Tuesday, December 1, 2020

The Inevitability of Tragedy: Henry Kissinger and His World by Barry Gewen


2020 publication

To write about Henry Kissinger is to walk into a lion's den of controversy. Throughout his career, Kissinger has been anything but non-controversial. To some, he is a strategic and foreign policy genius who helped broker peace between Israel and Egypt and who reduced the risk of nuclear war. And, along the way, he earned a Nobel Peace Prize for negotiating an end to the U.S. war in Viet Nam. To others, to put it bluntly, he is a war criminal, a Machiavellian (in the most negative sense) who used war and violence on behalf of American imperialism. If someone holds an opinion about Kissinger, it's not likely to prove neutral or nuanced. 

I'm intrigued by Kissinger and his reputation, not sure (and perhaps happily so) whether to cast him as angel or devil, saint or sinner. However, I suspect, like all of us, he's played both roles and a many in-between. But in any case, he's acted with immense power and influence so that his flaws and strengths are magnified in the light of public scrutiny. This is why I've read a good deal by and about Kissinger; by his vehement critics and his enthusiastic accolades, and I've read a fair amount of what the man himself has written. Thus, when I saw this title (which itself intrigued me) on the New York Times list of best books of the year, I decided to take a look. I'm glad I did. 

[Kissinger] is more than a figure out of history. He is a philosopher of international relations who has much to teach us about how the modern world works—and often doesn’t. His arguments for his brand of Realism—thinking in terms of national interest and a balance of power—offer the possibility of rationality, coherence, and a necessary long-term perspective at a time when all three of these qualities seem to be in short supply.

Gewen, Barry. The Inevitability of Tragedy: Henry Kissinger and His World. W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition. [All subsequent quotes are to this book.]

But what I found when I opened it was not another biography of Kissinger (of which there are many and more to come), but something rather different. The book isn't simply a reconsideration of Kissinger's career (although that's certainly one topic), but its unique perspective arises from its use of Kissinger's actions and thought to reflect upon political actors and their actions at the highest level. Indeed, as I looked at the Table of Contents for the first time, I found chapters entitled "Leo Strauss and Hannah Arendt," "Hans Morgenthau," and "Hitler" as topics, as well as "Chile," "Vietnam," "Kissinger in Power," and "Kissinger Out of Power." The latter four chapters anyone might have expected, but Hitler, Strauss, Arendt, and Morgenthau? After reading the "First Person Prologue," I jumped over "Chile" and went right to "Hitler" even though I chomped at the bit to get to "Strauss and Arendt."

What Gewen has attempted--and accomplished--is to give voice to a view of political actors and action that Americans, as a whole, don't take kindly to. Gewen looks at the figures and situations in the chapters listed above to explore issues of political action and morality. As background, although not extensively discussed, are the late nineteenth and early-twentieth German thinkers Frederich Nietzche and Max Weber; Nietzche for his shattering ideas about morality and Weber for his assessment of the tragedy inherent in political action as described in his 1919 essay "Politics as a Vocation." The political phenomena that most affected the young Kissinger and his fellow, older German-Jewish refugees, Strauss, Arendt, and Morgenthau, was Hitler, who rose to power through a democratic process. Of course, as Gewen notes, Hitler began with violence in his "Beer Hall Putsch" and reverted to force and violence once firmly ensconced in power, but nevertheless, he and the Nazi party gained power via the electoral process. Thus, the failure of Weimar democracy to stand against the non-democratic forces of the Nazis and their Communist adversaries left a deep influence on these thinkers. 

“Politics,” Weber famously declared, “is a matter of boring down strongly and slowly through hard boards with passion and judgment together.” Passion was necessary to define the politician’s goals; judgment provided the detachment required to guide behavior, “the ability to contemplate things as they are with inner calm and composure.” Someone who possessed passion but not a “realistic sense of responsibility” was little more than a “political dilettante” consumed by “sterile excitements” or by a romanticism that, in Weber’s words, “runs away to nothing.” The demagogue in particular was unsuited to the vocation of politics because “he runs a constant risk of becoming a play-actor, making light of the responsibility for the consequences of his actions and asking only what ‘impression’ he is making.” In Weber’s terms, the Hitler of these years, for all his oratorical success, was not a politician but a political dilettante, with no sense of realism or responsibility. It had to end badly for him. Weber’s analysis was prescient—at least it was up to 1923. For in that year, Hitler’s “sterile excitements” did in fact run away to nothing.

The most intriguing aspect of Gewen's chapter on Hitler was his account of Hitler as a mesmerizing performer. Hitler's rhetoric, his ethos and pathos, allowed him to gain power and to remain popular well into his regime. I couldn't avoid reading this account of Hitler's speeches and performance without thinking of the current American president and his shocking successes even as he failed to gain even a plurality of voters in either of his two elections. What do their electoral successes--limited as they were--mean for the viability of democracy? 

Hitler told people what they wanted to hear. His pronouncements were not a challenge but a confirmation of his followers’ assumptions and preconceptions, an incitement to cast off the dreary restrictions of civility and rationality and allow their emotions full Dionysiac release, above all a permission both to maintain hope in the face of obdurate reality and to hate anyone or anything that was perceived to undermine that hope. Catholics, Socialists, and Communists, with intellectual structures of their own, were not as susceptible to him. He appealed to a devastated populace that, like him, had lost everything, including their established beliefs, felt a profound sense of grievance, and found consolation in a pan-Germanism that was part sentimentality and part utopianism, a sort of forward-looking nostalgia. The content of the speeches was important to that degree.

. . . . 

Because he dwelled on longings instead of facts, he preferred abstractions to specifics, emphasizing honor, nation, family, loyalty. What distinguished him was the totality of his commitment, the intensity of a speaker who had stared into the abyss and drew back, once lost and now found—saved by extreme pan-Germanism and fanatical anti-Semitism and afterward devoted to spreading the message to others. He employed neither logic nor reason but sheer passion, while physically embodying the feelings of his audience like a medium.

. . . . 

Hitler rallies were like religious revivals, where the crowds went not for the articulation of policy positions but for the release of unbridled emotion.

I leave it to the reader's imagination about how this account might apply to current events and persons.  

I dove into the following chapter with great enthusiasm and yet a bit of puzzlement. As for the enthusiasm, I've lately rekindled my youthful enthusiasm--perhaps even infatuation--with the thought of Hannah Arendt. And conversely, I've only dipped into the works of Strauss, and I've never gotten a handle on why others have been so taken with his project. And how are these two thinkers related to Kissinger? On a direct level, it turns out almost not at all. Strauss (b. 1899) and Arendt (b. 1906) are about a generation older than Kissinger (b. 1923). Strauss and Arendt both obtained their educations entirely in Germany (and both in part from Martin Heidegger), while Kissinger was a kid out playing soccer. Kissinger completed high school after emigrating to the U.S. in 1938, and all of his further formal education came from Harvard after a four-year stint in the U.S. Army. Gewen finds no direct contact between Kissinger and Strauss, and Kissinger had only a passing encounter with Arendt when he edited a submission by her to a journal he was editing in the early 1950s (Arendt didn't like his heavy-handed edits.) So why are Strauss and Arendt included in this book? Both of these philosophers-turned-political thinkers brought their deeply learned thought and traumatic experiences as German-Jewish refugees to the U.S.  and applied their insights to their understanding and appreciation of the American political system. Both were at once deeply appreciative of their new home and appalled by various American political beliefs, practices, and trends, as were Kissinger and Hans Morganthau. 

I should add that Gewens' exposition and discussion of Strauss's project is the best that I've read: succinct and insightful. I was introduced to Arendt as an undergraduate and took enthusiastically to her perspective (although it was not easy for me to grasp, I must add). But I came to know Strauss only tangentially, as a scholar of the history of political thought. I believe Arendt to be the more widely read between she and Strauss so that Gewen does a great service for those like me who are Strauss-curious. (A good deal was written during the W. Bush years about Strauss and the neocons, but what I took from all of that is that Strauss shouldn't be saddled with their bellicose ways.) In distinction from his thorough exposition of Strauss's work, Gewens' treatment of Arendt is somewhat less focused on her concepts, although not without some detail and insight. For instance, his discussion of Arendt's On Revolution and its ideas about the social vs. the political; liberation as distinct from freedom; and her notion of authority. But he addresses much of his attention to her mixed attitudes toward her adopted country: a mix of fascination, enthusiasm, and deep critique, which she shared with the other German-Jewish emigres examined in this book. An example of her critique--and what drew the most negative responses other than her Eichmann writing--was her article about Little Rock and segregation. The article highlights her distinction between the social and the political. Gewen notes that few Americans appreciated (and many rejected) Arendt's social-political distinction and its implication for race relations. However, there exists at least one notable exception--although never publically expressed in response to the controversy--Leo Strauss, who also insisted on a strong distinction between the public and the private. Gewen notes that Arendt and Strauss

tended to view contemporary events from a great height, sub specie aeternitatis. A problem was never simply a problem to be solved by whatever means were at hand in the pragmatic American fashion; it had to be analyzed in terms of its deeper implications. What’s more, they were decidedly anti-utopian, sniffing out unbounded idealism wherever it arose, and skeptical of those who offered solutions to what seemed to them to be part of the human condition. Neither believed that prejudice and discrimination could ever be completely eradicated. Tamp it down in one area and it would reemerge in another. The best one could hope for was to keep it confined to the social realm, to develop or degenerate as it would. People could not—and should not—be forced to be good, since everyone knows what the paving stones are on the road to Hell. 

To optimistic and idealistic Americans, such views were pessimistic and cynical. Arendt and Strauss were pessimistic to be sure, cautious about the uses of power, but neither was cynical. (p.150.)

Gewen concludes his consideration of Strauss and Arendt with this insight:  

[E]ven the most valid criticisms of their thought are, in a way, beside the point, because they don’t grapple with the problem that was of the greatest urgency to the two German Jews as they surveyed the United States—the problem of democracy itself. Most of their American readers couldn’t be worried in the same way. Quite the contrary. Democracy for them wasn’t an issue to be addressed, it was a given—the life-sustaining ocean everyone swam in—and it was even more than that: a good, a virtue, an aspiration, a touchstone, a metric, a cause, a talisman, a foundation, a faith. Search long and hard and you will never find public figures in the United States ever openly declaring themselves against the spread of democracy at home or abroad. (This would become a problem for a Henry Kissinger trying to explain his policies to the American people.) But these two outsiders couldn’t share that faith. Democracy for them was a question, not an answer, and even if the solutions they devised were unsatisfactory or inappropriate to the real world of the United States, or perhaps any world at all, at least Arendt and Strauss were struggling to produce solutions when most of their compatriots couldn’t even see a problem. It was this challenge to the national orthodoxy by two foreigners that gives their writings on America such depth and richness, such salience. It is also, inevitably, what provokes the hostility each encountered from true believers in democracy and The American Way. The patriotically inclined, it’s clear, don’t like to think without banisters. (pp. 164-165).

Morganthau (b. 1904) as a subject of a chapter in this book seems an obvious choice. He is probably the most significant voice about international relations in the American academy between the end of World War Two and his death in 1980. And, like Kissinger, Strauss, and Arendt, he was a German-Jewish refugee to the U.S. But unlike Strauss and Arendt, Morganthau met and came to know Kissinger, becoming a mentor to his younger colleague. Their shared background and similar interests made this bond possible, but it ran deep. Morganthau became one of the most prominent and outspoken critics of the American involvement and later war in Vietnam while Kissinger, working for Nixon, attempted to prosecute the war while finding a way out, yet they remained on good (if strained) terms.  In this chapter, Gewen provides a persuasive account of how the experiences and beliefs of these four refugees have come to influence American political thinking and in turn how they have been influenced by some of the prevailing traits of American political beliefs, such as Wilsonianism (cheerleading for democracy as a panacea) and isolationism ("let the rest of world be damned and leave us alone").  Political realism was not utterly new to America. Reinhold Niebuhr, a Lutheran theologian, for instance, was a prominent voice for Christian realism in the 1930s onward, and practical men like Acheson, Harriman, and Kennan, for example, practiced realism in the conduct of American foreign affairs. But Morgenthau and Kissinger were the thinkers (and in Kissinger's case, the actor) who gave realism its most considered exposition and defense. 

For Morgenthau, it was a matter of starting with the situation at hand and adjusting one’s ideas to the ever-changing facts on the ground, all for the sake of the national interest. Apparent contradictions or inconsistencies didn’t bother him. Morgenthau was a Realist down to his bones. For him, it wasn’t even a question of the best being the enemy of the good; the good was an enemy as well. In foreign policy, choices usually come down to the bad and the less bad. Like Kissinger, Morgenthau always retained a sense of the tragic and, I would say, it was this shared German-Jewish sensibility, as much as their similar ideas on national interest and balance of power, that was the foundation for the two men’s decades-long friendship, whatever disagreements they may have had over the years, no matter how sharp or how strong.

I have to admit that Gewen, in making his points about Kissinger and these other thinkers, was preaching to the choir with me as a reader. If I had to plant a flag on one school of international relations, it would be realism. Of course, realism as a body of thought is amorphous. Its basic tenants are that the international world consists of nation-states that strive in competition with one another for power and that the nation-state acts--must act as a matter of morality--to preserve and even extend its power. Politics is a zero-sum game that often entails tragic choices. Power must be balanced against power; to wit, nation-state against nation-state, or alliances of nation-states aligned against one another. Maintaining a balance of power(s) allows for stability and security. From these basic premises one can trace many branches. And, I contend, because of its breadth and inherent pliability, realism can subsume many of the strengths of its competitors in thinking about international relations. To wit, international law, international institutions (liberal internationalism), domestic political considerations, culture and thought (constructivism)--each way of thinking about international relations has its merits and weaknesses, as does realism. Perhaps the greatest weakness of realism is its assumption that humans are inherently aggressive, driven by a zero-sum game in a dog-eat-dog world. But this is not so, at least not always. Humans can degenerate into anarchy, but even as the master of doom--Hobbes--realizes, humans can--and inevitably do--come together in society, from the local level to the international level. And to be fair, both Morgenthau and Kissinger, recognize many of these exceptions and nuances required of realism when considered as more than merely a pseudo-Darwinian "survival of the fittest." And realism isn't a system of thought; it's more of an attitude, a stance, or platform with which to view the world. It's not a system that can provide "answers." Thus, we have Morganthau, the arch-realist, as an outspoken critic of the Vietnam War, and Kissinger, the realist actor, willing to prosecute the war despite its high cost and uncertain (and unrealized) rewards. 

It wasn't until I had completed the remainder of the book that I came back to read the first chapter, "Chile." It turned out not to have been a bad way to read the book. For those not acquainted with the history of the early 1970s, Chile democratically elected a Marxist president in 1970, Salvador Allende. Nixon and Kissinger, fearing another Castro in Latin American and the potential for the Soviet Union to gain another foothold in the Western Hemisphere, were eager to see Allende gone. But it didn't happen, a least not immediately. The CIA went shopping for a military coup but found no takers who weren't discarded loose canons. On the whole, the military remained loyal to the constitutional government. But after four years of Allende--and some gains for the poorest in Chile--the middle class, consisting of housewives, truck drivers, shopkeepers, lawyers, and doctors, all began taking to the streets as inflation soared, wages and earnings stagnated, and store shelves emptied. Without direct U.S. prodding (but also without any U.S. government opposition), the military decided to act. By that time, Nixon and Kissinger weren't paying much attention to Chile. But Allende was murdered and General Pinochet came to power to establish a military tyranny. Chile recovered and grew economically while a tyranny reigned. Not a satisfying trade with such bad alternatives on both ends. All of this shows the limits and Kissinger's foresight and perspective, his frustrations with democracy. Allende, like Hitler and Trump, was legitimately elected.  And Kissinger's willingness to use covert means (as did his predecessors and successors) also comes to the forefront. I'm no expert on this episode, but Gewen's account is complex and displays the players (Allende, CIA, Kissinger, Nixon, etc.) in all their ambiguity, with faults and merits openly considered. Based on the thoroughness and ambiguities of his account, I suspect Gewen is providing the reader with a  trustworthy and accurate account of this unhappy affair. Was Allende a threat to the U.S.? To Latin America? These are questions that Gewen raises but can't answer because these questions can never be answered: we can't rerun the tape of history to learn what would have happened had Allende not been deposed. Politics is about laying one's best bet and making a call without ever knowing what hand fate would have played, Perhaps you simply should have folded.  

This was a terrific read, and the more that I've reviewed it and thought about it, the higher my estimation of it has reaches. For anyone who fancies oneself a student of human actions, of politics, of international relations, or of life, this will prove a thoughtful, well-researched, and well-argued book. You won't walk away from it with certainties. You won't see Henry Kissinger and others like him in a totally new and unambiguous light. But perhaps you'll see Kissinger as a representative of those trying to see through a dark glass into a future that holds continuing risks, uncertain friends and foes, and constant flux throughout the human and natural world. And maybe--if an actor has any luck--the actor will find some fleeting stability and certainty. But enjoy any certainty and stability while it lasts--because tragedy is inevitable. 

Monday, November 30, 2020

Thoughts for the Day: Monday 30 November 2020


The financial crisis was actually only one of three social earthquakes that shook the world simultaneously in 2008. Between January and June of that year, as the US sub-prime mortgage crisis was reaching its climax, world energy prices soared— the international price of light crude oil rose more than 60 percent to over $140 a barrel— and the price of grain worldwide shot upwards too, triggering food riots and violence in dozens of poor countries. Few commentators or analysts have noted the extraordinary synchronicity of these three crises; but they were intimately related to each other.
So what is the connection between these events?
[C]ascading failure is an example of contagion. More connectivity enables change in one element to more easily cause change in another, so it’s easier for the pathogen [actual or figurative] to jump between elements; and greater uniformity among the elements makes the pathogen’s effects more consistently harmful. Homer-Dixon, Thomas. Commanding Hope (p. 202). Knopf Canada. Kindle Edition.

Our e-mail messages are stripped of nuance and texture and reduced to Morse-like staccatos of data; we drop punctuation, capitalization, and proper spelling, and we adopt an impoverished symbolism of emoticons.

Values are meaningless without stories to bring them to life and engage us on a personal level.

An important characteristic of cooperation is that while the benefits are typically shared among all, such public goods are costly. For example, maintaining internal peace and order, something that any decent society must do, requires a lot of work.

“Mindfulness means being present to whatever is happening here and now - when mindfulness is strong, there is no room left in the mind for wanting something else. With less liking and disliking of what arises, there is less pushing and pulling on the world, less defining of the threshold between self and other, resulting in a reduced construction of self. As the influence of self diminishes, suffering diminishes in proportion.”

Saturday, November 28, 2020

Thoughts of the Day: Saturday 28 November 2020

A more promising method of differentiating would be to distinguish exposition from argument, as a static from a dynamic aspect of thought. The business of St. Thomas himself is not to expound Thomism, but to arrive at it: to build up arguments whose purpose is to criticize other philosophical views and by criticizing them to lead himself and his readers towards what he hopes will be a satisfactory one.
Ever since Pythagoras (or so we are told) invented the word philosophy, in order to express the notion of the philosopher not as one who possesses wisdom but as one who aspires to it, students of philosophy have recognized that the essence of their business lies not in holding this view or that, but in aiming at some view not yet achieved: in the labour and adventure of thinking, not in the results of it. What a genuine philosopher (as distinct from a teacher of philosophy for purposes of examination) tries to express when he writes is the experience he enjoys in the course of this adventure, where theories and systems are only incidents in the journey.

[Quoting R.G. Collingwood] Biography, though it often uses motives of an historical kind by way of embroidery, is in essence a web woven of these two groups of threads, sympathy and malice. Its function is to arouse these feelings in the reader; essentially therefore it is a device for stimulating emotion, and accordingly it falls into the two main divisions of amusement-biography, which is what the circulating libraries so extensively deal in, and magical biography, or the biography of exhortation and moral-pointing, holding up good examples to be followed or bad ones to be eschewed. The biographer’s choice of his materials, though it may be (and ought to be) controlled by other considerations, is determined in the first instance by what I will call their gossip-value. The name is chosen in no derogatory spirit. Human beings, like other animals, take an interest in each other’s affairs which has its roots in various parts of their animal nature, sexual, gregarious, aggressive, acquisitive, and so forth. They take a sympathetic pleasure in thinking that desires in their fellow-creatures that spring from these sources are being satisfied, and a malicious pleasure in thinking that they are being thwarted.
I should add that Inglis goes on to criticize Collingwood's view, nothing several worthwhile examples of biography as history and art, not the least of which is Collingwood's own An Autobiography.

Over the course of human evolution, as each group of people became gradually aware of the enormity of its isolation in the cosmos and of the precariousness of its hold on survival, it developed myths and beliefs to transform the random, crushing forces of the universe into manageable, or at least understandable, patterns. One of the major functions of every culture has been to shield its members from chaos, to reassure them of their importance and ultimate success.

We believe that the realization of the self is accomplished not only by an act of thinking but also by the realization of man’s total personality, by the active expression of his emotional and intellectual potentialities. These potentialities are present in everybody; they become real only to the extent to which they are expressed. In other words, positive freedom consists in the spontaneous activity of the total, integrated personality.

When a westerner is touched by being in love, now one of the only ways we are visited by the gods anymore, a road of evolution can be traveled that has consciousness as its goal.

Sell yourself, and your subject will exert its own appeal. Believe in your own identity and your own opinions. Writing is an act of ego, and you might as well admit it. Use its energy to keep yourself going.

Friday, November 27, 2020

Thoughts for the Day: Friday 27 November 2020


Combining the positions on the left end of each scale yields a worldview emphasizing moral relativism, the power of circumstances over choice, the essential similarity of all people, responsibility to others, and resistance to authority— a common leftist perspective.

Politicians and commentators often say that we’re all simply going to have to adjust to the “new normal” of a climate-changed world. But there’s no normal anymore, new or otherwise.

[Alfred] Adler’s view that neurosis springs from feelings of inadequacy, inferiority. But what is more important is that he recognises the vital importance of the human will in mental illness. Freud’s psychology is virtually will-less, like Hume’s; the human will is very small and unimportant compared to the vast forces of the subconscious; curing a patient consists in somehow reconciling him to these forces, persuading him to stop resisting them, attempting to repress them.

The historical achievement of liberalism is a great one, and even its severest critics would not systematically raze all its monuments. That these great deeds were accomplished by men acting, often, out of self-delusion means only that we are looking at the history of men—the same could be said of any school of thought that led to large actions in the world. One cannot even indulge in “hypothetical history” by saying a different course would have been a better one. This is our history, its good and bad intermixed; we cannot choose another.

There was a deep element of make-believe in such self-conscious adoption of a style. “Courtly love was a social utopia. It was the code word for a new and better society, a society that was unreal and could exist only in the poetic imagination.”

Meaning perception [from Alfred North Whitehead] is the glue that holds these separate items together to form a whole and allows them to make sense. It is a form of Schwaller de Lubicz’s ‘intelligence of the heart’ and Bergson’s ‘intuition’, which allows us to get into things, to know their ‘insides’.

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Thoughts for the Day: Wednesday 25 November 2020


Will and Ariel Durant echo Machiavelli: “History repeats itself in the large because…man is equipped to respond in stereotyped ways to frequently occurring situations and stimuli like hunger, danger, and sex.”

My review here. 

Some animals adopt a form of ‘musilanguage’, using intonation, not just body language, to communicate with humans: look at the domestic dog. Amongst one another they communicate preferentially by scent, and body language. But they have achieved awareness of the fact that intonation is an important part of human communication.

If defense has a clear advantage over offense, and conquest is therefore difficult, great powers will have little incentive to use force to gain power and will concentrate instead on  protecting  what they have. When defense has the advantage, protecting what you have should be a relatively easy task. Alternatively, if offense is easier, states will be sorely tempted to try conquering each other, and there will be a lot of war in the system.

One of these [ideas about consciousness that are off the beaten scientific track] is the evolution of consciousness, something we touched on in the last chapter. What I mean by the evolution of consciousness has nothing to do with Darwin’s ‘dangerous idea’. I do not mean how consciousness evolved by chance out of ‘un’ or ‘non-consciousness’, or how our chance consciousness evolved, under a variety of environmental pressures, from some dim, vague awareness to our own acute sense of self and the world. As we’ve seen, in these and other mainstream ideas about consciousness, it is ultimately a chance outcome, an epiphenomenon, of some physical or material reality. The evolution of consciousness I am thinking of takes consciousness as fundamental and irreducible and not solely localised inside our heads. Consciousness from this perspective did not emerge out of matter at some time in the past. Consciousness was there to begin with, and it would be more correct from this perspective to say that matter emerged out of it, a point we will return to.

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Thoughts for the Day: Tuesday 24 November 2020


Collingwood’s constitution of scientific history was fourfold: that it asked relevant and exact questions; that it asks these of “determinate men at determinate times”; that it maintains a “criteriological” rationality in its recourse to evidence; that its point is to enlarge humankind’s knowledge of itself by telling it what it has done.

This is how their [Englightenment philosophes] notion of self-expansion – through unlimited growth of production, and the expansion of productive forces – steadily replaced all other ideas of the human good in the eighteenth century; it became the central objective of existence, with corresponding attitudes, norms, values, and a quantitative notion of reality defined by what counts and what does not count.
In this schema, now wholly internalized, the human being used the tools of theoretical and practical reason to expand his capacities; and all his reference points and norms were defined by the imperative of expansion. Progress for him denoted the endless growth of a society whose individuals are free but responsible, egocentric but enlightened.
The high stimulus society in which we live is represented through advertising as full of vibrancy and vitality, but, as advertisers know only too well, its condition is one of boredom, and the response to boredom. Since the rise of capitalism in the eighteenth century, when according to Patricia Spacks boredom as such began, an ‘appetite for the new and the different, for fresh experience and novel excitements’ has lain at the heart of successful bourgeois society, with its need above all to be getting and spending money.

Many resort to diseased methods of coping, not only physical addiction to drugs, alcohol, and tobacco but also psychological addiction to eating, entertainment, gambling, pornography, sex, shopping, and sports.

In sum, this would be systems-style leverage: avoid direct conflict, use the forces already at play, manipulate so quietly as to be unnoticed, know that no effort truly ends. Treat  Middle East peace not as something to be hammered together but — to use Hayek’s idea for economies — as a garden to be tended.

Monday, November 23, 2020

Thoughts for the Day: Monday 23 November 2020


“The laws of complexity,” says James Gleick, “hold universally, caring not at all for the details of a system’s constituent atoms.”
A chaotic system magnifies the effect of small perturbations: as a result, the way the system develops over time is highly sensitive to minute differences in initial conditions, just as PoincarĂ© proposed at the turn of the last century. The further one tries to project the system’s behavior into the future, the harder accurate prediction becomes. But chaos should not be confused with randomness—that is, with events and behavior that have no specific cause. In chaotic systems, the basic processes of cause and effect still operate among the system’s components. But how the interactions of these components unfold over time and what kinds of large-scale behavior these interactions produce are nevertheless, in important respects, unpredictable.
Review in the works.
But the rationalist theory of causation, however valuable it may be as the manifesto of a particular scientific enterprise, cannot be regarded as an ‘analysis’ of the causal propositions asserted by natural science as it has existed for the last few centuries.
You’re either believing your thoughts or questioning them. There’s no other choice.

Sunday, November 22, 2020

Thoughts for the Day: Sunday 22 November 2020


Scott Carney, Amelia Boone, and Dave Asprey

Flipping the switch between parasympathetic and sympathetic defines our “state.” Mastering the Wedge puts our thumb on that switch so that we can learn to control the state of our nervous systems, flipping between sympathetic and parasympathetic systems almost at will.

We cannot convincingly proclaim that where we stand is a “vital center.” Our “mainstream” is a sludge. The “consensus” is no longer a matter of compromise but surrender. Our archetypal “self-made man” is not only self-effacing but almost self-obliterating.

I am not referring to the absolute, infinite concept of universal peace and good will of which some fantasies and fanatics dream. I do not deny the value of hopes and dreams but we merely invite discouragement and incredulity by making that our only and immediate goal.
Desire is the motivating power behind all actions – it is a natural law of life. Everything from the atom to the monad; from the monad to the insect; from the insect to man; from man to Nature, acts and does things by reason of the power and force of Desire, the Animating Motive. "
How's this compare with the Buddha?
So if the immune system uses the same chemical hardware that creates feelings in our brains and influences our behavior in the world, then how much of a stretch is it to say that our immune system is conscious? What if instead of assuming that the immune system is just a machine, we give it a chance to have a semblance of cognition? Obviously the immune system can’t have the sort of complex emotions or thoughts that you or I experience, but even a shard of that subjectivity is powerful.

There have always been people who saw that the true ‘unit of thought’ was not the proposition but something more complex in which the proposition served as answer to a question. Not only Bacon and Descartes, but Plato and Kant, come to mind as examples. When Plato described thinking as a ‘dialogue of the soul with itself’, he meant (as we know from his own dialogues) that it was a process of question and answer, and that of these two elements the primacy belongs to the questioning activity, the Socrates within us.