OF WIT AND HUMOUR, Part 3: Humorous nature


Here the Earl continues the critique of the previous section. Having claimed that the philosophers of self interest are betrayed by their genre—if they sincerely believed that humans acted solely out of self-interest, they would not write their books, but instead exploit this fact—he moves from their writing to the concept of nature. The Earl rarely goes point for point in his arguments: he thinks in pictures and systems. Always delighted and delightful, he cannot pin down a principle to be used in an argument, because principles change into their opposite.

If there is a guiding principle, it is complexity and variation: there is no “Alphabet of Ideas” [Leibniz] where each thought can be broken down into a set number of parts. “

YOU have heard it (my Friend!) as a common Saying, that Interest governs the World. But, I believe, whoever looks narrowly into the Affairs of it, will find, that Passion, Humour, Caprice, Zeal, Faction, and a thousand other Springs, which are counter to Self-Interest, have as considerable a part in the Movements of this Machine. There are more Wheels and Counter-Poises in this Engine than are easily imagin’d. ’Tis of too complex a kind, to fall under one simple View, or be explain’d thus briefly in a word or two. The Studiers of this Mechanism must have a very partial Eye, to overlook all other Motions besides those of the lowest and narrowest compass. [72]

The Earl does not try to save kindness, or decency, from the clutches of Hobbes and the “lower Genius” descendants of the atomists. His argument is actually simpler: the world is complex, not simply in its arrangement, but in the parts and forces that make it up. A simple theory is a bad theory, because it does not do justice to nature: “Modern Projectors, I know, wou’d willingly rid their hands of these natural Materials; and wou’d fain build after amore uniform way”. There is a naïve and mildly intoxicated perspectivalism at play: no one perspective can catch the machine. Any pretense to see the whole mechanism is not philosophy, but projection–meaning not a film projector, but one who plans, schemes, forecasts, or throw something forward.

More hucksters than hacks, simplification of nature—a concept with “so little meaning”—costs them dearly. The attempt to draw a firm line between Nature and Civil Society (as if the first is automatic, and the latter “a kind of Invention, and Creature of Art”) is doomed. This sort of bifurcation requires that we ‘exit nature’, into some kind of social contract, but with a such a uniform picture of nature, the tools required to exit it will never be available.

 Simply put: the social contract is a kind of promise, but it is a promise made in the state of nature. So, either promises are binding in the state of nature (which means there is something already social there) or, they are not, and are stuck there. “A Man is oblig’d to keep his Word. Why? Because he has given his Word to keep it.” In other words: there are obligations, even in nature—here I see shades of Mendelssohn: the political and moral are not imposed by a sovereign fiat, but tended to, and you cannot grown something without a seed; we never begin at the beginning—and civil society is just a further development of a natural form, what Shaftesbury calls “herding”, or forming groups.

What does this have to do with comedy? Humour is one mechanism among many for the development of a civil society: it is not a social product, or social corrective, but rather a primitive force, or building block.  It is found in both nature and civil society

As a basic force, it is neither good nor evil: the Earl does not value in this way. Instead, he sets the machine turning, and follows it.  The desire for fellowship can lead to conspiracy or “cantonizing”—the need for fellowship can turn into war, a situation that manufactures closeness. Despite being a defense of humour, the essay does not present humour as a good, or value, but an overlooked element of the machine.

The MidWestern Code


The Midwesterner is distinguished by the extreme lengths they will go to hide (even from themselves) the regional weirdness of their social rules. Texas, for instance, is enamoured with its own odd behaviour: there are Texan ways of doing things, and these are proper; they are not proper because they are what everyone should do, they are proper because they are Texan, and this is Texas, and Texas is chosen. There is something punk-aristocratic about it, and even if the violence, racism, and stupidity can easily repel an outsider, the local codes and craziness are visible, and can usually be easily navigated, or avoided, if you’re fast enough. Israel and Palestine are also replete with regional rules, and they are fiercely visible, if only because everyone likes to talk about their own codes, and their neighbours. The opening premise in most conversation is that everyone, including the speakers, follows an incomprehensible set of rules. This talk produces distinctions which are not actually there in practice: differences are exaggerated, and even the most banal habits are presented as singular and precious.

I have moved several times. More than one would expect for a creature as habitual and bland as I am. And, each time, I am miserable for about 14-18 months. One year to go through a seasonal cycle, hating every violation of my routine, all new objects grinding the tips of my nerves. Then, it takes part of a second year, to learn how to enjoy the place, to slip into its bloodstream. Only Japan did I like within 8 months: food and flowers go a long way with me.

The Midwest is the only place I have moved where the cultural codes are completely invisible to the people who live within them. I have had more than one Midwesterner tell me, with full sincerity, that there are “no codes” here. The effortless movement between the particular and the universal is not intentionally dishonest. Americans are too quickly accused of emotional dishonesty (being ‘fake’) by groups that fetishize their own rudeness—as if German frostiness or Israeli gruffness are sincere, rather than boorish. I find American politeness admirable, and no less authentic than that found in other countries–it is certainly preferable to Torontonian coldness. But the refusal to admit that there are particular, local rules is disorienting to the point of vertigo. Boundaries are sponged away, and the ground disappears with them. The politeness that is supposed to compensate for this absence is not enough for me. You can push your hand right through solid objects, like jelly. When you ask: “what am I doing wrong”, you are politely told “Everything you’re doing is fine”—but knives are still sharp, and people are still desperate. Mid-westerners are very polite. But, הם לא נחמדים. The Midwest is a violent place–there are more gun murders per capita in Ohio than in Texas. Few members of either state would believe this—but a quick glance my student evaluations reveals a seething cruelty.


My sister is hounding me to finish this, get out of the hammock, and eat some fish. I have discharged my duty.







grading my weakly writing


More than usual, this week’s writing is just to keep my promise to myself. I am taken up entirely with grading. Grading is one of the worst parts of teaching. For a new professor, grading is worse than meetings, because we have no stake in the institution and do not yet love the things being slowly destroyed.

Recently, a good student asked a revealing question. It concerned one of my many annotation assignments, where I collect readings and grade the marginalia. The point is to see how carefully they’ve read the text, to see if they’ve found the juicy bits. I’d given the student a 90%–generous by any standard other than hers. I told her it was a good grade, one of the best in the class.

Nonetheless, she asked: “I want to know what I did to lose the 10%”.

And this, gentle reader, is a serious difference between students of today, and my crew. When I went to school, it worked like this: you knew that there were a certain number of A’s, and so your job was to convince the professor, through your written work, charm, and, if need be, an office visit or two, that one of those A’s should be given to you. It was macho, competitive, and arbitrary: a terrible system, one I will not apologize for, or be nostalgic about.

But I do believe we’ve managed to come up with something worse. In the mind of this student (and I believe she is not alone) you begin with 100%, and with every miss-step, every error, your grade is whittled down to what you ‘deserve’: grades are a matter of loss, not gain. While perhaps less macho, it is more anxious and less creative. None of my peers suffered under the illusion that our essays were great works: but they were still something built, crafted, or made—a kind of machine, confession, or (very rarely) art. Often crass, usually soulless, there was always the potential for an assignment to be judged for what it had done: thus the fear was “is it good enough?” and not the more anxious question “what did I allow to be taken from me?”.

As far as they are concerned, students are now graded on their blunders. They begin with an A+, and must do their best to protect it: assignments are entirely defensive maneuvers, exercises in avoiding failure. The school chants that students should “fail better,” but this only compounds the cruelty. They quiver inside of the rubric.

Once she asked the question, I realized that I have been an idiot. Of course, the ‘culture’ of assessment would hurt them, whose egos are developing inside it. In most classes, at least one assignment is designed with an eye to monitoring the course’s ‘progress’—assignments are handed to me, and I in turn hand them over to a higher authority. Of course, students can feel this.

Things have changed here, perhaps more than I thought: part of teaching is trying to gauge the distance between you and your students, and there there is a great temptation to exaggerate. But the student’s question rang true. As an aside: I think this is part of the reason it has been so difficult for me to get them to develop arguments–an argument is built, and they are too busy trying to avoid the knives.

I need to completely rethink my teaching, and grading. I used to use grades as a stick to poke lethargic students—especially the clever ones who have grown used to coasting. But I need to find some way to convince them that I am not just hunting for errors, that I do in fact want them to make things. At the very least, I need to replace anxiety with fear.

On Descriptive Grammar and Banal Bigotry

I am forever being told that
prescriptive spelling is a tool of oppression.
And always, the way being defended,
just happens to be fucking American
– Tim


Every few months or so a series of memes and critiques run through the social media mill, and they all sing the same refrain: “telling people how to write or speak correctly is authoritarian and bigoted”. The impulse is correct: We’ve all seen ‘proper grammar’ used to shit on a lower class, or justify a racist position. We all know that language is full of traps to figure out ‘who belongs’. But the simplicity of the “there is no such thing as proper English” critique is going to fuel this weekly writing exercise .

Anyone who’s read three of my sentences knows I’m not picky about grammar. I doubt I could be even if I wanted—I don’t have the skills or training. But I am trying to improve my writing, and so have been thinking about the role that grammar could play.

Behind every stupid critique is an even stupider debate, and this time the debate is between ‘descriptive’ and ‘prescriptive’ grammar. Simplified to the point of offending my friends in linguistics, the debate looks like this:

On the one side, we have the prescriptivists –for them, grammar is a set of rules that you should follow; follow them, and you end up with proper writing.

On the other side, we have the descriptivists—for them, grammar is, at best, a way of describing how language is used. Grammar doesn’t tell you how you should write, rather, it tells you how people do write.

I am not stupid enough to venture into an academic debate—I assume actual linguists long ago thought through all of my complaints. But I am stupid enough to see how this debate informs memes and drunken arguments—that’s the level I operate on. And at this level, prescriptivists are identified as linguistic bullies who force everyone to try to speak the same way, while descriptivists are like ethical butterfly collectors, gathering dialects rather than insects.

Once this scene is set, it’s impossible to avoid the conclusion that “there’s no such thing as proper grammar” and that “people who believe in prescriptive grammar are bigots”. All bases are covered: descriptivism is more true, and, as a bonus, more ethical.

I get the critique, but it misses something important (training and improvement). Yes, there is no unchanging standard of correctness. Yes, your friend who remembers three rules from Latin class is annoying. Yes, while you shouldn’t say ‘literally’ when ‘figuratively’ is called for, gleefully correcting this error makes you a prick, and not a ‘grammar nerd’.

But this does not mean that all types of grammar correction are similarly tone deaf. It strikes me that the fantasy operating behind this critique, is a world divided into two camps: on the one hand, a university full of donnish and prissy bigots speaking in dead letter; and on the other, vibrant and dynamic dialects spoken by peasants in the fields and in the slums. Let us grant this fantasy: do we seriously think that these idealized dynamic communities of noble outsiders do not correct each other? I have been told that even the Scots have standards.

I suggest: correcting each other is an essential part of how good speech and writing develops. The English spoken in Newfoundland is as ‘proper’ as that spoken in Jamaica and Cambridge. But people in Newfoundland correct each other: that’s part of how language develops and defends itself. It should surprise no one that the vogue for descriptivism coincides with a massive homogenization of the English language.

As usual, the pop critique could use a healthy dose of pop dialectics. It’s half-way there: prescriptive grammar is dishonest, because it hides the fact that it enforces one particular description. But the critique misses the other half: good description would have to describe not just a dialect’s scaffolding (the rules), but also the mechanisms by which the building is maintained. And this, my darlings, is where correcting each other comes in (“you sound like a pretentious wanker” serves just as well as “you have dropped the ‘u’ from colour”).

Giving up on proper grammar is fine. Giving up on better grammar—which requires correcting each other—is not. Because hovering in the background of these cheap critiques is the belief that “all that matters is clarity—if you get your idea across, that’s good enough.” You don’t need a thorough critique of neoliberalism to see that this is a depressing ideology that sucks the life out of speech, and leaves behind only a ‘marketplace of ideas’.

Here a dose of pedantry is called for. Otherwise, we will be stuck in conversations sustained only by their content.



On Bullshit in the age of Trump


I hid myself between two leaves of sorrel, and there discharged the necessities of nature.I hope the gentle reader will excuse me for dwelling on these and the like particulars, which, however insignificant they may appear to groveling vulgar minds, yet will certainly help a philosopher to enlarge his thoughts and imagination
– Gulliver’s Travels

On Bullshit is a famous little paper by the professional philosopher Harry Frankfurt. First published by an academic journal in 1986, in 2001 it was re-packaged as a slim little black volume, the sort you buy for someone you don’t know. I saw it for sale in Japan over a decade ago, but resented its 10$ price tag: 10$ struck me as exorbitant when a real book could be had for 12$ (or free, if I was fast enough). This touched one of my many exposed nerves, and so I didn’t bother reading it until a Houston friend handed it to me. I read it on the plane as the liquor drained from my blood.

My bile has two parts. The first is a long and rambling bit on Frankfurt’s paper, the second is proper blog-length (12 words and a wet kiss). I’d skip to the second part, if I were you.


Part 1 (the Essay)

A tiny book, On Bullshit is still too long. The intro suffers from the usual patterns of professional philosophy—carving out a problem paying very little attention to anything other than the writer’s discipline. To be fair, the opening to On Bullshit is slightly nicer than usual: the tiresome rehearsal of older and inferior positions is mercifully short, and is followed by a charming trip through the Oxford English Dictionary’s “Bullshit” entry.

The essay gets interesting when it turns to one of Fania Pascal’s recollections of Wittgenstein. Frankfurt is oddly suspicious of the anecdote (Wittgenstein was a well known prick, especially to women), which is as follows:

I had my tonsils out and was in the Evelyn Nursing Home feeling sorry for myself.
Wittgenstein called.
I croaked: “I feel just 
like a dog that has been run over.”
He was disgusted: “You don’t know what a dog that has been run over feels like.”

Frankfurt itemizes Pascal’s sins, but one stands out:  “Her fault is not that she fails to get things right, but that she is not even trying…She does not even think she knows, except in the vaguest way, how a run-over dog feels”. She is not concerned about whether her statement is correct—and it is for this mindlessness that the passionate philosopher (Wittgenstein) berates her. Frankfurt gives the American allergy to playfulness the support of a quivering Austrian philosopher. We are meant to understand Wittgenstein’s irritation as the integrity of a serious man. I would slap him.

Why does Wittgenstain’s ‘princess and the pea’ level of sensitivity to bullshit matter? Because bullshit has a structure that is—according to Frankfurt—worse than lying.

“Her statement is grounded neither in the belief that it is true nor, as a lie must be, in a belief that it is not true. It is just this lack of connection with a concern with truth—this indifference to how things really are—that I consider to be the essence of bullshit.”

The story goes like this: Bullshit is worse than lying, because the liar has the decency to be worried about the truth: you need to know the truth to tell a good lie. Liars, even if they hurt the truth, keep alive the concern for the truth (Frankfurt’s concern with concern makes him sound more like Heidegger than I bet he would like). The bullshit artist is worse than the liar, because s/he kills even the concern for the truth. The liar has the decency to play the “same game” as the truth teller, and so is less dangerous

So, the essence of bullshit is that it is not even concerned about the truth it is debasing. It’s not a bad ‘essence’, but it’s probably wrong. Out of the gate: with this as your guide, there is more-or-less no way to tell the difference between bad bullshit and a good story.

This is the essay’s first mistake: it wants to figure out the difference between bullshit and Truth—and this is the place to start. Look: if bullshit is unconcerned with the truth, it seems pretty likely that comparing bullshit to truth is the wrong way to go about figuring out what bullshit is. If I want to figure out what something is, it’s probably a better idea to look at what it is concerned with. (Everyone should read Feuerbach).

The essay’s second mistake is that it wants to capture the essence of Bullshit, period. This is a problem, because in a basic sense, bullshit does not have an essence to capture. I’ll get into that in the second part

Why these obvious mistake on the part of someone so intelligent? Because the concern is not really to figure out the structure of Bullshit, but to identify its cause, and the cause, dear reader, is known in advance.

“The contemporary proliferation of bullshit has deeper sources, in various forms of skepticism which deny that we can have any reliable access to an objective reality, and which therefor reject the possibility of knowing how things truly are.”

Sometimes it feels like they just can’t help themselves. I am tempted to not bother critiquing this, but I need my whisky.

No concern for economic forces, no question about media technologies, social networks, history, violence, masculinity, or pleasure. The problem begins with a handful of literary professors who believe that “reality has no inherent nature” and therefore look to “sincerity” rather than “correctness” to guide themselves (where are these people?).  Frankfurt himself seems sincere about this. Finding nothing in bullshit but a lack of concern for the things he has devoted himself to (correctness, Truth) he decides to hold responsible his peers who are also unconcerned with these things.

Let’s say it again, in unison: with few exceptions, those of us who critique the notion of truth, do so out of concern for the truth. When people don’t get this, we are forced to watch otherwise intelligent and decent people shake in rage at imagined enemies, fighting ghosts when there are real demons out there. One day this might get so bad that people who barely read will march in the name of science.

Bullshit is rife, and it is growing. But chanting the words ‘Truth’’, ‘Enlightenment’, or ‘Science’ are not going to help us–enlightenment is a fire to be fed, not a word to be repeated. Nor is the problem epistemology, as if the purveyors of bullshit just haven’t thought hard enough about how to make truth claims.

I do think we can look at bullshit-in-itself and figure a few things out about it, rather than blame it on mediocre ontologies. And now is the time to do it, not because there is more bullshit than usual, but because right now the bullshit is just so damn pure. All politicians bullshit, but with Trump at the helm, bullshit is sovereign, central, and imperative.


Part 2 (theses on Bullshit)

We have at our disposal an endless supply of top self, single malt, bullshit. So what can we learn from it? Why is it compelling?

Intimacy and response:

  • Bullshit seems intimate, because it gives you permission to speak without consequence. It feels like unconditional love, because it does not judge you.
  • Bullshit responds to you. Trump knows nothing until a question has been asked, and the answer is just the question rejigged, perhaps an added anecdote, some righteousness, and the promise of action.
  • More: there may be ‘first philosophy’, but there can be no ‘first bullshit,’ because bullshit is always a reaction to something. It may flip it around to be controversial, it may restate it in a more sonorous voice to seem pious. But it responds. This is also why it seems to care more than facts do—facts are indifferent; bullshit may not be a good listener, but it responds to what you say


  • Bullshit responds, but it is irresponsible. Not because it does not care about truth, but because it does not even care for itself. It lacks all consistency, and changes the terms from one moment to the next. Here bad bullshit is nothing like a good story: a good story has a degree of consistency, and cares for the audience more than the teller.
  • Bullshit believes. It believes without knowing. In this sense it is (pace Frankfurt) hostile to the truth. Not hostile to specific truths (facts), which can be useful for bullshit—every bullshit artist has a bag full of facts—but hostile to institutions and atmospheres where truth is encouraged and grown, both of which require consistency. I suspect bullshit hates every environment where continuity of thought is encouraged.
  • Bullshit is sincere, but it is a limited sincerity. It lives in thin time-slices: often shorter than a phrase, never longer than a single conversation or interview. Within this instant, bullshit believes absolutely (including, yes, in truth). But it does not believe in the previous instant, nor in the next. It has no permanence, no metabolism. If you want to find something like a structure for bullshit, you have to look at the way bullshit deals with time.
  • Bullshit seems close, and even honest, because it has no interiority. No conscience, but also no secrets. Bullshit holds nothing back, delays nothing. After all, the next moment is not important.
  • Bullshit is fun. Bullshit lives in the moment. Bullshit lives every day as if it were its last.

A warning:

  • People who never bullshit are insufferable. There is good bullshit, and bad bullshit. Here something like esprit de finesse is required.

Dustin Atlas wuz here

Is this invisible? 

FREEDOM OF WIT pt 2: Hobbes, savage comedian

Dear non-reader, I am cutting it down to the line, in danger of losing my whisky. Today will just be the Earl—nothing relevant, nothing exciting. Just a few thoughts about Part II on the Earl’s Essay on the Freedom of With an Humour.

When I first started writing outside of my notebooks, it was crass, repellent, and occasionally clever. It was confessional, and was suited to my age and near total lack of responsibilities. Teaching in the Mid-East changed this: the program was precarious, the borders daunting, and the administration vindictive. Anything remotely honest could land you in trouble in an environment which was already too much to bear. There I developed the habit of keeping secrets: my journals went to fat, my presence on the web grew anaemic, and was eventually scrubbed. I am keeping this habit, but now for banal and selfish reasons: I’d like to get tenure one day, and I am not my thoughts on the Midwest could withstand a hostile committee’s scrutiny. So, to keep myself writing, I will continue to respond to the Earl, unless something else demands my attention.

Part II of the Essay is short, and less apologetic than the opening. It begins with an Ethiopian “on a sudden” transported to a European Carnival. The essayists I like delight in this conceit: from Montaigne to Mendelssohn, Africans, Brazilians, and Haitians are teleported to Europe, and find it shitty. For Montaigne, the ‘cannibal’ wonders why Europeans obey a child and live in poverty while the rich stuff themselves. Shaftesbury’s ‘Ethiopian’ laughs at the carnival masks—while the Europeans laugh at his laughing. But they are in the wrong: “he who laughs, and is himself ridiculous, bears a double share of RIDICULE”. Girard writes somewhere that this ‘doubling’ is a basic structure of comedy: it’s funny when someone falls. It’s funnier if I fall when I’m making fun of them.

This section is a series of twists, with savagery at their core: being a savage is savage, getting rid of savagery is more savage; Hobbes is savage, censuring Hobbes is more savage. No one is exempt: the Ethiopian is right to laugh at carnival masks. But if he laughs at the faces underneath the masks (thinking that the pale face is just another mask) then he is now in the wrong: we are permitted to laugh at masks, but not faces. Shaftesbury has an almost pathological hatred for any attempt to regulate a face, whether it’s a question of politeness or fashion. I don’t understand much of it, having no understanding of French courts or the ‘tyranny of the Magi’. The Earl assumes a very serious education.

I will skip to the potion I do understand: after travelling around the world we end up in Hobbes’ backyard. It is clear that the Earl does not like Hobbes, but finds attempts to extirpate him worrying, for exactly the same reason that he dislikes policing humour. The Earl’s critique of Hobbes is not one I’ve read before, although I haven’t read many. Hobbes is placed in the position of the comedian-savage. And we are asked to note that, despite the savagery of his philosophy, Hobbes himself behaves like a gentleman, communicating his work in a fair and measured manner:

Whatever Savages they may appear in Philosophy, they are in their common Capacity as Civil Persons, as one can wish. Their free communicating of their Principles may witness for them. ’Tis the height of Sociableness to be thus friendly and communicative.

The Earl presents Hobbes as a social person, almost gentlemanly, and through this very kindness undoes his work. How is this the case? It is assumed that Hobbes and his followers (perhaps including even Foucault in his cruder moments) are saying something like this:

That both in Religion and Morals we were impos’d on by our Governors; that there was nothing which by Nature inclin’d us either way; nothing which naturally drew us to the Love of what was without, or beyond our-selves’. 

Religion, Morality, ethics, these are in no way natural, but entirely mechanisms of control. For Shaftesbury, temperamentally anti-authoritarian, this is impermissible: for him there are seeds of goodness everywhere, and neither God nor King nor social programs are required to cultivate them (although all may help). But this is not his critique—it is (I think) the reason for it, but not the move he makes. Instead, Shaftesbury makes use of one of my favoured lines of attack against fatalists and determinists. He asks a simple question: if all is as you say, fine—then why write your book?

I cannot stress enough how much this question irritates scholars. It is worth it for that reason alone. But it is, I still believe, after years of being yelled at, a good question. In the case of Hobbes, Shaftesbury thinks the answer is clear.

But, pray, whence is this Zeal in our behalf? What are We to You? Are You our Father? Or if You were, why this Concern for Us? Is there then such a thing as natural Affection? If not; why all this Pains, why all this Danger on our account? Why not keep this Secret to Your-self? Of what advantage is it to You, to deliver us from the Cheat?

If Hobbes and company are correct, they would be better keeping their insight to themselves, and using it to exploit us. But in writing, they betray their real concern: us. If they present humans as treacherous, it is to protect us from this treachery. When they dismiss the idea of freedom, it is because the idea of freedom is used to restrict freedom. Hobbes’ entire philosophy is presented as having the structure of stand-up comedy: a paradoxical system is used to introduce a general scepticism, so that “particular subjects” about which we are overly sensitive, can then be approached:

When they have accustom’d Men to bear Contradiction in the main, and hear the Nature of Things disputed, at large; it may be safer, they conclude, to argue separately, upon certain nice Points in which they are not altogether so well satisfy’d. So that from hence, perhaps, you may still better apprehend why, in conversation, the Spirit of Raillery prevails so much, and Notions are taken up for no reason besides their being odd, and out of the way.

Comedy, again, is a kind of softening agent, and allows truth to be measured in its turn. The seemingly extreme statements like ‘everything is power,’ ‘all ethics are conventional,’ ‘all humans are disgusting’—sentiments that many stand up comedians explicitly hold to—are not in fact the point. They are ways of putting the entire world off kilter, such that seemingly smaller, but far more sensitive, points can now be addressed. I start with ‘everything is crazy’ and only then address your actual craziness, because, for some reason, we are willing to grant the first claim more easily than the second.

The big claims, the seemingly intense ones, are not really the point. And we can tell this, because they are betrayed by the performance. If people are indeed so grotesque and not worth your bother, a rich comedian would be better off not touring at all. If everything was power, and all people are selfishly looking only to increase and sustain their power, Hobbes would be better off not writing his book, but instead should have written a book praising virtue, and used it to exploit his audience.

This may not be the most sophisticated argument, but it is a clever one. Rather than censure, the Earl damns Hobbes by his generous, and legitimate, praise.


Writeen By Dustin ATlas

Written by Dustin N Atlas

Empty Enlightenment: an attempt at relevance.


To help me write, a friend has promised to monitor this blog. The rule: that something appears once a week, or I am not allowed to drink whisky. Expect a weekly writing, my darling nonexistent reader.


The last few weeks have seen several published calls to ‘return to the Enlightenment’. The reason for this recent surge? It seems several alt-right wingnuts have read a book or three, and some of these books overlap with the set of texts loved by ‘continental’ thinkers.

For my friends who do not bother with such things: there is a strange division in philosophy, one group is called the ‘anglo-americans’ or ‘analytics’ and the other are the ‘continentals’—the anglos are good at logic and wish they were good at science, the continentals are good at social theory and wish they were good at art; both are convinced that the opposing party is narrow minded, and neither are fun.

We have here a ‘guilt by associated reading lists’. Some of these fascists have read Adorno and Heidegger—some of them even quote Foucault and Derrida. So we are asked to believe (again) that reading the wrong thinkers leads to irrationalism. Steadier heads have argued not that Adorno leads to Auschwitz, but that the love of the wrong philosophers is symptomatic, and at the very least, won’t protect us from the irrational, (as philosophy is supposed to). The solution is clear: return to the 18th century project for social and scientific enlightenment. Or, at the very last, take up the ‘project’ or ‘direction’ of the 18th century. Obviously, what this project is, is determined by the narrow concerns of whoever happens to be writing the ‘Back to the Enlightenment’ article you find yourself reading.

I want to go on record as one of the foremost bloggers of the Third Earl of Shaftesbury’s Characteristicks of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times, and say: this is an incredibly stupid idea.

This donnish teshuvah movement has decided (again) that postmodernity (whatever that is) has cut us off from reason and human dignity. And we need this reason and dignity to defend us from barbarians.

There is not a single charge here that has not been laid at the door of Skepticism, which is more or less as old as philosophy itself. But for some reason Adorno and his friends endanger civilization, while Pyrrho is not a problem.

These articles unsurprisingly mirror the fascists they seek to attack. Both think that we have lost our way (an easy bet, and usually true). Both think there is a tradition we need to return to (no comment). And here we see an odd distinction: the Enlightenment crew are in one sense more conservative than the fascists, because they know which tradition we need to return to (the 18th century), where the alt-right kids and their political goons really just like the idea of tradition, any tradition. This is why we have the weird situation where ethno-nationalists in different nations can get along. You might expect animosity between American, Hungarian, Russian, Turkish and Israeli ethno-nationalists—each convinced that their tradition is the best. But, they can all agree to support each other, because they are liars: they don’t really believe in their own tradition; they don’t even have a tradition; what they say they  ‘believe in’ is just something they want—and they want a tradition, no matter what its contents. In this way the neo-traditionalists are really empty formalists. The Enlighteners are the conservatives: they know what they want, and they want it for us all.

I see at least two reasons why the call to return to the Enlightenment is ‘problematic’ (a polite word for ‘stupid’)

1) Yes, there are problems with ‘continental’ ‘postmodern’ or ‘critical’ philosophy, problems which should be addressed; especially now that it is the boiler plate for intellectual young people. People on the internet speak and think in Foucault and Derrida without reading the sources. This is what philosophy does: it becomes boiler plate. Most people don’t give much thought to philosophy, but whenever we think, we think in an older philosophy. We think in Aristotle, Plato, Freud, Nietzsche, Descartes, de Beauvoir, and so on. We use the machines built by these people, although without their sophistication and detail. The history of philosophy is different from every other type of history, because it doesn’t discover things about the past, so much as reaches back in time to tinker with old machines, machines still in use. To discover something about Spinoza, or to interpret his work differently, changes the way we think—not because Spinoza is an authority and we should do what he says, but because some of us already think in Spinoza. When the ‘Spinoza machine’ changes, the way we think changes.

When popular articles ask us to return to the Enlightenment, they are not asking us to engage the 18th century French philosophes—for most of them, the last time they opened an Enlightenment text was when they read Candide or D’Alembert’s Dream in an undergrad classroom—they are really asking us to return to an older, supposedly simpler, boiler plate. They are not asking us to see what we can learn from the Enlightenment, but to stop using thought developed after it. This sounds much like the mewling of the neo-traditionalists. (Part of the issue is that while the anglo-american crew now own the professional philosophy departments, the continental kids own the public boiler plate. No one seems happy with this arrangement, but it is the arrangement)

2) What is this Enlightenment that people want to return to? Here there is much to say, and I don’t plan on saying much of it. Certainly the Enlightenment is a complex entity, and asking us to return to a century is borderline insane—the Enlighteners are almost certainly asking us to return to a specific strand of the Enlightenent, one they have crafted in their own image. This is not a bad thing—it’s hard to see how we could learn from the past any other way.

But even in the purified anglo-centric Enlightenment, one purged of Pascal and Rousseau, I do not think that the notion of human dignity the Enlighteners want is found there.

Why would I say this? One of the hardest problems when teaching is also very simple: the same word means different things at different times, in different contexts, and in different mouths. This simple fact opens up a near infinite set of difficulties—and they can be exhausting. Undergraduates have a hard time with this, and often turn to anger when you explain to them that their reading of Mary Wollstonecraft doesn’t work, because when she uses the word ‘virtue’ she means ‘power’ and not ‘being nice to puppies’. Their anger is understandable: after wading through a difficult work, they find something familiar, something that makes them feel close to the author, and you have snatched it from them. When our contemporary Enlighteners look to the Enlightenment for human dignity and freedom, they are making the same mistake: because when Enlightenment thinkers use the words ‘freedom’ or ‘dignity’, they don’t mean the same thing as we do.

My evidence is simple, perhaps too simple: yes, the Enlightenment was varied, yes it was powerful, and yes, more or less all Enlightenment thinkers were fine with owning slaves. There are many ways to downplay this, and almost all of them have been used.

The most well-meaning response is to accuse the Enlighteners of hypocrisy, or opportunism, and insist that if they had ‘applied their principles consistently,’ they would reach our position and renounce slavery. This response is not crazy, but it is, I believe, wrong. The  Enlightenment thinkers we are asked to return to are, generally, a pretty consistent lot—if you’re going to accuse Hume of inconsistency, you have a lot of work ahead of you.

Here I think Whitehead takes the correct tactic: bite the bullet. There are background metaphysics, assumed cosmologies, that function in every age—a set of assumptions that most of us share. What are the implications of this obvious claim? If you want to figure out what we think, you can’t just look at what we argue, or what we say—because we don’t discuss, or argue about, things we hold in common. This is part of the reason common sense is so hard to articulate (as discussed in the last post). Most debates take place on a ‘secondary’ level, outside of the world we all take for granted.  And for almost all of human history, slavery was taken for granted. So, when more or less any thinker, from Plato to Hume, discusses human freedom, they don’t mean what we mean by that word. Whitehead: “Slavery was the presupposition of political theorists then; Freedom is the presupposition of political theorists now”.

To return to the Enlightenment—in the way we are being asked to return—would mean to return to Enlightenment values and presuppositions; at least in some sense, to use the word freedom in the way they used it. Granted, words like ‘freedom’ and ‘dignity’ are usually empty—but sometimes they are not. And when they are not, we must try to figure out exactly what they mean. Here the prospects for those who want to return to the Enlightenment are grim.

Now, I have no idea what my beloved 3rd Earl thought about slavery—I am not a Shaftesbury scholar; I am deliberately not studying him, to keep this blog fun for me an my lovely non-readers.  I would of course like to think he felt the same way I did. I know that the 7th Earl was an abolitionist, and I would love to project this spirit back onto his great-great grandfather. But I can’t do this. After all, the 10th Earl was a hedonist who married a prostitute who ended up killing him and dumping his body in the French Alps—say hello to a future post—and I am not about to project that backwards. I am stuck not seeing anything on slavery one way or another. And that means I must look to the background assumptions, and note that he (in this book at least) never speaks against it.

So, what to do? I have no idea. Really I’m just writing this so I’m allowed to keep drinking Whisky. It should be obvious that I have affection for the Enlightenment– even my sympathy for some anti-Enlightenment thinkers is rooted in my desire to develop the Enlightenment itself. And, I have no sympathy for anyone who has, in the last century, called themselves anti-Enlightenment (especially not those who consider such a position ‘radical’). But I think most calls to return to the Enlightenment are themselves anti-Enlightenment, macho, and rooted in resentment, a form of conservatism only a few shades less empty than the neo-fascism it tries to counter.Old_Winery_Woodcut.gif

Written by Dustin Atlas