All posts filed under: Philosophy

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) …

In-Groups, Out-Groups, and the IDW

Over the past year or so, Sam Harris and Ezra Klein spent several tweets, a dozen emails, and a two-hour podcast vehemently disagreeing with one another. The ostensible cause of this disagreement was a dispute about whether or not there’s a genetic component to the black-white IQ gap in the US. However, neither was willing to commit to a concrete position on the issue. Both danced around the actual claim while deferring to various experts who may or may not suggest that a genetic component is more or less probable. Did they disagree about Charles Murray? In the podcast, Klein says that he opposes Murray’s social policies but allows that Murray is “a lovely guy interpersonally” who should not be silenced. Sam Harris agrees that Murray is a good guy who shouldn’t be silenced but caveats that “his social policies are not social policies I’m advocating.” So, what are these men actually disagreeing about? In a thorough analysis of the Harris-Klein controversy, John Nerst suggests that what is actually at issue is whether the discussion …

The Emergence and Rise of Postmodern Conservatism

Few things agitate today’s intellectually informed conservatives and classical liberals like postmodern theory and its concretization in identity politics. In an article for the National Review back in 2014, Victor Hanson of the Hoover Institute compared postmodernism to “poison,” and decried falling standards of “truth and falsity.” Jordan Peterson has characterized postmodernism as dangerous, and identity politics as a kind of self-pitying victimization. In my home country of Canada, Rex Murphy of the right leaning National Post has characterized movements oriented around identity politics as “intolerant” and their participants as a “mob.” In Britain, Roger Scruton accused postmodern intellectuals of destroying “high culture” be effacing aesthetic standards. And so the litany goes on. It would be impossible to itemize the details of all these varied criticisms here. Instead, I will summarize them before moving on to the main topic of this essay: the emergence of postmodern conservatism and identity politics. The locus of many conservative criticisms of postmodernism seems to be twofold. Firstly, conservatives are concerned with the theoretical consequences of postmodern theory. In less sophisticated critiques, …

Can Liberalism Survive?

The political situation throughout Europe and North America has become increasingly volatile. For decades, a pro-business centre-right and a pro-labour centre-left have combined to dominate politics in most Western countries, allowing for a steady political situation with only modest changes between election cycles. Yet in recent years, this stability has come under pressure. Deutsche Bank’s Populism Index, updated after the recent Italian election, indicates that voter support for populist parties across key European countries is at its highest level since World War II, at over 30%. The Timbro Authoritarian Populism Index is more modest, measuring populist support last year at around 20%, having doubled since 1980. These figures might even underestimate dissatisfaction with the status quo. During the 2016 U.S. election, both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders ran distinctively anti-establishment campaigns from within the established parties, meaning that voters didn’t need to shift parties to express their dissatisfaction. Trump has continued much of his anti-establishment rhetoric even after becoming president, and the Democratic Party has seen a surge in more left-leaning candidates who are convinced …

Two Arguments for Inequality

Social inequality is amongst the most contentious and prominent social issues in the twenty-first century. After declining significantly in the mid-twentieth century, inequality has now reached stark levels. A recent Credit Suisse report indicated that the globe’s richest 1 percent are on track to own half of the world’s wealth. In November 2017, Forbes reported that the three wealthiest Americans now own more wealth than the bottom 160 million. The disparity between those who have a great deal, and those with much less, has grown so stark that in his bestselling book Capital in the Twenty-First Century economist Thomas Piketty warned that we might be entering a new “Gilded Age.” It would be driven by a global class of individuals who enjoy vast inherited wealth, demonstrate little allegiance to the nation state and its tax laws, and commit themselves to further entrenching their social power. These prompts raise the question of what can possibly justify such stark inequities; especially in a global context where the World Bank estimates that in 2013 roughly 767 million individuals lived on …