All posts filed under: Philosophy

Does Progress Exist?

I should start with a caveat. This article discusses an issue which reaches well beyond the scope of a couple of thousand words or so, and as such will provoke questions and challenges which cannot be addressed within these limits. The argument presented, being downstream of some more fundamental principles not covered here, is necessarily incomplete, and therefore I don’t mean to present it as a slam-dunk refutation of progress (it falls well short of that), but merely as a curio; a piece of argumentation that hopefully amuses even as you conjure ways to disagree with it. Moreover, contrary to the ‘anti-progress’ tenor of much that follows, I actually mean to provide a template that allows for more effective innovation—a consequence that I hope will become clear by the end of the piece. So, does progress exist? Clearly I’m going to argue that it does not, since otherwise this would be a pretty redundant piece. However I should point out up front that this isn’t to say that things can’t get better, and haven’t been …

Why Should We Be Good?

Today we are witnessing an irrepressible and admirable pushback against the specters of ‘cultural relativism’ and moral ‘nihilism.’ On the Right, thinkers such as Patrick Deneen and Jordan Peterson have responded to an increasingly cynical postmodern culture by arguing for a return to traditionalist and/or local values. More centrist thinkers such as Steven Pinker and Sam Harris have argued for a return to the Enlightenment’s emphasis on using reason and its handmaiden, empirical science, to develop an ever more objective set of ethical norms. And even on the far-Left, radical thinkers such as Alain Badiou and Slavoj Zizek have levelled scathing attacks against postmodern relativism and ‘totalitarian’ identity politics, calling for a return to ethics properly understood: Indeed, relativism and the moral nihilism with which it is often affiliated, seems to be in retreat everywhere. For many observers and critics, this is a wholly positive development since both have the corrosive effect of undermining ethical certainty. I think there are two motivations behind this disdain for relativism and moral nihilism: one of which is negative …

What Jordan Peterson Gets Wrong About the Beatitudes

During an appearance on Joe Rogan’s podcast The Rogan Experience in January, Jordan Peterson turned to the beatitudes offered by Christ in his Sermon on the Mount. The unhelpful notion that the meek would inherit the earth, Peterson explained, rests on a misunderstanding of what Christ actually said: …“Meek” [πραΰς] is not a good translation, or the word has moved in the 300 years [sic] or so since it was translated. What it means is this: ‘Those who have swords, and know how to use them, but keep them sheathed, shall inherit the world’…that’s a big difference.”1 Let it be said at the outset that I like this image of an effective person. It is a very definite image. To paraphrase Peterson, it is a person who has taken the time to become dangerous, who is dangerous, and who won’t be a victim of mayhem because they’ve got a bit of mayhem inside themselves. The problem isn’t with this idea of effectual personhood. The problem is that Peterson is claiming that the Bible endorses the same …

‘Cultural Marxism’ Explained and Re-Evaluated

It has become a common trope to decry the prevalence of ‘Cultural Marxism’ in the academy as well as in wider Western culture. Jordan Peterson has gone so far as to say that Cultural Marxism threatens the very bedrock of Western civilization. Although the concept gets thrown around quite a lot in contemporary discourse, it is rarely defined in clear terms. And when it is defined, too often it is caricatured for ideological purposes by both the Left and Right. Although any attempt to explain and evaluate a contested phenomenon like Cultural Marxism is bound to be biased to some extent, a reasoned re-assessment uncoupled from polemic is overdue. Although ‘Cultural Marxism’ is in no sense a monolithic entity (we might be better off speaking of Cultural Marxisms), what defines it as a social theory, essentially, is a certain theoretical presupposition: that culture (ideas, religious beliefs, values, etc.) is in the last instance determined by one’s position in a class or social hierarchy. Or, in Marxist terms, the superstructure (in this case, what I am …

The Indispensable Study of Inescapable Matters

Philosophy is not merely practical; it is the most practical discipline of all. Indeed, philosophy is so practical that it is indispensable. To know why, it is necessary to know what philosophy is. In the Western tradition, philosophy is subdivided into five branches: metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, politics, and aesthetics. Metaphysics is the starting point of any individual’s entire corpus of knowledge. Metaphysics begins with the axioms at the base of knowledge, and encompasses ideas pertaining to the basic nature of the world. These ideas include existence, consciousness, and their relation; entity, identity, attribute, change, and action; the nature of causality; and the nature and extent of free will. In short, metaphysics develops explicitly the basic concepts that are implicit in the very concept of knowledge. Epistemology is the theory of knowledge, that is, the method of knowing. Epistemology addresses how to take the evidence of your senses and form concepts, statements, sequences of statements, and a corpus of knowledge that is organized, non-contradictory, readily applicable to new situations, and conducive to the discovery of new …

Post-Postmodernism on the Left

Postmodernism has never been as unpopular as it is today, especially on the right of the political spectrum. Often, conservative critics can be heard to blame left-wing ‘postmodern neo-Marxists’ and ‘cultural Marxism’ for the emergence of a vitriolic identity politics that eschews a commitment to truth, reason, and dialogue. Left-wing postmodernists are seen as undermining truth, reason, and dialogue by criticizing these values as ideological ‘myths’ designed to reinforce white male privilege, Western colonialism, and so on. The specter of left-wing postmodernism is also invoked as one of the forces undermining the confidence of the West, leading us to submit to dangerous and illiberal groups around the globe. Some even go so far as to claim that, in allegedly promoting a fundamentally collectivist philosophy qua the Soviet Union, left-wing postmodernists are proto-Totalitarians waiting for their opportunity to quash all dissent. On this reading, the philosophy which guides the utterances of a transsexual rights activist in the United States and a Maoist revolutionary in China, are one and the same and just as dangerous in principle: …

Racism and Underdetermination by Evidence

This week, Starbucks will be shutting down 8000 of its stores for one day. Employees at these locations will undergo anti-discrimination training, including arguably dubious efforts to combat implicit bias. And all of this is a response to the recent arrest of Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson—both black men in their twenties—at a Philadelphia Starbucks, which triggered widespread condemnation and accusations that a culture of anti-black prejudice pervades the coffee chain. Slightly different accounts of the incident have been given by different news outlets, but something like the following sequence of events seems to have taken place. Upon arriving at the Starbucks in Rittenhouse Square, Mr Nelson asked to use the restroom. Permission was refused by the manager, who told him that the facilities were for paying customers only. Mr Nelson and Mr Robinson then took a seat at a table. The manager asked them if she could bring them drinks or water, and they declined, saying they were waiting to meet someone. Mr Nelson and Mr Robinson were then asked to leave by the manager, on …

Why Sam Harris—Not Ezra Klein—Is the One Making Space for People of Colour

The demand that we transcend tribalism in public debate sits on the schism line of today’s culture wars over speech, scholarship and art. On one side (loosely, if inexactly, called “the left”), there exists a deep conviction that the social justice sins of the past (and present) make an escape from tribalism impossible—and so the only solution is to carve out well-guarded silos of speech and cultural representation for disadvantaged groups. On the other side (loosely, if inexactly, called “the right”) are those who view those silos as a tool of censorship, as well as an affront to the idea that we all can speak for ourselves as individuals, regardless of skin color, sexual orientation, gender and faith. This conflict took center stage during a recent high-profile Munk Debate in Toronto, which had been billed as a debate about the dangers of political correctness. Two of the biggest reactions from the 3,000-strong audience came in response to Georgetown University’s Michael Eric Dyson (representing “the left”) referring to psychologist Jordan Peterson as a “mean, mad white …

Postmodern Theory Returns to Continental Europe

The infusion of much of the social science and humanities scholarship in the Anglosphere by egalitarian social justice concerns is a much-discussed phenomenon. Less often noticed is an important distinction between overtly activist disciplines such as gender and postcolonial studies, on the one hand, and disciplines that are not intrinsically militant such as education, sociology, and literature, on the other, where intellectual uniformity has nevertheless allowed for the construction of an increasingly biased, insular, and empirically dubious body of scholarship. This scholarship draws heavily from the ideas of French poststructuralism and ‘continental’ European philosophy more broadly. However, it has gained a larger influence in the United States and other anglophone countries than on the continent. It has been hypothesised that this success has been due to the unique political context of post-war America, or that the then-new poststructuralist framework developed by a handful of French writers faced much less competition because Marxism was less entrenched in American academia than in Europe. Faculty in continental Europe already overwhelming lean left in the social sciences and humanities, …

Three Justifications for Liberalism

In his 1988 article “Unger’s Philosophy: A Critical Legal Study” William B. Ewald criticized young leftwing up-and-comer Roberto Unger for his simplistic characterization of liberalism.  Unger was one of the key founders of the critical legal studies movement, which philosophically oriented itself around his 1975 book Knowledge and Politics. In this seminal text, published when the author was only 28, Unger develops a systematic “total criticism” of liberal doctrines. He runs through broad interpretations of liberal psychology and liberal politics, arguing that these constitute a unified doctrine which “total criticism” largely knocks apart. In his response, Ewald argued that while Unger was often creative and occasionally brilliant, he had badly mischaracterized liberalism. Far from being a unified doctrine, liberalism had historically been justified from a number of different philosophical perspectives. This made it far less vulnerable to “total criticism” than authors like Unger supposed. Indeed, it was quite hard to even pin down what liberalism was in a concrete sense. As Ewald eloquently put it: Even at the level of concrete political discourse, the term (liberalism) …