Category Archive 'Philosophy'
05 Dec 2022

Leo Strauss and the Critique of Liberal Modernity

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Matthew Rose, in First Things, describes Leo Strauss’s critique of Liberalism and the Open Society.

…[A]fter his move to the University of Chicago in 1949[,] Strauss worried that Western thinkers were no longer capable of contemplating perspectives beyond liberalism, even against liberalism, from which to judge the present. Far from constituting a threat to clear thinking, such a perspective is essential to it—for only outside the open society can we identify its virtues and its ­vices, and gain the strength to endure its discontents. But if we are to reach this horizon, Strauss argued, a popular prejudice often directed against critics of liberalism must be rejected. For what is mislabeled “nihilism” is not a destructive doctrine at all. It is a protest on behalf of something of the highest human importance—something liberalism dismisses at its peril.

What kind of protest? In answering this question, Strauss reflected on the generation of students who had been intellec­tually formed and politically radicalized during the interwar period. As his later writings would make clear, these reflections drew on his own experiences as a student in the early 1920s, when he struggled to reconcile his devotion to Max Weber with his growing interest in Martin Heidegger, who seemed willing to address questions about human existence that no other living German philosopher would. These students, Strauss recalled, had been shattered by war, disoriented by the collapse of traditional authorities, and disturbed by a culture that seemed to celebrate transgression. For many of them, the Weimar-era experiment with parliamentary democracy had proven a failure. Only a rejection of the “cancer” of liberalism, as one author called it, could save them.

Strauss’s portrait of his classmates was unsparing, but not disdainful. Strauss described young men full of vehement certainty about what they rejected, but inarticulate and unreflective about what they affirmed. “The prospect of a pacified planet, without rulers and ruled,” he observed, “was positively horrifying to [them].” Strauss lamented that their passions found no outlet other than the crudest propaganda. Unable to understand or express themselves in any other way—Strauss noted that they had largely rejected Christian belief—they gave voice to savage forms of group identity. The mark of barbarism, Strauss explained, was the belief that truth and justice should be defined in terms of ethnic or racial membership.

But Strauss acknowledged that these students, shaped by defeat, conflict, and social disintegration, were inspired by an ideal—an ideal whose dangers they did not understand but whose allure they keenly felt. Here we approach the heart of Strauss’s lecture, which sought to place these interwar students and their ideal in a broader intellectual history. Strauss cautioned that he sought not to pardon what deserved condemnation, but to make intelligible what required understanding. He therefore challenged his class to see in the youthful German protest what many had failed to perceive two decades ­earlier: its moral basis. This protest against liberalism was not fundamentally inspired by a love of war or a love of nation, Strauss insisted. Nor could it be explained by material or class interests. It was inspired, as he put it in a bracing passage, by “a love of morality, a sense of responsibility for endangered morality.”

Strauss named this outlook the morality of the “closed society.” No sensitive reader of the lecture can avoid being struck by the intensity of the passages in which Strauss describes the gravity of the challenge this “endangered morality” poses to the “open ­society.” What is the closed society? Strauss didn’t identify it with any one people, tradition, or form of government. By the “closed society” he didn’t mean non-Western cultures, pre-Enlightenment thought, or even ­undemocratic polities. The closed society represented a perennial moral possibility, whose roots are found in every human soul and whose demands must be confronted by every human community. In its most common expression, the closed society levels a familiar accusation: that the open society is immoral, or at least amoral, because it jeopardizes the very possibility of living a virtuous life.

Strauss assumed his American students might have difficulty seeing the possible strengths, to say nothing of the seductive appeal, of a way of life associated with ignorance and bigotry. He therefore tried to show them how liberal and democratic ideals might appear from a perspective that denies their moral legitimacy—not out of resentment or bad faith, but out of loyalty to a higher order of values. The rights of man, the relief of the human estate, the happiness of the greatest possible number—for advocates of the open society, these are ideals that have inspired social progress. They are part of a shift in modern consciousness, through which we have recognized our power to change the present, rather than simply accept the authority of the past. But to defenders of the closed society, Strauss argued, the moral prestige of these slogans evinces a different kind of shift. It is a sign that humanity has been debased rather than ennobled.

To draw his listeners into anti-liberal ways of thinking, Strauss sketched the development of modern political thought from the perspective of the closed society. This interpretation casts the arc of modernity in a disturbing light, depicting as decline what Enlightenment thinkers hailed as advance. It sees modernity as the story of how and why Western societies chose to lower their moral ideals, exchanging the demanding codes of antiquity and biblical religion for the comfortable norms of commercial society, legal proceduralism, and bourgeois life. Heroic ideals, attainable only by the exceptional few, were defined down for the ordinary many; ideals that promoted spiritual or intellectual excellence were balanced by those promoting health and prosperity; ideals that imposed self-denial were replaced by those that indulged self-expression.

As Strauss’s reading of modernity suggests, the closed society is defined by what it affirms no less than by what it rejects. He emphasized that its conflict with the open society is ultimately over the most fundamental question: Which way of life is best for man? For defenders of the closed society, human life should be ordered to a political end whose achievement requires the highest and rarest human qualities. So demanding is its vision of moral excellence, so uncommon are the virtues it requires, and yet so necessary is it to the sustaining of human life, that its fulfillment involves the greatest personal risk. As Strauss described it:

    Moral life . . . means serious life. Seriousness, and the ceremonial of seriousness . . . are the distinctive features of the closed society, of the society which by its very nature, is constantly confronted with, and basically oriented toward, the Ernstfall, the serious moment. . . . Only life in such a tense atmosphere, only a life which is based on constant awareness of the sacrifices to which it owes its existence, and of the necessity, the duty of sacrifice of life and all worldly goods, is truly human.

Duty, sacrifice, danger, struggle—here we enter the charged atmosphere of a moral world that Strauss feared his students, and not only his students, failed to understand. It saw the best human life as one that dares to risk all for the sake of heroic possibilities. It saw the desire to pledge oneself to a great cause and to prostrate oneself before great authorities as essential to human virtue. In later writings, Strauss would examine a tension between the life of philosophy and the life of faith, a tension that he believed was foundational to Western civilization. But the conflict between the open and closed societies is not a conflict between reason and revelation. It is a conflict over the necessity of life-and-death struggles for human excellence. If the open society is constituted by free argument and equal recognition, the closed society is formed by loyalty, courage, sacrifice, and honor. It celebrates the virtues that it believes make political order possible: the willingness to forgo material comforts, to close ranks against outsiders and oppose enemies, and, above all, to fight to the death with no thought for profit or pleasure. Though these virtues animate other spheres of life, they are, in their deepest origin and highest expression, martial virtues.

At the time of his lecture, Strauss was completing his famous essay “Persecution and the Art of Writing,” which he privately called a “bomb” that would forever change how scholars interpreted the history of ideas. It argued that many Western philosophers had protected themselves from political persecution (and shielded their communities from intellectual harm) by carefully disguising their most subversive and heterodox views from average readers. Strauss’s lecture has an element of indirection that suggests its author’s desire to shield himself from attack. It draws upon his experiences in right-wing movements of the 1920s as well as from his careful study of the controversial legal theorist Carl Schmitt, who interpreted political life in light of moments of supreme crisis that reveal the true nature of authority. Strauss became a Zionist at age seventeen, and his earliest writings evinced a concern that liberal ideals encouraged frivolity and ­complacency, not least among assimilated Jews. Strauss eventually drifted away from active Jewish life, but he preserved a lifelong distrust of liberalism and its “permissive egalitarianism.”

But in defending the martial virtues of courage, heroism, and loyalty, Strauss was not simply giving guarded expression to past political views. He was giving voice to a moral ideal that defenders of democracy were jeopardizing, at significant human cost. That ideal insisted that these are the virtues through which, and only through which, a man can prove himself to be a man in full. It ­contended that what makes us human is not the way we pursue and enjoy the goods of bodily life, however refined our habits might be. Rather, we prove our humanity only by exercising our radical ability to contradict those goods, only by risking our lives for a value greater than mere survival. To live as a human being is to fight to the death for something higher than life. Within this moral world—a world so fundamentally hostile to liberal ­modernity—man is not made for comfort and security. He is tempted by them. The man who wishes truly to live must flirt with death.

Strauss was aware of the destructive power of this impulse and its pursuit of meaning through confrontation with annihilation. But before it could be corrected, he believed, its moral critique of liberal modernity had to be confronted. Proponents of the closed society regard the open society as degrading not simply because it places bodily safety and well-being at its political center. They regard it as degrading because it diminishes the soul’s need for moral risk, demotes the virtues needed for pursuing and protecting the highest things, and devalues the men who strive to live by its severe code. For those, such as Ernst Jünger, who found the most sublime virtues in the trenches of a world war, the open society was hypocritical. It lived by achievements it did not properly honor, or merely pretended to honor, and in doing so lied about the basic facts of human experience. Its dream of a world of freedom and equality, a world in which everyone was happy and satisfied and at peace—such a world was no dream, but a posthuman nightmare, “in which no great heart could beat and no great soul could breathe.” …

Strauss certainly saw the potential for savagery in [the] rebellion against the open society and its intellectual gatekeepers. He was alarmed by the ease with which theoretical attacks on liberalism could turn into excuses for political evil. But as Strauss looked to the war raging in Europe and imagined a future that learned from its mistakes, he proposed a strikingly different form of education. He argued that good teachers should not seek to dispel the allure of the closed society; instead, they should carefully draw students directly inside of it. This pedagogy would enable students to experience the power of the closed society’s moral demands, to sense the appeal of its political life, and to feel challenged by its vision of human excellence.

Strauss didn’t wish to turn his students into sophisticated enemies of liberalism. His goal was to turn them into virtuous defenders of democracy. But to become true patrons of the open society, they needed qualities of character that could be developed only through a proper appreciation of traditional society. The open society was right to order its common life through the exercise of reason and the arts of civility. But the closed society was also right about some important things. It acknowledged our need to be loyal to a particular people, to inherit a cultural tradition, to admire inequalities of achievement, to reverence the authority of the past, and to experience self-transcendence through self-­sacrifice. It acknowledged as well the importance of a leadership class whose decisions expose them to special risk rather than shielding them from it. As Strauss observed, these are permanent truths, not atavisms, no matter how unpalatable they are to the progressive-­minded. A society that cannot affirm them invites catastrophe, no less than does a ­society that cannot question them.


30 Aug 2019

24 Life Lessons From Werner Herzog

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1. Always take the initiative.

2. There is nothing wrong with spending a night in jail if it means getting the shot you need.

3. Send out all your dogs and one might return with prey.

4. Never wallow in your troubles; despair must be kept private and brief.

5. Learn to live with your mistakes.

6. Expand your knowledge and understanding of music and literature, old and modern.

7. That roll of unexposed celluloid you have in your hand might be the last in existence, so do something impressive with it.

8. There is never an excuse not to finish a film.

9. Carry bolt cutters everywhere.

10. Thwart institutional cowardice.

11. Ask for forgiveness, not permission.

12. Take your fate into your own hands.

13. Learn to read the inner essence of a landscape.

14. Ignite the fire within and explore unknown territory.

15. Walk straight ahead, never detour.

16. Manoeuvre and mislead, but always deliver.

17. Don’t be fearful of rejection.

18. Develop your own voice.

19. Day one is the point of no return.

20. A badge of honor is to fail a film theory class.

21. Chance is the lifeblood of cinema.

22. Guerrilla tactics are best.

23. Take revenge if need be.

24. Get used to the bear behind you.

HT: Vanderleun.

28 Dec 2018

Really Expensive Wittgenstein Memoir

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Ludwig Wittgenstein was so influential a philosopher that, back when I was in college, Philosophy instructors on both sides of the Atlantic were notoriously prone to imitate his very mannerisms.

I’d say myself that Wittgenstein’s fame, influence, and popularity were ultimately based not so much on either the logical force of his arguments or his definitive contributions to Philosophy, but rather upon his eccentric personality, his striking good looks, and the literary appeal of his aphoristic statements.

Wittgenstein was a tremendously Romantic figure, who wrote the Tractatus, the work he asserted at the time that resolved all the questions of Philosophy, while fighting as an artillery officer in the trenches of WWI.

Born to a fabulously wealthy and conspicuously talented noble family (of Jewish origin), Ludwig Wittgenstein renounced all his inherited wealth and lived a famously tormented, eremitical life of the greatest simplicity and abstemiousness. (He was presumably simultaneously battling against his homosexuality and atoning for his rare and reluctant surrenders to those impulses.)

Having, in his own view, solved all the main issues of Philosophy, he simply walked away from a prestigious teaching position at Cambridge, and the comradeship of Bertrand Russell and G.E Moore, to work as a primary schoolteacher in a primitive rural village.

He concluded that he had been mistaken, and that he had not actually solved all of Philosophy’s problems, so he returned reluctantly to Cambridge, where he endeavored to “cure” people of Philosophy, trying to persuade his students to do something useful instead.

His engagement with ideas was intense and passionate, and he could be seen to be struggling passionately with his own thoughts as he conducted his classes. However ultimately inconclusive his results, his prose was poetical and aphoristic, yet also compelling, and attempts to follow, or merely imitate, his mode of philosophizing became the dominant academical approach throughout the English-speaking world.

I like Wittgenstein myself every bit as much as the next fellow, and I normally buy any book about him at all, but I was dismayed last night to come upon (Gawd help us!) the abridged reprint edition of F.A. Flowers III and Ian Ground’s Portraits of Wittgenstein, a collection of 50 portraits of, and reflections upon, dear old Ludwig, going for $255 in hardcover and $37 in stinking paperback.

The 2016 original two-volume hardcover edition (obviously the one you want) goes these days at the lowest for around 500 clams.

You can picture Wittgenstein shaking his head, and launching into a condemnatory rant.


Frank Freeman’s review here.

Wittgenstein took philosophy personally; it was a struggle of intellectual integrity, clear thinking, sincerity. And because Wittgenstein was such a charismatic figure, this meant that his philosophy was inextricable from his life. It was as if he was all alone in the world and everyone else witnesses of his struggle.

This is why a book such as Portraits of Wittgenstein makes such compelling reading. First published in 2016 in two volumes (1138 pages), the book has now been cut in half by its editors, making it more accessible. It is a collection of essays written by people who knew or came into contact with Wittgenstein over the years. Most people who did so either hated him or loved him; almost all feared him. John Maynard Keynes, a friend, wrote about Wittgenstein, “God has arrived. I met him on the 5:15 train.” Even someone, such as this writer, who thinks there are philosophical problems, can find himself fascinated by, even rapt in this kaleidoscopic portrait of a genius, a saint-like holy fool of philosophy who lived his philosophy to the uttermost.

15 Aug 2018

Socialism: A Political Solution to a Spiritual Problem

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Nathanael Blake has a good editorial explaining that the yen for Socialism really amounts to a category mistake.

The surge in socialism’s popularity among young Americans has little to do with the actual merits (or demerits) of the system, or even what it actually entails. Most seem to think it means a larger welfare state and taxing “the rich” a bit more. Rather, socialism’s allure is due to the families that are broken, the communities that are atomized, and the churches that are empty — often, sadly, because they betrayed their responsibilities to God and man.

The needs and desires that are met only by faith, family, and friendship are still part of the human condition. The current half-baked socialist revival is a category error, as it attempts a political and economic solution to a cultural and spiritual problem. But part of our crisis is the loss of the ability to think clearly about such matters, as exemplified by a generation that relies on the Harry Potter books for a shared moral language. This poverty of moral imagination and expression illuminates the spiritual and cultural desolation that prior generations created and bequeathed to their children.

As people seek a political solution for their spiritual and psychological dismay and distress, we see pathologies that used to afflict religious entities become manifest in politics. The sudden popularity of ersatz socialism is not because it offers a realistic plan of improvement, but because it sounds fair and compassionate while promising to relieve anxiety over economic uncertainty. That socialism will deliver on none of these promises is beside the point.

The concerns and anxieties that beset our culture will not be addressed only by reminders of material abundance provided by free market economics. Man does not live on technological miracles alone. Wealth will not satisfy us and assuage our anxieties; affordable airfare and iPhones will not save our souls. But as we look for that which will, we must remember the bounty lavished upon us. Our unhappiness rarely results from real material deprivation, and a socialist redistribution will do little to increase the sum of human happiness.

Only by bearing our material blessings in mind will we be able to think clearly about our desires for cultural, relational, and spiritual satisfaction.


20 Jul 2018

Nietszche’s Philosophic Writings Succinctly Summarized

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02 Jul 2018

The Illiberal Nietzsche is the Only One There is

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Drawing of Friedrich Nietzsche by Karl Bauer.

Post-modernist leftists have a habit of invoking Nietzsche as an authority justifying their nihilist rejection of the natural order and conventional morality, but, as Brian Leiter, writing in the Times Literary Supplement clearly understands, Nietzsche is not on the side of Ameliorism, Social Justice, or Egalitarianism in the least. Nietzsche is not a Leftist at all. Nietzsche is the most extreme aristocrat.

The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900) pursued two main themes in his work, one now familiar, even commonplace in modernity, the other still under-appreciated, often ignored. The familiar Nietzsche is the “existentialist”, who diagnoses the most profound cultural fact about modernity: “the death of God”, or more exactly, the collapse of the possibility of reasonable belief in God. Belief in God – in transcendent meaning or purpose, dictated by a supernatural being – is now incredible, usurped by naturalistic explanations of the evolution of species, the behaviour of matter in motion, the unconscious causes of human behaviours and attitudes, indeed, by explanations of how such a bizarre belief arose in the first place. But without God or transcendent purpose, how can we withstand the terrible truths about our existence, namely, its inevitable suffering and disappointment, followed by death and the abyss of nothingness?

Nietzsche the “existentialist” exists in tandem with an “illiberal” Nietzsche, one who sees the collapse of theism and divine teleology as tied fundamentally to the untenability of the entire moral world view of post-Christian modernity. If there is no God who deems each human to be of equal worth or possessed with an immortal soul beloved by God, then why think we all deserve equal moral consideration? And what if, as Nietzsche argues, a morality of equality – and altruism and pity for suffering – were, in fact, an obstacle to human excellence? What if being a “moral” person makes it impossible to be Beethoven? Nietzsche’s conclusion is clear: if moral equality is an obstacle to human excellence, then so much the worse for moral equality. This is the less familiar and often shockingly anti-egalitarian Nietzsche. …

Nietzsche’s central objection to morality is more radical and illiberal: any culture dominated by Judeo-Christian morality, or other ascetic or life-denying moralities, will be one inhospitable to the realization of human excellence. What if, as he says in On the Genealogy of Morality, “morality itself were to blame if the highest power and splendor possible to the type man was never in fact attained? So that morality itself was the danger of dangers?”

Consider his objection to moral views that demand that we eliminate suffering and promote happiness. In Dawn, he writes, “Are we not, with this tremendous objective of obliterating all the sharp edges of life, well on the way to turning mankind into sand? Sand! Small, soft, round, unending sand! Is that your ideal, you heralds of the sympathetic affections?” In Beyond Good and Evil a few years later, he objects to utilitarians that, “Well-being as you understand it – that is no goal, that seems to us an end, a state that soon makes man ridiculous and contemptible . . . . ”

Does a focus on happiness really make people “ridiculous and contemptible”? Nietzsche offers a more ambitious explanation in Beyond Good and Evil:

The discipline of suffering, of great suffering – do you not know that only this discipline has created all enhancements of man so far? That tension of the soul in unhappiness which cultivates its strength, its shudders face to face with great ruin, its inventiveness and courage in enduring, persevering, interpreting, and exploiting suffering, and whatever has been granted to it of profundity, secret, mask, spirit, cunning, greatness – was it not granted to it through suffering, through the discipline of great suffering?

Most suffering is nothing more than misery for its subject, and most happy “comfortable” people are not exemplars of human excellence. Nietzsche surely knew this. (He was no “tourist” when it came to suffering – even before his disability-related retirement from Basel in 1879 and continuing on until his final mental collapse in 1889, he suffered from excruciating physical maladies, probably due to untreated syphilis). What Nietzsche noticed is that suffering, at least in certain individuals (including himself), could be the stimulus to extraordinary creativity – one need only read a biography of Beethoven to see a paradigm example. But even if Nietzsche has correctly diagnosed the psychological mechanism at work, why should a morality of pity for suffering present an obstacle to sufferers realizing their creative potential? Nietzsche’s crucial thought is that in a culture committed to happiness and the elimination of suffering as its goal, nascent Nietzsches and Beethovens will squander their potential in pursuit of both those aims, rather than in pursuing creative work. After all, if it is bad to suffer, then all your efforts should be devoted to avoiding suffering; and if it is good to be happy, then, that should be the aim of everything you do. But human excellence is compatible with neither the pursuit of happiness nor the flight from suffering.

If Nietzsche’s speculative psychology is correct, then we arrive at a startling conclusion. In a hedonistic and sympathetic culture, which devalues suffering and prioritizes its relief, the glorious spectacle of human genius will be missing from the world: no Beethovens, Nietzsches or Goethes.


22 Feb 2018

Bertrand Russell on Ludwig Wittgenstein

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04 Dec 2017

A Chinese Look at the Western Elite

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Puzhong Yao.

Puzhong Yao was born in China, but has studied and worked at some of the most elite institutions in the West, and he still finds the mindset of the Western elite strange.

[L]ike the Evangelical Christians, my life was changed by a book. Specifically, Robert Rubin’s autobiography In an Uncertain World (Random House, 2003). Robert Rubin was Goldman Sachs’s senior partner and subsequently secretary of the Treasury. Only later did I learn that certain people in the United States revere him as something of a god.

I first bought the book because I was puzzled by the title, especially coming from a man who had achieved so much. I had always thought that things happen for reasons. My parents taught me that good people get rewarded while evil gets punished. My teachers at school taught me that if you work hard, you will succeed, and if you never try, you will surely fail. When I picked up the book, I was studying math at Cambridge University and, as I looked back at the standardized tests and intense study that had defined my life until then, I could see no uncertainty.

But since reading Rubin’s book, I have come to see the world differently. Robert Rubin never intended to become the senior partner of Goldman Sachs: a few years into his career, he even handed in his resignation. Just as in Rubin’s career, I find that maybe randomness is not merely the noise but the dominant factor. And those reasons we assign to historical events are often just ex post rationalizations. As rising generations are taught the rationalizations, they conclude that things always happen for a reason. Meanwhile, I keep wondering: is there someone, sitting in a comfortable chair somewhere, flipping a coin from time to time, deciding what happens in the world? …

I don’t claim to be a modern-day Alexis de Tocqueville, nor do I have much in common with this famous observer of American life. He grew up in Paris, a city renowned for its culture and architecture. I grew up in Shijiazhuang, a city renowned for being the headquarters of the company that produced toxic infant formula. He was a child of aristocrats; I am the child of modest workers.

Nevertheless, I hope my candid observations can provide some insights into the elite institutions of the West. Certain beliefs are as ubiquitous among the people I went to school with as smog was in Shijiazhuang. The doctrines that shape the worldviews and cultural assumptions at elite Western institutions like Cambridge, Stanford, and Goldman Sachs have become almost religious. Nevertheless, I hope that the perspective of a candid Chinese atheist can be of some instruction to them. …

It was the summer of 2000. I was 15, and I had just finished my high school entrance exam in China. I had made considerable improvements from where I started in first grade, when I had the second- worst grades in the class and had to sit at a desk perpendicular to the blackboard so that the teacher could keep a close eye on me. I had managed to become an average student in an average school. My parents by then had reached the conclusion that I was not going anywhere promising in China and were ready to send me abroad for high school. Contrary to all expectations, however, I got the best mark in my class and my school. The exam scores were so good that I ranked within the top ten among more than 100,000 students in the whole city. My teacher and I both assumed the score was wrong when we first heard it.

As a consequence, I got into the best class in the best school in my city, and thus began the most painful year of my life. My newfound confidence was quickly crushed when I saw how talented my new classmates were. In the first class, our math teacher announced that she would start from chapter four of the textbook, as she assumed, correctly, that most of us were familiar with the first three chapters and would find it boring to go through them again. Most of the class had been participating in various competitions in middle school and had become familiar with a large part of the high school syllabus already. Furthermore, they had also grown to know each other from those years of competitions together. And here I was, someone who didn’t know anything or anyone, surrounded by people who knew more to begin with, who were much smarter, and who worked just as hard as I did. What chance did I have?

During that year, I tried very hard to catch up: I gave up everything else and even moved somewhere close to the school to save time on the commute, but to no avail. Over time, going to school and competing while knowing I was sure to lose became torture. Yet I had to do it every day. At the end-of-year exam, I scored second from the bottom of the class—the same place where I began in first grade. But this time it was much harder to accept, after the glory I had enjoyed just one year earlier and the huge amount of effort I had put into studying this year. Finally, I threw in the towel, and asked my parents to send me abroad. Anywhere else on this earth would surely be better.

So I came to the UK in 2001, when I was 16 years old. Much to my surprise, I found the UK’s exam-focused educational system very similar to the one in China. What is more, in both countries, going to the “right schools” and getting the “right job” are seen as very important by a large group of eager parents. As a result, scoring well on exams and doing well in school interviews—or even the play session for the nursery or pre-prep school—become the most important things in the world. Even at the university level, the undergraduate degree from the University of Cambridge depends on nothing else but an exam at the end of the last year.

On the other hand, although the UK’s university system is considered superior to China’s, with a population that is only one-twentieth the size of my native country, competition, while tough, is less intimidating. For example, about one in ten applicants gets into Oxbridge in the UK, and Stanford and Harvard accept about one in twenty-five applicants. But in Hebei province in China, where I am from, only one in fifteen hundred applicants gets into Peking or Qinghua University.

Still, I found it hard to believe how much easier everything became. I scored first nationwide in the GCSE (high school) math exam, and my photo was printed in a national newspaper. I was admitted into Trinity College, University of Cambridge, once the home of Sir Isaac Newton, Francis Bacon, and Prince Charles. …

Warren Buffett has said that the moment one was born in the United States or another Western country, that person has essentially won a lottery. If someone is born a U.S. citizen, he or she enjoys a huge advantage in almost every aspect of life, including expected wealth, education, health care, environment, safety, etc., when compared to someone born in developing countries. For someone foreign to “purchase” these privileges, the price tag at the moment is $1 million dollars (the rough value of the EB-5 investment visa). Even at this price level, the demand from certain countries routinely exceeds the annual allocated quota, resulting in long waiting times. In that sense, American citizens were born millionaires!

Yet one wonders how long such luck will last. This brings me back to the title of Rubin’s book, his “uncertain world.” In such a world, the vast majority things are outside our control, determined by God or luck. After we have given our best and once the final card is drawn, we should neither become too excited by what we have achieved nor too depressed by what we failed to achieve. We should simply acknowledge the result and move on. Maybe this is the key to a happy life.

On the other hand, it seems odd that this should be the principal lesson of a Western education. In Communist China, I was taught that hard work would bring success. In the land of the American dream, I learned that success comes through good luck, the right slogans, and monitoring your own—and others’—emotions.


11 Sep 2017

Oh, No! Yale’s Philosophy Department Lacks “Diversity”

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Detail, Raphael, The School of Athens, 1509-1511, Apostolic Palace, Vatican. Seriously lacking in Diversity.

The OCD is reporting on another crucial problem at Yale.

Yale’s Philosophy Department… has historically been majority white and male.

Philosophy has struggled as a discipline to attract students from diverse backgrounds, and faculty and students within Yale’s Philosophy Department told the News that while the department is not as diverse as it could be in terms of racial and gender makeup or curricular offerings, ongoing efforts to remedy the problem are a cause for optimism.

“[Lack of diversity] has inspired a lot of soul-searching in the discipline in recent years,” said Joanna Demaree-Cotton GRD ’21, co-coordinator of Yale’s chapter of Minorities and Philosophy which works to combat issues faced by minorities in academia. “Lots of departments, including ours at Yale, have started asking tough questions about the cause of this drop-off in the representation of women and racial minorities, and how we might go about ameliorating the problem.” …

“There is no question that as a field, philosophy is significantly less diverse nationally in terms of race and gender than we would like it be,” said Stephen Darwall, philosophy professor and former department chair.

He said that 2 percent of philosophy graduate students at Yale are black, and that there are no black faculty members currently in the department. …

Gender disparities also persist at the faculty level. Darwall said that five out of 18 philosophy ladder faculty, or 28 percent, are women. He added that the department focuses on identifying and recruiting talented women and philosophers of color to the doctoral program.


For a Philosophy Department anywhere to fail to conform to contemporary notions of “Diversity” ought not to be surprising in the least.

In the first place, anyone sufficiently intellectually competent to study Philosophy could not possibly avoid noticing that Diversity as presently defined is a purely arbitrary and fundamentally bogus concept. Only identity groups identified with political grievances count toward Diversity. Nobody cares how many Appalachian hillbillies, Swedes, Belgians, Corsicans, Lithuanians, Eskimos, or Tibetans are studying Philosophy at Yale. Only identity groups with a litany of complaints and power-seeking political agendas count.

Many students of Philosophy these days take a particular interest in the philosophical thought of Friedrich Nietszche. Anyone adequately read in Nietszche cannot possibly avoid recognizing in “Diversity” what the great philosopher identified as “the slave revolt in morality,” the inversion of values, and the cynical and calculating attempt of the base and unworthy to gain power over their betters through the exploitation of their charity and benevolence. Anyone familiar with Zur Genealogie der Moral (1887) can hardly avoid identifing “Diversity” as nothing other than Ressentiment deceptively packaged for purposes of marketing.

(Disclosure: NYM’s proprietor was a white, male Philosophy major at Yale.)

25 Apr 2017

Robert Maynard Pirsig (6 September 1928 – 24 April 2017)

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Plato’s Chariot Metaphor as sculpture.

Plato, in the Phaedrus, conceives of the soul as having three parts: A rational part (the part that loves truth and knowledge, which should rule over the other parts of the soul through the use of reason). The Charioteer represents man’s Reason. A spirited part (which seeks glory, honor, recognition and victory). The white horse represents man’s spirit (thymos:θύμος). An appetitive part (which desires food, drink, material wealth and sex). The black horse represents man’s appetites.

Robert M. Pirsig died yesterday.

Recovering from a nervous breakdown, Pirsig, back in the 1970s, crafted a brilliant book memorializing his own deceased former personality (referred to in the third person as “Phaedrus”), and dispensing Buddhistic enlightenment mixed with Plato in the course of a grand road trip. His title was a clever take-off from the 1953 surprise best-seller Zen in the Art of Archery by Eugene Herrigel, a landmark classic in the 1950s Beats’ love affair with Zen.

NPR wrote:

Robert M. Pirsig, who inspired generations to road trip across America with his “novelistic autobigraphy,” Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, died Monday at the age of 88.

His publisher William Morrow & Company said in a statement that Pirsig died at his home in South Berwick, Maine, “after a period of failing health.” …

Zen was published in 1974, after being rejected by 121 publishing houses. “The book is brilliant beyond belief,” wrote Morrow editor James Landis before publication. “It is probably a work of genius and will, I’ll wager, attain classic status.”

Indeed, the book quickly became a best-seller, and has proved enduring as a work of popular philosophy. A 1968 motorcycle trip across the West with his son Christopher was his inspiration.

Christopher Lehmann-Haupt reviewed Zen for The New York Times in 1974. “[H]owever impressive are the seductive powers with which Mr. Pirsig engages us in his motorcycle trip, they are nothing compared to the skill with which he interests us in his philosophic trip,” he wrote. “Mr. Pirsig may sometimes appear to be a greener‐America proselytizer, with his beard and his motorcycle tripping and his talk about learning to love technology. But when he comes to grips with the hard philosophical conundrums raised by the 1960’s, he can be electrifying.”

Pirsig was born in Minneapolis, the son of a University of Minnesota law professor. He graduated from high school at 15 and enlisted in the Army after World War II. While stationed in South Korea, he encountered the Asian philosophies that would underpin his work. He went on to study Hindu philosophy in India and for a time was enrolled in a philosophy Ph.D. program at the University of Chicago. He was hospitalized for mental illness and returned to Minneapolis, where he worked as a technical writer and began writing his first book.

A quotation from ZAMM:

That’s all the motorcycle is, a system of concepts worked out in steel. There’s no part in it, no shape in it, that is not out of someone’s mind. …

I’ve noticed that people who have never worked with steel have trouble seeing this—that the motorcycle is primarily a mental phenomenon. They associate metal with given shapes—pipes, rods, girders, tools, parts—all of them fixed and inviolable, and think of it as primarily physical. But a person who does machining or foundry work or forge work or welding sees “steel” as having no shape at all. Steel can be any shape you want if you are skilled enough, and any shape but the one you want if you are not. …

These shapes are all out of someone’s mind. That’s important to see. The steel? Hell, even the steel is out of someone’s mind. There’s no steel in nature. Anyone from the Bronze Age could have told you that. All nature has is a potential for steel. There’s nothing else there. But what’s “potential”? That’s also in someone’s mind!

26 Jul 2016

Tractatus-Logico-Philosophicus as Graphic Novel

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By Nathan Wainstein

20 Apr 2016

Philosophic Insults

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That skunk Heidegger

From Scientific Philospher (who mentions 30, but only list 10 and offers no link, but I found them at Flavorwire).

Bertrand Russell on Aristotle
“I do not agree with Plato, but if anything could make me do so, it would be Aristotle’s arguments against him.”

Jean-Paul Sartre on Albert Camus
“Camus… a mix of melancholy, conceit and vulnerability on your part has always deterred people from telling you unvarnished truths. The result is that you have fallen prey to a gloomy immoderation that conceals your inner difficulties and which you refer to, I believe, as Mediterranean moderation. Sooner or later, someone would have told you this, so it might as well be me.”

Camille Paglia on Michel Foucault
“The truth is that Foucault knew very little about anything before the seventeenth century and, in the modern world, outside France. His familiarity with the literature and art of any period was negligible. His hostility to psychology made him incompetent to deal with sexuality, his own or anybody else’s. … The more you know, the less you are impressed by Foucault.” …

Bertrand Russell on Georg Hegel
“Hegel’s philosophy is so odd that one would not have expected him to be able to get sane men to accept it, but he did. He set it out with so much obscurity that people thought it must be profound. It can quite easily be expounded lucidly in words of one syllable, but then its absurdity becomes obvious.”

Noam Chomsky on Slavoj Žižek
“There’s no ‘theory’ in any of this stuff, not in the sense of theory that anyone is familiar with in the sciences or any other serious field. Try to find… some principles from which you can deduce conclusions, empirically testable propositions where it all goes beyond the level of something you can explain in five minutes to a 12-year-old. See if you can find that when the fancy words are decoded. I can’t. So I’m not interested in that kind of posturing. Žižek is an extreme example of it. I don’t see anything to what he’s saying.”

Slavoj Žižek on Noam Chomsky
“Well, with all deep respect that I do have for Chomsky, my… point is that Chomsky, who always emphasizes how one has to be empirical, accurate… well, I don’t think I know a guy who was so often empirically wrong.”

Karl Popper on Ludwig Wittgenstein
“Not to threaten visiting lecturers with pokers.” (On being challenged by a poker-wielding Wittgenstein to produce an example of a moral rule; the discussion degenerated quickly from there.)

Karl Popper on Martin Heidegger
“I appeal to the philosophers of all countries to unite and never again mention Heidegger or talk to another philosopher who defends Heidegger. This man was a devil. I mean, he behaved like a devil to his beloved teacher, and he has a devilish influence on Germany… One has to read Heidegger in the original to see what a swindler he was.”

Arthur Schopenhauer on Georg Hegel
“Hegel, installed from above, by the powers that be, as the certified Great Philosopher, was a flat-headed, insipid, nauseating, illiterate charlatan who reached the pinnacle of audacity in scribbling together and dishing up the craziest mystifying nonsense.”

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