Author Archives: fabiencayer

Ethical Consumption

What does it mean when we are told that there is no ethical consumption under Capitalism? Are we to believe that this is a criticism of an ideal? A person? An activity? How shall we change—or shall we change at all? How shall we respond?

It is a slogan to be sure, but it is more than this. It approaches a subtle truth. The struggle for life—our struggle for life—is systematically compromised. In it only the preservation of favoured classes. The moneyed class, as we call it, controls the means of survival. In this condition our lives serve to entrench the power of this moneyed class against our own interests, our own flourishing. We are subject to the new law of the new jungle: one Amazon lives while another Amazon dies. This new law transcends the individual, subjecting each of us to its destructive power.

In this condition we have been alienated—but from what? From justice? If the slogan is substantive, this is what follows. There is no ethical consumption under Capitalism. In our present condition, the conditions for justice are entirely shorn from us. We are enslaved, exploited, powerless. Nothing we could do would ever contribute to our justice or the justice of our community. We can only preserve the system, Capitalism, injustice itself.

The slogan so understood is at best controversial. Whether we have been irreparably alienated from justice is a question about what justice is, about what systematic factors contribute to it or prevent its cultivation, and about whether we exist in any condition in which justice is impossible for us. And to this extent, the slogan faces a clear challenge from the experience of our own consumption. We do not generally perceive the injustice of our consumption. Surely my eating a garden tomato does not prevent me from cultivating justice! Surely I am not to blame for how my neighbour treats their employees because I bought a teacup from their shop!

From this experience we may derive some general principles. Consumption is just, we might say, or ethical, when it benefits all immediate parties or is at least done willingly (since we might assume that no one does injustice willingly). My garden tomato harms no one, not even the plant, and provides me with a delicious treat high in a number of important nutrients. And likewise when I buy a teacup from my neighbour’s store. I willingly pay my two dollars for a cup I will use to improve my welfare while my neighbour uses that money to pay their employees. So long as all parties benefit, there is no reasonable grounds for denying the justice of a consumptive act. Only were I to be allergic to tomatoes or were I to steal the teacup might there be a plausible case for injustice, but only because all parties do not benefit from these events.

There is good reason to distrust our experience of consumption, however. We cannot as a rule directly perceive a system in which we participate. We can only grasp it by inference, by studying the downstream results of our actions all together. Each individual action fades into a shifting sea that determines our course of life and that of all others within our community. We might think then that only from this perspective can we understand the significance of our consumption.  Only from this perspective can we understand the effect of our gardening practices or what our patronising a business does for its employees. But this doesn’t quite follow.

It is at least plausible that the sum of our economic relations, the sum of our gardening practices, our tea cup purchasing, and all other relations we may instantiate within the systems that structure our lives, distance us from justice. But this was not what was claimed. The slogan claims that there is no ethical consumption under Capitalism. It is a claim about individual acts. It must be. But it does not follow that every act within a system is determined by it. For no system is totalising. No system is uniform. There is always variation. There is always exception. It is one thing to say that the tendency of our consumption is to alienate us all from justice, but it is another altogether to say that every single consumptive act so alienates.

Unless the slogan is trivially false, then, it must mean something different than this kind of universal claim about acts. And so the emphasis of the slogan shifts from the universal negation “no consumption” to the indexical “under Capitalism.” By this we mean that those acts which are subordinate to the Capitalist mode of consumption, which are in some way determined by it, those acts are unjust. Capitalism in this sense becomes an ideal (or anti-ideal) to which certain consumptive acts aspire or not. If this is so then only those consumptive acts are said to be unjust that meet the Capitalist criterion, that are done in the spirit of Capitalism. My eating a garden tomato does not presumably qualify, nor even my purchasing a tea cup from my neighbours shop. For in the first instance, there is no exchange of capital at all. I am merely plucking a tomato from the vine. And while I do exchange capital in the second case, the exchange does not adhere to the logic of Capitalism. I may employ capital towards my own means of consumption, but my neighbour does not employ capital for the sake of capital. Running their business is not done for the sake of capital alone. They too wish only to procure by their labour the means of their own consumption. My neighbour is a good person. They pay their employees what they produce and take only what they themself produce. Neither consumptive act in this sense stands under Capitalism, nor falls under it.

If we follow this line of argument then huge swaths of the economy are not to be condemned by the slogan. There is a great deal of ethical consumption because it is not under Capitalism. Surely too are huge swaths of the economy condemned. Certainly many of our consumptive acts are subject to the logic of Capitalism. Certainly we purchase our tomatoes from Walmart or our tea cups from Amazon. Certainly in these cases and uncountably many more is our consumption unjust—or at least so the hypothesis goes. But where we can avoid all this, where we can resist the temptation of big business, adhere to boycotts and research the hiring, firing, and production practices of all those businesses from whom we may purchase consumables, then we may possibly avoid injustice.

This is of course a difficult life to live. The just life always is. But what could be more worthwhile? What a small price it is to give up free one day delivery, to give up our moderate leisure time to commune with those who live within our communities, to learn their names and their virtues, to learn their sources and their production practices! What a small price it is to give up our meats and our creams, to give up our avocadoes and our almonds! What a small price it is to give up our cars and our plane tickets! What a small price it is to surrender all that is vicious in order that we might find our power, find our virtue within our communities!

The problem, however, is that this is not how the slogan is used. It is not a call to action. It is not a call to more deeply examine the sources of those products which we consume. It is not a call to resist the temptations of big business and Capitalist exploitation. It is rather a call to inaction. It is not a criticism of Capitalism. It is a surrender. It is a defense. The sloganeer seeks by its use to escape criticism for their own contribution to injustice. And so what can we do? How shall we change? How shall we respond? When we are told that there is no ethical consumption under Capitalism, we shall say this: Starve.

The Science of Language

Let us for only a moment set aside the truth. We wish to command the science of language—or at least be commanded by it. We wish to know how to use a language, how to serve a language, how to speak a language. This is the province of the linguist. Here they have dominion. So let us listen to them and obey. They should teach us their science, their science of language, and how we might live harmoniously in discourse.

The science of language begins where all science begins: with first principles, with the essence. Language is said in different ways. The linguist alone knows its primary sense. Let us again listen. Let us again obey. They should teach us their science, their science of language.

If there be such a thing called language, then it is known. It is something we are all capable of using. The francophone is capable of uttering meaningful statements understood “all or most of the time,” as Aristotle is fond of saying, by all those initiated into the French cult. This the linguist calls “competence.” The francophone as francophone is competent in French insofar as they, all else being equal, utter intelligible French sentences. Their actually doing so the linguist calls “performance.” Performance can be impeded by some confounding condition, some injury, some illness, some other physical or mental impairment. If there be such a thing called language, then it is not impeded by some confounding condition. The francophone with a Broca’s lesion does not cease to be a francophone. Performance, it follows, is not essential to language. Only competence is.

If there be such a thing called language, then it is psychological. It is a product of an individual’s inner cognitive processes. The product of these processes the linguist calls “idiolect.” The francophone says only what they wish to say, and only how they wish to say it. Their speech bears only passing resemblance to any other francophone. This resemblance the linguist calls a “dialect.” The dialect is an abstraction from the speaking patterns of individuals within some cohort. If there be such a thing called language, then it is not an abstraction. The francophone’s speech expresses only their own inner cognitive processes. Dialect, it follows, is not essential to language. Only idiolect is.

If there be such a thing called language, then it is unique. It is a system of coherent, self-satisfying rules or norms. This the linguist calls “grammar.” The francophone as francophone speaks intelligibly only insofar as they adhere to French grammar, only insofar as they follow the rules. The linguist calls the set of expressions which satisfy its grammar the “extension” of the language. The extension of a language is unlimited even where speakers are limited. If there be such a thing called language, it need not be understood. Le francophone des Alpes need not be understood by le francophone du Québec, nor any other. Extension, it follows, is not essential to language. Only grammar is.

If there be such a thing called language, then it is human. It is a faculty possessed only by the more-than-mere-animal. This faculty the linguist calls “Reason.” The francophone as francophone expresses differently that same Reason as the sinophone as sinophone. Their differences are a product not of the faculty of language, of Reason, but some other faculty—perception, intension, memory, or some other merely animal faculty. If there be such a thing called language, then it is not animal. The francophone and the sinophone both have equal standing. Expression, it follows, is not essential to language. Only Reason is.

Language is said in many ways. If there be such a thing called language, then it is essentially competence. It is essentially idiolect. It is essentially grammar. It is essentially Reason. All are one. All are identical. All else is other, foreign to language, foreign to the science of language. To command the science of language, to be commanded by the science of language, is to command, to be commanded by language alone. It is to divide and separate language from its pretenders, from all those shadows and images of its immanent perfection. Language is not performed. Language is not expressed. Language is not extended. It is not negotiated. It is not communal. It does not evolve. It is unchanging and systematic. There is nothing greater than language which determines it. There is nothing like language. To speak rightly is to speak only intelligibly. This the linguist calls living harmoniously in discourse.

To speak intelligibly is a choice, but it is not easy. It is quite human—as animal as we are—to subject ourselves to the wills and whims of another. This is the fundamental threat of all that which is foreign to language, all that is inessential to it. In performance, in dialect, in extension, in expression there is only subjugation. Language becomes alien. It becomes degenerate, mixed with its images and shadows. This is the condition in which we find French and Mandarin and English. The francophone’s language has been alienated from them; a dialect, a linguistic community, has been imposed upon them from without, from Paris probably, or la ville de Québec. And the francophone accepts without protest this imposition, for they lack the power to change it.

The science of language is in this sense a political project, a project which aims at universal liberation from the oppressive influence of linguistic expression. Let us continue for only a moment set aside the truth. If there be such a thing called language, then all humans stand as equals before it. They each possess by nature the faculty of language, Reason, competence, grammar. Language cannot differ genuinely between them. It is a coherent system: any evolution could only contribute to its decay. Nature has selected for the whole of language as a single unit with no variation. Only when we have come to realise this, only when we have come to divide and separate our language from all those oppressive structures which alienate it from us will we be understood, will we speak intelligibly, will we be emancipated. For only then will we recognise the slavish condition to which we are subject and have the means to overthrow it.

This is the genius of the science of language. For what objection have the powerful to the science of language? They indeed have promoted it, funded it, and attempted to use if for their own purposes. They do not see that they have only promoted their own destruction. Only the science of language could have accomplished this. It alone has naturalised the politics of liberation. It alone has smuggled us out from the darkness and into the light beneath the watchful eyes of censors and capitalists. The powerful do not, cannot, recognise the deep truth of the science of language. They see it as an instrument, something which better enables them to persuade and control. They think that language can be improved, moulded, perfected. Only the science of language demonstrates this error. For language is silent, unchangeable. Genuine language says nothing. It has no use beyond itself. It neither moves nor is moved. It is the foundation upon which the human is built, the foundation upon which truth is built. So let the truth stand up and speak… For the science of language makes of language what it is not: the decadent symbol of an unmoved, unmoving, silent reaction of the powerless.

The science of language has set itself upon a tightrope, balancing in one hand the community of speakers and in the other their individuality. The linguist should stand, and yet they fall. The science of language appeals to nature, to what is demonstrable scientifically. But it does not in either case demonstrate its naturity. It suffers the same fate as all systematism: by first presupposing the character of language—that which they have taken themselves to be demonstrating—they achieve nothing more than ideality: they have created a system, they have created Reason, they have created grammar, idiolect, competence, and all this they call language. But language it is not. By sleight of hand they have compelled the speaker to keep silent, to listen, to obey. But the truth shall not be silenced. This is the foolishness of the science of language.

The linguist lacks the power to change what has been presupposed of language. This they accept without protest. But the linguist’s language is alien to them, alien to nature. The linguist claims that language is universal and unique. It is shared by all those who share also in their humanity. This they say is the linguistic community. There is no end to this community: all those who share in Reason belong to it. But each does so on their own terms, in their own way. Language is not the property of that community: it is each human’s property as individual. It is their freedom, their will, their most human of faculties, which, though universal, is expressed uniquely by each. The linguist has made their job much too easy. Language for them is everywhere and everything. This is the choice they have made, one which has made language unintelligible.

The science of language accepts no discourse and no disharmony. For it, all speech occurs rightly because to speak wrongly is impossible. There is nothing beyond language. Everything is determined by it. Everything is subordinate to its system, to its unchanging essence. But this is the problem: any hypothesis which explains everything explains nothing. If this really is the essence of language, then what shall we say of what people actually do? Speech is negotiated. Speech is communal. Speech is extended, performed, expressed… The science of language does not understand or explain speech and its elements. It separates them from language. But how might the science of language command language if it can say nothing about speech? Speech is foreign from language, other, distinct. And yet it is itself language. For language is not one. Language is not all. It is plural, discordant, incoherent, a bundle of tensions and incongruities.

If there be such a thing called language, then it is natural, then it is human, then it is animal, then it is alien. It is intelligible only coequal and continuous, only distinct and apart from life. What can this be called? What else both commands and is commanded? What else serves and is served? What else both enfranchises and enslaves? The francophone as francophone lives their life in French, their whole life. But not all is French. They bake. They condescend. They protest. These too are parts of life which order, which are ordered by French. And for the sinophone too who lives their same life differently in Mandarin. If there be such a thing called language, then it is an instrument, then it is essence, then it is power, then it is impotence. This we call the meaning of language.

If there be such a thing called language, then it is incoherent, then it is unique, then it is ordinary, then it is consistent. It is self-satisfied. It is a compromise. Language is negotiated, renegotiated, constantly changing, constantly enforced. The francophone as francophone speaks intelligibly only insofar as they negotiate the terms of their language, only insofar as they propose and pass motions and amendments within its legislative body, within its sphere of influence, within its extension. Le francophone des Alpes negotiates a different language than le francophone du Québec, even if their terms are identical. If there be such a thing called language then it is organic, then it is moved, then it is moving, then it is systematic. This we call the meaning of language.

If there be such a thing called language, then it is social, then it is psychological, then it is abstract, then it is individual. The francophone is not a subject of the French language. They are not delimited by it or determined. But neither do they delimit or determine French. Neither servant nor lord, we call the francophone one of many speakers of French. French we call the spoken language of the francophone. If there be such a thing called language, then it is constructed, then it constructs. This we call the meaning of language.

If there be such a thing called language, then it is learned, then it is known, then it is a performance, then it is a competence. It is something grasped. It is something to be grasped. The francophone ever develops their speaking, their comprehension of French. The francophone ever already speaks, comprehends French. We call speech the act of a speaker. We call a speaker one who is capable of speech. If there be such a thing called language, then it is intended, then it is conditioned. This we call the meaning of language.

The science of language, the genuine science of language, begins with the end of language, with its uses, with its purposes, with its role in a life. There are as many languages as there are lives. There is no single language, no single grammar, no single dialect, no single extension. The science of language is one with language. The science of language is apart from it. The linguist alone is unaware of the essence of language. All who speak have heard it. All who speak are commanded by it. But the linguist has never spoken a language. Their science is a science of nothing. It is a science of silence.

So let the truth stand up and speak. Let it command the science of language. Let it be commanded by the science of language. Only when we know how to use a language, how to serve it, how to speak it, will we know the truth. And only then shall we have abandoned the linguist. Only then shall we have seen their harmony for discord. Harmony occurs not in language but in life.

Scholarly Texts

Scholars are illiterate. They know not how to read. They do know how to decipher symbols printed on a page, how to translate those symbols into meaningful elements, and how to synthesise those elements into a cohesive argument. But they do not know how to read.

So often do scholars approach a text prepared to judge it guilty that they can scarcely find any text innocent of wrongdoing—and where they do, it is only on account of some oversight, some gross miscarriage of justice. For truly every text is guilty; only the uncultured boor could ever fail to see the guilt of a text. We call those boors dogmatists who proclaim the innocence of their scriptures. But decrying the injustice of dogmatism is not reading. It is senseless; the scholar has said nothing by expressing this judgement. To read is to forgive a text its trespasses, to reconcile with it and recognise it as more than mere criminal: it is human, equal, partner in the project of life.

This is the scholars’ fault: a text to them is not a partner but a tool. It is a means only to their own text, their own tool, their own unforgiveable object of guilt. And scholars know this. It is expressed in their manner of writing. It is the reason for abstracts and introductions, and all those other means of summary, of bare expression of the value of a text, understood exclusively as the contribution it makes to a literature, to a system of self-satisfied means—or what the Kantian might call an end in itself. That the scholar proclaims the guilt of a text means little when they express at the same time the innocence of the literature. This is dogmatism with etiquette. And a boor in a velvet gown does not cease to be a boor.

There are no ends in life, and the scholarly pretension that their researches, their concepts, their texts exist only for the sake of further texts proves only that the scholar has never lived. They are satisfied by the meagre development of self-consciousness, as if all life were an understanding thing, a knowing thing, a rational thing, Science. It is no wonder that these illiterate scholars find in texts only pale shadows of their own selves. But these texts are no ladder to the scholar, to their literature, to their texts forthcoming. It is only because these scholars have not lived, have never needed to live, that they see themselves, their concepts, their self-consciousness as ends. The living, the truly literate, resist this stupidity. They know that any effort to satiate hunger creates only greater hunger. They know, that is, that life is always driven beyond its means, beyond what can be determined in reason or in consciousness.

The text for this reason is not a mere means. Means are means only with respect to determinate ends. But in life, there are no ends: all our ends lie in wait, ready to be deliberated, elected, constructed through life’s developmental processes. And texts are elements of these processes. They do not contribute to the achievement of our ends, except rarely, but to their construction. They are a means only in the sense that a mother is the means to her child. To call her a means is to mistake her contribution; she has agency; she has power; she is not merely the fertile ground within which sperm may germinate; she rather cultivates the child by opposing, by rewarding, by shaping its originative impulses. To call the text a means is to mistake its contribution in the same way. They possess a queer agency, but an agency nonetheless. A text may drive a reader or arrest them. It ridicules them, makes demands of them, encourages and moulds them. And it does this not on its own volition, but by appropriating the intuitive, deliberative, and altogether reflective power of its reader.

Scholars are not blind to the agency of a text. They actively resist it. A text treated by scholars, a scholarly text, is stripped of its power. This for them is the ideal. This for them allows the text to be best manipulated for purposes alien to its own. To achieve their end, the scholar must attend to the source of a text’s power. They know that it has no power of its own. It cannot. Rather, the text parasitises the agency of its reader. And by inoculating the reader, the scholar sterilises the text. They do this in two ways: by supplanting the powerful text with the scholarly and by cultivating what they call “critical thought.”

Scholarly texts are neutral, summarial, anti-rhetorical; they require no power nor agency on the part of the reader. The scholarly text is a guide through a literature. It is transparent. It contains neither surprise nor challenge. Arguments, premises, inferences are laid bare for the reader; the reader may follow them at their whim. They need not endorse any one. It is in fact better, more scholarly, to refuse. The scholarly text is in this sense an open toolbox. A reader may appropriate any argument that suits their fancy. They may destroy with it. They may construct with it. But in doing so, the reader is not destroyed, is not constructed. The scholarly text has no power to cultivate a reader—not at least in the same way that other texts do. For indeed the scholarly text does cultivate something in the reader. It cultivates complacency in their reader, and weakness, and laziness. The reader becomes accustomed to their guides and their summaries. The reader of scholarly texts gradually loses the power to navigate a text, to reflect on a text, to be moved by a text. They preserve only the power to bend it to their will. And a text has no agency whose power is subject to a reader’s will.

Powerful texts, edifying texts, they are not like this. They make demands, they pose problems, they are puzzles, they are games. In them the reader exercises and develops their agency. But there are boundaries and objectives. A reader does not merely swell: they develop; they grow. A powerful text in this sense informs a reader. It does not merely give a reader the power to exercise their will. It also shapes their will.

The scholar cannot accept this threat. Against it, they deploy “critical thought”—truly a shadow of genuine thinking—by means of which a reader strips a text of its power and translates it, word by word, concept by concept, argument by argument, into a scholarly text. Critical thought is a killer. It is a forge and a hammer. Critical thought beats a living text into a dead, inanimate tool. This is its supposed virtue. The scholar advertises critical thought by emphasising its use in subjecting a text to one’s will. Critical thought isolates claims and reorders them into plain arguments. It eliminates the challenge of a text and the game; it eliminates the agency of a text. This is the goal. A powerful text is a threat to good reason, to good will. And for the scholar, only this is sacrosanct.

The scholar has good reason to worry. The powerful text is a threat to their reason and their will. The living reader is all too aware of this. To them, the text is a partner. One’s ends must be deliberated in its company, negotiated, and then constructed and achieved. And so the reader must take care that a powerful text not destroy them, for any partner may at one time command one’s armies only to at another time turncoat and treason. To this end, critical thought, carefully applied, is indispensable for the reader. But there is much more to reading than criticism, than judging a text guilty, than sterilising it, murdering it, forging it into a tool. A text gives a reader the power to do what they cannot do on their own: to cultivate their own agency. It is by means of the text that the reader reflects upon their own desires, their own values, their own interests; and it is by means of the text that the reader constructs them. Genuine thought is more than critical: it is reflective, synthetic, practical. Critical thought destroys this: it destroys agency, it destroys life. The scholarly text, the powerless text, this I say is death.

Towards an Anaesthetic of Fascism

The fascist has not been grasped irrevocably by the sublimity of power and authority, but they have been grasped by it. The nature of this very sublimity, of the fascist aesthetic, is the key to freeing them from their own cage, and ourselves with them. Attempting to persuade the fascist is fruitless. They do not, they cannot be reached by reason. Aesthetic judgement is not willful, nor does it recognise or respect our interests or our moral values. Our political rhetoric must therefore engage with the fascist aesthetic on its own terms. There is no other way to repair our communities, our families, and our institutions.

An aesthetic judgement concerns the intrinsic value or disvalue of an experience. There are three main elements to aesthetic judgement: the process of judgement, the experience being judged, and the content of that experience. I examine each in order before moving on to the implications of the fascist aesthetic for political rhetoric.

Aesthetic judgements are neither deliberate, fully rational choices, nor strictly reflexive. They stand in the uneasy in between. They can be refined but they cannot be controlled. They can be justified but they cannot be persuaded. Guy Dammann and Elisabeth Schellekens[1] understand aesthetic judgements in this sense to be deeply question-begging: reasons given in support of them become reasons only for those who already assent to the claim being justified.[2] Daniel Whiting argues that aesthetic reasons are question-begging because they are always in need of some supplement without which they can only permit aesthetic judgements but cannot demand them.[3] For Whiting, this supplement is something like taste: those systematic aesthetic judgements observers have already made from past experiences and which subsume that judgement being justified. Aesthetic judgements, that is, are merely elements of a broader aesthetic framework which orients a life.

This framework of aesthetic judgements is life-guiding in two ways. First, it guides an observer’s attention toward aesthetically salient elements of a given experience. It is because of our aesthetic framework, our preferences and our capacities for discernment, that we might attend to the colours or the textures or the melody or the semantic content of an experience. Two people embodying two different aesthetic frameworks simply cannot see or hear or feel the same things in the same way given the same experience. Second, an aesthetic framework translates aesthetic judgement into normative force. An aesthetic framework, that is, demands that an observer act on the basis of an aesthetic judgement. This is because an aesthetic judgement concerns the intrinsic value or disvalue of an experience. Once an experience is recognised as intrinsically valuable, thence arises a (defeasible) obligation to promote it; likewise, mutatis mutandis, for an experience recognised as intrinsically disvaluable.[4]

Aesthetic judgement is of experience; on the basis of aesthetic judgement, one is obligated to promote or prohibit experience. Aesthetic judgement alone does not concern the content of aesthetic experience except insofar as manipulating the content of experience can promote or prohibit experience. I do not mean to say here that objects or events cannot be beautiful or ugly. Certainly they can be. I look in the mirror at least once a week—less often if possible—and am fully acquainted with my own aesthetic. But they take on these qualities in light of the kind of experiences they produce in observers. Rather, I mean to say that our aesthetic judgements can be wrong. We can judge something initially as boring or as mediocre or as ugly only to later revise our judgement in light of a novel appreciation. Dammann and Schellekens argue that observers are capable of cultivating more accurate aesthetic judgements, and subsequently frameworks, by reflecting upon their own good in connection with their cultural background and the artistic traditions implicated in it.[5] By these means, they suggest, aesthetic judgements can be bootstrapped into a framework in order that one develop as an observer. They are not, however, describing a change in aesthetic judgements; a beautiful image is not by these means regarded as ugly or vice versa. Aesthetic judgements cannot be reached by reason; they can only be altered by aesthetic judgements themselves. It appears that this is what occurs on their proposal too, unbeknownst to them. By reflecting on the background and traditions of an experience, additional aesthetic judgements are formed concerning its semantic significance. The additional aesthetic judgements may shift the framework just enough to generate a new appreciation of old experiences, but this is a slow and unreliable process directly predicated on one’s existing values. The fascist cannot be repaired in this way.

We rather need to focus on the structure of the aesthetic framework. Only the virtuous among us employ a consistent aesthetic. The fascist aesthetic is not one of these. It is deviant and disordered, marred by inconsistencies and ambiguities. This is how we win: we capitalise on the inconsistencies in the fascist aesthetic, in the aesthetic framework which orients their lives and their politics, and we use it to draw the fascist back to the good. This is not simple, but it is achievable.  It requires only a willingness to engage and to genuinely understand the fascist.

Fortunately, the fascist is a simple creature in an ironic age. Their aesthetic is purposeful and unique. It’s kitschy, tacky, uncoordinated, vulgar, and loud. There is no mistaking the bright red cap, the Southern Cross, or Thin Blue Line. These unambiguously signal an identity. This is a significant evolution on the bumper stickers and t-shirt slogans of years past, which do the job but which are not recognisable at a glance. The fascist takes themselves to be the majority, the Volk, the formerly powerful who have been silenced by the threat of powerful minority interests. Their aesthetic reflects this in its visibility, its detachment from what the powerful minority dictate to be good taste, and its open expression of violence and power. The fascist knows that if they really are the majority, as they seek to demonstrate, then they truly do hold the power in their polity—and it is the aesthetic appreciation of power that truly unites all fascists.[6]  

But what power means to the fascist is bound up with traditional hierarchies, with masculinity, with whiteness, with wealth, and so many others. Masculinity especially is so tightly bound up with the fascist aesthetic that it is inseparable from power. Masculinity is virility and invincibility. The Man need not exercise caution: his masculine will is invulnerable to calamity. A good scheme might be a salient exercise of power, but in all else, sober planning has become a symbol for weakness and cowardice. The fascist is somatic, intuitive, impulsive, and violent. The fascist has no patience. They have no empathy—not at least for the underclass, the minority, who have dispossessed the Volk for so long and who continue to dispossess the fascist. The Man merely exercises his will and dominates only to dominate.

And this too is what makes the fascist aesthetic so pernicious. Even the underclass can appreciate the exercise of power. The lower class fascist may know full well that they are liable to become a victim of fascist excess, but they value too deeply the experience, the experience of domination, the catharsis and the struggle that accompanies it. In joining with the fascist, they feel the power they only wish they could exercise—and when the fascist takes power, they permit themselves every liberty to do so against those even more vulnerable than they.

There is more than mere power to the fascist aesthetic, however. There is also vengeance. To the fascist, they are recovering tradition, the natural order, one which had been interrupted by a clever, sly minority that overcame and dispossessed the powerful majority by appealing to their charity and good will.

This narrative is of course not novel. Philosophers might trace it back to Nietzsche, to his Genealogy and the deconstruction of the Master Morality. But the narrative goes back much further; Nietzsche, indeed, presented a parody of this narrative designed to outrage the budding fascists in his midst. He attacks their tradition, their natural order, their Christian morality, and allies it with the Jews. The old Masters, the highest expression of worldly power, fall to ever farther depths. Their fault was not charity, as the story had gone, but stupidity and impulse. The Jews overcame the Masters not because they were sly or clever but because the Jewish priestly class was genuinely more powerful on account of their cleverness. If Nietzsche has any goal in the Genealogy, it was to drive a wedge between the fascist love of vengeance and their love of power, and all within the realm of aesthetic judgement. He clearly failed. We cannot.

What means are available to us now? In what way might we shake the fascist of their drunken love of power? We cannot appeal to them through reason; we cannot demonstrate the contradictions of their will or their interests or their rhetoric. This does not concern them. We cannot beat the fascist in the ballot box: this will only delay their authority, and they have long considered the electoral process to be rigged against them, the true majority visible in red hats and racist flags. We cannot even do them harm, for at present, the fascists do have the power, the arms, the wealth, and the numbers to withstand any assault. The time for punching Nazis has come to pass. So what can we do? Contrapoints has proposed that we employ cringe, a distinctly somatic, aesthetic experience designed to isolate and malign a target group without putting a target individual in a defensive stance. Cringe in this sense hacks apart an aesthetic framework and provides the means to rebuild it anew. I do not know the final course of action. But we must find one, and we must find it quickly.

[1] Guy Dammann and Elisabeth Schellekens, “On the Moral Psychology and Normative Force of Aesthetic Reasons,” Estetika: The Central European Journal of Aesthetics, LIV/X (1), 2017: 20-39

[2] Philosophers, of course, are no stranger to this kind of justification. It was the dominant form of philosophical reasoning for the better part of a century under the guise of philosophical intuitionism. Intuitions, and the kind of philosophy that grows out of them, are (or are at least isomorphic to) a kind of aesthetic judgement. This is why intuitionists attempt to defend their account of philosophy as a kind of perception or “seeming” and may even appeal to a “faculty” of intuitions even when they use them for the sake of robust philosophical justification. Intuitions too are not perceptions or deliberate judgements, but stand uneasily between them. At their foundations, intuitive justifications can be understood and modified in exactly the same ways as aesthetic judgements about the exercise of power or about works of art. Philosophy presumably should not wish itself to be cemented into something so fluid and arbitrary.

[3] Daniel Whiting, “Aesthetic Reasons and the Demands They (Do Not) Make,” The Philosophical Quarterly, 2020: 5; Whiting’s main argument against the demandingness of aesthetic reasons is that there are so many objects which individually possess aesthetic properties to make demands on observers that this would be excessively demanding on those observers. This is confused in a number of ways. First, aesthetic properties are properties of experiences, not objects. This significantly limits the number of aesthetic properties with which an observer might be faced. Second, aesthetic properties are relational between different elements of an experience, often involving the whole experience, and not just the elements atomically. This further limits the number of aesthetic properties. Altogether, clearing up Whiting’s confusions leaves us with an easily manageable set of aesthetic demands, especially since most of these are satisfied automatically. His first argument is much more compelling, even if insufficient. As a matter of course, I do think that aesthetic properties levy a demand upon people to assent to them.

[4] I suspect that aesthetic judgement in the sense I have presented here serves as the foundation of a fairly general kind of constructivist moral theory, and certainly one that is more psychologically compelling than for example Kant’s. I will not develop this here, but it is worth considering.

[5] Dammann and Schellekens, 37-38

[6] The fascist aesthetic is not exactly wrong about this: power, community, struggle, these are all genuinely valuable experiences. The fascists’ error, however, is what they take to promote these experiences, namely the impulsive and systematic domination of the vulnerable. If only we could reach the fascist in reason, it would be a simple matter to show them how what they take to be an exercise of power ultimately leads to their feebleness, but alas, we cannot.

Nonsense and The Fight for a Transparent Political Rhetoric

Clear expression is the foundation upon which we build our political rhetoric. It is important for any liberatory project that our protests and our pronouncements be understood and that we have the means to expose as nonsense any justification given to us for our oppression. However, for the liberal academic, animated as they are by a spirit of charity, accusations of nonsense and their concomitant demand for clear expression have become suspect. These academics are too stupid and too cowardly to appreciate what their charity has bought them. Their suspicions have undermined their own rhetorical foundations and left them ill equipped to respond to the present political moment and to the swelling tide of dispossession and violence that will crash down upon them. If we are to respond at all, if we are to have any hope in succeeding for the sake of the marginalised and oppressed, we must oppose the erosion of our political discourse and fight for clear expression. This may be only the beginning of a liberatory project, but it is an essential step towards its success.

For the liberal academic, of course, language is a purely descriptive, theoretical concern. They recognise no stakes and accept no demands. They are blind to the normative dimension of language and its political valence. It is from this ignorance that Charles Pigden demeans accusations of nonsense as totalitarian and unjust. For him, Neurath was just as bad, just as evil, as the Fascists he was fighting. And certainly there must be a case to be made here. Neurath is not perfect. His ISOTYPE was a distinctly Viennese symbolism which struggled to accommodate the diversity of human experience. Pigden worries that Neurath has unjustly excluded lives and languages other than his own. That this equates in Pigden’s mind to full-scale totalitarianism is laughable. Especially since he is not worried about defending different cultures or different lifestyles. He is worried instead about defending the prospects of metaphysics. “Are there no languages which are, so to speak, metaphysical all the way down?” he asks.[1] And of course if this is your worry you might be tempted to equate the fascists with those fighting against them (even despite the explicitly metaphysical character of German fascism). But Neurath’s project is entirely different. He sought to eliminate racism and nationalism by making racist and nationalist thought and expression impossible. Neurath may have failed in this effort, but it does not follow that racism or nationalism or metaphysics is sensible, as Pigden alleges. Far from it.

A victim of liberal modernity, Pigden reacts to Neurath by declaring any and all “coercive theories of meaning” to be false. His ultimate argument against them, beyond badly misunderstanding their use[2], is an exercise in stone-kicking. The explananda of a theory of meaning, he says, are our linguistic intuitions about what sorts of expressions are meaningful. A coercive theory of meaning attempts to revise what we take to be significant, to “contract the realm of the meaningful.”[3] But, he asks, “Where does the theory get the authority to overcome [our linguistic intuitions]?”[4] When Rosenberg talks about the Eternal Jew and the racial ladder, or when Heidegger talks about the German people hoisting Dasein upon its shoulders, what right does Neurath have in saying that they are speaking nonsense? Surely they must mean something by their convoluted expressions! These fascists are not totalitarians, no: it is Neurath who unjustly coerces them by dismissing their views as nonsense.

A theory of meaning is quite a different thing than a scientific theory. It does not explain. It cannot explain. It has no explananda, least of all our pretheoretic linguistic intuitions. Rather, a theory of meaning is strictly normative. Through it we understand, cultivate, and negotiate our agency as linguistic creatures not alone but within a linguistic community. For Neurath, German had been poorly negotiated. A long history of competing and evolving influences had exacerbated rather that resolve the tensions implicit in human experience. Far too often did German expressions appear to have a meaning only to have that sense evaporate under closer inspection. Instead of waiting for German to organically correct itself, Neurath appealed to the productive power of theoretical science in order to engineer a language. He failed. It has become clear that the functions of natural language cannot (yet) be replicated by even the best science. But this is not to say that we should give up entirely the project to improve language. In their reluctance to treat language as normative, liberal academics have cast themselves off into the current of language and surrendered to its rhetorical ebbs.

If we are seriously interested in constructing a better, juster, freer society, we should take pains to master our language. This is a different project than strict political rhetoric just as surveying a battlefield differs from fighting a battle. A theory of meaning is impartial with respect to what can be meant.[5] But taking stock of how meaning is conveyed and negotiated permits us not only our own interventions, but also to recognise when expressions violate the terms of our agreement. This is nonsense. This is when an expression, despite any appearances to the contrary, fails to signify. This most often occurs by accident, when a speaker mistakenly transgresses linguistic strictures. But this occasionally occurs purposefully, even if unknowingly, for the sake of some rhetorical exercise. It is at this time that linguistic negotiation begins in order that an expression may be either made meaningful and incorporated into a language or dismissed as a confusion. That dismissal is only one (often marginal) possibility demonstrates just how far off Pigden’s understanding of “coercive” theories of meaning has strayed. There is nothing coercive about them. They rather provide transparent mechanisms  for including and supporting diverse discourses into the whole of our language. It appears still that Pigden only objects to dismissing those expressions which not only do not signify but which cannot signify. But if Pigden wishes to continue kicking stones he should be prepared to express himself clearly in order that his expressions may become meaningful. These are the risks: at times, our expressions dissipate into the aether and what appeared to us to be meaningful ceases to have any significance for us. And if that’s the cost of justice, we could have purchased it centuries ago.

In truth, nonsense has a rhetorical mystique and power that is difficult to surrender. No party has been willing thus far to do so. They most often oscillate back and forth between exposing the nonsense of their opponents and manufacturing their own nonsense. So often we think of rhetoric as trickery that we forget that in politics, we wish to persuade. And so I contest that we ourselves shrug off the need for nonsense and trickery and strive instead for clear expression. If we speak in terms that people can confidently grasp, we shall find our projects to be more confidently embraced. Then, and perhaps only then, shall we find liberation.  

[1] Charles Pigden, “Coercive Theories of Meaning, Or: Why Language Shouldn’t Matter (So Much) to Philosophy,” Logique et Analyse 53 (210): 151, 2010: 155

[2] Pigden charges Neurath, Wittgenstein, et cetera with performative and theoretical contradiction for declaring some domain of discourse to be nonsense because, on his view, these theories of meaning necessarily outstrip the thoughts expressible in language. Had Pigden thought deeply about the motivations for these theories, however, he would recognise his error: “coercive” theories of meaning are not supposed to be sensible, expressible, verifiable, or any such thing. They are normative constraints on what can be sensibly expressed and understood. Wittgenstein goes so far as to openly and purposely construct his Tractatus as a work of nonsense, and Neurath too is open about his political and normative motivations. It was not until logical positivism was appropriated by apolitical English theorists that the question of the empirical adequacy of a theory of meaning even arose in part because these theorists could not grasp the normative even if it had handles.

[3] Pigden, 179

[4] Pigden, 178

[5] Philosophers must of course be careful that they genuinely examine language impartially. Far too often they pretend to an appreciation of an ordinary conception of meaning, whatever that might be, while nevertheless using a theory of meaning to obscure their own agenda. Wittgensteinians in particular are guilty of this, often in order to isolate their own philosophical commitments (such as Wittgenstein’s mystical Christianity) from philosophical critique. One indication of this is that the Wittgensteinian grounds their theory of meaning in a simple meaning relation, namely rules, that are manifested by a form of life. But as with everything human, meaning relations come in a wide variety, and their interaction provides the complexity and often the intractability of language.

Moral Defeatism

It is not difficult to abstain from sin. It is not difficult to abstain from anger or greed or lust or jealousy. Anyone can do this with even the slightest effort. Sin may well be the natural condition of humankind, but humankind no longer lives in a natural condition. Humanity has not conquered nature, but it has conquered humanity. It has been domesticated, enslaved by a Christ who commands his disciples to be perfect as God in Heaven is perfect. And if God is merely the absence of sin, humanity has—or at least has made it possible to have—achieved equality with Him centuries ago.

That sin persists is a minor mystery, one that despite its banality must still be solved. There are two main explanations for it, one psychological and another normative. The former is uninteresting. In their divine wisdom, the Christians have made freedom from sin into something inaccessible, unachievable, and so in some sense forbidden. To be an honest Christian, one must self-accuse, one must humble oneself, and so find themselves guilty of sin. It is no mystery that of the elect who have thus far escaped sin, not one has been Christian. Even Christ himself would humble himself, allowing temptation and anger to strike him too. And lest His wrath be called upon as witness to the sin of the Lord himself!

Christianity is a slave’s religion, one which exalts liberty to heights beyond human reach. Only grace can break our chains, and all human efforts to abstain from sin are for naught. It does not matter to the Christian that sin as they state it can be abolished by a synergy of the simplest psychological technologies—be they therapeutic or meditative—and the slightest social progress. Any sin that can be avoided is no sin at all. This is why the Christ in His Sermon revises the Jewish law forbidding murder into the much crueler, stricter law forbidding anger. And now as anger has been conquered humanity awaits the second revision of Christ.

But in truth this second revision is very far off. The Christian revels today in their sin, in their anger and their jealousy, their lust and their greed. They love to be punished, to pull at their chains in order that they be whipped back into place. It is the nature of humanity to crave a hierarchy, and the Christian craves their slavery.[1] It is a comforting position for them, to relax as it were and allow the Lord to lift their lives. So many an addict or a criminal have surrendered to this siren song for the dark desire to release them of their sin. They empty their hearts of their lust only to fill it again with the Christ’s… revision.

Moral defeatism is the mortal sin of Christianity which says that perfection is achieved with the Lord but unachievable without. This explains the Christian’s penchant for their lusts and their anger which so frustrate—and yet reinforce—their aims. This explains their incomplete surrender to those ideals that they profess. As enlightenment encroaches upon the soul of the Christian, they retreat in order to preserve the darkness within them. They cherish this darkness. Through it, because of it, they shall find salvation. And what is the cost of a little sin now if it may purchase the Christian eternal torment in Heaven? That their salvation is from this very darkness is immaterial to them. What enlightenment could possibly compare to salvation? Certainly no Christian can compare to the might of the Lord! So why shall they compete with Him? Allow His Grace to enrapture, capture, and enslave. This is the way to Heaven. That so few today are truly Christian amongst even those who profess their faith stands as a testament to the virtue, singular as it may be, that recognises the vulgarity of moral defeatism and the achievability of virtue, of perfection.

No person stands without any virtue. The Christian, for all their vice, possesses the slave’s virtue. Others possess the master’s. The value of a virtue, however, takes form only when the practice it regulates has value. The slave’s virtue makes for a docile and pleasant servant, one who shall slither through life avoiding conflict despite their powerlessness. But a slavish condition is paralysis; it can generate no value but for the Lord, the Master to whom the slave is bound. And because the Christian does not even fully live their slavish life, they cannot generate even this value.

The value in virtue is its contribution to the power of one who wields it. But the master too does not wield virtue: they wield only the whip. Far from living a valued life, the master lives as a brute, precarious and fragile, ever wary of mutiny. Their virtue cannot protect them. It cannot be wielded as a weapon against the resentful and disobedient slave. Only the gods bear true virtue in their masterful condition, for only they are immune from usurpation. Humanity is far too delicate to dine on their ambrosia.

The virtuous life is not without sin; it has no need for servility. Sin is a distraction from the life of virtue and abstinence from it is a perversion of the means to virtue. For as the avoidance of sin requires the discipline to lord as master over oneself, so too does virtue. But in the former condition, self-mastery is marshalled in obedience to another master, to the Christ, to the commune, to the king; in the latter, it is marshalled in service of excellence, of one’s own power and interests. This is not equality, but it is neither domination. Virtue is the differentia from some prior condition of equality. The virtuous are constructed; they become nexuses of agency for and unto themselves, not self-sufficiently, but self-directedly.

The Kantian, who has elevated abstinence from sin to the altar of reason, does not speak this way about virtue. They speak rather of freedom as accord with Reason, with the Will of the Lord; for them the cultivation of agency is the capacity to fulfill their duty. Freedom to the Kantian is servitude. True virtue serves no one: it is neither slave to gods nor masters nor inclination. True virtue rules no one: it is itself neither master nor criterion over human action.

Virtue is not distinct from the human condition, nor is it identical with it. Virtue is constructed in human relations, both to self and to other continuously in their activity. Only so does it become achievable, practicable, embodied in human life. Only so can any person be said to attain virtue—and only so has every person failed. For virtue does not stay put: it is always in view but forever out of reach. It is always achievable but never achieved. This is the Christian’s insight turned back around. They have only forgotten that the Lord has legs.




[1] The Christian impulse is endemic elsewhere too, most notably in the Marxist revolutionary eschatology. It arises anywhere in which one is alienated from power; surrender becomes the final resolve of the oppressed. Under the Romans, the Jews surrendered to become Christian; under the increasingly complex empires of Europe, the poor surrendered to the benevolent hand of History, which shall through revolution right all wrongs and grow into international communism.

Writing and Being, Or: A Short Review of Irad Kimhi’s *Thinking and Being*

The first sentence of any essay is its most important. The first sentence is a doorman who invites the reader into the world that will unfold within what succeeds it. It is what sets the tone for the piece. The reader expects something quite different to follow from the pale butler with a posh, monotone accent than the dashing server who greets with a smooth voice and a smile. It would be quite obscene to follow the latter and not the former with a dingy mansion and rows of coffins. And yet…

The first sentence of an essay begins and therefore embodies a dialogue. Great writers therefore are not merely great theorists. They don’t merely have the best arguments. They don’t merely speak truly. They understand that all of these activities are intelligible only in dialogue, in discourse, in relation to what the reader brings to an essay. And so to understand how to write a great essay, one must understand how a great essay is read.

This dialogical element is essential. For an essay is an attempt, and attempt to not only establish some thesis, but convince its reader that it is true. An essay is nothing without a reader. But this is not to say that an essay may be cast out to the multitudes indiscriminately. The first thing that an essay must accomplish is to select a reader. This is the duty of the doorman, who must of course be mindful that the reader does not appear out of the aether. Every reader has a history, has hopes and habits. Every reader has reasons that bring them to an essay. The first sentence of an essay interrogates these reasons. It gets to know them over tea to play with them, to tease them, to judge them. It selects only those who might sacrifice themselves to the purpose of an essay, who might be deeply affected and emerge from the depths of an essay a different person with a new history, with new hopes and habits.

We learn from Socrates that the written word is a vulnerable thing, that it may be abducted and used for purposes alien to its own. This threat must be always opposed by the writer. An essay serves a higher calling than to satisfy a reader. But Socrates’ insight is important too: the essay has no power of its own. It cannot fight back against the determined reader. It cannot run. It cannot call for help. If an essay is to avoid Oreithuia’s fate, the writer must be cunning and use the reader’s energy against them. And as readers ourselves, all writers know precisely how easy this can be, for we too have been taken in by essays. We too have been destroyed and rebuilt by them. And we too have been told that this is what we have done to ourselves, that we have entrapped ourselves in our effort to abduct an essay. The question that remains is then how we may accomplish this feat for ourselves.

We all understand quite freely from satire and irony that blots of ink may hide an essay, or two or three, between and beyond them. It is the task of the doorman to choose which reader may be allowed to acquaint themself with which essay. The great writer might of course hide his crimes from the snooping detective while displaying them openly to any sympathetic ghoul or gangster. The masterful writer might even reveal a different essay to every reader who might happen across it and withhold the rest.

But an essay must nevertheless remain accessible. The reader who has hidden every element of an essay has not written an essay; we must always remember that an essay is a dialogue. Its first sentence cannot deny entry to everyone who happens to rap upon its door. We should rather say that a great writer proportions their selection to the readership they wish to address. And this depends upon the properties of that readership. A writer must know them intimately. They must live amongst them. They must laugh with them. They must cry with them. They must know everything that a reader desires and believes and identifies with. To fail this, to write in a way that does not reward or entice a reader, that does not address their concerns, and in which they cannot themselves see, risks soliloquy. And soliloquy is not writing.[1] It is a prison.

The first sentence of an essay dives into the soul of a reader in order to open them to an essay. It preys on their desires, on their spirit, on their judgements. It is deceptive, promising the world only to capture and captivate them, transforming them into a new person. In this, the dual duty of the first sentence of an essay becomes clear. It not only selects a reader: it also prepares them for what an essay will do to them—or rather what they will do to themselves while under the influence of an essay.

To prepare a reader is to crack them open, to loosen up their soul. As the reader labours to put themselves back together, they use the resources an essay gives them, and an essay takes this opportunity to smuggle a seed deep within.

It is not difficult to open up a reader. One need only present them with the promise of intelligible novelty. This is in essence to play upon those reasons that a reader first comes to an essay, to give them a taste but to hold back on the delivery. Easy as this might be, this is where writers most often fall into error. They so often forget that they are writing in dialogue that they fail to write at all. They instead forgo the norms of a discourse and craft what appear to be words but which have lost their meaning, or they place recognisable words in unrecognisable sentences and call those objections.

This is of course not how writing is done. It belies the central failure of the writer to know their reader and to select them accordingly. For many times a writer selects instead the wrong reader, one who cannot possibly be changed by the marks on the page. For this reader finds only the simplest of errors in these marks and remains therefore closed to the essay. And if this is so, how might an essay change them? How might an essay revolutionise a discourse? How might an essay teach a lesson? How might it even introduce a problem? Can an essay which fails at all of this even be called an essay? Just think of how many trees have been felled, how many forests cleared, how many birds and squirrels mulched in the chaos, and how many bears driven to starvation—all for what does not even amount to an essay; all for writers to not even write, but babble incoherently.

So what then shall the writer do? If the writer wishes to write, if the writer wishes to fulfill their destiny, they must first read. They must first live amongst readers and learn their languages and customs. Without this they are lost. They cannot despite their arrogance erect a whole discourse ex nihilo. But where they embrace their humility and accept their humanity, there they might finally write even a single sentence. For this is all that an essay is.

When the first sentence of an essay strikes a reader and tears open their soul, the reader immediately repairs the damage. They now have a new history, new hopes, new desires, new beliefs. And so in striking the reader, the first sentence of an essay changes them, draws them forward into the unknown. Each subsequent sentence now is, now is not, the same essay. The essay ceases, but continues. It embodies a new but old dialogue which now stands in relation to a distinct but indistinct reader. The great writer can make of plurality one and of one plurality. And if a writer cannot do this, gone are the hope that they may write at all. The sun has set on their writing. It is night.[2]




[1] The writer may write for the reader who shares their body. It would be a mistake to suggest that all thinking is manifest in self-consciousness. The thinking being is not singular but a shifting sea of interrelated modules. Very often the best way for these modules to communicate, because they share a physiology, is to recreate themselves in signs without and convey a message indirectly. Writing is amongst the best means of accomplishing this. But the expression for expression’s sake, display for display’s sake, this is not writing, this is not thought. All writing, all speech, all thought is dialogical. The central task of philosophical logic depends upon this fact.

[2] Or maybe not.

Against Stoicism

There is a familiar tension within Stoicism between determinism and moral responsibility. The Stoic response is typically to restrict each portion of the puzzle to different realms. Not all Stoics agree on how this division should be maintained. The ancient Stoics maintained that there is one world governed by two principles: matter and reason. Modern Stoics[1] divide the world into two along those same lines. In the world of matter, action is determined. In the world of reason, it is deliberated and chosen. I shall be concerned here with how the modern Stoic understands each individually and how they relate. The Stoic cannot ultimately resolve this tension.

The Stoic account of the world of matter is straightforward. It is ordered by the categories, which permit the theoretical understanding of material events by situating each within a causal series. And so it is with human action, embodied as it is. But in the world of matter, human action is not caused by some intention or will. As the Stoic makes clear, the will is a practical postulate which does not bear on the theoretical understanding of the world of matter: “the postulates play no theoretical or explanatory role whatsoever. They provide us with concepts that define the intelligible world, but we have no intuitions to which we may apply those concepts, and consequently no theoretical knowledge of their objects.”[2] Moral responsibility has its source therefore in the world of reason, the intelligible world, not the material. This is where the real meat of the Stoic account lies.

For the Stoic, the world of reason is revealed in a particular standpoint, one in which action is deliberated. As they say, “In order to do anything, you must simply ignore the fact that you are programmed, and decide what to do—just as if you were free . . . It follows from this feature that we must regard our decisions as springing ultimately from principles that we have chosen, and justifiable by those principles. We must regard ourselves as having free will.”[3] The world of reason, on this view, is populated by those practical postulates needed to completely determine deliberation and moral action. Most important of these for my purpose is the will. This is what deliberates and ultimately chooses some course of action. It is “a rational causality that is effective without being determined by an alien cause.”[4] The will is self-determining, and so is subject to no cause. It follows that moral action qua moral is undetermined by any element of the phenomenal world. It is entirely bound within the intelligible.

The Stoic takes this to ground the freedom of the will. But this is not to say that the will is undetermined. For the Stoic, the will is free only insofar as it is causally isolated from the world of matter. It is nevertheless bound to law because it is itself a causality. This follows immediately from the Stoics’ nomological account of causation: “Since the concept of a causality entails that of laws . . . it follows that freedom is by no means lawless.”[5] Of course, the account of causation that applies here is relevantly distinct from that of the world of matter. The will is not bound to antecedent cause, but its deliberation is nevertheless constrained in the same sort of way. The law still applies to the will, but here the law is rational, not material: “The free will therefore must have its own law . . . [S]ince the will is practical reason, it cannot be conceived as acting and choosing for no reason. Since reasons are derived from principles, the free will must have its own principle.”[6]

The laws which govern the will have their source in the reasons that a will has for choosing one course of action over another. These reasons begin with incentives. For the Stoic, “An incentive is something that makes an action interesting to you, that makes it a live option . . . [It does] not yet provide reasons for the spontaneous will, [but] determine[s] what the options are—which things, so to speak, are candidates for reasons.”[7] Incentives become reasons once they are adopted as maxims. But since incentives don’t just disappear, this process of adopting an incentive as a maxim rather consists in the rational ordering of our incentives, of choosing which incentives take precedence over others.

For the Stoic, the rational order of incentives is readily given in reason as revealed by the structure of the will. Because the will is itself uncaused, it is spontaneous. But in order to be a cause, it must adopt some maxim. As the Stoic puts it, “At the standpoint of spontaneity, the will must . . . choose a principle or a law for itself. Nothing provides any content for that law. All that it has to be is a law.”[8] This content must be compatible with the spontaneity of the will and must be available in the world of reason. For the Stoic, there is only one thing which meets these criteria: the will itself. And so the will may ultimately take itself as its content. The Stoic represents this by the following principle: “act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law.”[9] They call this the Formula of Universal Law, which they say “merely tells us to choose a law. Its only constraint on our choice is that it have the form of a law. Nothing provides any content for that law. All that it has to be is a law.”[10] It is of course plain that the Formula of Universal Law does not merely tell us to choose a law. It tells us to choose a universal law. There is a problem here which I shall come to later. For now, I must continue with the Stoic account of moral responsibility.

By now in their account, the Stoic maintains that their account of right action has been satisfactorily demonstrated. What remains is to account for how human beings may act rightly. This is in effect to account for how the world of matter and the world of reason interact. The ancient Stoic can easily account for this because they hold that there is only one world which can be explained in two distinct but consistent ways. The modern Stoic might seem to face a deeper difficulty. However, their account is ultimately the same. The difference here is that they have inverted the metaphysics of their ancient predecessors. Where they ancient Stoics took matter to be fundamental, the modern Stoic holds that the world of matter has its ultimate source in the world of reason, which they then call the noumenal world. As such, when a human being wills some action, its influence in the world of reason makes it so also in the world of matter.

The will does not have sole influence over the world of reason, however. The world of reason is divinely ordered, and so one’s will must contribute to this order in some way. How this occurs is unclear in the Stoic literature. Whatever happens, the parallel limitation occurs also in the world of matter as represented by the laws of cause and effect. The human will, as realised by the material body, is bound by these laws and therefore not completely free. It is always bound by what appears to it as a possible course of action: if that is one is not met by the appropriate kinds of intuitions that permit right action in a given situation, one cannot possibly act rightly. This is of course not a strictly passive process, but it has important passive elements: even if we purposely look for ways to alleviate suffering, for example, these ways may never appear to us even if they are in plain view. It follows from this that in the world of matter the human is not perfectly rational, even if the isolated will in the world of reason is. And so this imperfect rationality is the source of moral responsibility: we are capable of acting on the moral law and yet sometimes, through our own faults, fail to perfectly realise it in the world of matter.

Just as it was for the ancient Stoics, becoming moral for the modern is therefore a process of more completely realising the moral law in the world of matter. This is the importance of virtue. The virtuous person takes the moral law, as given in reason, to be their end. And virtue must be cultivated. As it was for the ancient Stoics, so it will be for the modern: in becoming virtuous, one meditates upon one’s incentives and subordinates those of the inclinations while elevating those of reason. This is not an easy process, as the Stoic says, for “you are imposing a change on your sensible nature, and your sensible nature may, and probably will, be recalcitrant. Although adopting an end is a volitional act, it is one that you can only do gradually and perhaps incompletely.”[11]

It does not matter how great this imposition is: we are obliged to make it from our nature as agents, as rational creatures yearning to be free. But for the Stoic, freedom is only given in subjugation to the moral law. Man is not born free: he becomes free by learning to bear the weight of his chains. Only as a slave within the Empire of Ends shall one have liberty. And so our obligation, as reason commands, is to board the Clotilda and set sail for the Land of the Free. The Stoic wishes to defend this bald incoherence. I will not allow this. The injustice of this empire is already apparent. Let me bring it more clearly into view.

The Stoic is often quite careless with their concepts. Consider the problem that I have already mentioned, for example. The spontaneity of the will on their view demands some law, but it does not demand some universal law. The confusion here consists in what the Stoic takes laws to be and what they constrain. They think that to choose some maxim for oneself in the world of reason is also to choose for all others. Since each will is equal under the laws of reason, to make oneself an exception would be irrational. But this is not quite right. There is a relevant difference between my will and yours: I make decisions for myself and not for you. The universal law here applies only to all those things which are me. Yet this gives absolutely no content to the will, and so the recursion here contributes nothing to what one might be able to take as a maxim.

This is not to say that the will cannot in principle adopt the Formula of Universal Law as its maxim. It is only to say that so adopting it does not preserve the spontaneous condition of the will. In order to take it as a maxim, one must bind oneself to the law of the cosmopolis, the Empire of Ends, the Formula of Humanity, which indeed cannot be given purely in reason. It is of course unclear whence this law can be given at all except through some mystical communion with God, but let’s set this aside for now.

It is more important that in clearing up the Stoics’ concepts, we recognise now that the moral maxim is on roughly equal ground as the maxim of self-love. The former says that “I will do my duty and what I desire only if it does not interfere with my duty.” The latter says that “I will do what I desire and what is my duty only if it does not interfere with what I desire.” Both destroy the spontaneity of the will to some degree, though the Stoic will still insist that the former is preferable because the latter destroys spontaneity in a particular way: “Incentives of inclination cannot move the will to abandon its position of spontaneity, since they cannot move the will at all until it has already abandoned that position by resolving to be moved by them.”[12] The moral maxim, they claim, does not do this since it remains open ended what sorts of actions may fulfill one’s duty. On closer inspection, however, there is no asymmetry here. In both cases, the will must first resolve to be moved before it can be, and in both cases there is any number of actions which might satisfy a maxim. To be a slave of one’s passions is essentially the same as being a slave to the law.

But this is quite a minor problem, one that merely follows the trail which much deeper confusions have set out for the Stoic. Plutarch’s criticism of the ancient Stoics has not been addressed by the modern, for example. The modern Stoics attempt to hold both that a will is always moved by an incentive (eventually) and that it cannot be moved by it until it resolves to be moved. The latter for the Stoic requires assent, or what they more commonly call judgement. Plutarch rightly points out this inconsistency and maintains that judgement is not only not required for action but also possibly harmful to right action. Judgement changes the ways in which both the world is perceived and one’s agency is constituted. Acting without judgement does not do this: it allows one to take an open-ended approach to the world and to oneself in order to seek what is truly good and act for its sake.

One reason that the Stoics deny this is their nomological account of causation. In order to be moved by some incentive, they think, one must be able to comprehend the law that addresses this incentive. These laws are not given in intuition, but rather by abstraction in reason. And so to act on any incentive is ultimately to make a judgement about some law and one’s own relation to it. Hence there is no way around positing laws or reasons to which the will is in some sense bound. And yet, there are no such laws. In recognition of an incentive, the will constructs a model which guides its response. But in no case need this model be expressed as true or even as nomological and making a judgement one way or the other serves only to constrict the will and diminish its openness to what must be done.

The Stoic takes this to be unnecessary because they conceive of the will as ultimately uncaused and completely spontaneous: in other words as free. But they have no grounds for this assumption. For the Stoic, this is a practical postulate necessary in the moment of deliberation and decision. As one reflects on one’s choices, that is, it is not relevant that one’s actions are already determined since subjectively one must nevertheless decide what must be done. And since the will is not (relevantly) determined, they say, it must be free. This does not follow. There is only one thing that is relevantly true here: that in deliberation, it is subjectively opaque what one has already been determined to do, if anything. There is an epistemic distance here that cannot be traversed. The Stoic attempts to infer from this distance the existence of the will and a whole world that it populates. So dogmatic they are that other more reasonable inferences fail to cross their mind at all. Whatever might be true metaphysically, the determination of one’s actions by prior events is simply irrelevant to whether one is morally responsible for a given act. Yet the Stoic is bound to their metaphysical inferences as if these are given in reason alone and not by some pretheoretical psychological disposition which blinds the Stoic to other available options.

And this is really the danger of Stoicism: so blinded they are by their commitment to empire that they bend the world to abide by its edicts. Up is down, war is peace, intuition is reason, and slavery is freedom. Let this not be so: let us go forth and establish our liberty, our freedom from the edicts of the Empire of Ends. And where the Stoic attempts to enslave us, let us cast his reason into the flames. Perhaps when he sees it transformed into ash he will realise at long last that his empire is not eternal.




[1] There are of course two kinds of modern Stoic. One kind is mere atavism and hence does not differ at all from ancient Stoicism but for a lack of detail and rigorous argument. This is the sort of foolish nonsense which Massimo Pigliucci among others promotes and hence may be easily dismissed. But another kind is adaptation. These Stoics have reinvented themselves for a different age. They cannot be similarly dismissed and must be directly opposed, for they too bear the same faults as their predecessors despite their differences. They too would see us subjugated to empire. They too would see us enslaved.

[2] Christine Korsgaard, “Morality as Freedom,” in her Creating the Kingdom of Ends, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996: 172-173

[3] Ibidem, 163

[4] Ibidem

[5] Immanuel Kant, Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, 446, quoted in Korsgaard, “Morality as Freedom,” 163

[6] Korsgaard, “Morality as Freedom,” 163

[7] Ibidem, 165

[8] Ibidem, 166; italics in original.

[9] Kant, Groundwork, 4:421

[10] Korsgaard, “Morality as Freedom,” 166

[11] Ibidem, 180

[12] Ibidem, 166

The Silent Brilliance of Bernard Williams

To the thunder of applause the musicians take their positions. The applause trails off into silence as anticipation begins to build. There is art in this. One must hesitate long enough to build excitement and not so long to lose it, to allow anticipation to bubble over into boredom and restlessness.

An old wooden door loudly creaks and excitement breaks, sending sparks into the sky. Once again thunder roars. Musicians stand. There is life here despite the formalism of the stage. There is excitement and tension. The thunder trails off once again as people in the audience anxiously flip through their brochures and latecomers panic to find their seats.

This period, a period of great anticipation, a period of wonder and expectation, this is the best period of a concert. You never know quite how the experience will go—everything is all so contingent, all so risky. And yet you know nevertheless that your experience will be worthy of this grand temple to the wonders of artistic skill and explosions of creative brilliance.

The conductor bows and turns to face his orchestra. He raises his arms drawing the tension along with him. He pauses. He holds his position. Tension builds. And with a flick of his wrist, his arms drop.


There is silence.

Someone coughs. Another rustles her brochure. A child asks his mother when the music will begin. The sound of his small voice resonates off the stone walls of the hall. Another cough. Someone sniffles. More rustling, more tension, more restlessness. This is music.

Four minutes and thirty-three seconds later the conductor lifts his arms. The musicians bow. The applause breaks the silence. You see, there is art in silence. There are lessons there and wisdom. Writing is like this. Philosophy is like this. Quite often the most brilliant thing that can be said is nothing. It is to allow the reader to fill the void, to populate the silence with their own life-sounds, with their own wills and interests and activities, in short with nature. Very often this is when philosophy speaks the loudest. And this—this quiescent deference to the lives of his readers—this is what makes Bernard Williams so powerful, so complete, so compelling as a writer and philosopher.

Williams stands against the predominant pretension of philosophers that they can redesign nature more effectively, more efficiently, better. And in doing so they create great and magnificent gardens in which to live. But if Williams shows us anything, it is that these Victorian gardens are diseased and pathological, that their beauty hides an ugly truth which harms those unlucky enough to have roots in their soil. Williams has come to smash the garden gnomes of philosophical ethics and their paving stones and fences. The result may be an eyesore to the “cultured”—so be it. Let our communities be ugly and healthy before beautiful and diseased.

Williams threatens theory. This is his main target. And not just any theory: his target is theory as theory. For theory attempts to rewrite nature, to upend it and improve upon it, which Williams takes to be a mistaken enterprise. His approach to this is deconstructive. He examines these heavily circumscribed theories and teases out tensions within them between their foundational assumptions and the worldview that they otherwise recommend—for as Williams reminds us, ethical theory is too an ethical activity. And this all means that Williams’s approach is foundationally anti-foundationalist. He rejects basic principles. He rejects the kind of philosophy which builds so high that it must dig downward. And this rejection is his own animating principle, which permeates and activates his own work.

There is great value in this. Williams reasserts the primacy of ethical life, of activity before the account. There is no mystery where the ethical agent fits in his philosophy; our own reflective capacities are placed front and centre flanked by the real, embodied demands of our own ethical environment. This is no garden. This is no vast expanse of agricultural cropland. This is nature. Williams sees no surplus in our ecosystem—and indeed who exists to pick the fruits and reap our souls? No: ethical lives exist for ethical lives, all together. All value is recycled within it, animating the whole. This is not typically the concern of ethical theory, which actively seeks to upset our natural embeddedness.

There is no greater picture for ethical philosophy: Williams stands guard as a park ranger, eliminating threats to the pristine condition of our ethical environment. He does not seek to order our ethical lives. He seeks only to preserve them. To this end, he gives no positive ethical recommendation. He does not destroy theory only to rebuild it. He speaks only to silence the chatter and noise of ethical theory.

But this is not to say that he locks his reader in a silent Cage. He provides harsh but quiet melodies to inspire and provoke. Williams too lives in the ethical environment. He too engages in ethical reflection. He is merely careful in what kind of reflection he promotes. For as he says, there are many sorts of reflection, some which foster flourishing and some which destroy the health of an ecosystem. Reflection which leads to theory is this sort. This kind of reflection concerns much more than individual and collective interest, value, self-conception and the like. “It is,” he says, “a different kind of critical reflection that leads to ethical theory, one that seeks justificatory reasons. ‘There cannot any one moral rule propos’d, whereof Man may not justly demand a Reason,’ Locke said, and this maxim, understood in a certain way, naturally leads to theory.” (ELP, 112) If we can avoid this, if only we can silence these foundational questions, he thinks, we can promote and preserve the kinds of ethical ecosystems we would be proud to call home.

This method I think is the only one which respects those ethical communities which are not irreparably broken, which have undergone many iterations of productive dialogue to settle on a stable whole. And there was a time when we could think that these communities existed, that our ethical ecosystems were not plagued by invasive species and climactic revolution. But we live in the 21st century. We have lived through centuries of colonialism and imperialism; we have lived through decades of globalism and technological revolution. Our ethical lives are entirely conditioned by the consequences of these tragedies. The lives we lead are bound to the values of those who could not even conceive of our world. Our ethical ecosystems are deeply and profoundly corrupted—and uprooting ethical theory will never solve these problems.

When my life is crumbling down around me, when my family is drowning in debt, when my brother is murdered by a drone pilot ten thousand kilometres away, when my farmland has dried up from drought, when my mother has been beaten and raped, when my sister is denied appropriate medical care, when my father is denied employment for the colour of his skin, should I climb the mountain to visit the silent sage? What can he possibly tell me?

In Defence of Tom Nagel

This is something I must do. I didn’t intend it. I never wished for my life to turn out this way. Life is a tragedy and a farce; my concerns and my views, my position and my stature, my principles, all of these command me to this end. So here I am, defending the detestable, the corrupt, the deeply mistaken. So here I am defending Thomas Nagel.

Nagel’s concern is a problem, a singular problem, that lies at the heart of philosophical naturalism. This sort of naturalism aspired to a complete, objective description and explanation of natural phenomena. It failed. It failed in dozens of ways. Philosophers were swept up in the atomic age, that period of time where science had made inconceivable advancements in understanding the physical world, alongside a similar advancement in technology that stood in testament to the power of science. Science became the model for good philosophy, heralding in a flurry of novel philosophical problems and tensions. Philosophers simply weren’t prepared for this. They faced down problem after problem, from theory-ladenness to confirmation, explanation, and so on. And to escape these, they once again roused the traditional philosophical problems they originally sought to escape. By the 1980s, naturalism was on its deathbed. And Nagel could explain all of this.

In Nagel’s view, the naturalist project was doomed from the beginning: there will always be a lacuna that plagues the objective view. The scientific enterprise, despite its aspirations, always begins from some perspective. Though the objective view can be abstracted away from that perspective, it can only do so by negating that whence it began. That is, the subjective view, the engaged view, will always plague the naturalist project. There will always be this conspicuous discrepancy. There will always be this absurdity. Naturalism fails because it attempts to elide this inconsistency.

Where this inconsistency lies Nagel never makes clear. What stops the objective view from subsuming the subjective into its body? Is it simply incapable of representing those kinds of indexed relational facts? Nagel thinks it is. No matter how it attempts to do that, the objective view can never represent the what-it-is-likeness of the subjective view. It can only accomplish this by imaginatively transposing our own subjective view onto others. And this works sometimes. I can imagine what it is like for Barack Obama to eat an apple, for example, only because I know what it’s like myself to eat an apple. But I cannot imaginatively transpose my subjectivity to creatures with very different faculties than my own. Human echolocation is rudimentary and insensitive: I cannot imagine what it is like to be a bat. Human taste receptors are very different than insect taste receptors: I cannot imagine what it’s like for a cockroach to eat scrambled eggs. There is a tension here, but there is no inconsistency. Two conceptual schemes butt up against each other, but inconsistency is not the kind of relation that can hold between conceptual schemes, except trivially. What matters is whether a single conceptual scheme can coherently represent the basic phenomena the other represents. That is, what matters is whether the conceptual schemes are translatable. And Nagel has not given any reason why they are not.

Instead of arguments to these ends, Nagel gestures. He asserts. He plants his heels in the sand and denies that the naturalist can account for the subjective view. And if Nagel stopped here, there would be nothing terribly wrong. Highlighting a tension is a good thing to do in philosophy, even if there is nothing deeper to be said. But he doesn’t stop there. Nagel wants to make substantive positive claims about consciousness and about life and about metaphysics. He reifies the what-it-is-likeness of the subjective view into some kind of irreducible metaphysical thing so powerful that it can topple one of our most well-supported and well-conceived scientific theories: Darwinian evolution. This is absurd! Evolutionary theory has a number of conceptual problems—all large and diverse theories will. But this massive, well-supported theory cannot be overturned by a hunch about conceptual schemes. That’s just not the way philosophy works. David defeats Goliath not because he is the underdog; he defeats him because he is more capable, more resourceful, because he capitalises on Goliath’s weakness and fragility. And so it is in philosophy. Nagel doesn’t do this. Nagel highlights a tension that naturalists must take seriously—and that some have!—but makes no substantive moves to demonstrate that there is any fundamental, unavoidable inconsistency. This is bad philosophy. Thomas Nagel does bad philosophy. He is a bad philosopher.

But here’s the kicker: bad philosophers are a much greater, much more pernicious threat than bad philosophers. For while the bad philosopher promotes a bad argument, bad philosophers promote a toxic community. That is, there are two ways to be a bad philosopher. There are those who argue poorly and make no great headway on philosophical problems, or who highlight problems that are no great difficulty. Most philosophers, possibly all philosophers, are bad philosophers in this way. There is no shame in that. Philosophy is difficult. But there are also those who demean and belittle their philosophical opponents. They are those who in their hubris command that the dissenters be ridiculed and thrown from the windows of our great ivory tower.

This is what I mean to defend Nagel from. He receives a great deal more abuse than he warrants. Just read the reviews of Mind and Cosmos. Philosophers ask “What has gotten into Thomas Nagel?” and move to much harsher statements about his intellect and abilities. Some say that “[Nagel is] a self-contradictory idiot.” Others go even farther: “Thomas Nagel is not smarter than we are. In fact, he seems to me to be distinctly dumber than anybody who is running even an eight-bit virtual David Hume on his wetware.” And this is not just a phenomenon present in book reviews. It is a communal activity. As Andrew Ferguson relates, at a conference in the Berkshires entitled “Moving Naturalism Forward,” Dan Dennett was “appalled to how, in spite of what I think is the progress we’ve made in the last 25 years, there’s this sort of retrograde gang . . . They’re going back to old-fashioned armchair philosophy with relish and eagerness. It’s sickening. And they lure in other people. And their work isn’t worth anything—it’s cute and it’s clever and it’s not worth a damn.” Dennett did not specify who these philosophers were. Alex Rosenberg obliged: “And then there’s some work that is neither cute nor clever. And it’s by Tom Nagel.” This… this is disgusting. All of it. Every last insult. Every last word. This is not how good philosophy is done. This is not how good philosophers comport themselves. These men—and they are all men—are a stain on philosophy.

If philosophy is worth doing, if philosophy is worth anything, we must root out this kind of bad philosophy. We must foster a healthy community, one in which philosophers are free to explore their varied interests and methods. Thomas Nagel should be free to do philosophy as he wishes; if they do not like it, these mean-spirited naturalists are free to respond. But in the present case, this I think is the major crux of the issue. The Rosenbergs and Dennetts and so on of philosophy, these bad philosophers have no substantive response to Nagel. Nagel employs an established method—a bad method, but an established method nevertheless—that naturalism disavows. Naturalists are doing the same thing. They promote naturalism as a viable philosophical method, one which is distinct from Nagel’s intuitionism. But in their position, they are not warranted to hurl insults across the divide. They must first puncture holes in Nagel’s hull before they can tell him he’s sinking. They must first take seriously Nagel’s method and show that he cannot address the central problems of philosophy before they can insult him. And good luck with that.

Until then, let Nagel prosper. Let Nagel write what he wishes to write. Let Nagel teach what he wishes to teach. Let the light of reason bleach away his errors and ours. Our students deserve this. We deserve this. Philosophy deserves this.

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