot' up
You put de lime in de coconut, you call your doctor, woke 'im up
Said 'Doctor, ain't there nothing' I can take?'
I said, 'Doctor, to relieve this belly ache'
I said 'Doctor, ain't there nothin' I can take?'
I said, 'Doctor, to relieve this belly ache'
You put de lime in de coconut, you drink 'em bot' togedder
Put de lime in de coconut and you'll feel better
Put de lime in de coconut, drink 'em bot' up
Put de lime in de coconut and call me in the morning
Ooh ooh ooh...
It is a silly song that somehow got some radio play. I read an interview with Nilsson in which he said that he was drawn to the idea that the same thing that caused an ailment would be given as the fix for it.
Philosophy is the lime in the coconut. Where does alienation come from other than a way of thinking that is abstract and critical? And what is philosophy other than this same abstract, critical thought taken to an extreme? Philosophy is the attempt, through much thinking, to solve the problem of much thinking. In this sense it may be the oddest of all the talking cures.
Eddie 10:06 AM
Friday, August 04, 2006
A commenter on my last post thought I should make mention of a blog/website written by Bill Cara, a man who has been in the world of markets and securities for quite some time. Well, why not?
If you are interested in markets, it a great site. Cara is some kind of libertarian, as far as I can tell, and sees himself as providing an education for the little guy, like me. He is a daily read for me now. For the time that I've been following him he seems fairly good at predicting certain market moves, but the greatest value is his discussion of the economy and how we should be positioning ourselves for the coming market bottom. His discussion of how to use options is worth the visit by itself. (Look at the top of the site for a row of topics with extended essays.)
The most peculiar part of Cara's outlook, and the one I hesitate over the most, is his attraction to gold. It is obvious that he has spent a lot of time thinking about all industries that drill and mine beneath the earth, but gold comes up especially often as a topic. Whether he is right or wrong about the positive outlook for gold I couldn't say, but I can't help but think that there is a political position lurking in his assessment. Like all libertarians, he has a distrust of government, and it seems to me that he imagines gold as an alternative currency, one that doesn't depend on the good behavior of any political regime. Perhaps my nose is oversensitive, but I detect a whiff of apocalyptic fantasizing. Not that there is anything wrong with that! Apocalyptic fantasies are some of my favorites.
I must confess that I don't understand the fascination with gold. Oil and plutonium I understand, but gold? In a recent episode of Deadwood, the character George Hearst has a little speech where he says that the human agreement that gold is valuable is the fundamental basis of trust in a civilized order. I took that to mean that if we can't agree on gold being valuable, then we can't really agree on anything. I got the sense that the Hearst character recognized that there is something arbitrary about valuing gold, and that it is precisely the commitment to value this arbitrary element that bespeaks our commitment to society itself. Communal trust is weird that way. You trust that others will trust.
It is a fascinating thought, but I am unpersuaded. If we find ourselves in a position where we genuinely need an alternative currency, I suspect that I won't be much concerned about what my investment portfolio looks like.
Conservative bloggers use to write about the transnational progressives, that is, those progressives who are post-nationalists and yearn for a world of true international law. These are folks who see patriotism as provincial and believe that the opinion of the U.N. matters. Cara and libertarians like him are like some strange mirror image of these progressives. The libertarians don't believe in nations either, but I don't think they would consider the U.N. much of an improvement! Instead, they imagine a kind of transnational society made possible by the internet. (The picture I'm painting is admittedly too extreme: Cara regularly remarks about the need for authorities to crack down on certain kinds of market misbehaviors.)
I'm a bit old-fashioned. I still think that home is where you hang your hat, or rather, where you bury your dead. Nonetheless, my inability to comprehend Cara's insight on gold is trivial next to what I have learned from him.
Eddie 4:09 PM
Thursday, July 27, 2006
I've been away longer than usual, which is saying something. We travelled for a couple of weeks up through north Georgia, southern Indiana, and Milwaukee, seeing friends and family. The past couple of weeks I've been trying to settle back in and get ready for the fall semester, but lately I've been too sick to do anything useful.
Every teacher laments not having more dedicated students. By dedicated I don't mean keeping up with assignments and whatnot. I mean people who dedicate themselves to learning what you have to teach. I guess it is unreasonable to expect people to give themselves over in that way.
It has occurred to me, however, that a dedicated student also has a hard time finding a teacher. I don't have a strong opinion of my ability to teach, but I know that I am a good student. Where, however, would I find a teacher?
For example, on again and off again I have tried to learn an instrument, mainly bass guitar. I'm not interested in taking lessons, partly becaue of the money but also because I don't think that is what I need. I need someone to play with, someone who knows more than I do but has the patience to work with me.
Another example: over the past three or four months I have been trying to learn about the world of investments. I've covered a lot of ground, but I feel like I could gain so much more with an experienced person to guide me. I have taken up correspondence with one kind fellow who is helping me out, but that is a slow way to learn.
People who teach for a living, like I do, expect to get paid for what they do. This is all fine and good, but it is a very different thing from what I'm talking about. A true teacher wants to teach. (Let's not get too sentimental here: a true teacher likes to hear himself talk, and is flattered that someone will listen!) Teaching is a way of being in the world with others, a way that for some brings great fulfillment.
I find myself a teacher looking for students, and a student looking for teachers.
Eddie 4:29 PM