On Accusations of Bullshit

Thinking about bullshit, I was reminded of the standard interpretation of the Greek sophists. The sophists tend to be seen through the eyes of Socrates which is to say through the words of Plato. But we are using a lens of understanding that is covered in more than two millennia of dust and grime.

I’ve long known that trying to grasp anything in the ancient world can feel like a near impossible task, even if too alluring to refuse the attempt. Understandably, we feel compelled to pull back the curtains of the past, hoping to get a glimpse. It isn’t entirely fruitless endeavor, as we have accumulated much evidence, although more scanty than is preferable.

The problem is less the evidence itself and more about how to make sense of it. After millennia of accrued interpretive traditions, it is hard to see the past with clear eyes and new insight. We inherit biases about texts and history, it being hard to separate the one from the other.

David Corey has a book on the topic, The Sophist’s in Plato’s Dialogues (see Lee Trepanier review). If he is correct, that upends the standard view. It would mean Plato’s motives in writing were more complicated, but it more importantly would mean what he wrote about was more complicated.

He points out that Plato references multiple times that Prodicus, a sophist, was Socrates teacher. His argument is that the sophists are often portrayed in positive light and that a close reading shows that there are many commonalities between Socrates and the sophists. They share methods and purpose in philosophical debate. They share a view of a manifest world that is relative and uncertain. And they share a commitment to human virtue that challenges tradition.

In one dialogue, Socrates makes a fairly direct defense of the sophists, in arguing against an unfair and unfounded criticism of them. What is interesting about the criticism, corrupting society, was later used against Socrates. And this is when it is good to remember that Socrates was also sometimes referred to as a sophist.

If sophists were bullshitters and their bullshit was a threat to Athenian democracy, then what does that say about Socrates? He too was judged as a threat and it is a fact that he did associate with some people who actually did threaten the society by enforcing authoritarian rule. It was a time of instability and so it’s clear why so many Athenian citizens feared anything that further destabilized the vulnerable democracy. But when is guilt by association a justified judgment?

The punishment for Socrates was only banishment and yet he chose death, which basically made it an act of suicide. He willingly drank the poison, instead of simply leaving. I don’t know that there is any evidence that his accusers wanted him dead. Socrates remained a well respected philosopher and public figure, even after his death. Banishment wasn’t even always permanent. So, why did he choose suicide which is permanent?

The main perspective we get on all of this, of course, is from Plato. In the Republic, Plato presents a utopian vision that is non-democratic in nature. That is the earliest inspiration for republican thought, at least in the American tradition of political philosophy. What occurred to me is that this republican ideology was articulated by someone living in a democracy and so, if implemented, this republican society would have followed after a democratic society.

Maybe such republicanism could only ever have been imagined in a democratic society. Because of modern revolutions, we define republicanism in opposition to the monarchy that it replaced. But that isn’t the context of that earliest republican thought. Instead of republicanism primarily being a revolution against monarchy, maybe it first and foremost is a reaction against democracy.

That could be seen in the American colonies where democratic self-governance had been developing for decades prior to the American Revolution and later the co-opting of power by the (pseudo-)Federalists who believed republicanism was opposed to democracy. So, the fight for democracy preceded the enforcement of republicanism. And, yes, it was an enforcement… ask those involved in Shay’s Rebellion who were violently put down.

So, what is Socratic dialogue and sophistry? And what are their relationship to rhetoric and bullshit? If Socrates or Plato had been alive in the revolutionary era of the American colonies, what would they have given voice to and whose side would they have taken? Or if they were here in America today, what role would they play? Do philosophers have much role to play at all in our society? When was the last time a member of the philosophical elite was perceived as enough threat to be deemed treasonous?

One last thought. Harry Frankfurt, in “On Bullshit,” argues that bullshit is more copious in a democracy. Is that really the case. I’ve argued against this. Whether or not there is more bullshit in a democracy, there is no doubt plenty of it. And bullshit ends up undermining democracy. Similar to an eye for an eye, bullshit for bullshit leads to us all being covered in it. There is no moral high ground on top of a pile of crap.

But how do we know what is bullshit? According to Frankfurt, that is to ask about intentions, in terms of sincerity and insincerity. Some of the critics of Socrates and the sophists claimed to know their intentions and that their intentions were not good. That apparently was a serious charge to make against someone back then. As for charges of treason these days, the issue of bullshit is irrelevant. What our society idealizes is the truth and hence what the powers that be fear is those who tell the truth. The most treasonous are the whistleblowers who leak government documents showing inconvenient truths, even if they had the best of intentions such as revealing illegal acts and moral wrongdoing.

For Socrates and the sophists, along with other Greeks, sincerity was of penultimate importance. Bullshit was seen as a threat because it was insincere, a value considered central to their small intimate democracy. We now take insincerity as the norm. Sincerity is too personal of a concern for such an impersonal society as ours. It’s harder to have personal concern for hundreds of millions in a large modern nation-state than to have personal concern for a few thousand in an ancient city-state. We are more tolerant of bullshit maybe for the sake of simplicity, as we can’t go around worrying about the moral intentions of so many strangers who we will never meet.

On Truth and Bullshit

One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit.

This is how Harry Frankfurt begins his essay, “On Bullshit“. He continues:

“Everyone knows this. Each of us contributes his share. But we tend to take the situation for granted. Most people are rather confident of their ability to recognize bullshit and to avoid being taken in by it. So the phenomenon has not aroused much deliberate concern, or attracted much sustained inquiry. In consequence, we have no clear understanding of what bullshit is, why there is so much of it, or what functions it serves. And we lack a conscientiously developed appreciation of what it means to us. In other words, we have no theory.”

So, what is this bullshit? He goes through many definitions of related words. A main point is that it’s “short of lying” and this leads him to insincerity. The bullshitter isn’t a liar for the bullshitter isn’t concerned about either truth or its contrary. No intention to lie is required.

“Someone who lies and someone who tells the truth are playing on the opposite sides, so to speak, in the same game. Each responds to the facts . . . the response of the one is guided by the authority of the truth, while the response of the other defies that authority and refuses to meet its demands. The bullshitter ignores these demands altogether. He does not reject the authority of truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it. He pays no attention to it at all.”

Bullshitting is more of a creative act that dances around such concerns of verity:

“For the essence of bullshit is not that it is false but that it is phony. In order to appreciate this distinction, one must recognize that a fake or a phony need not be in any respect (apart from authenticity itself) inferior to the real thing. What is not genuine need not also be defective in some other way. It may be, after all, an exact copy. What is wrong with a counterfeit is not what it is like, but how it was made. This points to a similar and fundamental aspect of the essential nature of bullshit: although it is produced without concern with the truth, it need not be false. The bullshitter is faking things. But this does not mean that he necessarily gets them wrong.”

Bullshit is, first and foremost, insincere. In Frankfurt’s essay, that is some combination of an observation, premise, and conclusion. It is the core issue. But as with bullshit, what is this insincerity? How are we to judge it, from what perspective and according to what standard?

His answer seems to be that bullshit is to sincerity as a lie to the truth. This implies that the bullshitter knows they are insincere in the way the liar knows they are being untruthful. And as the bullshitter doesn’t care about truth, the liar doesn’t care about sincerity. This assumes that the intention of a speaker can be known, both to the presumed bullshitter and to the one perceiving (or accusing) them as a bullshitter. We know bullshit when we hear it, as we know porn when we see it.

After much analysis, the ultimate conclusion is that, “sincerity itself is bullshit.” Bullshit is insincere and sincerity is bullshit. How clever! But there is a genuine point being made. Frankfurt’s ideal is that of truth, not sincerity. Truth and sincerity aren’t polar opposite ideals. They are separate worldviews and attitudes, so the argument goes.

Coming to the end of the essay, I immediately realized what this conflict was. It is an old conflict. It goes back at least to Socrates, although part of larger transcultural changes happening in the post-bicameral Axial Age. Socrates is simply the standard originating point for Western thought, the frame we prefer since Greece represents the earliest known example of a democracy (as a highly organized political system within an advanced civilization).

Socrates, as known through the writings of Plato, is often portrayed as the victim of democracy’s dark populism. The reality, though, is that Plato was severely anti-democratic and associated with those behind the authoritarian forces that sought to destroy Athenian democracy. His fellow Athenians didn’t take kindly to this treasonous threat, whether or not it was just and fair to blame Socrates (we shall never know since we lack the details of the accusation and evidence, as no official court proceedings are extant).

What we know, from Plato, is that Socrates had issues with the Sophists. So, who were these Sophists? It’s a far more interesting question than it first appears. It turns out that the word has a complicated history. It originally referred to poets, the original teachers of wisdom in archaic Greek society. And it should be recalled that the poets were specifically excluded from Plato’s utopian society because, in Plato’s mind, of the danger they posed to rationalistic idealism.

What did the poets and Sophists have in common? They both used language to persuade, through language that was concrete rather than abstract, emotional rather than detached. Plato was interested in big ‘T’ absolute Truth, whereas those employing poetry and rhetoric were interested in small ‘t’ relative truths that were on a human scale. Ancient Greek poets and Sophists weren’t necessarily untruthful but simply indifferent to Platonic ideals of Truth.

This does relate to Frankfurt’s theory of bullshit. Small ‘t’ truths are bullshit or at least easily seen in this light. The main example he uses demonstrates this. A friend of Ludwig Wittgenstein’ was sick and she told him that, “I feel just like a dog that has been run over.” Wittgenstein saw this as careless use of language, not even meaningful enough to be wrong. It was a human truth, instead of a philosophical Truth.

Her statement expressed a physical and emotional experience. One could even argue that Wittgenstein was wrong about a human not being able to know what a hurt dog feels like, as mammals have similar biology and neurology. Besides, as far as we know, this friend had a pet dog run over by a car and was speaking from having a closer relationship to this dog than she had to Wittgenstein. Reading this account, Wittgenstein comes off as someone with severe Asperger’s and indeed plenty of people have speculated elsewhere about this possible diagnosis. Whatever is the case, his response was obtuse and callous.

It is hard to know what the relevance of such an anecdote might have, in reference to clarifying the meaning of bullshit. What it does make clear is that there are different kinds of truths.

This is what separated Socrates and Plato on one side and the poets and Sophists on the other. The Sophists had inherited a tradition of teaching from the poets and it was a tradition that became ever more important in the burgeoning democracy. But it was an era when the power of divine voice still clung to the human word. Persuasion was a power not to be underestimated, as the common person back then hadn’t yet developed the thick-boundaried intellectual defensiveness against rhetoric that we moderns take for granted. Plato sought a Truth that was beyond both petty humans and petty gods, a longing to get beyond all the ‘bullshit’.

Yet it might be noted that some even referred to Socrates and Plato as Sophists. They too used rhetoric to persuade. And of course, the Platonic is the foundation of modern religion (e.g., Neoplatonic Alexandrian Jews who helped shape early Christian theology and Biblical exegesis), the great opponent of the Enlightenment tradition of rationality.

This is why some, instead, prefer to emphasize the divergent strategies of Plato and Aristotle, the latter making its own accusations of bullshit against the former. From the Aristotelian view, Platonism is a belief system proclaiming truth all the while willfully detached from reality. The Platonic concern with Truth, from this perspective, can seem rather meaningless, maybe so meaningless as to not even being false. The Sophists who opposed Socrates and Plato at least were interested in practical knowledge that applied to the real world of human society, dedicated as they were to teaching the skills necessary for a functioning democracy.

As a side note, the closest equivalent to the Sophists today is the liberal arts professor who hopes to instill a broad knowledge in each new generation of students. It’s quite telling that those on the political right are the most likely to make accusations of bullshit against the liberal arts tradition. A traditional university education was founded on philology, the study of languages. And the teaching of rhetoric was standard in education into the early 1900s. Modern Western Civilization was built on the values of the Sophists, the ideal of a well rounded education and the central importance of language, including the ability to speak well and persuasively, the ability to logically defend an argument and rhetorically to make a case. The Sophists saw that to have a democratic public what was needed was an educated public.

Socrates and Plato came from more of what we’d call an aristocratic tradition. They were an enlightened elite, born into wealth, luxury, and privilege. This put them in opposition to the emerging democratic market of ideas. The Sophists were seen as mercenary philosophers who would teach or do anything for money. Socrates didn’t accept money from his students, but then again he was independently wealthy (in that, he didn’t have to work because slaves did the work for him). He wanted pure philosophy, unadulterated by the coarse human realities such as making a living and democratic politics.

It’s not that Socrates and Plato were necessarily wrong. Sophists were a diverse bunch, some using their talents for the public good and others not so much. They were simply the well educated members of the perceived meritocracy who used their expertise in exchange for payment. It seems like a rather normal thing to do in a capitalist society such as ours, but back then a market system was a newfangled notion that seemed radically destabilizing to the social order. Socrates and Plato were basically the reactionaries of their day, nostalgically longing for what they imagined was being lost. Yet they were helping creating an entirely new society, wresting it from the control and authority of tradition. Plato offered a radical utopian vision precisely because he was a reactionary, in terms of how the reactionary is explained by Corey Robin.

Socrates and Plato were challenging the world they were born into. Like all reactionaries, they had no genuine interest in a conservative-minded defense of the status quo. It would take centuries for their influence to grow so large as to become a tradition of its own. Even then, they laid the groundwork for future radicalism during the Renaissance, Protestant Reformation, and Enlightenment Age. Platonic idealism is the seed of modern idealism. What was reactionary in classical Greece fed into a progressive impulse about two millennia later, the anti-democratic leading to the eventual return of democratization. The fight against ‘bullshit’ became the engine of change that overthrew the European ancien régime of Catholicicism, feudalism, aristocracy, and monarchy. Utopian visions such as that of Plato’s Republic became increasingly common.

Thinking along these lines, it brought to mind a recent post of mind, Poised on a Knife Edge. I was once again considering the significance of the ‘great debate’ between Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine. It was Paine who was more of the inheritor of Greek idealism, but unlike some of the early Greek idealists he was very much putting idealism in service of democracy, not some utopian vision above and beyond the messiness of public politics. It occurred to me that, to Paine and his allies, Burke’s attack on the French Revolution was ‘bullshit’. The wardrobe of the moral imagination was deemed rhetorical obfuscation, a refusal of the plain speech and the plain honest truth that was favored by Paine (and by Socrates).

Let me explain why this matters. As I began reading Frankfurt’s “On Bullshit”, I was naturally pulled into the view presented. Pretty much everyone hates bullshit. But I considered a different possible explanation for this. Maybe bullshit isn’t more common than before. Maybe it’s even less common in some sense. It’s just that, as a society that idealizes truth, the category of bullshit represents something no longer respected or understood. We’ve lost touch with something within our own human nature. Our hyper-sensitivity in seeing bullshit everywhere, almost a paranoia, is an indication of this.

As much as I love Paine and his vision, I have to give credit where it is due by acknowledging that Burke managed to catch hold of a different kind of truth, a very human truth. He warned us about treading cautiously on the sacred ground of the moral imagination. On this point, I think he was right. We are too careless.

Frankfurt talks about the ‘bullshit artist’. Bullshitters are always artists. And maybe artists are always bullshitters. This is because the imagination, moral or otherwise, is the playground of the bullshitter. This is because the artist, the master of imagination, is different than a craftsmen. The artist always has a bit of the trickster about him, as he plays at the boundaries of the mind. Here is how Frankfurt explains it:

“Wittgenstein once said that the following bit of verse by Longfellow could serve him as a motto:

“In the elder days of art
Builders wrought with greatest care
Each minute and unseen part,
For the Gods are everywhere.

“The point of these lines is clear. In the old days, craftsmen did not cut corners. They worked carefully, and they took care with every aspect of their work. Every part of the product was considered, and each was designed and made to be exactly as it should be. These craftsmen did not relax their thoughtful self-discipline even with respect to features of their work which would ordinarily not be visible. Although no one would notice if those features were not quite right, the craftsmen would be bothered by their consciences. So nothing was swept under the rug. Or, one might perhaps also say, there was no bullshit.

“It does seem fitting to construe carelessly made, shoddy goods as in some way analogues of bullshit. But in what way? Is the resemblance that bullshit itself is invariably produced in a careless or self-indulgent manner, that it is never finely crafted, that in the making of it there is never the meticulously attentive concern with detail to which Longfellow alludes? Is the bullshitter by his very nature a mindless slob? Is his product necessarily messy or unrefined? The word shit does, to be sure, suggest this. Excrement is not designed or crafted at all; it is merely emitted, or dumped. It may have a more or less coherent shape, or it may not, but it is in any case certainly not wrought.

“The notion of carefully wrought bullshit involves, then, a certain inner strain. Thoughtful attention to detail requires discipline and objectivity. It entails accepting standards and limitations that forbid the indulgence of impulse or whim. It is this selflessness that, in connection with bullshit, strikes us as inapposite. But in fact it is not out of the question at all.”

This is logos vs mythos. In religious terms, it is the One True God who creates ex nihilo vs the demiurgic god of this world. And in Platonic terms, it is the idealistic forms vs concrete substance, where the latter is a pale imitation of the former. As such, truth is unique whereas bullshit is endless. The philosopher and the poet represent opposing forces. To the Philosopher, everything is either philosophically relevant or bullshit. But to the poet (and his kin), this misses the point and overlooks the essence of our humanity. Each side makes sense, according to the perspective of each side. And so each side is correct about what is wrong with the other side.

If all bullshit was eliminated and all further bullshit made impossible, what would be left of our humanity? Maybe our very definition of truth is dependent on bullshit, both as a contrast and an impetus. Without bullshit, we might no longer be able to imagine new truths. But such imagination, if not serving greater understanding, is of uncertain value and potentially dangerous to society. For good or ill, the philosopher, sometimes obtuse and detached, and the artist, sometimes full of bullshit, are the twin representatives of civilization as we know it.

* * *

“I had my tonsils out and was in the Evelyn Nursing Home feeling sorry for myself. Wittgenstein called.”
by Ann Althouse

Short of Lying
by Heinz Brandenburg

Bullshit as the Absence of Truthfulness
by Michael R. Kelly

Democracy is not a truth machine
by Thomas R. Wells

Our ability as individuals to get to true facts merely by considering different arguments is distinctly limited. If we only know of one account of the holocaust – what we were taught in school – we are likely to accept it. But whether it is true or false is a matter of luck rather than our intellectual capacities. Now it is reasonable to suppose that if we were exposed to a diversity of claims about the holocaust then our opinions on the subject would become more clearly our own, and our own responsibility. They would be the product of our own intellectual capacities and character instead of simply reflecting which society we happened to be born into. But so what? Holding sincere opinions about whether the holocaust happened is all very well and Millian, but it has no necessary relation to their truth. As Harry Frankfurt notes in his philosophical essay On Bullshit, sincerity is concerned with being true to oneself, not to the nature of the world: from the perspective of truth seeking, sincerity is bullshit.

Knowing this, we can have no faith that the popularity of certain factual claims among people as ordinary as ourselves is any guide to their truth. Democracy is no more equipped to evaluate facts than rational truths. We can all, of course, hold opinions about the civilisational significance of the holocaust and its status as a justification for the state of Israel, and debate them with others in democratic ways. Yet, when it comes to the facts, neither the sincerity with which individuals believe that ‘the holocaust’ is a myth nor the popularity of such beliefs can make them epistemically respectable. 90% of the population denying the holocaust is irrelevant to its truth status. And vice versa.

Rhetoric and Bullshit
by James Fredal

Frankfurt is also indebted (indirectly) to Plato: Phaedrus is as much about the bullshitter’s (Lysias’s or the non-lover’s) lack of concern for (or “love” for) the truth as is Frankfurt’s brief tome. From the perspective of Plato, Lysias’s speech in praise of the non-lover is just so much bullshit not simply because it is not true, but because Lysias is not concerned with telling the truth so much as he is with gaining the affection and attention of his audience: the beloved boy, the paying student or, more to the point, that lover of speeches, Phaedrus himself.

The non-lover described by Lysias in Phaedrus is best understood as Plato’s allegory for sophists who reject any “natural” truth and who remain committed to contradictory arguments as the practical consequence of their general agnosticism. For Lysias’s non-lover, language is not for telling the truth, because the truth is inaccessible: language is for finding and strengthening positions, for gaining advantage, and for exerting influence over others. Richard Weaver offers a similar reading of Phaedrus that sees the non-lover as representing an attitude toward language use (though for Weaver the non-lover is not a sophist, but a scientist).

Others interested in the bullshitter apply a different, more favorable lens. Daniel Mears, for example, draws on Chandra Mukerji’s study of bullshit among hitchhikers, and more generally on Erving Goffman’s study of self-presentation in the interaction order (for example, “Role Distance” and Interaction Rituals) to highlight bullshit as a form of impression management: what, as Mears notes, Suzanne Eggins and Diana Slade call a “framing device” for the “construction and maintenance of our social identities and social relationships” (qtd. in Mears 279). For Mears, bullshit is the deliberate (albeit playful) creation of possible but ultimately misleading impressions of self or reality, whether for expressive or instrumental reasons (4).

Like Frankfurt, Mears locates the source of bullshit in the speaker herself and her desire to craft a creditable self-image. But whereas Frankfurt sees bullshitting as a species of deception worse than lying (because at least liars have to know the truth if only to lead us away from it, whereas bullshitters have no concern at all for the truth), Mears understands bullshit as a significant social phenomenon that serves several prosocial functions.7 For Mears, we engage in bullshit for purposes of socialization and play, for self-exploration and self-expression, for the resolution of social tensions and cognitive dissonance, and for gaining an advantage in encounters.

Like Mukerji, Mears emphasizes the playful (though often nontrivial and highly consequential) quality of bullshit, much as the ancient sophists composed speeches as “play”: as exercises and exempla, for enjoyment, for display and impression management, and for study separate from the “real world” of politics and law.

Rhetoric Is Not Bullshit
by Davd J. Tietge
from Bullshit and Philosophy
Kindle Locations 3917-4003

The Truth about Postmodernism

One issue that helps obscure the universality of rhetoric, and thus promotes the pejorative use of ‘rhetoric’, is the popular tendency to oversimplify the “truth-lie” dichotomy. In The Liar’s Tale: A History of Falsehood, Jeremy Campbell reminds us that the reductionistic binary that separates truth from falsity is not only in error, but also that the thoroughly unclear and inconsistent distinction between the true and the false has a long, rich cultural history.180 Those doing much of the speaking in our own era, however, assume that the dividing line between truth and untruth is clear and, more significantly, internalized by the average human. Truth, however, is an elusive concept. While we can cite many examples of truths (that the sky is blue today, that the spoon will fall if dropped, and so forth), these depend on definitions of the words used. The sky is blue because ‘blue’ is the word we use to describe the hue that we have collectively agreed is bluish. We may, however, disagree about what shade of blue the sky is. Is it powder blue? Blue-green? Royal Blue? Interpretive responses to external realities that rely on definition (and language generally) always complicate the true-false binary, especially when we begin to discuss the nature of abstractions involved in, say, religion or metaphysics. The truth of ‘God is good’ depends very heavily upon the speaker’s understanding of God and the nature of goodness, both of which depend upon the speaker’s conceptualization, which may be unique to him, his group, or his cultural environment, and thus neither clear nor truthful to other parties.

Is this rampant relativism? Some might think so, but it is perhaps more useful to suggest that the Absolute Truths that we usually embrace are unattainable because of these complexities of language. Some cultures have seen the linguistic limitations of specifying the Truth. Hinduism has long recognized that language is incapable of revealing Truth; to utter the Truth, it holds, is simultaneously to make it no longer the Truth.

Note here the distinction between capital ‘T’ truth and lower-case ‘t’ truth. Lower-case truths are situational, even personal. They often reflect more the state of mind of the agent making the utterance than the immutable nature of the truth. They are also temporally situated; what may be true now may not be in the future. Truth in this sense is predicated on both perception and stability, and, pragmatically speaking, such truths are tran-sitional and, often, relative. Capital ‘T’ Truths can be traced back at least as far as Plato, and are immutable, pure, and incorruptible. They do not exist in our worldly realm, at least so far as Plato was concerned. This is why Plato was so scornful of rhetoric: he felt that rhetoricians (in particular, the Sophists) were opportunists who taught people how to disguise the Truth with language and persuasion. Whereas Plato imagined a realm in which the worldly flaws and corruption of a physical existence were supplanted by perfect forms, the corporeal domain of human activity was saturated with language, and therefore, could not be trusted to reveal Truth with any certainty.

Contemporary, postmodern interest in truth and meaning turns the tables on Plato and studies meaning and truth in this shifting, less certain domain of human activity. Campbell cites many thinkers from our philosophical past who helped inaugurate this development, but none is more important than Friedrich Nietzsche. For Nietzsche, humans have no “organ” for discerning Truth, but we do have a natural instinct for falsehood. “Truth,” as an abstraction taken from the subjectivity of normal human activities, was a manufactured fiction that we are not equipped to actually find. On the other hand, a natural aptitude for falsehood is an important survival mechanism for many species. Human beings have simply cultivated it in innovative, sophisticated, ways. As the rhetorician George A. Kennedy has noted, “in daily life, many human speech acts are not consciously intentional; they are automatic reactions to situations, culturally (rather than genetically) imprinted in the brain or rising from the subconscious.”181 Our propensity for appropriate (if not truthful) responses to situations is something nourished by an instinct to survive, interact, protect, and socialize. Civilization gives us as many new ways to do this as there are situations that require response.

This is why Nietzsche carefully distinguished Truth from a belief system that only professed to contain the Truth. Ken Gemes notes that Nietzsche co-ordinated the question of Truth around the pragmatics of survival,182 an observation echoed by Kennedy, who provides examples of animals that deceive for self-preservation. Camouflage, for example, can be seen in plants and animals. Many birds imitate the calls of rival species to fool them to distraction and away from their nests or food sources. Deception, it seems, is common in nature. But Nietzsche took doctrinal Truth (note the “T”) to be one of the most insidious deceptions to occur in human culture, especially as it is articulated in religions. It is not a basic lie that is being promulgated, but rather a lie masquerading as the Truth and, according to Nietzsche, performing certain functions. Truth, that is, is a ritualized fiction, a condition manufactured for institutions and the individuals who control them to maintain their power.

Rhetoric and Bullshit

Truth, deception, control over others. This survey of rhetoric thus brings us close to the territory that Harry Frankfurt explores in On Bullshit. For Frankfurt, however, bullshit has little to do with these complexities about truth and Truth that rhetoric helps us identify. Indeed bullshit, for Frankfurt, has little do with truth at all, insofar as it requires an indifference to truth. Does this mean, then, that language that is not bullshit has settled the matter of truth and has access to truth (or Truth)? Does this lead us to a dichotomy between truth and bullshit that is similar to the dichotomy between truth and falsity that postmodernism criticizes? It may seem that postmodernism has little place in Frankfurt’s view, insofar as he rejects “various forms of skepticism which deny that we have any reliable access to objective reality, and which therefore reject the possibility of knowing how things truly are” (p. 64). Indeed, postmodernism is often vilified as the poster child of relativism and skepticism.

Yet postmodernism is far subtler than a mere denial of “objective reality.” Postmodernism claims, rather, that reality is as much a construct of language as it is objective and unchanging. Postmodernism is less about rejecting beliefs about objective reality than about the intersection between material reality and the human interpretations of it that change, mutate, and shift that reality to our own purposes—the kind of small-t truths that Nietzsche addressed. The common complaint about post-modernism, for example, that it denies “natural laws,” forgets that humans noticed and formulated those laws. Postmodernism attempts to supply a vocabulary to describe this kind of process. It is not just “jargon,” as is so often charged; it is an effort to construct a metalinguistic lexicon for dealing with some very difficult and important epistemological questions.

And, not surprisingly, so is rhetoric. Constructing language that deals with the nature of language is a unique human problem. It is meta-cognition at its most complicated because it requires us to use the same apparatus to decode human texts that is contained in the texts themselves—that is, using words to talk about words, what Kenneth Burke referred to in The Rhetoric of Religion as “logology.”183 In no other area of human thinking is this really the case. Most forms of intellectual exploration involve an extraneous phenomenon, event, agent, or object that requires us to bring language to bear upon it in order to observe, describe, classify, and draw conclusions about its nature, its behavior, or its effect. For example, scientific inquiry usually involves an event or a process in the material world that is separate from the instruments we use to describe it. Historical analysis deals with texts as a matter of disciplinary course, yet most historians rarely question the efficacy or the reliability of the language used to convey an event of the remote (or, for that matter, recent) past. Even linguistics, which uses a scientific model to describe language structure, deals little with meaning or textual analysis.

Law is one of the closest cousins of rhetoric. Words are very much a part of the ebb and flow of legal wrangling, and the attention given to meaning and interpretation is central. Yet, even here, there is little theoretical discussion about how words have meaning or how, based on such theory, that meaning can be variously interpreted. Law is more concerned with the fact that words can be interpreted differently and how different agents might interpret language in different ways. This is why legal documents are often so unreadable; in an attempt to control ambiguity, more words (and more words with specific, technical meanings) must be used so that multiple interpretations can be avoided. If theoretical discussions about how language generates meaning were entered into the equation, the law would be impossible to apply in any practical way. Yet, to understand legal intricacies, every law student should be exposed to rhetoric—not so they can better learn how to manipulate a jury or falsify an important document, but so they understand how tenuous and limited language actually is for dealing with ordinary situations. Moreover, nearly every disciplinary area of inquiry uses language, but only rhetoric (and its associated disciplines, especially philosophy of language and literary /cultural criticism, which have influenced the development of modern rhetoric considerably) analyzes language using a hermeneutical instrument designed to penetrate the words to examine their effects—desired or not—on the people who use them.

What, then, qualifies as “bullshit”? Certainly, as I hope I have shown, rhetoric and bullshit are hardly the same thing. They are not even distant cousins. When a student begins a paper with the sentence, “In today’s society, there are many things that people have different and similar opinions about,” it’s a pretty good guess that there is little of rhetorical value there. About the only conclusion a reader can draw is that the student is neither inspired nor able to hide this fact. This is the extent of the subtext, and it could conceivably qualify as bullshit. In this sense, Frankfurt’s characterization of bullshit as “unavoidable whenever circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about” (p. 63) is a useful differentiation.

But aside from these rather artificial instances, if bullshit does occur at the rate Frankfurt suggests, we have an arduous task in separating the bullshit from more interesting and worthy rhetorical situations. We have all met people whom we know, almost from the moment of acquaintance, are full of bullshit. It is the salesman syndrome that some people just (naturally, it seems) possess. In one sense, then, poor rhetoric—a rhetoric of transparency or obviousness—can be construed as bullshit. For the person with salesman syndrome is certainly attempting to achieve identification with his audience; he may even be attempting to persuade others that he is upright or trustworthy. But he fails because his bullshit is apparent. He is a bad rhetorician in the sense that he fails to convince others that he should be taken seriously, that his words are worthy of attention and, possibly, action.

Bullshit is something we can all recognize. Rhetoric is not. My remedy for this situation is simple: learn rhetoric.


The Sociology of Intellectual Life
by Steve Fuller
pp. 147-8

Harry Frankfurt’s (2005) On Bullshit is the latest contribution to a long, distinguished, yet deeply problematic line of Western thought that has attempted to redeem the idea of intellectual integrity from the cynic’s suspicion that it is nothing but high-minded, self-serving prejudice. I say ‘problematic’ because while Plato’s unflattering portrayal of poets and sophists arguably marked the opening salvo in the philosophical war against bullshit, Plato availed himself of bullshit in promoting the ‘myth of the metals’ as a principle of social stratification in his Republic. This doublethink has not been lost on the neo-conservative followers of the great twentieth century Platonist Leo Strauss. […]

The bullshit detector aims to convert an epistemic attitude into a moral virtue: reality can be known only by the right sort of person. This idea, while meeting with widespread approval by philosophers strongly tied to the classical tradition of Plato and Aristotle, is not lacking in dissenters. The line of dissent is best seen in the history of ‘rhetoric’, a word Plato coined to demonize Socrates’ dialectical opponents, the sophists. The sophists were prepared to teach anyone the art of winning arguments, provided you could pay the going rate. As a series of sophistic interlocutors tried to make clear to Socrates, possession of the skills required to secure the belief of your audience is the only knowledge you really need to have. Socrates famously attacked this claim on several fronts, which the subsequent history of philosophy has often conflated. In particular, Socrates’ doubts about the reliability of the sophists’ techniques have been run together with a more fundamental criticism: even granting the sophists their skills, they are based on a knowledge of human gullibility, not of reality itself.

Bullshit is sophistry under this charitable reading, which acknowledges that the truth may not be strong enough by itself to counteract an artfully presented claim that is not so much outright false as, in the British idiom, ‘economical with the truth’. In stressing the difference between bullshit and lies, Frankfurt clearly has this conception in mind, though he does sophistry a disservice by casting the bullshitter’s attitude toward the truth as ‘indifference’. On the contrary, the accomplished bullshitter must be a keen student of what people tend to regard as true, if only to cater to those tendencies so as to serve her own ends. What likely offends Frankfurt and other philosophers here is the idea that the truth is just one more tool to be manipulated for personal advantage. Conceptual frameworks are simply entertained and then discarded as their utility passes. The nature of the offence, I suspect, is the divine eye-view implicated in such an attitude – the very idea that one could treat in a detached fashion the terms in which people normally negotiate their relationship to reality. A bullshitter revealed becomes a god unmade.

pp. 152-3

The bullshit detector believes not only that there is a truth but also that her own access to it is sufficiently reliable and general to serve as a standard by which others may be held accountable. Protestants appeared prepared to accept the former but not the latter condition, which is why dissenters were encouraged – or perhaps ostracized – to establish their own ministries. The sophists appeared to deny the former and possibly the latter condition as well. Both Protestants and sophists are prime candidates for the spread of bullshit because they concede that we may normally address reality in terms it does not recognize – or at least do not require it to yield straight ‘yes-or-no’, ‘true-or-false’ answers. In that case, we must make up the difference between the obliqueness of our inquiries and the obtuseness of reality’s responses. That ‘difference’ is fairly seen as bullshit. When crystallized as a philosophy of mind or philosophy of language, this attitude is known as antirealism. Its opposite number, the background philosophy of bullshit detectors, is realism.

The difference in the spirit of the two philosophies is captured as follows: do you believe that everything you say and hear is bullshit unless you have some way of showing whether it is true or false; or rather, that everything said and heard is simply true or false, unless it is revealed to be bullshit? The former is the antirealist, the latter the realist response. Seen in those terms, we might say that the antirealist regards reality as inherently risky and always under construction (Caveat credor: ‘Let the believer beware!’) whereas the realist treats reality as, on the whole, stable and orderly – except for the reprobates who try to circumvent the system by producing bullshit. In this respect, On Bullshit may be usefully read as an ad hominem attack on antirealists. Frankfurt himself makes passing reference to this interpretation near the end of the essay (Frankfurt 2005: 64–65). Yet, he appears happy to promote the vulgar image of antirealism as intellectually, and perhaps morally, slipshod, instead of treating it as the philosophically honorable position that it is.

A case in point is Frankfurt’s presentation of Wittgenstein as one of history’s great bullshit detectors (Frankfurt 2005: 24–34). He offers a telling anecdote in which the Viennese philosopher objects to Fania Pascal’s self description as having been ‘sick as a dog’. Wittgenstein reportedly told Pascal that she misused language by capitalizing on the hearer’s easy conflation of a literal falsehood with a genuine condition, which is made possible by the hearer’s default anthropocentric bias. Wittgenstein’s objection boils down to claiming that, outside clearly marked poetic contexts, our intellectual end never suffices alone to justify our linguistic means. Frankfurt treats this point as a timeless truth about how language structures reality. Yet, it would be quite easy, especially recalling that this ‘truth’ was uttered seventy years ago, to conclude that Wittgenstein’s irritation betrays a spectacular lack of imagination in the guise of scrupulousness.

Wittgenstein’s harsh judgement presupposes that humans lack any real access to canine psychology, which renders any appeal to dogs purely fanciful. For him, this lack of access is an established fact inscribed in a literal use of language, not an open question answers to which a figurative use of language might offer clues for further investigation. Nevertheless, scientists informed by the Neo-Darwinian synthesis – which was being forged just at the time of Wittgenstein’s pronouncement – have quite arguably narrowed the gap between the mental lives of humans and animals in research associated with ‘evolutionary psychology’. As this research makes more headway, what Wittgenstein confidently declared to be bullshit in his day may tomorrow appear as having been a prescient truth. But anyone holding such a fluid view of verifiability would derive scant comfort from either Wittgenstein or Frankfurt, who act as if English linguistic intuitions, circa 1935, should count indefinitely as demonstrable truths.

Some philosophers given to bullshit detection are so used to treating any Wittgensteinian utterance as a profundity that it never occurs to them that Wittgenstein may have been himself a grandmaster of bullshit. The great bullshit detectors whom I originally invoked, Nietzsche and Mencken, made themselves vulnerable to critics by speaking from their own self-authorizing standpoint, which supposedly afforded a clear vista for distinguishing bullshit from its opposite. Wittgenstein adopts the classic bullshitter’s technique of ventriloquism, speaking through the authority of someone or something else in order to be spared the full brunt of criticism.

I use ‘adopts’ advisedly, since the deliberateness of Wittgenstein’s rhetoric remains unclear. What was he trying to do: to speak modestly without ever having quite controlled his spontaneously haughty manner, or to exercise his self-regarding superiority as gently as possible so as not to frighten the benighted? Either way, Wittgenstein became – for a certain kind of philosopher – the standard-bearer of linguistic rectitude, where ‘language’ is treated as a proxy for reality itself. Of course, to the bullshitter, this description also fits someone whose strong personality cowed the impressionable into distrusting their own thought processes. As with most successful bullshit, the trick is revealed only after it has had the desired effect and the frame of reference has changed. Thus, Wittgenstein’s precious concern about Pascal’s account of her state of health should strike, at least some readers today, as akin to a priest’s fretting over a parishioner’s confession of impure thoughts. In each case, the latter is struck by something that lies outside the box in which the former continues to think.

If Wittgenstein was a bullshitter, how did he manage to take in professed enemies of bullshit like Frankfurt? One clue is that most bullshit is forward looking, and Wittgenstein’s wasn’t. The bullshitter normally refers to things whose prima facie plausibility immunizes the hearer against checking their actual validity. The implication is that the proof is simply ‘out there’ waiting be found. But is there really such proof? Here the bullshitter is in a race against time. A sufficient delay in checking sources has salvaged the competence and even promoted the prescience of many bullshitters. Such was the spirit of Paul Feyerabend’s (1975) notorious account of Galileo’s ‘discoveries’, which concluded that his Papal Inquisitors were originally justified in their scepticism, even though Galileo’s followers subsequently redeemed his epistemic promissory notes.

In contrast, Wittgenstein’s unique brand of bullshit was backward-looking, always reminding hearers and readers of something they should already know but had perhaps temporarily forgotten. Since Wittgenstein usually confronted his interlocutors with mundane examples, it was relatively easy to convey this impression. The trick lay in immediately shifting the context from the case at hand to what Oxford philosophers in the 1950s called a ‘paradigm case’ that was presented as a self-evident standard of usage against which to judge the case at hand. That Wittgenstein, a non-native speaker of English, impressed one or two generations of Britain’s philosophical elite with just this mode of argumentation remains the envy of the aspiring bullshitter. Ernest Gellner (1959), another émigré from the old Austro Hungarian Empire, ended up ostracized from the British philosophical establishment for offering a cutting diagnosis of this phenomenon as it was unfolding. He suggested that Wittgenstein’s success testified to his ability to feed off British class anxiety, which was most clearly marked in language use. An academically sublimated form of such language-driven class anxiety remains in the discipline of sociolinguistics (Bernstein 1971–77).

Yet, after nearly a half-century, Gellner’s diagnosis is resisted, despite the palpable weakening of Wittgenstein’s posthumous grip on the philosophical imagination. One reason is that so many living philosophers still ride on Wittgenstein’s authority – if not his mannerisms – that to declare him a bullshitter would amount to career suicide. But a second reason is also operative, one that functions as an insurance policy against future debunkers. Wittgenstein is often portrayed, by himself and others, as mentally unbalanced. You might think that this would render his philosophical deliverances unreliable. On the contrary, Wittgenstein’s erratic disposition is offered as evidence for his spontaneously guileless nature – quite unlike the controlled and calculated character of bullshitters. Bullshit fails to stick to Wittgenstein because he is regarded as an idiot savant.

Poised on a Knife Edge

“To make any thing very terrible, obscurity seems in general to be necessary. When we know the full extent of any danger, when we can accustom our eyes to it, a great deal of the apprehension vanishes.”
~ Edmund Burke

I spent much of the day looking back at old posts. My purpose was to find my various writings on the revolutionary era, specifically in relation to the American Revolution. I was doing so in order to link to them in the post I just wrote, about democratic republicanism in early America.

In my search, I came across a post from several years ago. It is sort of a rambling book review of Yuval Levin’s The Great Debate, the topic being the relationship between Thomas Paine and Edmund Burke. What caught my attention was the comments section. I sometimes put more into the comments section than I do in the post itself. A longtime friend and reader of the blog left a comment, which is partly what led me to go off on some tangents there.

As one of my responses, I quoted at length from Corey Robin’s writings. One quote came from the first book I read by him, The Reactionary Mind:

Earlier than most, Burke understood that if violence were to retain its sublimity, it had to remain a possibility, an object of fantasy— a horror movie, a video game, an essay on war. For the actuality (as opposed to the representation) of violence was at odds with the requirements of sublimity. Real, as opposed to imagined, violence entailed objects getting too close, bodies pressing too near, flesh upon flesh. Violence stripped the body of its veils; violence made its antagonists familiar to each other in a way they had never been before. Violence dispelled illusion and mystery, making things drab and dreary. That is why, in his discussion in the Reflections of the revolutionaries’ abduction of Marie Antoinette, Burke takes such pains to emphasize her “almost naked” body and turns so effortlessly to the language of clothing—“ the decent drapery of life,” the “wardrobe of the moral imagination,” “antiquated fashion,” and so on— to describe the event. 68 The disaster of the revolutionaries’ violence, for Burke, was not cruelty; it was the unsought enlightenment.

Robin explains what Burke meant by the moral imagination, explains why such power exists and what nullifies it. That is why I began this post with the quote by Burke. Here is the fuller context from the 1759 text (“A philosophical enquiry into the origin of our ideas of the sublime and beautiful”, Part Two, Section III – Obscurity):

To make any thing very terrible, obscurity seems in general to be necessary. When we know the full extent of any danger, when we can accustom our eyes to it, a great deal of the apprehension vanishes. Every one will be sensible of this, who considers how greatly night adds to our dread, in all cases of danger, and how much the notions of ghosts and goblins, of which none can form clear ideas, affect minds, which give credit to the popular tales concerning such sorts of beings. Those despotic governments, which are founded on the passions of men, and principally upon the passion of fear, keep their chief as much as may be from the public eye. The policy has been the same in many cases of religion.

It’s not just the power of the mind. Moral imagination is what extends power over people, the emotional grip of distant or hidden authority, human or otherwise. Sublimity and fear, awe and terror.

But this misses the subtlety of this power. Moral imagination is everpresent, the pervasive force that puts blinders on our vision, hypnotizing us into a reality tunnel and sometimes full epistemic closure. As Burke puts it, this forms the wardrobe of our moral imagination, from which we clothe our experience of the world. This wardrobe holds the social constructs of the mind, the ideologies and narratives of society, the customs and norms of culture. It is just there, all around us, enclosing us, a familiar presence, and yet near impossible to see directly, most often barely glimpsed at the periphery of our awareness. It’s power is in its simultaneous obscurity and presence, the unseen depths of unconsciousness with an undertow that can be felt.

Also in the comments section, I pointed to the connection to another writer: “I noticed in these passages that ‘horror’ was mentioned a few times. Corey Robin even made reference to horror movies/films and “delightful horror.” What came to my mind is something that Thomas Ligotti said in an interview. He was discussing monsters. He explained that no story can ever have a monster as the protagonist, for then the sense of monstrosity would be lost. The monster has to remain other and the evil vague. That is what gives a horror story its power to horrify.” That stood out to me most of all. There is a simple reason for this, as I had just recently mentioned Ligotti (in relation to True Detective) to this same friend when he came to visit me. I had forgotten about these comments. Reading them again, I saw them in new light. That involves a more important reason for these comments interesting me. Ligotti was making a deeper point than mere commentary on horror fiction. The most horrifying other is that which is unseen and that is its power over us.

This all connects back to the ongoing development of my own theory, that of symbolic conflation. But I forgot about an earlier post where I brought Burke into the context of symbolic conflation. It was for a different reason, though.

In that post, I explained Burke’s role as an outsider and how that positioned him as a purveyor of symbolic conflation. The moral imagination is all about this, as symbolic conflation is the beating heart, the meeting point of the imagined and the real. The centrality of the outsider status also brings into play the reactionary mind, according to Corey Robin, for the outsider sees most clearly the threat of boundaries being transgressed and all boundaries are ultimately boundaries of the mind. A symbolic conflation is a wall that both marks and establishes the boundary. It makes the boundary real and, in doing so, defends the authority of claims about what is real.

This is the moral imagination of fear. It is a visceral fear, the embodied imagination. A symbolic conflation requires a grounding within bodily experience, fight and flight, pain and illness, pleasure and guilt, punishment and death. It relates to what I call the morality-punishment link. It also offers possible insight into the origins of the reactionary mind. The conservative, as I argue, is simply a liberal in reactionary mode. The conservative is a liberal who has been mugged by their own moral imagination. Their minds have been wrapped in chains of fear and locked shut by symbolic conflation, the visceral experience of a story that has become their reality.

This is a potential existing within everyone, not just those on the political right. But this potential requires specific conditions to become manifest. Liberalism and the conservative reaction to it is an expression of modernity. This dynamic isn’t found in all societies. It is a cultural product and so there is nothing inevitable about it. Other cultures are possible with other ideological mindsets and other social dynamics. For us moderns, though, it is the only reality we know, this endless conflict within our collective psyche.

Maybe unintentionally, Edmund Burke offers us the key to unlock the modern mind. Knowing this key existed is what he feared the most, for then the human mind and its potential would be laid bare. Yet this fear is what gives the reactionary mind its sense of power and purpose, an existential threat that must be fought. Modernity is continuously poised on a knife edge.

The near cosmic morality tale of ideological conflict is itself a symbolic conflation. There is always a story being told and its narrative force has deep roots. Wherever a symbolic conflation takes hold, a visceral embodiment is to be found nearby. Our obsession with ideology is unsurprisingly matched by our obsession with the human brain. The symbolic conflation, though moral imagination, gets overlaid onto the brain for there is no greater bodily symbol of the modern self. We fight over the meaning of human nature by wielding the scientific facts of neurocognition and brain scans. It’s the same reason the culture wars obsess over the visceral physicality of sexuality: same sex marriage, abortion, etc. But the hidden mysteries of the brain make it particularly fertile soil. As Robert Burton explained in A Skeptic’s Guide to the Mind (Kindle Locations 2459-2465):

our logic is influenced by a sense of beauty and symmetry. Even the elegance of brain imaging can greatly shape our sense of what is correct. In a series of experiments by psychologists David McCabe and Alan Castel, it was shown that “presenting brain images with an article summarizing cognitive neuroscience research resulted in higher ratings of scientific reasoning for arguments made in those articles, as compared to other articles that did not contain similar images. These data lend support to the notion that part of the fascination and credibility of brain imaging research lies in the persuasive power of the actual brain images.” The authors’ conclusion: “Brain images are influential because they provide a physical basis for abstract cognitive processes, appealing to people’s affinity for reductionistic explanations of cognitive phenomena.” *

The body is always the symbolic field of battle. Yet the material form occludes what exactly the battle is being fought over. The embodied imagination is the body politic. We are the fear we project outward. And that very fear keeps us from looking inward, instead always drawing us onward. We moderns are driven by anxiety, even as we can never quite pinpoint what is agitating us. We are stuck in a holding pattern of the mind, waiting for something we don’t know and are afraid to know. Even as we are constantly on the move, we aren’t sure we are getting anywhere, like a dog trotting along the fenceline of its yard.

* * *

* D. McCabe and A. Castel, “Seeing Is Believing: The Effect of Brain Images on Judgments of Scientific Reasoning,” Cognition, 107( 1), April 2008, 345– 52.
(For criticisms, see: The Not So Seductive Allure of Colorful Brain Images, The Neurocritic.)

Bundle Theory: Embodied Mind, Social Nature

I was listening to the audio version of Susan Blackmore’s Consciousness: A Very Short Introduction. It’s less than five hours long and so I listened to it multiple times to get a good sense of it. I’ve read plenty about the topic and I’m already generally familiar with the material, but it was still helpful getting an overview.

One part that interested me was about split brain research, something that always interests me. The roles of and relationship between the hemispheres indicates much about how our minds operate. Blackmore discussed one often referenced study where split brain patients had information given separately to each hemisphere in order to see how the individual would explain their behavior. As the left hemisphere typically controls linguistic communication, individuals couldn’t give accurate reasons for what was done by their right hemisphere.

The author wrote that (pp. 72-3),

“In this way, the verbal left brain covered up its ignorance by confabulating. It did the same when the other half was shown an emotional picture – making up a plausible excuse for laughing, smiling, blushing, or whatever emotional reaction had been provoked. This might help to explain how these patients can appear so normal. But it should also make us wonder about ourselves. Our brains consist of lots of relatively independent modules, and the verbal part does not have access to everything that goes on, yet it frequently supplies convincing reasons for our actions. How many of these are plausible confabulations rather than true reasons, and can we tell?

“From these experiments, Sperry concluded that his patients had two conscious entities in one head; each having private sensations and free will. In contrast, Gazzaniga argued that only the left hemisphere sustains ‘the interpreter’, which uses language, organizes beliefs, and ascribes actions and intentions to people. Only this hemisphere has ‘high-level consciousness’, leaving the other hemisphere with many abilities and skills but without true consciousness.”

She points out that there is no way to resolve this issue. We can’t prove what is really going on here, even as it touches upon our most personal experience. But she adds that, “Bundle theory does away with the problem altogether. There is neither one self nor two selves inside the split brain; there are experiences but there is no one who is having them” (p. 74). What this means is that our experience of an egoic consciousness is overlaid on the entire experiential field, one experience presenting itself as all experience. Or else an interpretation of experience that alters what we experience and how we experience it. The self as coherent individuality is a mirage. That isn’t to say it is meaningless. Our minds naturally look for patterns, even or especially within our own minds. Meaning is always what we bring to our experience.

As for actual reading, as opposed to listening to audiobooks, my focus has still been on Daniel Everett’s recent publication, Dark Matter of the Mind. It is a difficult read in many parts because much of the linguistics scholarship goes over my head and the academic language can get tiresome, but I’ve been determined to finish it and I’m now near the last chapter. Parts of it are quite interesting, such as his mentioning the theory that “gestures and speech were equally and simultaneously implicated in the evolution of language” (Kindle Location 5102). He then details the relevance of gestures and the embodied communication (Kindle Locations 5108-5111):

““Mead’s loop,” wherein one’s own gestures are responded to by one’s own mirror neurons in the same way that these neurons respond to the actions of others, thus bringing one’s own actions into the realm of the social and contributing crucially to the development of a theory of mind— being able to interpret the actions of others under the assumption that others have minds like we do and think according to similar processes.”

That is what came to mind while listening to what Blackmore had to say about bundle theory of experience. The parts of the ‘self’ don’t form a coherent whole so much as they are involved in intimate contact and communication.

Our experience is social at the most fundamental level, a social phenomenon within each person’s body and social connection to the bodies of others. Our embodied selves are shifting realities with blurred boundaries, out of which forms patterns of social order and social identities. As others have argued, we develop a theory of mind within ourselves by first sussing out a theory of mind about others. So, our sense of self is built on our sense of others, which is to say we understand the relationships between experiences within own embodied minds as an inseparable understanding of our relationships with the larger world.

It’s hard to get at what this might mean. But one important factor is that of language. As Julian Jaynes argued in his book about the bicameral mind, “language is an organ of perception, not simply a means of communication” (p. 50, Kindle edition). Perception is always embodied. In The Master and His Emissary, Iain McGilchrist offers a summary that resonates with what I shared above by Everett (pp. 122-123):

“language originates as an embodied expression of emotion, that is communicated by one individual ‘inhabiting’ the body, and  therefore the emotional world, of another; a bodily skill, further, that is acquired by each of us through imitation, by the emotional identification and intuitive harmonisation of the bodily states of the one who learns with the one from whom it is learnt; a skill moreover that originates in the brain as an analogue of bodily movement, and involves the same processes, and even the same brain areas, as certain highly expressive gestures, as well as involving neurones (mirror neurones) that are activated equally when we carry out an action and when we see another carry it out (so that in the process we can almost literally be said to share one another’s bodily experience and inhabit one another’s bodies); a process, finally, that anthropologists see as derived from music, in turn an extension of grooming, which binds us together as physically embodied beings through a form of extended body language that is emotionally compelling across a large number of individuals within the group.”

Both Everett and McGilchrist are concerned with the evolution and development of language. They see it as inseparable from the embodied mind and the enculturated self. As Everett discusses the importance of gesture, McGilchrist explores the role of music and poetry. There is a strong argument that non-linguistic communication (gesture and/or poetry-music) was well established and highly effective among the earliest hominids, including pre-linguistic homo sapiens. It seems likely that this was the base upon which was built language as we know it.

Jaynes argues that written language was one of the factors that weakened the bicameral mind, a particular pre-egoic bundle theory. Prior to that, oral culture dominated; and in oral culture, language is intertwined with other aspects of human experience and behavior. Some of the evidence supporting this is how ancient humans sometimes spoke of body parts as having their own minds (a way of talking that continued into late Axial Age such as the New Testament canon, such that hands and eyes aren’t necessarily considered part of an integrally whole self; and it should be noted that the New Testament tradition was passed on orally for a number of generations before being written down). This is an experience still spoken of by some of those with schizophrenia and dissociative identity disorder. Even otherwise normal people will have voice-hearing experiences where the voices heard aren’t located in the head, sometimes in or around other parts of the body.

Most of human cognition and behavior is unconscious. The same goes for most of human communication and much of that non-conscious communication is also non-linguistic. This is the bodily or embodied unconscious. This relates to the social nature of our psyches, as with rapport where people mimic each other unawares (gestures, posture, breathing, etc) along with how yawns and laughter can be contagious. What I’m wondering about is how does the body-mind create rapport with itself in order to coordinate its vast multitudinous complexity.

Because of hemispheric divisions, for example, parts of the mind act rather independently. The corpus callosum doesn’t just allow the hemispheres to communicate for it also inhibits and restricts that communication, in ways and for reasons we don’t yet fully understand. Even when the corpus callosum is entirely cut making direct neurological communication impossible, the two hemispheres are able to coordinate behavior such that a person appears normal, even as two separate minds seem to be operating within the skull. Without directly communicating with one another, how do the hemispheres accomplish this?

The simplest answer is that both hemispheres have access to the sensory organs on the opposite side of the body and so can indirectly observe what the other hemisphere is doing (and, in the case of the left hemisphere, hear it’s explanations). But interestingly the two divided hemispheres can come to different conclusions based on different their separate input and processing. They can also act independently, a literal scenario of the left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing.

Here is a different kind of example from Everett (Kindle Locations 5071-5076):

“At age nineteen, IW suddenly lost all sense of touch and proprioception below the neck due to an infection. The experiments conducted by McNeill and his colleagues show that IW is unable to control instrumental movements when he cannot see his hands (though when he can see his hands, he has learned how to use this visual information to control them in a natural-appearing manner). What is fascinating is that IW, when speaking, uses a number of (what IW refers to as) “throwaway gestures” that are well coordinated, unplanned, nonvisually reliant, speech-connected gestures. McNeill concludes that at a minimum, this case provides evidence that speech gestures are different from other uses of the hands— even other gesturing uses of the hands.”

So, gestures are connected to speech. And gestures happen spontaneously. But even without proprioreception, other senses can be used to bridge the gap between conscious and unconscious expression. There are clearly different areas of behavior, cognition, and communication that relate in different ways. We are embodied minds and we know our minds through our bodies. And most of what our mind does is never accessed or controlled by consciousness. As research has shown, consciousness often only plays a role after behavior has already been initiated (less a power of will than a power of won’t).

So, what kind of mind is it that we have or rather that has us?

Deep Roots in Dark Soil

In doing genealogy research, I’ve made many connections to American history, some of it quite dark and much of it not that far back in time. It is something that has been bothering me for a while. I had a longer series of posts I was writing about it, but I got bogged down with the topic. It’s overwhelming and hard to grapple with. So, let me keep this post simple and to the point.

Possibly the earliest line of my family that came to America was the Peebles. They were Scottish and, maybe for siding with the king, they arrived in the Virginia colony (1649 or 1650) during the English Civil War. David Peebles, the patriarch, came with some help (either indentured servants or slaves) and built a plantation. Later generations of the Peebles were definitely slave owners and they fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War.

The family across the generations drifted further South and West, ending up in Texas. That is where my paternal grandmother was born in 1912, well within living memory of slavery and the Civil War. The last Civil War veterans died in the 1950s, the last known survivor of the Atlantic slave trade between Africa and the United States died in the 1930s, the last American born into slavery died in the 1970s — the latter happening just a few years before I was born and about a decade before my grandmother died. None of this is ancient history. It’s possible that if my grandmother had bothered to ask that there were people in the family who still remembered owning slaves.

Also, the early twentieth century was a time of the last of the Indian Wars. There were major battles that happened in that part of the country when my grandmother was a child. The last significant altercation in the United States happened in 1924 when she was twelve years old and that is the age when kids begin to gain awareness of the larger world. But there were Indian holdouts who kept fighting in Mexico and weren’t defeated until nine years later in 1933. My grandmother was twenty-one years old at that point and so this was part of the world she was entering into.

David Peebles himself had been an Indian fighter, a captain in the Virginia militia. He was a well respected man. As reward, he had been given a Native American captive and I’m sure that person was treated as a slave. It’s assumed that David Peebles received an injury from fighting and he slowly disappeared from the records. Between those first Peebles in America and my grandmother, I’m sure there were numerous Indian fighters in my ancestry. After all, that part of my family was involved in the push Westward, as Native Americans retreated or were forcibly removed. And then they ended up in the region of the last battles with the last free natives.

All of this national history is intimately intertwined with my family history. And much of it was still living memory into my grandmothers childhood and even into her adulthood (in some cases, even into my parents’ adulthood). More importantly, it was an ongoing history. The struggles of blacks didn’t end with the Civil War any more than the struggles of Native Americans ended with the Indian Wars. I could understand how much of this history was hidden at the time, even as the suffering and oppression continued. Native Americans, after all, were forced onto reservations that made their plight practically invisible to the rest of the country. It was a problem that wasn’t seen and so didn’t need to be thought about. But the problems facing blacks would have been impossible to ignore for those living in the South and also in the North.

In the South my grandmother grew up in, Jim Crow was in full force and blacks had for decades faced re-enslavement through chain gang labor. My grandmother was a few years old when the Second Klan was founded. The Klan was a growing force during her childhood and was at its height in her teenage years: “At its peak in the mid-1920s, the organization claimed to include about 15% of the nation’s eligible population, approximately 4–5 million men” (Wikipedia). I have no doubt that many generations and many lines of my family were involved in the various incarnations of the Klan, along with other violently racist organizations and activities; but there is no family stories about any of this, as it’s one of those things that people don’t talk about.

When my grandmother was eight years old, a short distance from her childhood home the Tulsa race riots occurred where white mobs rioted and terrorized the black population. It was an actual battle with whites and blacks fighting in the streets (many of them WWI veterans, including black veterans who took their military weapons home with them), snipers were positioned in buildings shooting at people below, airplanes firebombed the wealthiest black community in America at the time (Black Wall Street), and belatedly troops were sent in to restore order. Hundreds of blacks were killed, hundreds more ended up in the hospital, 6,000 black residents were arrested and detained, and in the detention centers blacks were forced to do labor. In the aftermath, most of the black population became refugees who had lost everything and thousands of white residents in Tulsa joined the Klan.

It was one of the most violent and destructive events in American history. Yet it was erased from public awareness almost instantly, as if it had never happened. “The Tulsa race riot of 1921 was rarely mentioned in history books, classrooms or even in private. Blacks and whites alike grew into middle age unaware of what had taken place” (A.G. Sulzberger, “As Survivors Dwindle, Tulsa Confronts Past“, NYT).

This was just one of many race riots and other acts of mass racial violence that occurred in the decades before and following what happened in Tulsa. Violence like this, including lynchings, would have been common events for the first two-thirds of her life. After her family left Oklahoma, they moved to a part of Mississippi that was a major center of the Second Klan. Then as an adult in 1940, she moved her own young family to Indiana, the headquarters and epicenter of the Second Klan, during a time when the last vestiges of the organization were still to be seen. It was in the 1950s and 1960s when a splintered KKK reasserted itself in fighting the Civil Rights Movement.

Indiana is close to the South and not just geographically. It’s been culturally and economically connected to Kentucky from early on. This area is sometimes referred to as Kentuckiana. Much of Indiana’s population originally came from Kentucky and that has made Indiana the most Southern state in the Midwest (my maternal ancestry includes Indian fighters who came to Kentucky shortly after the American Revolution). A generation after my mother’s family left the border region of Kentucky and Indiana, she grew up in a large industrial city in central Indiana and yet she maintained a Southern accent well into her twenties.

Indiana was a destination of many white Southerners looking for work. Yet Southern blacks knew to mostly avoid Indiana, except for Northern parts of the state closer to Chicago. This wasn’t just a vague notion that blacks had about Indiana. The local white population, Klan and otherwise, made it overtly clear they weren’t welcome in most parts of the state.

My father was born in small town Indiana and then moved to another nearby small town. They were both in an area of much racism, but the second town where he spent most of his early life was a sundown town. When my father and his family moved there, a sign warning blacks to stay away was still visible on a major road into town. My father would have been too young to understand, my Southern grandmother could not have missed something so obvious. They had to have known they moved into a sundown town. Did my father know about this? No. Did his mother, my grandmother, ever talk about it? No. It wasn’t talked about. As my grandfather was the town minister, he could have challenged this racism from the pulpit. Did he? No. The reason for this is that my grandfather My was a racist, although like many he softened his prejudiced views later in life. Still, that doesn’t change the moral failure.

My grandmother was always a religious and spiritual person, moreso than my grandfather despite his being a minister. She grew in that old time religion, Southern Baptist church. When she moved to the West Coast, she became quite liberal and joined extremely liberal churches, such as Unity Church and Science of Mind. It was because of my grandmother that I was raised in the same kind of liberal churches. This led me to become the liberal I am today. Even so, my grandmother never spoke of our family’s ancestral sin of racial oppression, even though she had spent so much of her life right in the middle of it.

My father went off to college at Purdue. The city, Lafayette, had been a sundown town at one point. The systemic racism was lessening there by the time my parents attended, but the black population remained low. While they were at college, the Civil Rights Movement was growing and violence was happening. Professors and college students from Purdue even joined in some of the major events of that time. The world was changing all around my parents, but they apparently were oblivious to it all. When I’ve asked them, they had only slight memory of what was happening at the time, other than some brief news stories that they paid little attention to. It didn’t seem all that important to them, as white conservatives in a white conservative state with a hopeful future before them.

Systemic and institutional racism continued in some parts of the country long after the death of MLK. Blacks were still fighting for basic rights and demanding that laws against racism be enforced, well into my own lifetime (in fact, the struggle for justice continues to this day). For my parents, living in Ohio after college, that was a happy time of their life. As their children were born, protests and riots were going on around the country (including nearby), but it all seemed distant and insignificant, maybe a bit incomprehensible. After that, during the 1980s, our family moved to Deerfield, Illinois — a Chicago suburb with a history of keeping blacks out, something my parents were also unaware of. Then we headed to Iowa, which at the time was a demographic bubble of whiteness.

In my own childhood, I don’t recall my parents or other adults talking about race and racism. I also was oblivious to it all, until we moved to South Carolina when I was thirteen years old. It was a shock to my system. I didn’t grow up with that world and so I saw it with fresh eyes in a way someone wouldn’t have if they had grown up with it. Even then, amidst obvious racism and an overt racial social order, few people talked about it. I saw blacks at school, but no blacks lived in my neighborhood or went to my church. Black kids didn’t come home with me nor did I go home with them.

I was facing generations of denial in my own family. No one gave me any tools to deal with any of it. If not for genealogy research, I might never have realized how close to home all of this comes. Even now, I live in a liberal college town where at an earlier point in time a racist mob chased out of town the radical abolitionist John Brown, shortly before his execution. And a muted form of that old racism lingers still.

How do we deal with the legacy of centuries of oppression when it’s almost impossible to even publicly acknowledge what has happened within living memory? How do we come to terms with the fact that the legacy continues with systemic and institutional racism? How do we open up dialogue? How do we move forward? If more people simply dug into their own family histories, what might they find? And if they put that into context of the larger national history, what understandings might they come to?

My eternal refrain: Then what?

I’ve gained this knowledge and it was no easy task, as I had to find it for myself through decades of obsessive research and intense study. Generations of my own family have avoided this knowledge, built on centuries of ignorance and denial, supported by a vast social order designed to maintain the status quo. So, here we are. Many others like me are looking at these hidden truths now brought to light. What are we supposed to do with it all? How does a society come to terms with collective guilt?

William Faulkner spent most of his life a few counties away from my great grandmother’s home in Mississippi, the last place my grandmother lived before adulthood and the area she returned to after college to work a teaching job for a couple of years, around 1935. That is where my father would visit as a child and where he saw his first “colored” water fountain. Faulkner’s Requiem for a Nun was set in that part of Mississippi, as were other of his novels. The events in the story were fictionally placed in the years immediately following my grandmother’s departure. The world that Faulkner described was the world that shaped my grandmother, a world she couldn’t leave behind because she carried it with her.

One of Faulkner’s best known lines comes from that novel. He wrote:

“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

My grandmother was an educated woman, a teacher in fact. I wonder. Did she ever read those words? And if so, what did she think of them? Did she ever look to the past, her own past and that of her family? Or was she trying to escape the past by getting as far away as possible, ending up in the Northwest? It’s ironic that she spent the last years of her life in Oregon, the only state in the Union that was once fully sundown, excluding blacks entirely.

From what I gather, my grandmother was a kindhearted woman, but that could be said of many people. Few white Americans are overtly mean-spirited. People simply try to live their lives, and yet their lives exist along a moral arc bending from the past into the future. How often do any of us consider our place in the larger scheme of things and wonder about what future generations will think of us?

A Holiday Experiment

During the holiday season, there is an increase in alcohol consumption. This led me to some thoughts.

Liberals have higher rates of alcoholism (and drug addiction) than conservatives. But oddly it is conservative states that have the highest rates of drunk driving arrests, accidents, and deaths. Why is that? Do liberals hold their alcohol better? Or do they fall into a drunken stupor more quickly? Are most liberals simply too lazy to try to drive after drinking? Or did all that pot they smoked while drinking cause them to get the munchies and so they’re waiting for the pizza to be delivered?

Research has found that, when inebriated, liberals tend to think and act more like conservatives. For example, they are more likely to express conservative-minded stereotypes and prejudices. So, when conservatives get drunk, do they simply become even more conservative? If so, how does a conservative act when they are even more conservative? Do the conservatives look at the temporarily conservative-minded drunk liberals, saying “that’s not conservatism” and then telling someone to hold their drink?

These are important questions. For those with a nice mix of liberal and conservative family members, I recommend you get them all drunk and observe the results. Think of it as a scientific experiment.

Introverted Delights

I’ve been watching Westworld. It’s my favorite show at the moment. That is saying a lot, considering it’s competition. The second season of The Man in the High Castle is about to come out, based on a novel I love by my favorite fiction writer. And the always entertaining Game of Thrones will be returning soon. But neither of those shows competes with Westworld.

Westworld is popular. But even though it has higher viewer ratings than Game of Thrones, it has much more mixed reviews. It’s such a complex show. The plotlines of Westworld are immensely more complicated than the sprawling narrative world of Game of Thrones. This makes it all the more impressive that it is so popular.

For some people, they see it as too cerebral. I wonder why that is. There is more emotional depth to this show in many ways than a show like Game of Thrones that is focused so much on physical action of fighting, on political machinations and worldly power. The inner experience of Westworld characters is conveyed to a much greater extent. Maybe that is what is difficult for some people, specifically extraverts.

Westworld, despite the outward action and adventure of the virtual world portrayed, is ultimately a show maybe best appreciated by an introvert. So many of the main characters on the show seem rather inwardly drawn and guarded about their most personal experience, which is unusual for mainstream action-oriented sci-fi. The point of the entire show revolves around growing self-awareness and the strengthening of an inner voice, the kind of thing that preoccupies introverts.

Some people wonder what is the point of all the convoluted plotlines, multitudinous cultural references, and in-show commentary of obscure ideas. Also, there is the simultaneous celebration and questioning of genre tropes. Is it embracing “guns and tits and all that mindless shit”? Or is the entire show a criticism of that, an exploration of what it means for our humanity? Maybe both. From my perspective, that just makes the show more interesting. But the basic show can be enjoyed on a much simpler level, even ignoring the sex and violence, as much of the character development is fairly straightforward. The motivation of characters is revealed as the show goes on, assuming enough imagination and curiosity pulls you in to follow the characters on their path of emergence.

The tricky part is that the identities of characters isn’t immediately apparent, only being revealed as their pasts are revealed. This is a slow reveal with glimpses of a murky past gradually coming into focus. The exploration of motivation is a learning experience as much for the characters themselves as for the viewers. We are meant to identify and empathize with the characters as individuals and not merely to be caught up in their actions and relationships with other characters.

This requires of the viewer both patience and immersion, along with suspension of disbelief about the entire fictional world. It’s an act of imaginative speculation taken to an extreme degree, an attempt to bring we the viewers into the borderlands of consciousness and of humanity. Some people have more tolerance than others for that kind of thing, but this is what the best sci-fi is able to achieve. That is what the producers of the Westworld show have been attempting, it being fair game to argue over how well they achieved it. Still, no matter how well done, these themes aren’t exactly of mainstream interest. Most viewers probably just want to see robots revolting and, for those folk, this show does deliver on that promise.

Still, Westworld is constrained by the sub-genre it belongs to. There is a central element of dark mystery and claustrophobic focus that is typical of gritty neo-noir, always leaving certain things unseen and unexplained. Take the slow burn of Blade Runner, exaggerate and complicate it, spread it across an entire show series with no linear plotline or single dominant protagonist, and that is what you get with Westworld. This isn’t a world-building exercise like some traditional fantasy and space operas where every detail is articulated and the background fully described. Everything in the narrative revolves around the characters and about what it means to be human.

This season introduced the individuals and their place in the world. The exploration of the larger world, if it is to happen, will be developed in the next season. The hosts, having gained consciousness, will no longer be trapped in voice commands, character scripts, and narrative loops. The inward focus likely will turn ever more outward, as the hosts try to grasp what kind of world they find themselves in. That is the natural progression of emerging consciousness, whether for a child or an android.

“just a means to that end”

Dirty Jobs and Macro Questions
by Patrick Watson, Mauldin Economics

“Serving others is always honorable work. Every major religion teaches this. If the work itself is honorable, why don’t we honor those who do it?

That sounds nice. The only problem is it’s total bullshit. I doubt he wants an honest answer to his question.

Our society does not value serving others and never has. If you are working some crap job serving others, our society makes it very clear that you are a loser in the game of capitalism and Social Darwinism. This is supposedly a meritocracy and so those on the bottom of society are assumed to be those without merit. That is the entire justification for our society, the story we have to believe in to maintain the social order.

“Answer: Because we would rather spend our money in other ways. When we consumers take our demand signals elsewhere, the market efficiently reduces restaurant wages to match what we’ll pay. It’s the invisible hand at work.”

There is no invisible hand, as if divine intervention were determining the Elect. No more than there is a Santa Claus. If there is a hand manipulating the system, it is most definitely visible and all too human. Get up in the middle of the night on Christmas Eve and I guarantee you’ll see that it isn’t Santa who is stuffing money into the pockets of the plutocrats.

We don’t have a free market, as is obvious to anyone who pays attention. What we have is a corporatist system where big government colludes with and to some degree is controlled by big business. Some go so far as to call it inverted totalitarianism.

“Jobs don’t disappear because greedy capitalists replace people with robots. Businesses turn to robots because consumers want lower prices than can be achieved with human workers.

“The robots are just a means to that end.”

Yeah, well…

The feudal rights of the commons didn’t disappear because greedy aristocrats privatized and enclosed land by having replaced serfs with slaves. Plantations turned to slaves because consumers wanted lower prices than could be achieved with free citizens.

The slaves are just a means to that end.

Okay. So, I guess that means everything is perfectly fine and morally justified. Quit your complaining. It’s the invisible hand responding to market forces that stole your job. It’s no one’s fault that, as surplus labor, you are now a worthless human and a useless eater. Progress marches on, with or without you.

This attitude is strange. It’s a fatalism built on capitalist realism, which is no better than communist realism. The attitude is that we are helpless before forces greater than us. All we can hope to do is adapt to the inevitable. But if failing that, then we better get out of the way or else get run over as we deserve.

Oddly, after all the clueless blather, the author almost comes to a decent conclusion.

“I think our twisted ideas about money, work, and education are the real problems. They’re distorting supply and demand. The root causes aren’t so much economic as cultural and psychological.”

Sort of. The problem is that people like this author hold such ideas and will defend them, no matter the costs. He isn’t suggesting we fundamentally change our thinking, just maybe tinker a bit around the edges.

Otherwise, the system itself is just fine. The real problem is the people, which is to say all those poor people complaining. Sure, the root causes are cultural and psychological. I’d add that indeed they are also economic, as all of it is inseparable. Improving the bad attitudes of poor people isn’t going to solve the systemic failure.

“This year’s US election, contentious though it was, brought important issues to the surface. Ditto events around the world, like Brexit. The economy isn’t working like we think it should. People are tired of asking questions and getting no good answers.”

That is to put it lightly. Important issues were brought to the surface, in the way that magma is brought to the surface when a volcano erupts. Just wait until that volcano really blows its top, turns the sky black with smoke, blocks out the sun, covers the land in ash, and sends the population fleeing in all directions. Then questions and answers will be moot.

“I don’t have all the answers. I suspect no one person does. But the answers are out there, and we won’t find them unless we look for them.”

At least, he is admitting this much. After writing all that, he states he doesn’t actually have all the answers. Yet, as an economic analyst writing for a investment newsletter, it’s his job to have answers or else pretend he has answers. He belongs to the upper class intellectual elite who are supposed to be telling the rest of us losers what we should be doing.

“That awkward, uncomfortable search will be the global macro story in 2017 and probably beyond.”

Well, it will surely be continuing into the coming generations, assuming mass catastrophe and collapse doesn’t happen before then. What is up ahead on the road might not be a pothole to easily drive around. That very well might be a sinkhole that could swallow us whole. Society continues to move forward. Some think this means progress. But what are we moving towards?

Maybe we should slow down a bit and get our bearings.

We Are Empathy

Recall how Ptolemy used epicycles to accurately predict the movements of objects in the sky, yet he had no clue about the actual nature of those movements. We’re still in the Ptolemaic phase of social science.

Paul Bloom had an article come out in the WSJ today, The Perils of Empathy. It’s on the limitations and problems of empathy, a topic he has been writing about for years (it’s not even his first WSJ article about it).

The above quote is from the comments section, a response posted by Anthony Cusano, and it captures my own basic thought. As others noted, Bloom’s understanding of empathy is limited and so it’s unsurprising he comes to the conclusion that is limited. So, the problem is Bloom’s own confusion, based on narrow research and simplistic analysis.

There isn’t much point in analyzing the article itself. But I realize that such articles have immense influence given the platform. I’m always surprised that someone like Bloom, a respected ivy league academic and professor, would have such a superficial grasp. I’d like to think that Bloom realizes it’s more complex and that he is using rhetoric to make a point, not that this generous interpretation makes it any better.

Even though I love social science, this demonstrates a constant danger of trying to make sense of the research produced. Evidence is only as good as the frame used to interpet it.

Bloom is mixing up the rhetoric, perception, and experience of empathy. He treats empathy as something rather simple, maybe confusing it with mere sympathy. And he does this by ignoring most of what empathy consists of, such as cognitive empathy. Along with many of his allies and critics, he never puts it into its largest context. Human civilization would never exist without human empathy. This is because humanity is inseparable from empathy, as we are inherently a social species and there is no sociality without empathy.

There isn’t any grand significance in my writing specifically about Bloom’s article. The main thing wasn’t what was in it but what was left out of it.

The last thing I wrote earlier in the week was about the hive mind in terms of entrainment. There would be no human families, groups, social identities, communities, nations, etc without empathy. None of this is solely or even primarily dependent on empathy as direct emotionality and personal sympathy. An army marching has a shared identity that doesn’t require any given soldier to empathize with any other individual soldier, much less every single soldier. The empathy is with a sense of group identity that transcends all individuality. The soldiers in marching form grok this collective identity as a muscular bonding that, in the moment, is as real as their own bodies.

Empathy is the foundation and essence of everything that is human. It precedes and encompasses every other aspect of our humanity, including rational compassion. Posing empathy as a choice is irrelevant. There is no choice. Empathy just is, whether or not we use it well. We can’t objectively study empathy because we can’t separate ourselves from it. There is no outside perspective.

Let me conclude with some words of wisdom, “We are Groot.”

* * *

I Could Say that Paul Bloom is a Callous Idiot, But I Empathize With Him…
by Nathan J. Robinson, The Navel Observatory

Thinkfluence Man Pretends To Think Empathy Is Bad
by Albert Burneko, The Concourse

Why Paul Bloom Is Wrong About Empathy and Morality
by Denise Cummins, Psychology Today

The one thing that could save the world: Why we need empathy now more than ever
by Roman Krznaric, Salon

Welcome to the empathy wars
by Roman Krznaric, Transformation

Can You Run Out of Empathy?
by C. Daryl Cameron, Berkeley

Understanding is Inherent to Empathy: On Paul Boom and Empathy
by Jeremiah Stanghini, blog

What’s So Funny ‘Bout Peace, Love and (Empathic) Understanding
by John Payne, EPIC

Music and Dance on the Mind

There is rhythmic entrainment that is orchestrated rapport, contributing to what some refer to as a hive mind. Taken together, this is collective identity and experience, collective thought and perception in sync with collective behavior. Most of us modern Westerners never experience it, with our obsession with individual identity and activity. But in earlier societies it would have been much more common.

Over at Ribbonfarm, Sarah Perry has written about this and similar things. Her focus is on the varieties and necessities of human consciousness. The article is “Ritual and the Consciousness Monoculture“. It’s a longer piece and packed full of ideas, including an early mention of Jaynesian bicameralism.

The author doesn’t get around to discussing the above topics until about halfway into the piece. It’s in a section titled, “Hiving and Rhythmic Entrainment”. The hiving refers to Jonathan Haidt’s hive hypothesis. It doesn’t seem all that original of an understanding, but still it’s an important idea. This is an area where I’d agree with Haidt, despite my other disagreements elsewhere. In that section, Perry writes that:

Donald Brown’s celebrated list of human universals, a list of characteristics proposed to be common to all human groups ever studied, includes many entries on music, including “music related in part to dance” and “music related in part to religion.” The Pirahã use several kinds of language, including regular speech, a whistling language, and a musical, sung language. The musical language, importantly, is used for dancing and contacting spirits. The Pirahã, Everett says, often dance for three days at a time without stopping. They achieve a different consciousness by performing rituals calibrated to evoke mental states that must remain opaque to those not affected.

Musical language is the type of evidence that seems to bridge different aspects of human experience. It has been argued that language developed along with human tendencies of singing, dance, ritual movement, communal mimicry, group bonding, and other social behaviors. Stephen Mithen has an interesting theory about the singing of early hominids (The Singing Neanderthal).

That brings to mind Lynne Kelly’s book on preliterate mnemonic practices, Knowledge and Power in Prehistoric Societies. Kelly goes into great detail about the practices of the Australian Aborigines with their songlines, which always reminds me of the English and Welsh beating of the bounds. A modern example of the power of music is choral singing, which research has shown to create non-conscious mimicry, physical synchrony, and self-other merging.

Eric Mankin, in the comment section of Perry’s article, mentions a book: Keeping Together in Time by  William H. McNeill. It’s about the history of coordinated rhythmic movement as collective ritual, from dances to drills. McNeill argues the important role this has played for groups, communities, and societies. He calls it “muscular bonding” because of the viscerality of the experience, as if the individuals involved physically expand into a larger sense of group-self and fellow-feeling.

It really gets me thinking. If Julian Jaynes was onto something with his bicameral mind, such things as group-oriented vocal and physical entrainment could explain how it could be possible. Not just vocalizations but voice-hearing as well might at times have had a group-oriented aspect, something hard for us to imagine.

One of the perplexing things is how could the early civilizations, lacking in much advanced technology and knowledge, have been able to build vast pyramids. Even today, it would require the most powerful cranes in the world to move the largest blocks of stone that were somehow moved into place in building those ancient structures. Obviously, there were some brilliant minds to help accomplish this, but there also must have been immense organized labor of a kind we never see in the modern world.

Strangest of all, this labor appears not to have been slavery, with no bureaucratic centralized government organizing it all or obvious physical infrastructure to make it possible. There was some kind of social commitment and obligation that compelled large numbers of people to take group action involving back-breaking, life-threatening labor toward a goal that required multiple generations to achieve.

Jaynes brings up one possibility in his book,

Another advantage of schizophrenia, perhaps evolutionary, is tirelessness. While a few schizophrenics complain of generalized fatigue, particularly in the early stages of the illness, most patients do not. In fact, they show less fatigue than normal persons and are capable of tremendous feats of endurance. They are not fatigued by examinations lasting many hours. They may move about day and night, or work endlessly without any sign of being tired. Catatonics may hold an awkward position for days that the reader could not hold for more than a few minutes. This suggests that much fatigue is a product of the subjective conscious mind, and that bicameral man, building the pyramids of Egypt, the ziggurats of Sumer, or the gigantic temples at Teotihuacan with only hand labor, could do so far more easily than could conscious self-reflective men.

If the impairment or lessening of “the subjective conscious mind” allows for impressive physical feats and stamina (along with higher pain threshold), that could explain some of the power unleashed by group rhythmic movements and vocalization. McNeill quotes A. R. Radcliffe about the Andaman islanders: “As the dancer loses himself in the dance, as he becomes absorbed in the unified community, he reaches a state of elation in which he feels himself filled with energy or force immediately beyond his ordinary state, and so finds himself able to perform prodigies of exertion” (Kindle Locations 125-126).

This is why armies can march long distances with little rest in a way that isn’t normally possible for an individual walking alone. As armies have their chants, the oarsmen on boats had their sea chanties and to similar ends. The songs of field laborers, slave or otherwise, would have served the same purpose as well. The individual, no matter how tired, is buoyed up by entrainment to a group activity.

Imagine an entire society organized along these lines. Imagine nearly all activities being done as a group and individuals rarely left alone.

That was what impressed me in reading about the early Roman Empire, as it seems that everything was a social experience, from going to the doctor to going to the bathroom. And the Roman Empire was many centuries following the hypothetical collapse of what Jaynes considered fully bicameral societies, even though traces of bicameralism apparently were still quite common at that time. A society dominated by the bicameral mind wouldn’t merely have been highly social but beyond social as identity itself wouldn’t have been individualistic. Bicameralism, according to theory, wasn’t about individuals relating for individual consciousness as we know it simply would have been nonexistent, not yet part of their sense of reality.

In singing with a choral group or marching in an army, we moderns come as close as we are able to this ancient mind. It’s always there within us, just normally hidden. It doesn’t take much, though, for our individuality to be submerged and something else to emerge. We are all potential goosestepping authoritarian followers, waiting for the right conditions to bring our primal natures out into the open. With the fiery voice of authority, we can be quickly lulled into compliance by an inspiring or invigorating vision:

[T]hat old time religion can be heard in the words and rhythm of any great speaker. Just listen to how a recorded speech of Martin Luther King jr can pull you in with its musicality. Or if you prefer a dark example, consider the persuasive power of Adolf Hitler for even some Jews admitted they got caught up listening to his speeches. This is why Plato feared the poets and banished them from his utopia of enlightened rule. Poetry would inevitably undermine and subsume the high-minded rhetoric of philosophers. “[P]oetry used to be divine knowledge,” as Guerini et al states in Echoes of Persuasion, “It was the sound and tenor of authorization and it commanded where plain prose could only ask.”

Poetry is one of the forms of musical language. Plato’s fear wasn’t merely about the aesthetic appeal of metered rhyme. Living in an oral culture, he would have intimately known the ever-threatening power and influence of the spoken word. Likewise, the sway and thrall of rhythmic movement would have been equally familiar in that world. Community life in ancient Greek city-states was almost everything that mattered, a tightly woven identity and experience.

We aren’t as different from ancient humanity as it might seem. Our societies have changed drastically, suppressing old urges and potentialities. Yet the same basic human nature still lurks within us, hidden in the underbrush along the well trod paths of the mind. The hive mind is what the human species naturally falls back upon, from millennia of collective habit. The problem we face is we’ve lost the ability to express well our natural predisposition toward group-mindedness, too easily getting locked into groupthink, a tendency easily manipulated.

Considering this, we have good reason to be wary, not knowing what we could tap into. We don’t understand our own minds and so we naively underestimate the power of humanity’s social nature. With the right conditions, hiving is easy to elicit but hard to control or shut down. The danger is that the more we idolize individuality the more prone we become to what is so far beyond the individual. It is the glare of hyper-individualism that casts the shadow of authoritarianism.

* * *

Musical Language
from Radiolab

Study: Music, language’s common evolutionary roots lie in emotion
by Amina Khan, Los Angeles Times

Speaking in Tones: Music and Language Partner in the Brain
by Diana Deutsch, Scientific American

“Music, Language, and the Brain” by Aniruddh D. Patel
by Barbara Tillmann, Psychomusicology Journal

330. Did Music Originate as a Behavioral Adaptation? — 1
(pt. 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, & 8)
by Victor Grauer, MUSIC 000001

Piraha Indians, Recursion, Phonemic Inventory Size and the Evolutionary Significance of Simplicity
by German Dziebel, Anthropogenesis

Musical protolanguage: Darwin’s theory of language evolution revisited
by Mark Liberman, Lanuguage Log

Music and the Neanderthal’s Communication
from PBS

Steven Mithen – The Singing Neanderthals
by Andreas Bick, silent listening

Steven Mithen: The Singing Neanderthals
by John Henry Calvinist, The New Humanities

The Singing Neanderthal
by Barbara J. King, Bookslut

The origins of music, part 2: Musilanguage
by Eugene Hirschfeld, Marxist Theory of Art

Synch, Song, and Society
by William L. Benzon, Human Nature Review

Survival Dance: How Humans Waltzed Through the Ice Age
by Heather Whipps, Live Science

Working in a team increases human pain threshold
by Ian Sample, The Guardian

Rhythm without the blues: how dance crazes make us feel a step closer
by Ian Sample, The Guardian

Synchrony and Cooperation
from Changing Minds

To like each other, sing and dance in synchrony
by Kaj Sotala, Less Wrong

It’s All in the Timing: Interpersonal Synchrony Increases Affiliation
Michael J. Hove & Jane L. Risen, Social Cognition Journal

Dance and Drill
by Erik Buys, Mimetic Margins

Moving images–Dance and repetition make your eye and heart sing, a book review
By Roberta Fallon, Artblog

Laban’s Movement Choirs vs. Nazi Soldier Parades and Propaganda Imagery: Spectacle or Gemeinschafstanz?
by Marjie Shrimpton, academia.edu

Moments of Geopolitical Choreography: Performance of Cultural Ideals in Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union and Beyond
by Allison Bohman, The College at Brockport

Human Swarming and the future of Collective Intelligence
by Louis Rosenberg, Singularity

Ancient Greek Dance
by Michael Lahanas, Hellenica

Ancient Greek Dance
from Carnaval.com

War dances in Ancient Greece
from VSLM