Review: Two Books by Wilfred Sellars

Usually I begin these book reviews with a little extra commentary; some examination of a philosophical issue I thought inappropriate to go into in the book review itself. I’m sure there are such issues in Sellars’ work for me, but having read these two books I am not confident enough in what Sellars was talking about to say very much. Sellars is certainly no antirealist, but I’m not sure he would call himself a realist (in Searle’s terms) either. He is one of the premier philosophers of logic and language in the thread leading from the Vienna circle through Wittgenstein, and on to Quine, Tarski, and Sellars himself.

Perhaps we could call him a “linguistic realist” as he seems to believe that it is through the acquisition of language that a human child comes to distinguish joints in the world. For Sellars, perception (the five senses) occurs in pre-linguistic children but is at that point inchoate, a jumble of impressions in which nothing is clearly distinguished from anything else. Perhaps the first “joint in the world” the child recognizes as such is its own mother. If my reading of Sellars is correct, the child first distinguishes its mother from the rest of the world when it first connects the word “mom” (even if it cannot yet vocalize it) to that object. In other words, for the child to recognize its own mother, in an intellectual sense, it must be able to “think linguistically”.

I have a big problem with this idea because only humans have such abstract language and yet animals, adult higher animals, clearly have a very sophisticated ability to discriminate “joints in the world”. A dog could not catch a Frisbee if it did not, and even a chicken knows enough to associate dark cool places with the prospect of more juicy insects and so on. Could a philosopher as brilliant as Sellars have missed such an obvious counter example to his connection between language and perception? I wouldn’t think so… It is possible I am interpreting him incorrectly.

Naturalism and Ontology

I have never before given such a low rating to a book by a professional philosopher of Sellars’ reputation. I also wonder about the value of reviewing a 40 year-old book whose author has long since passed on. But for the sake of my few followers I’ll deliver here, keeping it short.

Sellars says his analysis of language, reference, meaning, and truth (in descending order the main topics of this book) is needed to formulate a consistent (contradiction-free and perspicacious) naturalistic ontology. He takes the truth of naturalism for granted (most philosophers do these days) and while recognizing the term applies mainly to scientific method uses it as a stand-in for “materialism” throughout. I’m being rather loose with the word ‘throughout’ as he barely mentions naturalism or ontology (though repeatedly rejecting anything Platonic) beyond the book’s introduction!

In point of fact, Sellars never directly connects up his theory of reference to ontology, other than insisting that only a nominalism can be right. Sellars’ focus is on the role words (names, descriptions, declarations) play in language. His analysis proceeds through illustrations in formal logic which, while not individually complex, become overwhelming as they go on page after page. I’m guessing a full half the text of the book consists of these formal statements.

Overall the book is based on a series of talks. He says in his introduction that the first three chapters are straight from the talks, while the remainder of the book is more heavily edited to make the whole work come together. Yet the last two chapters of the book are a series of exchanges (unedited correspondence) he had with another philosopher and the book ends following the last of these. He does not ever conclude by summarizing anything. Indeed in the middle of the book there is another page of commentary (from a philosopher not named) criticizing Sellars’ whole approach. He is surely brave to put this in. Nowhere does he respond to this critique, and in point of fact, at least in my opinion, the critic’s approach more sense than Sellars’ view!

I got into this book because Terry Horgan (“Austere Realism” see my review) mentions him a lot and it strikes me that Horgan’s view of how language works, what makes ordinary statements true or meaningful, is derived from Sellars’ work. Horgan however (right or wrong) produces the summary, a synthesis of language’s relation to ontology, with which Sellars should have ended this book. Having read this, do I understand how Sellars links language to meaning and truth? Yes if vaguely. What about ontology as such? No, not at all.

Science, Perception, and Reality

This is my second review of a Sellars book (see “Naturalism and Ontology” also reviewed). I have the same problem here I had with the other. Like that other book, this one is something of a collection of separate essays on the same theme; the relation of language to action, thought, and the correspondence between perception and the mind-independent world.

A carefully crafted collection of related essays on the title’s subject, it is nevertheless very difficult to grasp what Sellars is trying to say overall. To my mind this is a stylistic problem and I imagine that students of Sellars familiar with more of his ideas generally will get much more out of this than did I. We are all used to the mechanism of “flashbacks” in novels. But imagine a novel in which a first level of flashback results in yet another deeper flashback and then one more. When the author returns from the last flashback where is the reader dropped off? One level up? Two? Or back to the original story thread?

In every chapter of this book Sellars begins with a brief statement of his intent and then, before explicating it more fully, informs the reader that certain preliminaries must be taken care of first. Such preliminaries end up nesting to two or more levels and (along with covering various objections and alternatives) occupy 90% of the chapter’s material. By the time Sellars gets back to the main thread, not only am I lost, but I come away with the suspicion that some of those preliminaries are used to introduce definitions and points of view, themselves often controversial, on which his final theses come to hang.

None of this confusion on my part has to do with disagreements in viewpoint. I read a lot of philosophers with whom I disagree but I understand nevertheless what claims they are making and arguments for those claims. From this book, and the other is the same, I come away understanding certain points of detail but not, overall, what Sellars is trying to say about his subject. Yes I get that Sellars believes the correspondence between perception and the mind-independent world, our capacity to discriminate “one something from another” goes through language. Yes I get that our “understanding”, our very ability to have thoughts “about” something, depends on language, but I have yet to figure out what sorts of ontological commitments he draws from this approach.

Sellars is clearly one of the great thinkers in the century-long thread of “linguistic analysis” in philosophy, but while a great thinker, he is not a perspicacious writer.

Review: Terence Horgan “Austere Realism”

As I noted at the top of my Amazon review (see inclusion below), Hogan’s “Austere Realism” and Graham Harman’s “Object Oriented Ontology” are, near as I can tell, exact inverses of one another. Harman’s view is that everything is real, everything is an object. Every star, planet, building, book, nation, thought, and all their relations, a virtual infinity of relations between everything and everything else taken individually and in sum. “All objects”. Horgan’s view it the exact inverse. For Horgan there is only one ontologically genuine concrete object in the universe, that being the universe taken as a whole, across all time, what he calls “the blobject”.

Both theories, in their own way, amount to saying the same thing. Whether “all is one” or “literally everything is an object”, both declare that “everything is the same”. On a strictly ontological level, there is no distinction to be made anywhere. This is not to say that the two theories say the same thing, not at all. But because they are both at the extreme ends of the metaphysical spectrum they both collapse all distinction and end up explaining nothing.

Horgan doesn’t mention Harman; not in the book nor the copious end notes. None of Harman’s books are even listed in the bibliography. I am surprised. Although the polar opposite of Horgan’s ontology, I would think the common feature of “being at the extremes” of ontological speculation would be worth a mention. I have dealt with Harman in several book reviews and essays here on the blog. Now it is Horgan’s turn.

In my review I do point out that Horgan’s book has two purposes; to set forth his “blobjectivism” and to show how, even if there is but one concrete particular in the universe (the universe itself) this idea is perfectly consistent with talk about a multiplicity of objects. “The United states dollar is the primary reserve currency on Earth” is true even though “the United States”, dollars, currency, and “the Earth” do not strictly exist. The same is true for more purely physical assertions. “Mars is the fourth planetary orbit outward from the sun” is true though there is no Mars, planets, orbits, or the sun. These statements can be true because their truth lies in semantic contexts that only “indirectly correspond” to some as yet unspecified phenomena of the “mind-independent world”, something both Horgan and Harman must accept as real or they wouldn’t be “realists” at all.

It is the social construction of language and so the presence of varying semantic contexts that make such statements true. They are true not because the things they purportedly reference (planets, money) exist, but because they meet the semantic standards of speech concerning posits about distinctions that exist only in a mind-dependent way. This connection between ordinary speech and ontology is a nice touch, but what is it about these “pseudo object posits” that makes them unreal ontologically speaking? Horgan points to vagueness (which he also calls boundarylessness) and the “Special Composition Question” introduced by a short detour through the work of Peter Van Inwagen. Much of this Horgan illustrates with what philosophers call “sorites problems” the most famous of which (and perhaps because of this Horgan doesn’t use it) is the “ship of Theseus”.

Theseus has a ship made from wooden planks. At some point one of the planks rots and must be replaced with a new piece of wood. Is it still the same ship? What if two planks are replaced, or ten, or all of them? Somewhere along the process some people would say that it is no longer the same ship though others would disagree. But the point is there is no definite point where the replacement of just one more plank makes a different ship. This observation suggests that the ship of Theseus (and most everything else) is vague and it is an axiom of Horgan’s ontology that “vague objects” do not actually exist as such. There is no such object as “the ship of Theseus” even though Theseus (who also does not exist) is plainly sailing in something.

The “special composition question” is related to this but has to do with what is and is not a proper part of a larger construct. Does a chair (some chairs) have parts? Does it have legs, a back, a seat, and perhaps arms? The chair is subject to sorites issues; if I remove a leg and replace it with another is it the same chair? But also we notice that legs, arms, seats, and backs, not to mention chairs, are all made of atoms. Perhaps the only real parts of anything are the atoms. A chair (Van Inwagen’s famous example) is nothing but “atoms arranged chair-wise”. It has no other proper parts because they are all merely atoms arranged leg-wise, seat-wise and so on.

So what does Horgan say is the chair in the mind-independent world? He says it doesn’t exist. It is not a “proper part” of the universe. Instead, what he believes, is that the blobject, the whole universe just is in some particular spatiotemporal location arranged chair-wise. Instead of a composition from atoms on up, the key insight for Horgan is that the differentiation goes from the top down. The mind-independent “whole universe” happens to be differentiated into everything that we take to be mind-independent about the world and according to Horgan (he is explicit here) this differentiation is both real and precise; not vague.

Yet, since the blobject is differentiated into something or other not-vague (chair shaped, rocks in orbits, suns, gas clouds, radiation) literally everywhere, and all of these differentiations have effects (gravitationally or otherwise) on other differentiations around them, how is saying what Horgan says any different from saying that all of the differentiations, taken mind-independently, are simply real objects with a genuine compositional structure? If the blobject’s everywhere differentiations are not vague, where comes from that vagueness he uses to insist that suns, rocks, gas clouds, and chairs don’t really exist? If the blobject differentiates precisely and the differentiations are mind-independent, the vagueness can only come from what is not mind-independent, namely the machinations of mind both pre-linguistic and linguistic!

The problem comes fully around to bite Horgan when he speculates on mind itself. If there is mind in the universe, the blobject also is differentiated spatiotemporally into minds! Mind itself, our phenomenology taken as a whole (Horgan suggests) is also a differentiation of the blobject and for that reason precise, though the contents of any given mind, for example propositions, can still be vague. But even with this little escape for vagueness’ sake, Horgan seems committed to mind-independent mind!

This result does not appear to have given Horgan any pause, but I think it is enough to show that there are difficulties with his view he does not address in the book. In the end philosophy is always trivially right when it takes positions at the extremes of ontology or epistemology. One cannot in the end refute a pure idealism, nihilism, solipsism, or a realism that says, one way or another, that “everything is the same”. In the end Horgan is not wrong. Nor is Harman. But Blobjectivism, like Object Oriented Ontology, is a difference that makes no difference! As concerns the “mind-independent world” saying everything, including all properties, are localizations of the blobject is the same as saying that all the localizations are real and exist. As goes ontology, Horgan (though not Harman) need not worry about baldness, nations, money, or even language since none of these phenomena are strictly mind-independent.

Austere Realism: Contextual Semantics Meets Minimal Ontology. Terence Horgan 2008

Interestingly this book is a counter point and the ultimate theory is exactly the inverse of Graham Harman’s “Object Oriented Ontology” (see my reviews of various Harman books). Ironically, the universality of their views cause both philosophers the same problem. If what exists is univocal (everything is an object [Harman] or there is only one object [Horgan]) you explain everything while explaining nothing. However delving into such philosophical matters is not the purview of a book review and I will talk more about this in my blog. Meanwhile, one of my criticisms of Harman is that he never really tells us why or how he came to his position, a complaint I cannot level at Horgan as that telling is the very purpose of this book.

Horgan first introduces us to realism in general and then austere realism. He spends roughly one third of the book (at the beginning and again at the end) characterizing austere realism and in particular his version of it, something he calls “blobjectivism”. Roughly two thirds of the book he spends not on his ontological theory as such but on how that theory relates to statements in ordinary and scientific discourse. If we want to say that planets, stars, buildings, and nations do not exist, how is the scientific statement “Earth occupies the third orbit outward from the sun” or the economic observation “the U.S. dollar is the world’s primary reserve currency” true? He says such statements are true not because the “objects” they purportedly name exist, but because talk of these categories only “indirectly corresponds” to the mind-independent world. The indirection goes through the process of conceptualization.

Much of the book is an exposition of this process works; how it is that many statements in ordinary and scientific discourse can be true even though the objects they purportedly talk about do not really exist. His direct argument for their non-existence has to do with vagueness, what he also calls the boundarylessness of discursive subjects, and the related “special composition question”. In stipulating a mind-independent world he also stipulates that no mind-independent object can be vague or boundary-less. Vagueness can always be made to look inconsistent. He gets into this issue by introducing what philosophers call “sorites problems” (take a man with 5000 hairs on his head. If I take away 1 hair is it still the same man? And this is only the beginning of a sorites problem). Anything we might call “an object” within the universe is subject to this sort of breakdown. Horgan insists that this being so, none of these postulated things exist in the mind-independent world. Objects of the mind-independent world cannot be intrinsically vague.

Horgan slides between mind-independence that cannot be vague, and discourse following general and not-fully-specifiable linguistic standards (themselves vague), to what he calls the vagueness of linguistic posits about the world. The problem here, the problem Horgan doesn’t seem to see, is that all the vagueness is mind-dependent. There isn’t any vagueness about the man with 5000 hairs in the mind-independent world. The vagueness enters only when mind directs itself at analyzing the concept of that man. Horgan is quite correct I think in that all that is mind-dependent is vague. I believe this is necessarily so, though Horgan does not (and says so). Nevertheless these indirectly corresponding posits cannot be real though propositions about them can still be true. Besides introducing us to the blobject, the point of the book is the [mind-dependent] connection between Horgan’s ontology and the correctness of ordinary talk thanks to semantic context and indirect correspondence.

To my mind, Horgan fails to appreciate some of the implications of his ontology. For him, the stuff of the mind-independent world are not parts of something greater but rather spacetime localisations, differences, of “the one concrete particular that exists”, the blobject. If this is the case, and he says this, these spatiotemporal localisations must be precise, not vague! There are many issues arising here I will leave for another venue (see my blog), but the bottom line is that if they are not vague we might as well call them objects! It isn’t that Horgan is wrong (let’s say). It isn’t that ontology cannot be as austere as he claims. But it doesn’t matter. Giving an inch here is worth a mile. If spatiotemporal variations in the blobject are real and precise then conceptualizing those variations as objects, saying “they exist” and “directly correspond” (in Horgan’s semantic scheme) to mind-independent particulars amounts to saying the same thing.

Still all in all Horgan does a great job putting this together. I gave the book four stars not because of philosophical issues but because Horgan’s writing is not as clear as it might be. There are many long sentences with multiple and parenthetical clauses. Sometimes his argument is a little difficult to follow. But what was worse, the Kindle version of this book (the version I have) has a serious problem! This is not the author’s fault. The publisher was way too casual with this conversion. There are a lot of end notes in this book. A considerable amount of detail in the author’s exposition is in the end notes! But while the notes are flagged in the text, flags are not made into links. You cannot press on an end note and go to the note as as is conventionally the case in most of the Kindle books in this and other non-fiction genera. Such features are, after all, part of the point of e-books! This is a serious omission in a scholarly work like this, and makes the whole, if you really want to see the end notes as they come up, way more difficult than it should be.

Two Books by Francis Fukuyama

Here are two reviews of books by Francis Fukuyama in which he traces the evolution of political orders from prehistoric times to the modern day. His point is to demonstrate that all human societies, growing larger, must solve common sorts of problems no matter where in the world they are. In these books he carefully describes how these solutions come out in political orders of vastly different types. He is also interested in what and how factors contribute to both the similarities and differences in the present political orders on Earth. These factors include geography, climate, foreign contact, ideas, economic activity, technology, external and internal conflict (war, civil-war, revolution), and ideas, especially the presence or absence of a culture-wide transcendental religion.

In another book, “The Shield of Achilles” 2011, Philip Bobbitt looks at the political evolution of Europe (to which Fukuyama gives much but not exclusive focus) and argues that the evolution of modern European states was very much a product of war and evolving military technology. In large measure Fukuyama agrees with this (especially as concerns Europe) although he suggests that many other factors are also important. Bobbitt distinguishes between four evolutionary stages beginning with Kingdoms in the medieval, and proceeding, in different places at different times and at different rates, through Kingly-States, State-Nations, to Nation-States. Fukuyama’s view cuts across these distinctions tracing the development of his three pillars of the modern political order (not any of them represented in literally everywhere on Earth in the present day) state-bureaucracy, rule-of-law, and upward and downward accountability. It is not the presence or absence of any of these that distinguishes the political orders described by Bobbitt, but rather the particular forms, especially the bureaucracy, taken in each place at various stages of history.

Bobbitt seems most interested in what he believes comes next in political evolution, the Corporate-State, something he notes is well underway in the United States, China, and in other places again evolving in different ways and at different rates. But what Bobbitt sees as a next step in political evolution, Fukuyama sees as “political decay”. The fundamental purpose of a State is to provide services that benefit the entire population as much as this should be possible. Such things as public school, medical care, roads, disaster mitigation, economic opportunity, and so on. Because the need for these things is global, throughout the nation, and because of this best coordinated, even if specific implementation directives are contracted to private enterprise, by the State. But when the State begins giving too much of this responsibility away to private enterprise it loses some control over the process. Moreover, when the private services become large and economically important enough, they become too big to fail and actually capture the political process. They come to control (usually by financial influence) those parts of the government that are supposed to be controlling them! This process weakens two of Fukuyama’s three legs, the State itself, and accountability! What for Bobbitt is the future is for Fukuyama a decline.

Origins of the Political Order

This is volume I of a two volume work. This first takes political and social evolution from pre-human times to just prior to the French and American revolutions. Fukuyama begins with pre-human (ape) social organization to put paid to both Hobbes who believed that the first humans were individually at constant warfare, and Rousseau who claimed that the earliest humans lived in idyllic individual circumstances because they were so distantly separated from one another. Apes live in family bands, early humans probably lived in family bands. These bands evolved into tribes whose organization had several advantages over family bands, and at one point, this stage of development characterized all human societies throughout the world.

Fukuyama distinguishes three broad aspects to any developing political order. A coherent “territorial state” administered more or less uniformly across some geographic domain. To be a true state, the central power (however it emerges) must control, more rather than less, the administration of its domain. Next, the “rule of law” which at a minimum means that the central authority recognizes that there are some (perhaps not many) codified limits to its power especially concerning property (land) rights. Third comes “accountability” which can go upwards (people become accountable to the government) and downwards (government accountable to people). These are broad ideas. Rule of law need not be constitutional (for example) and accountability of the government to “the people” might include only the noble class and not literally everyone.

Cutting across Fukuyama’s distinctions here are evolving groups within an evolving political order. There comes to be the king or other autocrat, some nobility (an elite class of one sort or another almost always land owners) and everyone else. Eventually the “everyone else” divides into skilled craftsmen, traders, professionals, a bourgeoisie and the peasantry. The non-peasant group he calls the “third estate”. There is a lot of variation within each of these groups and Fukuyama covers many of those variations as they bear substantially on how the three aspects (state, law, accountability) come together or fail to do so in different circumstances. The circumstances are the most varied of all as one might expect. War or the threat of war, famine, geography, climate, economics, evolving religion, accidents of succession (the king dies without heirs) and technology all played their part.

Fukuyama begins with China which developed “true statehood” by 300 BC, far earlier than any other polity. This is not to say the first state lasted. There were many ups and downs, reversions to a more tribal form of social organization and the evolution of new states. While China developed true territorial states with meritocratic administrations earlier than anyone else, it has not, even today achieved a true rule of law nor top down accountability. He moves on from China to South Asia where India was next to develop state-like organization while religion in its case (Brahmanism) actually solidified class differences along the lines of earlier tribal organizations. Today India has all three components in its polity, but the state is weak having far to much of the strong tribe-like organization competing with it. I am oversimplifying here. I cannot do justice to Fukuyama’s much more nuanced analysis in a short review.

Next he moves west and explores the emergence of Islamic polities and in particular the Ottomans who developed some of the strangest meritocratic institutions of all. Islam unified all classes in a religious sense, but it never managed to disentangle itself from secular institutions leaving this whole part of the world “caesaropapist” meaning that the head of the state is also the head of the religious order, though often there is a class of priests and scholars who are supposed to be consulted…

Lastly Fukuyama moves over to Europe where he focuses on France, Spain, England, Hungary, Russia, and the Nordic nations. In all of these countries the Catholic church had an enormous influence unifying law across all social classes and eventually separating from the early caesaropapist style into a true church separate from the true state that remained strong enough to impose rule of law (more or less) on kings. “More or less” usually because there were different balances between king, nobility, and all the others. Of these England, for historical and geographic reasons, had the best and earliest balance of all the various social forces leading to genuine rule of law and bi-directional accountability. Hungary had a version of the English Magna Carta, called the “Golden Bull”. But the Magna Carta left in place a strong king and a balanced nobility, while the Golden Bull made the nobility so powerful that its vested interests eventually destroyed the state.

By contrast to Catholic France, Spain, and Orthodox Russia, the Reformation was largely responsible for the evolution of upward accountability in the Nordic region because to realize the Protestant principle, that every man should interpret the Bible for himself, everyone, even the peasants, were taught to read! This enabled the peasants to organize politically, something that did not happen anywhere else except England where it occurred for quite different reasons. Among other factors English peasants were allowed to escape the land and become part of the third estate in evolving cities because the king used them to balance the lords. By contrast France, Spain, and Russia blocked this evolution because their kings aligned themselves with the nobility against the peasantry.

In his second-to-last chapter Fukuyama summarizes how these various balances worked themselves out everywhere from China around to Europe. In the last chapter he briefly covers how the play of these forces changed following the industrial revolution and how present technology and modern economics comes to bear on them.

This is a long scholarly work with lots of references. Throughout Fukuyama writes in an easy style and colors the analysis with enough specifics to keep it interesting without becoming over bearing. I am looking forward to volume II.

Political Order and Political Decay

This is the second of two volumes by Fukuyama on the broad subject of political evolution on Earth. The first volume (reviewed) covered with broad strokes the evolution of political orders on Earth from the times of universal band-level societies through to the French and American revolutions near the end of the 18th century. He chose this cut-off because the industrial revolution beginning in the early 19th century was for many reasons a turning point in the economics underlying political orders throughout the world.

There was substantial evolution of political systems around the globe prior to the 19th century. The universal band-level societies of 10,000 years prior had become tribal organizations of various sizes, and also true states (China long having the lead here with genuine political states preceding anything like them in Europe or elsewhere by a thousand years). In this evolution Fukuyama distinguishes between three threads that comprise separate (though co-influencing) threads of political evolution, the State represented by its administrative bureaucracy, the rule of law (which does not always evolve) and accountability upwards from the population to the government and downwards from the government to the population. There are modern States (China in particular) that have not yet evolved a true rule-of-law nor downward accountability. But all states prior to the 19th century did have one thing in common. All human societies of that time were dominantly agrarian.

The industrial revolution in Europe and the then nascent United States changed everything. Up until that point technological innovation was slow. Every advance in the production of more food and other goods was absorbed by expanding population that prevented any serious accumulation of wealth other than in and to very small classes of political elites. The industrial revolution changed all of this by generating increased food production, goods, and technological change faster than expanding populations could absorb them, leading to surplus wealth. In turn, surplus wealth led to a large scale differentiation in types of labor, specialization, which in turn led to the multiplication of political classes whose members, economic drivers who did not exist in earlier times (or existed in very small numbers), demanded and eventually achieved access to the political process.

In this volume Fukuyama brings his three political dimensions forward in time to the present age and demonstrates how the principle of development (evolution) and decay are everywhere playing out against the backdrop of what motivates them; economic activity, technology, war, ideas, and the changing communities of people themselves. He carefully investigates China, Japan, India, Italy, Greece, France, England, Germany, Russia, and the United States also comparing and contrasting their various forms with modern political and social evolution in South America (especially Argentina), the Far East, and sub-Saharan Africa. In the last, many problems are continent wide but he highlights two, Nigeria almost a failed state, and Tanzania being an African exception (in addition to South Africa) having achieved something of a stable balance between the three dimensions of state, rule of law, and accountability. I learned much about my own country they never taught me in school!

Fukuyama’s general conclusion is that every state must solve similar though not identical kinds of social and political problems and the solutions evolved are often similar but never the same. A combination that works in one place normally cannot be transplanted to another and what can be transplanted depends on what was there before. Furthermore at the present time everyone of these states is experiencing political decay in some of their institutions. The United States invented the political form he calls ‘clientalism’, the mass-oriented impersonal version of earlier ‘patrimonialism’, in the early 19th century. Italy and Greece are clientalistic states even today. America broke free of clientalism by the mid 20th century and built an efficient state which, since the late 20th century has fallen back through a process Fukuyama calls ‘repatrimonialization’ in which the state’s apparatus become captured by special interests.

All in all a very clear-eyed look at political evolution on our planet. There are keen insights and chilling possibilities galore. Fukuyama’s style is not dense and so reads easily. The book is long, but it rewards the reader with a deep knowledge of the nuances of modern political development.

Book Review: Self Knowledge for Humans by Quassim Cassam


A philosopher needs both breath and depth in the discipline. There are a certain range of issues in which I have a primary interest reflected in all of the essays on this blog. But a philosopher cannot rely only on the writings of others in their field. To understand the implications of even narrow issues, one must read both opposing voices and something of other issues that may be but peripherally related. For me this is one of those books.

Is self-knowledge of the substantial variety on which Cassam focuses important to me as a person? Yes to some extent it is, and in fact the author covers that “to some extent” very well in his last chapter. Is self-knowledge important to me as a philosopher? Is it important to my specific interests? In my case crucially yes, but it is not a sort of self-knowledge, a knowledge of beliefs and why I have them (I do know what I believe and why I believe), wants, emotions, and character traits addressed in this book.

What I need better to understand is the quality of my evidence and whether it is evidence for what I believe. My primary interests often impinge on philosophy of mind (not our belief that other people or animals have minds, but rather what mind is, what makes mind happen in brains, and how this relates to physics, biology, etc) and much of what I believe is derived from a phenomenal examination of my own mind. I want to know if what I discover in that examination is genuinely evidence for what I believe.

This is a question that Dr. Cassam misses. I make no criticism of his work here. It is clear from his exposition that the metaphysics of mind is not his subject. Who or what is this entity that believes, wants, feels, and has character traits? None of what Cassam writes here hinges on any particular metaphysical view of this entity. Yet surely an answer to this question is about one’s self? It is about what one believes constitutes the self. My interest is in what I might learn of the self as compared to knowledge about myself. While not addressing that question, this book provides a helpful context. Thanks to  my reading, I am better positioned to describe that entity and what I can (perhaps) infer of it in the context of self-knowledge more broadly conceived.

Self-Knowledge for Humans by Quassim Cassam (2014)

As with many other philosophy texts I’ve reviewed over the years this one is both professional and well written. There is almost a formula for doing good philosophy in the analytic tradition. Begin by clearly stating the nature of the problem you are going to address. Briefly review the history of the issue; make distinctions, show that the problem is more than trivial. Here the subject is something of a narrow subset of philosophy of mind, epistemology, phenomenology, and even psychology. It is the nature of what, how, and why we know, or fail to know, about ourselves as this pertains to our beliefs, emotions, desires, characters and more. Cassam sketches distinctions between the trivial and the substantial in self knowledge, and also the occasional (what I’m thinking, believing, feeling, wanting, right now) versus the standing (what do I believe, fear, want, and so on over time).

Next address the various theories about the subject in the literature and show why they are inadequate, if not entirely then at least partly. This review often, and in this case does, take up much of the book. Third make a positive argument for your own theory, in this case what Cassam calls “inferentialism”; describe it carefully and show how it addresses the inadequacies of the other dominant theories in the subject area. Then address specific objections to your theory advanced by others and show why they do not have the force their authors believe they do.

Cassam does all of this masterfully and manages not to be dry in the doing of it. He ends with two chapters on related matters, one being self-ignorance itself distinguished into variations and brought under his theory, and lastly a chapter on a meta-issue, why these inferences, why self-knowledge is or might be important.

Is Inferentialism convincing? Well yes, given how much Cassam emphasizes its broad but not always universal applicability. His claim is that Inferentialism covers much of the ground because it can be conscious or unconscious (sometimes this last is better understood as “interpretation”) and would often, but not always, be the dominant means by which we come to know things about ourselves. In short there are a lot of distinctions to be made about what self-knowledge is, and Inferrentialism happens to address all of them (including self-ignorance) to a greater or lesser extent, but is never, or almost never, absent entirely from the process of coming to know things about ourselves. Objections to the idea are unable to gain purchase because Cassam fully accepts that other theories have explanatory power here and there about this or that sort of self-knowledge, but points out that none of these, even if they happen to be operational in specific cases, preclude an inferential component to the path to self-knowledge. It is about as neat and tidy a package as I have seen.

“Self-Knowledge for Humans” would make a superb introduction to the style of Western Analytic Philosophy. In addition it well illuminates the issue and makes a substantial contribution to our grasp of what a solution looks like.

Book Review: I am a Strange Loop by D. Hofstadter

This book deserves a lot of additional commentary, but I will keep it short and begin with philosophy of mind’s “elephant in the room”; free will.

Hofstadter rejects free will. No such thing, any appearance to the contrary an illusion. But even worse, it is an illusion on top of an illusion (the agent whose will it is) on top of another illusion, mind, that is subjective consciousness, also illusion or at best epiphenomenal with zero power of downward causation. Of course. What else can he say? He is committed to all of this being nothing more than manifestations of physical process in the brain whose complexity in some unspecified way becomes self-referencing, creating some sort of physical effect (like a harmonic oscillation though he doesn’t say this) that magically transforms itself into our subjectivity. A harmonic oscillation (a complex pendulum) that becomes an unmeasurable (by third parties) interiority.

Despite this multi-layered trickery, Hofstadter uses the word ‘soul’ many dozens of times throughout the book, even calling human beings “spiritual animals” in his conclusion. To what, in this epiphenomenal context, can these concepts possibly refer? Nothing. They are meaningless terms standing for illusory abstractions. Surely he knows that these words, in a non-physicalist context, stand for something purportedly both real (not illusory) and yet non-physical. To be sure, even in their normal context they are vague terms and there is no end of debate among philosophers of religion about what they reference. But all agree they reference something not material. But God is a fantasy to Hofstadter. Words normally associated with “God talk” can be appropriated and made to mean anything one wants. Nothing about ‘soul’ or ‘spirit’ can be real. Although the words are real enough in the English language, they literally can mean nothing what-so-ever as  that to which Hofstadter applies them is ultimately an illusion.

Take beauty, the simplest of the values (truth, beauty, goodness) to grasp because we detect its manifestation in the physical world. Physical things (whether natural or artifactual phenomena, sunsets or art) strike us as beautiful or not but either way the perception of beauty is something that exists only in mind. We seem to see it in the material world, but there is not much controversey about its status as a purely mental phenomenon, coming out, in what would have to be Hofstadter’s view if he is being consistent, as an illusion in an epiphenomena. While having no causal power, our epiphenomenal mind can itself have an illusion about which we might report: “that is a beautiful sunset”. But this is but another behavior determined by the purely physical operation of our brains, a report that happens, magically to coincide with the illusion arising in a causally impotent epiphenomena having no correspondence what-so-ever to any physical quality of the sunset.

This leaves all of what Hofstadter says he values, the memories of a wife he loved deeply, and the children he continues to adore, his close friends, his career, all illusion. Memories are an imperfect mental record of past experience, but experience is nothing but effervescent epiphenomena. They don’t mean anything because meaning is intelligible only to a subject, itself an illusion. He likes to think he acts out of love for his children, but this is impossible unless there is downward causation. Love has an experience that is overtly more than its physiological concomitants. This part of it is quintessentially mental, and therefore epiphenomenal. There is nothing there that has any stake (and in any case cannot be a cause) in the behavioral game.  Like beauty, physics does not find love in the causal mechanisms of the physical world.

If Hofstadter is right, then we might as well be zombies of the sort envisioned by his student (years ago) David Chalmers. Our interiority would seem to belie that. Chalmer’s “philosophical zombies” (P-zombies) have no interiority, but then our having one makes not the slightest difference to anything we might say or do, like “I love my children”. There is no “him” (all illusion) there to love anything, only his brain that determines the verbal report made.

Hofstadter declares to us that he “takes mind seriously”. Another zombie-report forced on him by his brain, just as that same brain forced him to pen that book. This is not “taking mind seriously”. If you take mind seriously, then you have to come out a bit like John Searle (whose critique of “machine consciousness” Hofstadter swipes at here and there throughout the book). Searle takes mind seriously. He says that he cannot shake the feeling that nothing about the entire history of human experience, not to mention the day-to-day experience of individual humans, makes any sense, becomes unintelligible, unless free will, and even personal agency (for Searle at least of a functional and not ontologically real sort) are both real. Searle, being ultimately a physicalist, admits he cannot figure out how this would be possible, but he nevertheless cannot shake the conviction that it is. Hofstadter (Searle and many others also) has another option, one that his  sort of “taking it seriously” prevents him from considering. He could take consciousness, agency, and free will to be real, and conclude that therefore physicalism must be false!

If one takes mind, and provisionally like Searle, free will and agency seriously, if physicalism is false, then one moves on to asking what must be the case about reality as a totality that makes these phenomena possible? What must be true about the universe if these subjective experiences are experiences of real phenomena? This is a question that Hofstadter, like Searle, cannot bring himself to ask.

I Am a Strange Loop by Douglas Hofstadter 2004

Douglas Hofstadter, justifiably famous for “Godel, Escher, Bach” wrote about the much trickier subject of mind and personal identity in this 2004 book. It is one thing to analyze the relation between three applications (their results in Math, visual art, and music) of self-referencing thought, and quite another to analyze the entity doing the thinking. Hofstadter begins with Godel because as it will turn out, his insight into the recursive descriptiveness of number theory from which self-reference was (supposedly) banned by Bertran Russel, becomes his inroad into a philosophy of mind. Hofstadter is a master at describing (without mathematical formalism) what Godel did and why it matters. He is not so good at applying this to mind.

Besides Godel, the author’s other insight comes from the loopy-like nature of recursive entities like infinite halls of mirrors or what happens when you point a television camera at the screen displaying what that camera is viewing. We all have seen these, and from these two things, Hofstadter assembles a theory of mind based on the idea that whatever goes on in the brain at the low and mid physical levels results in some sort of abstractions (perhaps manifested in harmonic oscillations of electromagnetic energy) that from another perspective, are the very stuff of consciousness.

There is nothing particularly new about this. Rejecting religion or other basis for any sort of dualism (and his remarks are rather disparaging in this respect) and declaring oneself a physicalist (there is nothing more than physics) is par for the course and occasionally swatting straw-man arguments to the contrary, is all part of the contemporary game for most of today’s philosophers and scientists. Besides religion he mentions David Chalmers who was, apparently, a student of Hofstadter’s in his doctoral days and rejects Chalmer’s non-religious panpsychism (and along with this presumably Davidson’s “dual aspect” monism as well) which is fine as far as it goes.

Hofstadter’s theory is somatic. Mind arises from what goes on physically in the brain and nothing more. The problem is he never gets to connect up the subjective with anything that can, even in theory, be measured by third parties. This is not to criticize him alone here, no other physicalists (or for that matter panpsychists) manage to do it either, but in this case the author jumps from the neurological layer to the concept of self-referencing abstraction (presupposing consciousness) without pointing to anything in between that might connect the two.

After declaring his theory “explained”, Hofstadter moves on to considerations of how one strange loop-abstraction, the one that fools me into the illusion of a stable “I”, is influenced and modified by others. He is much impressed by Derek Parfit’s thought experiments [supposedly] demonstrating that what we take to be the uncopyable core of ourselves, is nothing but effervescent illusion and can in fact be copied. Moreover, though we cannot copy it today (and may never be able to do that in reality) we can, from our own interiority, find ourselves being partial expressions of other people, their strange loops!

He supposes that our own personal-identities form slowly as we proceed from infant to child based on all the various influences that impinge on us from the world as these come to influence new effects in our own minds. The totality of all this over time results in a relatively stable, but not changeless, personal identity. He moves on from there to suppose that those we hold and know particularly closely (our parents, wives, children, siblings, etc) can cause their own identities to be partly duplicated in our own minds. None of this really makes sense. Of course someone with whom we are close for many years will have a proportionally larger influence over the shape of our phenomenal arena. What he doesn’t seem to appreciate is that this influence takes the same pathways (our interpretation of sensory experience for example) as the initial early development of our own personality. There isn’t any loop in my brain that is a copy (however imperfect) of my wife or children’s identity, only modifications of my own that represent them.

There is much here and I do not doubt that writing “I am a Strange Loop” was a labor of love in more ways than one. It is, as with other somatic theories, even possible that oscillating fields in the brain have a lot to do with consciousness and personal identity. There are still reasons to believe that this is not the whole story.

Book Review: Fear: Trump in the White House by Bob Woodward

I haven’t much additional commentary to add here except perhaps to expand a little on my comparison between Wolff’s “Fire and Fury” and Woodward’s Fear. Wolff’s published much earlier covers a shorter time, about 200 days compared to Woodward’s 760+. As mentioned in my review, Wolff focuses on the ring of people immediately surrounding Trump (of course he brings in the next outer band) while Woodward expands his focus to that next outer band while the characters in the inner most group (other than Bannon) receive somewhat less scrutiny. This approach makes perfect sense given the expanded time frame of Woodward’s book.

Woodward is more sympathetic to all concerned (even Trump) than Wolff. Wolff’s picture is one of conflicting and shifting groups running around like chickens with severed heads while doing their best to increase their political influence and personal wealth. Woodward reveals the same self-interested politics in the inner circle while many of those in the wider circle, and even a few in the inner one, are trying sincerely to keep Trump from destroying the nation at every impetuous turn. Sincerity here has a mixed result as many of these people have incompatible political views concerning what constitutes a rational course in the first place. Both books paint a terrifying picture. Wolff’s is more terrifying, but Woodward’s is more frustrating because he highlights many opportunities (never taken) to bring parties together.

Fear: Trump in the White House by Bob Woodward 2018

My first observation is that this book is not as long as it seems. The first 63% (my Kindle tells me that) is the body of the book followed by a long chapter of acknowledgements, a detailed listing, chapter by chapter, of sources with lots of online links (including many of Trump’s infamous tweets), and a long index. Trump assumed the presidency on Jan 20, 2016. The last date mentioned in the book is March 21 2018 so about 760 days into the present (Sept. 2018) administration.

One cannot help but compare Woodward to Wolff’s “Fire and Fury” (also reviewed). Wolff’s focus is the shifting cabals immediately surrounding the president in his first (roughly 200) days. Woodward hits all the same characters and follows them as well but more through the lens of national and international incidents and issues occurring at the time, some precipitated by Trump himself. The characters are painted almost sympathetically, even Trump, relatively speaking. The unifying issue throughout is how the staff, principal cabinet secretaries, and members of Congress struggled to prevent the ever impetuous Trump from wrecking the economy or starting world war III, while a few were eager to egg him on in support of his most destructive instincts. The influence goes both ways. Trump appears to have supported DACA recipients specifically (though he never liked any of the rest of U.S. immigration policy) but was turned away from even DACA support by congressional hard liners.

There are lots of missing pieces. I suppose it would be impossible to include everything. Sean Spicer is mentioned, as is the hiring of Anthony Scaramucci but there is no word about their departure. Of course many characters do come and go. Like Wolff, Woodward focuses early on Bannon, but he hardly touches (of course they are present in the story) Jarad and Ivanka. Like Wolff, Woodward paints a picture of a man whose comprehension of the world’s complexity rises to the level of an elementary school graduate, a man mercurial and impulsive with uneven check on his actions by the adults in the room, often because they themselves are conflicted over every issue.

Washington Post publisher Phillip Graham seems to be credited with the observation that “Journalism is the ‘first rough draft of history'”. That rough draft is unfolding before us in books like Wolff’s and this one from Bob Woodward. I expect there will be a few more before this presidential term is over. Historians of the future (if there is a future) will not lack for sources. If like me you are a news junkie, this book will be an enjoyable, if frightening and possibly frustrating (so many opportunities lost) ride.

Book Review: The Attack of the 50 Foot Women

I try to read on subjects outside my mainstream interests. This is one of those books, broadly feminist. Not philosophy, but rather a clear statement of what inclusiveness in terms of the politics of sex means, how an ideal tolerance would come out in social institutions political and otherwise. Besides this, the book is a catalog of some ten years of investigation into the status of this ideal in various parts of the world. Finally, it threads in the history of one such attempt (still going on I hope), literally a political party focused on these issues, in the United Kingdom.

Philosophically there are two issues she fails to develop. One more minor she mentions but does not explore; the impact of present diversity (racially, sexually as it stands in different cultures) on the trajectory of political attempts at realizing the ideal. The more major issue is that of history. From the outset of human existence women have labored (literally and figuratively), the only member of the species that bears children. In fact this goes back far deeper into the past, to the earliest mammals at least, but in human society the distinction matters more and has always mattered more. Primitive hunter-gatherers were not egalitarian (Mayer appears to believe they were) but highly specialized along sexual lines. Men hunted, stood guard, and fought (until there were no more men and the women had to fight). Women gathered, bore, and mostly raised children; girls for their whole lives, and boys until they were old enough to hunt, stand guard, and fight. There are a few, but very few counter examples in Earth’s history.

There is literally a million years of such history behind us and this differential has had social-psychological consequences in the form of inate bias on both sides, male bias and female bias manifesting quite differently conditioned by the still considerable difference in physical size and strength of [most] men compared to [most] women. Should we, now in this “civilized age”, be attempting to erase this bias? I think yes, we should. Will we be entirely successful even in the next thousand years? Likely not. I address this further in the review below.

So was it a good book? Sure, why not! If nothing else, philosophically, Ms. Mayer has deliniated for us what sexual-identity-tolerance means and at least one example of its political expression. I wish her well!

Attack of the 50 Ft. Women: From man-made mess to a better future – the truth about global inequality and how to unleash female potential by Catherine Mayer 2017

I thought I might take a little side trip in to the political and social philosophy of feminism, but this book really isn’t that. Ms Mayer is more about a historical review and international survey. There is a chapter on just about every possible arena in which women and men either compete, cooperate, and frequently do both at the same time. She highlights both the common threads and differences between issues of gender and those of race and economic status across all races and genders. Throughout her intellectual and geographic wanderings (traveling widely interviewing people of many perspectives) Mayer weaves in a thread about the beginnings and organization of a United Kingdom political party (The Women’s Equality Party) that she and a few others launched but a few years ago.

Historically Mayer covers four generations of feminist movements, the suffragets of the late 19th and early 20th centuries (in some nations extending as on down to today), changes brought about by the demands of World War II, the movement in the U.S. and Europe of the 1970s, and of course the situation in the 21st Century. Pay differentials, political representation (government and corporate), violence against women, the situation in education, the real (nuanced) nature of physical and psychological gender differences, the role of institutional religion, and how all of this plays out in various parts of the world are given consideration.

On the whole Mayer does a good job of surveying the historically recent (last few hundred years) and present scope of issues and how these might be adjusted. On the whole her view cannot help but be colored by modern “identity politics”, but she does not call for absolute equality in the economic sphere. She does not expect that half the fire fighters or soldiers in the world will be women, nor half the nurses men. But she does think that we can do much better than we are in the political, and overall in the economic, sphere. She insists that a world in which women are genuinely respected, genuinely recognized to be the equals of (if not the “same as”) men in the process of building a society, will be more productive and peaceful. I am sure she is right about this because a society, such as ours, where respect is lacking is distorted socially, economically, and psychologically. It cannot help but be worse for all concerned (generally, the super-rich will always get by).

So her survey is good and her points well made, but in this reviewer’s opinion she is mistaken as concerns the roots of the problem. There is no excuse, in our modern world, for the gender (or for that matter racial) disparities that presently exist. But she never asks the counterfactual question that sets up the difference that really made a difference through 99% of human history: why aren’t men having more babies? Every social, economic, and political difference between men and women on this planet is rooted in that inconvenient biological fact; only women can bear children.

This is a handicap that men, and not merely women (as Mayer well notes) should be striving to mitigate, and while it might be overcome in the social sphere, violence against women must cease, it will never be quite overcome in the economic or political spheres because whether men have “paternity leave” or not, women, most women, MUST drop out of the economic and political spheres for a time or there won’t be any future economy or politics to worry about. In modern society there is no real excuse for any inequity between the sexes. We can COMPENSATE for the child handicap. But it is a compensation and not merely an acknowledgement of women’s equal importance. The devil is in those details.