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On Tuck Everlasting

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 01/12/2020 - 12:17am in

"Know what happens then?" said Tuck. "To the water? The sun sucks some of it up right out of the ocean and carries it back in clouds, and then it rains, and the rain falls into the stream, and the stream keeps moving on, taking it all back again. It's a wheel, Winnie. Everything's a wheel, turning and turning, never stopping. The frogs is part of it, and the bugs, and the fish, and the wood thrush, too. And people. But never the same ones. Always coming in new, always growing and changing, and always moving on. That's the way it's supposed to be. That's the way it is."--Natalie Babbit (1975) Tuck Everlasting

When my son, now almost 11, first went to school, I had to get used to the fact that he was not especially forthcoming with what happened during the day. I learned that certain directed questions might make a difference, but he quickly and repeatedly alerted me to the fact that I ask too many questions. (Another way my occupation deforms me, I thought ruefully many times.) 

Since, I have been well trained to accept any information about his day from any source with gratitude. I have also learned to read signs of distress or success in oblique fashion. 

I don't want to suggest that I never learn anything at all about what goes on in school. For instance, a recent book they read in class -- Peter Pan -- was deemed boring and stupid

It is not because he dislikes reading. Our son is a voracious reader. While we are a rather bookish family, I have been, in fact, astonished by the speed with which he reads and the complexity of the material he assimilates. (Okay, I am a proud dad!) He reads so fast that he is perpetually running out of things to read. But despite the fact that he frequently faces a serious search problem, he is quite adamant that our suggestions won't do. (So, he and I most frequently bond over films and football, not books.)

The other day I was, thus, quite surprised that he recommended a book to me: Tuck Everlasting. I learned they also are reading it in class. When I asked him why he recommended it to me, his answer surprised me: it's very philosophical. But after that enticing morsel little else was forthcoming. 

I had never heard of the book. And I was amazed to learn that it had sold millions and was turned into numerous feature films. I suddenly felt very sheltered. It turns out my spouse was convinced she had read it and still owned a copy. After a fruitless search, and a repeated nudging from our son to me to read it, I ordered it online and read it Saturday.

Now, nearly all books I read I encounter with a reputation attached to it. I either know the author personally or by reputation; it's a classic I should have read or a work central to debates in my field; or it's a novel I have heard about (through reviews or word or mouth) or that has been gifted to me with some kind of comment. And in writing these sentences I realized it is, in fact, incredibly rare that I read a book without any sense of what I might expect.  

When I was a late teen-ager a family friend, Marion Zilversmit, gave me a paperback copy of Paul Auster's New York Trilogy. I am not sure whether it was for my birthday or a goodbye gift for my departure for college Stateside. For some reason I did not read it initially. And so it stayed in my room in Amsterdam, where I found it after I returned my freshman year. I took it with me in a backpack following the Dutch team around Italy for the world cup in 1990. 

After the (horrible) game against England in Cagliari, where all fans were treated as dangerous animals -- the police used tear-gas indiscriminately --, I found myself alone on the deck of a freight boat returning some of us to Palermo. The fans were packed in and the boat reeked of alcohol and piss. I found a spot on the upper deck, and started reading Auster through the night under the mediterranean sky. When I look back on it, I only see the romance because Auster took me into a vastly more fascinating and stimulating world than the one I was sailing; the smell and disgust are evaporated. 

The first major surprise of Tuck Everlasting is the incredibly abstract, even mythical style that is achieved at once:

The first week of August hangs at the very top of summer, the top of the live-long year, like the highest seat of a Ferris wheel when it pauses in its turning. The weeks that come before are only a climb from balmy spring, and those that follow a drop to the chill of autumn, but the first week of August is motionless, and hot. It is curiously silent, too, with blank white dawns and glaring noons, and sunsets smeared with too much color.

Yes, my brain knows that this is strictly false in the Southern hemisphere and, in some sense, unintelligible prior to the building of the first ferris wheels. But simultaneously it feels like I have just assimilated a truth eternal. This sense is heightened by the next sentence with starts with an "Often..."

After I read the book my son pointed out to me, while we were on an errand, that Babbit's descriptions are simultaneously lively ("glaring noons") and austere ("silent," "blank"); that when you read it, you have to do a lot of work imagining what's going on, but this work of imagining does not feel like work. I recognize part of the point and whisper, we co-construct the story, as it were, with the author. He squeezes my hand. 

A second major surprise of my reading Tuck Everlasting is when I recognize (I hope he forgives me for sharing this) my son's recent bedtime questions to me in a passage early in Chapter 1:

The ownership of land is an odd thing when you come to think of it. How deep, after all, can it go? If a person owns a piece of land, does he own it all the way down, in ever narrowing dimensions, till it meets all other pieces at the center of the earth? Or does ownership consist only of a thin crust under which the friendly worms have never heard of trespassing?”

At the time he did not disguise his disappointment with the inadequacy of my responses (something about local jurisprudence, scarcity, innate commitments) to his questions. I hope to do better some day.

The other day, I asked him if he wants to talk about Tuck Everlasting (which is a rather violent book). No. Did he identify with the main protagonist (also a single child around his age). No. I could tell I was risking asking too many questions. We eventually negotiated a compromise that I could write a digression about it.

That concessions feels like a pyrrhic victory here; what to say now?

You, perceptive reader, will have noticed that eternal return and heracleitan flux are key themes in Tuck Everlasting. And I don't share any spoilers if I say that the plot is accelerated by ordinary decisions about what to do with dangerous secrets that take on weight in virtue of the possibility of eternal return. 

And then, as I am contemplating a post about how Frodo has to leave Middle Earth, and wondering if I have written that already, and before I realize what's happening, I recognize something else my son was telling me, but hadn't heard; if he and I both co-construct the story while reading it, there is a sense we have not read the same story at all. And while I reflect on this, I discern that asking about the version he is constructing with Babbit would be a way of grabbing illicitly what's now his




On Plagiarism in History of Philosophy

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 12/11/2020 - 9:51pm in


art, autobiography

The current affair, which extends far beyond the pages of Vivarium, raises the traditional concerns of academic plagiarism, as well as some novel considerations. As with many cases in the past, the theft of material denies the rightful author of the credit deserved and unfairly gives the pretending author an advantage in an increasingly competitive market. As editors, we are bound first and foremost to maintain the integrity of the journal, and that requires us to document, clearly and extensively, cases where that integrity has been compromised. At the same time, the practice of academic stealing is constantly evolving alongside the countermeasures deployed to catch it, and making public the methods and techniques used in contemporary cases of unattributed copying should help future editors and scholars identify the cases that we collectively missed.
We do not enjoy performing our duty. For marginal fields such as those served by Vivarium, we have seen from experience that the damage wreaked by plagiarism extends to institutions, bringing vulnerable positions, departments, and institutes to the attention of administrators eager to let the rationale of collective punishment direct the evisceration of budgets in Social Sciences and the Humanities. Our colleagues in adjacent fields will seize upon public cases of misconduct as an opportunity to reallocate scarce resources in their favor, thereby ensuring that those who previously lost out to plagiarists in competition for fellowships and positions lose out once again. Yet we believe that it would be worse for the field were we to ignore the accusations, cast doubt on the charges, and claim that the damage done were minimal.
For these reasons, we present examples of what we know about the incidents of unattributed copying in Vivarium.-- The Editors of Vivarium "Notice The Retraction of Articles Due to Plagiarism" 256-257 [emphases added; see also: Dailynous]

Let me start with a note of appreciation. The editors of Vivarium, C. Schabel and William Duba, were contacted in July this year about the suspicion of plagiarism of papers in the journal. It is a good thing that, despite all the strains of the pandemic, they quickly decided to investigate, to take action, and to report. Their clearly written report leaves no doubt that retraction was merited. In fact, since they limited themselves "to verbatim copying of material available to us in digital form" (256) it stands to reason their report understates the problems they found or could have found.* I am grateful for their speedy and forthright Notice. As a regular reader of retractionwatch, my impression is that this is not always the norm, alas.

Their Notice reveals that two of the retracted papers were re-published (now retracted) in a collected volume of papers, The Instant of Change in Medieval Philosophy and Beyond, co-edited by the plagiarist and published at Brill (the same press that publishes Vivarium). This volume also includes a chapter by one of the co-editors of Vivarium. While these details do not justify the claim that the field is (and now I use the editors' language) "marginal," they do give a sense of some of the relatively narrow overlapping circles in the field. While I think of myself as being in an adjoining field, I did host the author of these plagiarized papers in a seminar series back in 2015

In the emphasized part of the Notice, the editors of Vivarium present the zero-sum, cut-throat nature of academic life in incredibly stark terms of political economy. In fact,they convey the thought -- I think (and hope) unintentionally -- that their decision to publish the retraction and the details of the case as itself the product of cost-benefit analysis of alternative possibilities ("it would be worse for the field were we to ignore the accusations, cast doubt on the charges, and claim that the damage done were minimal.") I assume they primarily acted from duty.

Even so, the editorial notice is also a missed opportunity. For, this is the second major plagiarism case (see also here) to hit the field in less than a decade. Back in the day,  I blogged quite a bit about the earlier case (e.g., here). At the time I noted that given its egregiousness, "the referee process is broken in rather serious fashion." As several high profile hoaxes, and the pages of retractionwatch, suggest refereeing is unlikely to catch all forms of fraud. But it is less likely to catch it, I fear, in a field that feels itself under threat in a low trust environment (as the editors describe) and with relatively small and potentially competitive networks that do not just compete for status and journal space, but also for scarce positions.

In particular, since scholars in the field must have familiarity with an enormous span of history of primary and secondary sources in multiple languages, it stands to reason that staying on top of the field is very difficult. Since referees are themselves stretched for time and, if my experience is anything to go by, swamped with referee requests (while writing this blog post I received two!), I wonder if I could catch the plagiarism or am myself stretched too thin to miss it. (I have often suggested in my reports that papers are ungenerous to others, but I do not recall catching outright plagiarism as a referee whereas as a teacher it is not uncommon, alas.) 

The issue is structural, and it is not just overworked referees or the side-effects of possible journal capture.

In particular, my university has incredibly fine-grained book-keeping for my 'output.' It also tracks my hours spent on teaching, admin, and research. (Yes, really. It's meant to be a fairness issue so that we all do our fair share.) But refereeing goes almost entirely uncredited in this system. (Stateside it may count a bit as service to the profession.) Even though in many ways universities, and not to forget grant agencies, which play a huge role even in the Humanities in Europe, free-ride on the evaluative judgments of anonymous journal referees (and less anonymous, editors) in a lot of their decisions. One often feels that judgments of quality are largely outsourced to referees of, especially, high status journals. That itself tells you quite a bit (go read Trust in Numbers) about how low-trust the environment is.

I have mentioned grant agencies in the previous paragraph. These greatly amplify the zero-sum nature of academic life in European humanities. Since grant funding in the humanities (and social sciences) is incredibly tight (with very low chances of success and with a tendency to reward bullshitting), these agencies pick winners whose careers get an enormous boost (jobs, invites, more research time, etc.), while those that are passed over find themselves without resources to pursue ordinary research. For much of the past decade, there was also a clear bias toward quantity of publication. (Supposedly that's changing.)

So, the credit structure of the academy is a very steep prestige and economic hierarchy where the agencies most responsible for accelerating one's move up or down the hierarchy farm out the evaluation of the 'input' into their analysis (journal publication) to the nearly uncredited work by overworked and anonymous referees. And these referees often have an indirect incentive to promote the work of people they trust and admire and who enhance their own work/states or their network in the field. This predictably leads to possibly unfair rejections and, perhaps, too much benefit of the doubt in other cases. In the past I have offered suggestions to improve the process, but with little noticeable effect. So much for political economy.

In a famous piece, Agnes Callard claims, drawing on a paper by Brian L. Frye that I have not read, that "in academia the immorality of plagiarism is one of the few principles everyone converges on." Not unlike Seneca, Callard wants to reject the (what she calls an "extralegal") principle or "convention." With Callard I agree that it is a mistake to confuse this principle/convention with morality. And I am open to the idea that in some areas of intellectual life, things might go better without giving credit. As a scholar I am familiar with robust practices of anonymous and pseudonymous publication (and I have been very uneasy about recent practice of unmasking pseudonymous publication in instances where the only fraud is the fake name.) And, not to put too fine point on it, these Digressions are all written not just without advertisement, but also without attribution (although I have never made it difficult to guess my identity).

Callard has a tendency to treat the norm (that she rejects) against plagiarism as a violation of intellectual property, which is another feature of the political economy of higher ed. (Brill is a for-profit press.) And she points out that this sits uneasily with university life more generally which she, not unfairly, treats as a deformed honour culture. And in fact she offers a tempting genealogy of error: "We academics cannot make much money off the papers and books in which we express our ideas, and ideas cannot be copyrighted, so we have invented a moral law that offers us the “property rights” the legal system denies us." In her genealogy of error, the norm (mistakenly treated as moral) against plagiarism is correction to a kind of market failure ("cannot make much money").

Perhaps Callard is right about this for much of academic life. But some areas of intellectual life, especially those influenced, in part, by (of course evolving norms and standards of) philology, are constituted by scholarship and the art by which one conveys that scholarship. And plagiarism is, then, not, as it were, a second order effect of market failure, but a violation of the rules that do not merely constrain, but constitute the field. It's not just cheating (breaking the rules) or disrupting the market in ideas and the wider academic credit economy, but one has decided to play an altogether different game or to act in a different play. 

To put the point I am driving at by way of analogy. Lots of philosophers think that argument is constitutive of philosophy. I have protested this, but I know I am in the minority. If there is no argument there is no philosophy. This is why much wisdom, or insight, or intellectual history is not treated as philosophy by professional philosophers.

So, much the worse for professionals, Callard might say, and for good measure she might make fun of Max Weber, too. It's clear she thinks, and again this echoes Seneca (who undoubtedly is echoing true sages), that what matters in one's intellectual life is not the proper apportioning of credit. She suggests plausibly that to appropriate is to change one's identity, possibly, for the better. Philosophically and morally that's often true. 

But it is not true in scholarship. For all I know none of the functional arguments for proper citation can withstand scrutiny. Perhaps scholarship would be socially more productive and less dangerous for the psyche if competitive emulation (recall my response to Hitz) that characterizes it would disappear. I certainly recognize that intellectual fraternity is made difficult by oligarchic organization of academic life today.

But true scholarship owes nothing to anybody; its allegiance is to truth and to the standards of excellence, including beauty, that constitute it. And these standards allow one to escape, in thought, the political and cultural economies that condition it materially and, simultaneously, experience the recognition by and, more commonly, one's recognizing of the skill of fellow scholars.

And if time permitted me I would offer you a proof of all of this in the margins of this Digressions. Sure, given the challenges facing humanity, it is comical to demand, as an existential matter, proper footnoting.

At this point the reader, if still awake, may suspect something religious. And, as is well known, footnoting has, as scribbling in the margins, or hyperlinking, a complex relationship with revelation, that is, scripture. And this, in turn, has been well deployed and satirized by Bayle and Swift (among the magisteria). Herman Hesse wrote a long, irritating and oddly moving novel, Glass Bead Game, -- which (recall) I read because of a suggestive footnote in Hugo Drochon's Nietzsche's Great Politics (see here), -- to try to convey even hints of this to a culture that cannot bring itself to confront such religiosity. 

I mentioned Zina Hitz, who is better equipped than I am to talk about religiosity, because she criticizes, not unfairly, the academy (and now I simplify) for its surrender to a fundamentally base political economy. And when one reads the vocabulary of the editors of Vivarium -- "countermeasures" -- it is easy to think she is right--that something essential has gone missing. That we have lost sight of what truly matters. 

But this is a mistake. Philology, with its roots in love of logos, expresses this love, in fact, from the start by the unmasking of forgery. It is because we recognize that human nature is weak, and that even extremely modest details might matter, sometimes greatly, to the life of many communities that we rest our faith in civilization, in part, by securing the integrity of the small print.


*I do not just mean that there may have been copying of material unavailable to them in digital form, but also the possibility of uncredited rephrasing and other important distinctions.


On the Convergence of Economics and Computer Science (with comments on the role of moral reasoning in AI)

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 11/11/2020 - 11:15pm in

We can generalize this idea across our entire model space. Suppose we enumerated all the possible numerical pairs <error, unfairness> achieved by the models we are considering (e.g., SAT cutoffs)....

So each point corresponds to a different model; the x-coordinate of the point is the model’s error, and the y-coordinate is its unfairness score...The key thing to realize is that any model that is not on this boundary is a “bad” model that we should eliminate from consideration, because we can always improve on either its fairness score or its accuracy (or both) without hurting the other measure by moving to a point on this boundary.

The technical name for this boundary is the Pareto frontier or Pareto curve, and it constitutes the set of “reasonable” choices for the trade-off between accuracy and fairness. Pareto frontiers, which are named after the 19th-century Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto, are actually more general than just accuracy-fairness trade-offs, and can be used to quantify the “good” solutions to any optimization problem in which there are multiple competing criteria. One of the most common examples is the “efficient frontier” in portfolio management, which quantifies the trade-off between returns and risk (or volatility) in stock investing.

The Pareto frontier of accuracy and fairness is necessarily silent about which point we should choose along the frontier, because that is a matter of judgment about the relative importance of accuracy and fairness. The Pareto frontier makes our problem as quantitative as possible, but no more so.

The good news is that generally speaking, whenever we have practical algorithms for “standard,” accuracy-only machine learning for a class of models, we also have practical algorithms for tracing out this Pareto frontier. These algorithms will be a little bit more complicated—after all, they must identify a collection of models rather than just a single one—but not by much... 

While the idea of considering cold, quantitative trade-offs between accuracy and fairness might make you uncomfortable, the point is that there is simply no escaping the Pareto frontier. Machine learning engineers and policymakers alike can be ignorant of it or refuse to look at it. But once we pick a decision-making model (which might in fact be a human decision-maker), there are only two possibilities. Either that model is not on the Pareto frontier, in which case it’s a “bad” model (since it could be improved in at least one measure without harm in the other), or it is on the frontier, in which case it implicitly commits to a numerical weighting of the relative importance of error and unfairness. Thinking about fairness in less quantitative ways does nothing to change these realities—it only obscures them.

Making the trade-off between accuracy and fairness quantitative does not remove the importance of human judgment, policy, and ethics—it simply focuses them where they are most crucial and useful, which is in deciding exactly which model on the Pareto frontier is best (in addition to choosing the notion of fairness in the first place, and which group or groups merit protection under it, both of which we discuss shortly). Such decisions should be informed by many factors that cannot be made quantitative, including what the societal goal of protecting a particular group is and what is at stake. Most of us would agree that while both racial bias in the ads users are shown online and racial bias in lending decisions are undesirable, the potential harms to individuals in the latter far exceed those in the former. So in choosing a point on the Pareto frontier for a lending algorithm, we might prefer to err strongly on the side of fairness—for example, insisting that the false rejection rate across different racial groups be very nearly equal, even at the cost of reducing bank profits. We’ll make more mistakes this way—both false rejections of creditworthy applicants and loans granted to parties who will default—but those mistakes will not be disproportionately concentrated in any one racial group. This is the bargain we must accept for strong fairness guarantees. Michael Kearns & Aaron Roth (2019) The Ethical Algorithm: The Science of socially Aware Algorithmic Design, Oxford University Press, 80-84 [the linked page should have their diagram]

A few weeks ago, after I started blogging (here and here) about the ethics of algorithms,* I received a Facebook advertisement-notification from Amazon that Michael Kearns and Aaron Roth (the authors of The Ethical Algorithm) had become Amazon scholars. "What an interesting way," I thought, "to advertise books to me." I clicked on the link and read the corporately sponsored interview with them. Perhaps because my expectations were low , but I was surprised how thoughtful -- "the main thesis of our book, which is that in any particular problem you have to start by thinking carefully about what you want in terms of fairness or privacy or some other social desideratum, and then how you relatively value things like that compared to other things you might care about, such as accuracy" -- they sounded and how relevant to my own project. It was clear theirs was a project about thinking about trade-offs (a favored phrase of theirs) about social values in algorithm design. More important to me, since I had just argued that thinking about the ethics of algorithms seems to replicate the very social problems familiar from thinking about ethics in economics, I wanted to see if my hunch was correct. Two clicks later I ordered the book, and a day later it was delivered.

A few years ago (well back in 2012), I used to joke that as even theoretical economists become more applied, becoming (thanks to increasingly cheap computer power) experts at massaging results out of giant "administrative data-sets,"+ economics ran the risk of being displaced by statisticians and, especially, computer scientists. While then I was largely ignorant of deep learning, it was clear to me that fruitful searches for robust and surprising correlations in data didn't require (as Justin Wolfers then suggested) the restrictive assumptions of economic theory. (Think about it: econometrics and economic theory artificially restrict the search space that can be more fully explored with deep learning machinery.) And indeed deep learning can dispense with economic theory.**

But in reading their interview and their splendid The Ethical Algorithm I realized that back in 2012, I had missed a crucial issue: that algorithmic design is conceived in terms of optimization problems under constraints. Since Lionel Robbins (back in the 1930s) this just is the definition of economics (and it enabled a split between ethics and economics). And once in algorithmic design you are interested in more than predictive accuracy, and so have to deal "with multiple competing criteria," a whole set of mathematically precise diagnostic tools familiar from economics can be imported into algorithmic design (as the passage quoted above suggests). So, I now realize that increasingly computer science and economics will merge (as presumably is happening already in finance-notice the passing mention of "portfolio management" in the block quote above). 

The previous is sufficient for a digression. But I also want to call attention to how moral issues are conceived, and not, in the (ahh) paradigm articulated by Kearns and Roth. And, in particular, I want to call attention to four levels, or sites, where they enter in. So, formally moral issues enter into two sites of algorithmic design: (i) first a choice in setting a goal (such as privacy or fairness) or success criterion for the algorithm. In general, Kearns and Roth view this as a constraint on accuracy that generates a trade-off among accuracy and other possible criteria. Kearns & Roth are very good at explaining that the way one makes precise these moral goals need not be univocal or can be very context sensitive. (So, there are different ways to think about fairness or privacy in algorithmic settings.) 

In turn, these trade-offs can be modeled in terms of pareto frontiers. And this generates the second site: (ii) at the level of a decision about ''which model on the Pareto frontier" to use in practice. Conceptually that's a distinct choice from how to encode 'fairness' into an algorithm, but obviously one can imagine that in practice, in the spirit of experimentation, there are going to be interactions between (i) and (ii) within a general goal-oriented design process. (Recall that an algorithm can be understood, even identified, in terms of the functions and goals it serves--something I have promised to return to.) 

Some time soon, I hope to write some more critical posts about their hope of turning algorithm design into a kind of dream of turning ethics into an optimization problem. (That way of putting it is indebted to Kathleen Creel, a young scholar who has written a gem of a paper on opacity in computational systems.) And one can see how the combination (i) and (ii) lend themselves, despite the situationism in (i), to a form of moral reasoning familiar from (and analogous, if not identical to) utilitarianism. Of course, one can let other values enter into the decision of (ii). 

Now, in their argument (ii) tends to happen in algorithm design/development process within, say, a company. But the choice one makes about which model on the Pareto frontier to inhabit generates (ahh) consequences to wider society. Some of these wider consequences -- laws, regulations, social norms, etc. -- are already internalized as constraints, but some are simply outside the company's mission/attention and not anticipated by the legislature.

The point in the previous paragraph fits their general argument. Because the "core concern" of their book is that "optimizing" on some explicit social goals, predictably and foreseeable, has (even in the relatively short term) unintended and perhaps ex ante unknowable side effects. (188) There is, thus, not just (as Kearns & Roth note) a (iii) a prior moral and political decision to be made whether or the extent to which algorithms are permitted or primarily responsible for decisions in a domain or (as they often describe it) norm enforcement (177). In the book they offer as an example, of the former "automated warfare," (175; 178).  But there is also (IV) a question how society should think about, and perhaps compensate for or mitigate, these entirely unintended and perhaps unknowable side effects that are a foreseeable outcome pattern from embracing algorithmic practices. This matters especially if such outcome patterns (recall) create  asymmetric harm patterns to vulnerable populations.

And, not unlike the economists, the way Kearns & Roth have set up their conceptual scheme (IV) turns out to be delegated to policy and so is not part of the ethical algorithm at all (or the responsibility of the firms that profit from them). To put this in their terms, we (now) know that a system with the very best portfolio management can create unexpected, general externalities. Something similar is now foreseeable in their field. (I am not sure what the equivalent term of true Knightian uncertainty in AI is, but they need it!) So given (IV), it would be good to prevent regressive forms of socialization of risk while privatizing profit.

*Disclosure: together with Federica Russo and Jean Wagemans, I work on a project (see here)" Towards an Epistemological and Ethical ‘Explainable AI’, funded by Human(e) AI. 

**Actually that's false about the state of play today. Many of Kearns and Roth's chapters are about the application of ideas from game theory and so-called mechanism design scaled up in very large dimensions in deep learning.

+The term was then Raj Chetty's whose work I have been blogging regularly about since.

On Crooked Timber.

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 30/10/2020 - 2:09am in

The last two months have been challenging for me, hence my lack of blogging. They aren’t limited to losing my advisor. But what I have seen running throughout many of these challenges is a kind of a deep psychological that I will call wounds of the heart.

A wound of the heart is an emotional hurt that generates intense, seemingly unbearable psychic stress and that can create long-term damage to one’s personality due to overpowering negative moral emotions, like resentment and hatred, and that may last for the rest of one’s life. They are typically caused by some act by one’s close friends, family, or community. The wounded person believes the act signals that the offending group bears him or her bad will, and that the group does not love or support the wounded person in the way he or she had counted upon in the past. It can overwhelm the wounded person’s agency, leading them to lash out and creating a new harm, and perhaps wounding the hearts of others. When multiple parties to a relationship have wounds of the heart, that can spell the death of the relationship, even if the relationship continues pro forma.--Kevin Vallier The Wounds of the Heart

Because one of my entries into the history of philosophy was by way of Isaiah Berlin, I have always associated his quotation from Kant that "Out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made" with an important truth. To this day the core idea informs my own skeptical liberalism.

But as always the story has wrinkles.

So for years I shared Ingrid Robeyns' sense, appropriately shared at the mother of all philosophical blogs, CT, that Berlin's translation improved on the original, Aus so krummem Holze, als woraus der Mensch gemacht ist, kann nichts ganz Gerades gezimmert werden. I still do. However, it is not often remarked that Kant added a footnote, to this very sentence; and it is worth noting it, too:

The role of man is very artificial. How it may be with the dwellers on other planets and their nature we do not know. If, however, we carry out well the mandate given us by Nature, we can perhaps flatter ourselves that we may claim among our neighbors in the cosmos no mean rank. Maybe among them each individual can perfectly attain his destiny in his own life. Among us, it is different; only the [human] race can hope to attain it."*

There are really two fine issues here: first, that we may be part of a larger family of planetary denizens. This is an idea that excited Huygens and Newton. And from Kant's pre-critical writings we know (recall) that Kant was much impressed by Newton's ideas on this point. And Kant assumes that, once we get into the habit of  this, we will adopt a perspective in which we are judged by such aliens. Maria Pia Paganelli has suggested -- in commenting on a similar idea in Adam Smith -- that this can be traced by to Fontenelle's Conversations on the Plurality of Worlds. It's plausible this also influenced Kant because Kant's earlier Universal Natural History is clearly shaped as I argued (based on a suggestion by Martin Schönfeld) by Fontenelle's work. So, Kant's cosmopolitanism here is truly cosmopolitan. I assume this is known among Kant experts, but the thought always delights me. 

Second, in the note Kant articulates the thought that that any attainable future worth having is a collaborative or shared project. I can think no better way of characterizing the liberal project in that it simultaneously holds that we should assume the unreformable weakness of individuals and that as humanity we're in it together. This is why, the more I reflect on it, the more I recognize that global, maybe cosmic (yeah for Star Trek!) federation is the liberal political destiny. 

This morning, in a wistful, apprehensive mood,  I returned to Seneca Letter 50. The letter is really about the comic-from- without-maddening-from-within realization that the more we run away from our problems, and disown them, the more we find them not just sneaking up on us, but defining us:

For what else are you busied with except improving yourself every day, laying aside some error, and coming to understand that the faults which you attribute to circumstances are in yourself? We are indeed apt to ascribe certain faults to the place or to the time; but those faults will follow us, no matter how we change our place.

And yet, I was in no mood to be preached to by Seneca that the way forward is a regimen of self-improvement. My mind drifted back toward's Vallier's post quoted above. As the reach of life has shrunk during this pandemic, and in my solitude, I more easily and directly encounter evidence of how my past wounds create new harms; I re-read, and I recognize myself in the self-portrait he draws. Kevin writes of 'soldiering on.' I wince at the bellicose nature of the phrase, despite seeing the tenderness in the rest of Kevin's words. The soldiering on reminds me of the bit of the part of Seneca -- preparing for death -- I like least.    

Without realizing it I had read on in Seneca. And there, I was surprised to read (in  Richard Gummere's 1917 translation), There is nothing that will not surrender to persistent treatment, to concentrated and careful attention; however much the timber may be bent, you can make it straight again.  [Nihil est, quod non expugnet pertinax opera et intenta ac diligens cura; robora in rectum quamvis flexa revocabis. Curvatas trabes calor explicat et aliter natae in id finguntur, quod usus noster exigit; quanto facilius animus accipit formam, flexibilis et.]

    Of course, Seneca must believe that self-improvement is possible, I think.

But, as I re-read I realize that Seneca thinks this, too, is a collaborative project: "we begin to mold and reconstruct our souls before they are hardened by crookedness" ["ante animum nostrum formare incipimus et recorrigere quam indurescat pravitas eius]. In Kevin's vocabulary, we soldier on in a platoon. Of course, the larger context of the Letter suggests that Seneca thinks we do this under the guidance of a mentor. 

I then remembered Kant. And now looking at what I have written, I am struck by the thought that I have been eavesdropping on a great debate between the two wings of cosmopolitanism: disagreeing about the means, but both claiming that we're in this together. My gloom dissipates. 



Die Rolle des Menschen ist also sehr künstlich. Wie es mit den Einwohnern anderer Planeten und ihrer Natur beschaffen sei, wissen wir nicht; wenn wir aber diesen Auftrag der Natur gut ausrichten, so können wir uns wohl schmeicheln, da wir unter unseren Nachbaren im Weltgebäude einen nicht geringen Rang behaupten dürften. Vielleicht mag bei diesen ein jedes Individuum seine Bestimmung in seinem Leben völlig erreichen. Bei uns ist es anders; nur die Gattung kann dieses hoffen.

Cover And Catalog Copy For ‘The Evolution of a Cricket Fan: My Shapeshifting Journey’

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 15/10/2020 - 4:00am in

The good folks at Temple University Press have a cover design for my forthcoming book, ‘The Evolution of a Cricket Fan: My Shapeshifting Journey.’

Here is the catalog copy for the book:

An autobiographical account of a cricket lover’s journey across nations and identities

The Evolution of a Cricket Fan: A Shapeshifting Journey

Samir Chopra is an immigrant, a “voluntary exile,” who discovers he can tell the story of his life through cricket, a game that has long been a presence—really, an obsession—in his life, and in so doing, reveals how his changing views on the sport mirror his journey of self-discovery. In The Evolution of a Cricket Fan, Chopra is thus able to reflect on his changing perceptions of self, and of the nations and cultures that have shaped his identity, politics, displacement, and fandom.

Chopra’s passion for the sport began as a child, when he rooted for Pakistan and against his native India. When he migrated, he became a fan of the Indian team that gave him a sense of home among the various cultures he encountered in North America and Australia. This “shapeshifting” exposes the rift between the old and the new world, which Chopra acknowledges is, “Cricket’s greatest modern crisis.” But it also illuminates the identity dilemmas of post-colonial immigrants in the Indian diaspora.

Chopra’s thoughts about the sport and its global influence are not those of a player. He provides access to the “inner world” of the global cricket fan navigating the world that colonial empire wrought and cricket continues to connect and animate, observing that the Indian cricket team carries many burdens—not only must they win cricket matches, but their style of play must generate a pride that assuages generations of wounds inflicted by history. And Chopra must navigate where he stands in that history.

The Evolution of a Cricket Fan shows Chopra’s own wins and losses as his life takes new directions and his fandom changes allegiances.

On Being Distant in Time

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 13/10/2020 - 8:56pm in



Medieval readings of Boethius’s Consolation tended to smooth the forcefulness of its message, by making its arguments harmonise too easily with the Christian culture that the people of the time shared with its author. Readers today have a distance from the work that enables us to read it more precisely in the context of Boethius’s own times, and to discover how much Boethius’s way of thinking has in common with our own. We can see the Consolation both as a bold defence of human reason in the face of injustice and impending violent death, but also as an uncovering of reason’s inadequacy. Boethius the Prisoner receives some consolation from Philosophy, but more instruction, and the most important lesson that he learns is one about epistemic humility.-- John Marenbon (9 October, 2020) "Why read Boethius Today?" Aeon.

The main message of the very passage, -- the final one of Marenbon's essay -- that has us learn epistemic humility, is that we're in the best or merely a better position to study the past than our predecessor. And let's call the idea that we can read better from a distance "Machiavellian readings" in honor of Machiavelli. --Why Machiavellian? you may ask. Because for Machiavelli a certain distance is required to get an objective view on the object of study (say, the prince).+ And we can contrast this Machiavellian reading or stance with the "Spinozist reading" which is conscious of the fact that as time passes all the evidence that can make understanding a past work, its context, even the very language in which it is written, is a marvelous act of self-deception or political legislation.*

On the side of the Machiavellian stance we might say that technologies of recovery (philology and languages, cultural and hermeneutic studies, archaeology, anthropology, digital humanities, analytic rigor, etc.) are constantly improving. It is such confidence that  led analytic readers of Plato in the second half of the twentieth century to ignore confidently two millennia of Plato interpretation. In addition academic specialization allows the cultivation of highly trained readers of an author or even particular works. So, for example, I have friends who have spent most of their adult life studying Hobbes' Leviathan, but who are functionally illiterate when confronted by, say, Gilbert's On the Magnet or Suarez's Metaphysical Disputations (both written half a century before). 

The previous paragraph suggests that there may well be a kind of path dependency to making a text from the past seem legible. Martin Lenz has emphasized that such path dependency -- stabilized by canon-formation and education -- generates a kind of sense of clarity. Lenz is critical of this sense (see also here) because it is no better than a kind of pattern-matching. If Lenz is right then most scholarly eureka moments (including, alas, my own) need to viewed with some suspicion because informed by a great deal of unnoticed confirmation bias.

There is a further risk lurking here due to the way philosophical scholarship has been organized. As I have noted before it is a rare department where the selection of historical specialist is governed by such specialists themselves. And, all other things being equal, others prefer to have historical (or comparative) specialists  that can discuss topics of contemporary interests as decided by the 'core' or 'authoritative' 'generalists'. And so this generates another sieve of unacknowledged pattern-confirmation bias. (If you don't believe me, how come the previous generation of scholarship made every other historical figure into a proto-Quinean naturalist; and the more recent ones every figure into..?)

Of course, the argument is not that the pattern that is picked out is somehow unreal. Lenz' argument is not skeptical about historical meaning in the way the Spinozist stance is. Rather, what it suggests is that searching for commonalities ("discover how much Boethius’s way of thinking has in common with our own") itself risks reinforcing such confirmation bias. 

As an aside, I tried reading Boethius' Consolation one chilly Summer somewhere in the Scandinavian Northlands while conceiving of myself as a poet. I found it bewildering. Marenbon has encouraged me to give it another try before long.

Regular readers may be surprised here because I have a tendency to defend methodological anachronism and lampoon scholarly methods that try to dwell on the strangeness of the past (even comparing folk in Cambridge robes to disaster tourists). But my criticism is not of seeking out the multiplicity of the strangeness of the past -- the patterns that fit ours badly; it's the dwelling on such strangeness that I reject.

To be sure, Marenbon is undoubtedly right that some distance can be useful to weed out shared prejudices against and in favor of certain readings. After all, early reception is often influenced by hagiographic or institutional politics and cleverly instrumentalized anecdotal evidence that is used to devalue or praise an author. There are very sound psychological and political reasons to be mistrustful of students' readings of their teachers, even if the students are themselves eminent (cf. Quine and Davidson on Whitehead).

And as Marenbon notes, sometimes a whole culture conspires against making a certain message explicit. But, of course, that cuts both ways unless one assumes -- and this is far removed from epistemic humility -- in our air we can think more honestly and more aptly than before. This is not exactly, Marenbon's claim. For, Marenbom claims that while the book was a bestseller, it was so in virtue of its exoteric/"more obvious" features. (It would be amazing if otherwise.) But his argument is that "if read carefully," and properly situated "in its historical and literary context," the esoteric/"its hidden complexities and subtleties are what can open its appeal to readers" now. It's easy to make fun of this given that this text appears in Aeon. But since I have defended the practice of esoteric reading, don't expect such fun from me.

The more serious problem is the confidence in thinking one has firmly grasped the proper 'historical and literary context' of a work == okay, don't forget I last read it when I was an angst-ridden, self-important teenager == that in one of its (ahh) registers is the eternal one, transcending context and, simultaneously, attempting to shape the context of temporal reception.  Or to put the point methodologically, what counts as context may be stipulated, as Mogens Lærke has argued, but it is not merely given. It may well be a complex conversation between, say, the author(s)'s and reader(s)'s commitments.**

Let me wrap up. Readers aware of my tendency toward skepticism may suspect that I incline toward the Spinozist stance. And the polemicist in me finds it tempting to trot it out as true species of epistemic humility: the past is like a distant shore that can never be reached by mortals like us in the leaky boats we possess. This thought may generate a kind of defeatism. But if we only traveled to safe destinations Boethius would have never landed in that prison cell. 



+I am drawing on the introduction to Il Principe.

*This is what I take to be the main message of Theological Political Treatise. Admittedly Spinoza makes an exception for texts whose truths might be invariant in most contexts (or about topics whose essences lack much power, that is, and now I am joking a bit, capacity to confuse).

**It is amazing to me to see somebody claim that Consolations is 'Menippean satire,' but somehow miss this point. Is somebody pulling my leg?

On Being Scooped

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 13/10/2020 - 5:43am in



As philosophers have begun to express scepticism with traditional briefs for their discipline—including various forms of conceptual analysis and metaphysical speculation—some have suggested instead that our role should be to draw together the results of many different sciences, with the aim of providing a balanced and coherent image of our place in nature that is both conceptually disciplined and properly grounded in empirical enquiry. One problem levelled at this synthetic mission statement for philosophy is that it makes the business too demanding: it is simply implausible that anyone can attain the necessary critical mastery of such a wide range of fields. Kim Sterelny’s wonderful new book, which knits together results from ethnography, theoretical biology, cognitive science, and biological anthropology, constitutes an intimidating possibility proof for others who would aim at such syntheses. Tim Lewens  (2014) reviewing Kim Sterelny (2012) The Evolved Apprentice: How Evolution Made Humans Unique in The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, 65(1):  185–189 [HT: Walter Veit]

I have described before (recall) the strange sensation of becoming aware that one has been scooped. But there is a huge difference between an independent discovery and losing the proverbial race to publish, and being anticipated by several years. And while sometimes there are linguistic, technological, and disciplinary barriers to a failure to cite, I could have found and read Lewens' piece if I had searched harder.  And while my own piece is not strictly speaking a research article -- it's a "review essay" -- Lewens' anticipation of my own though is really striking. It's also stylistically and thematically similar to my own professional writing persona with its fondness for the ciceronian sentence, the m-dash, the meta-philosophical tendency toward sociology of knowledge, etc.; I found the similarity in combination of content and style so uncanny in fact, that when I first read it, I thought, this could be written by me!

Mea Culpa. And sincere apologies to Tim Lewens. I should have cited Lewens on Sterelny 2012 in my (2019) piece on synthetic philosophy,* and in the various blogs and even a Dutch publication since in which I elaborate on and sometimes distinguish my own conception of synthetic philosophy from alternatives (recall) including Kitcher's Deweyan senseand even (recall) Sterelny's sense based on an interview in 2019.

It would be relatively easy to argue that this was an innocent mistake. But I am conscious of the fact that when I wrote my Biology & Philosophy review, I was aiming for something that would be widely read and could have wide uptake,  perhaps even impact on the profession. So, while writing it, I was not merely reviewing Dennett and Peter Godfrey-Smith as best as I could, but I was trying to situate them in a much wider intellectual landscape. And I was grateful to Michael Weisberg (the editor) for encouraging me to be ambitious in this very way. So, when the piece went viral -- it's been downloaded 7880 times and I have seen others drop it casually in conversation since -- I was pleased. I was also surprised because I had never ever before see my own non-blog, scholarly writing go viral.

So, my scholarly conscience makes me wonder whether my desire for glory got the better of me. For, while Lewens' piece lacks my historical narrative (although Lewens, too, has a clever nod to Darwin), he got their first. In particular, Lewens treats synthetic philosophy as an integrative project that brings together insights of many sciences that is supposed to generate a new kind of coherent image ("together the results of many different sciences, with the aim of providing a balanced and coherent image of our place in nature that is both conceptually disciplined and properly grounded in empirical enquiry.")  So do I.

I like, in particular, Lewens' emphasis on 'conceptually disciplined.' Mere creative integration is insufficient to count as synthetic philosophy on my view because it risks encouraging a kind of cult of romantic genius. (I do worry that Lewens' depiction of Stereny's eclecticism can conjure such an image: "the sorts of explanatory tools Sterelny draws on to tell his story are of an extremely eclectic kind.") On my view what's needed is the embrace of some kind of generic, but broad theory to provide the synthetic/integrative glue. This makes synthetic philosophy disciplined (perhaps even conceptually disciplined). I also emphasize this feature because it makes journal publications about features of the generic theory or its application in partial projects toward a synthesis possible. And as the quoted paragraph of Lewens suggests synthetic philosophy otherwise becomes a colossal achievement for the magisters and not the rest of us.**

Another important anticipation by Lewens is the fact that synthetic philosophy may even not appear as philosophy "if by ‘philosophy’ one means the sort of discussion that goes on in the pages of our professional journals. There isn’t even much philosophy of science."+ 

Even so, it may be useful to distinguish one feature of Lewens' description of my own. Lewens' "our place in nature" is ambiguous between a manifest and scientific image, and could also just convey what used to be called a 'worldview' (e.g., Koyré's From the Closed World to the Infinite Universe).  But this is just a matter of degree. For, on my view the aim of synthetic philosophy is the generation of a scientific image that may, in turn, influence the development of the special sciences, philosophy, public policy, or the manifest image. However, Lewens, too, emphasizes that synthetic philosophy can help the specialized sciences communicate with each other, at least indirectly: "help to bring the biological anthropologist’s vision of the genealogy of human cognition into closer harmony with the social anthropologist’s vision of the constitution of human cultures."

So, to sum up. Theoretically I believe that nobody is ever truly original and that what explains the fruitful circulation of (ahh) successful memes tend to be features of the (selection) environment and not the inventive capacity of a particular scholar who contributes primarily personality (although it can be very much worthwhile getting clear on the distinctive contribution of each of us). This informs much of my scholarship. But that thought turns out to be predictably compatible with the further thought that when I think I have something distinctive to say, it's extremely likely others have anticipated me. So, if you are inclined to discuss my (metaphilosophical) work on synthetic philosophy (and its history), please cite Lewens first!


*Strikingly, in note 15 of my piece, I do cite one of Sterelny's earlier books, Thought in a Hostile World: The Evolution of Human Cognition. (2003), as an exemplar of synthetic philosophy.

**Lewens praises Sterelny's use of a rather flexible "informational framework" that "is perhaps best interpreted in an open-ended heuristic manner." If this is right, I would be more critical, I suspect, of the absence of a more systematic theory of information.

+ Lewens does offer a further justification: "The account is nonetheless philosophical, partly because of its speculative nature, partly because Sterelny’s synthesis is an armchair activity parasitic on the empirical work of others, and partly because the sort of conceptual ground clearing loved by philosophers is essential as the elements of Sterelny’s story are combined."


Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 03/10/2020 - 5:20am in

That dog – called aptly Dog – has a status that’s uncertain. He was dumped two years ago at the homeplace of a neighbor some few hundred yards away. Because the neighbor neither ran him off nor shot him, Dog counts in the calculus round here as belonging to that man. Dog accedes to this some days and patrols the yard around the neighbor’s trailer, but he is more usually just a rambling presence, a creature mysterious in his ways and unaccountable to any. Some days no one sees him, some days he never leaves our porch. Most days, he likes some petting, but some days, not – he once showed up carrying a slice a pizza and kept his distance lest I try to steal it. One day he cornered an armadillo only to sniff it with disdain and walk away. On another he tortured a groundhog, mortally wounding it but declining to finish what he started. I then went for my rifle and did the work he wouldn’t. Every night they’re near and howling, he answers the coyotes with his voice – in this at least, Dog is reliable. I suspect he is unsure if he wants to count himself as feral or as tamed. He is, in short, about what someone might expect from a dog that has learned Zhuangzi.--Amy Olberding

In order to save my marriage, and to get some research done, I rented a small office -- yeah don't cry for me -- in a different part of town a few weeks ago. I go there every day, and when I am not needed in zoom meetings, I work on my Newton's Metaphysics manuscript. The tube runs on a frequent schedule and the ride is under fifteen minutes.  Most of the time it's very easy to social distance inside the carriages. 

I found an excellent espresso bar a seven minute walk from my new office in the heart of Fitzrovia. It's one stop on the tube, but because the weather has been so nice, as it has been this whole pandemic year, it's a lovely amble through the back streets of the neighborhood. I enjoy the blue plaques with the names of former (mostly nineteenth century) prime ministers and (mostly twentieth century) authors and social reformers. Sometimes I first get a wrap at a very fine middle eastern hole in the wall on Goodge street.

On Tuesday, at my favorite espresso bar I noticed he had no sweets on offer. When I asked about the lack of brownies, the barista/owner mentioned that his supplier had stopped delivering because his orders fell below the minimum. I quietly wondered whether there were payment issues. I said that must cut into your profit margins. Behind his face mask I guessed a dry smile, because I was told that he just broke even. Emboldened by the small talk, I asked the barista whether the landlord had offered a discount. Indeed he had, 50%. But this had been declined because it was supposed to be added to next year's rent. The purpose behind this offer struck me as a bit dubious, too. I wondered if his rolex was a fake.

I mentioned the story about the brownies to the building manager on the way back. In response she told me the Pret around the corner had stopped selling her favorite tuna mayo sandwiches. She had complained to the store-manager, who informed her they stopped selling it because too few people were coming into the store. 

Anyway, today, i walked through the rain, to find the espresso bar closed. (This will not have surprised you, my perceptive reader.) I looked around and suddenly I realized the street was near empty. I checked my watch (no, not a rolex). It was 3:15pm. On the way back to my office I started counting closed bars and shops. Many were, in fact, boarded up; I stopped at two dozen. I found a bakery near Warren St. with decent espresso. On my way back to the office, on Euston Road, I registered the half a dozen homeless people hiding in front of a (closed) furniture store.

One of my son's favorite classmates' step-dads drives a real London black cab. It has the largest sky roof I have ever seen in a taxi. Anyway, recently he told me (the cabbie, not the son) that he was doing one third the business he did last year. This is no surprise: London is a city that thrives on international travel (tourism and business), and wealthy expats for a lot of its traffic.

A few weeks ago the official unemployment rate in the UK was 4,1% (that was up  to July). All kinds of temporary measures have ended since then. In August 2020 "the number of employees in the UK on payrolls was down around 695,000 compared with March 2020." It's getting worse. 

Let me change tack for a second. 

A few novelists -- Arnon Grunberg, Zadie Smith, and Niña Weijers -- tell the story of my social habitat especially well. (I leave you to guess who have satirized me effectively,) But during this pandemic I have been drawn to Amy Olberding and her epic Ozark Stoics. While I once commented on one of her papers, and am proud she has guest-blogged for me, I have never met Olberding. But as my life has closed in on itself, I have grown needy of her story-telling. 

I imagine her in her pick-up truck in the parking lot of a giant Wallmart, stealing wifi; after she has responded to student emails, and has uploaded her lecture, she writes up her intellectual diaries, with her rifle and her laptop on her lap. One of my favorite passages is this one:

The region around our farm is a lacework of gravel roads that trace through hill country, and what happens when families like ours just can’t keep it all going is told everywhere upon these roads.  Abandoned farmhouses sit in fields given over to elaborate beef cattle operations held by wealthy ranchers who buy up old places when a family can no longer keep them.  In these places, the fencing is bright and taut, well maintained but by people who live elsewhere.  The tarpaper and rock homes that once sheltered families working the land become just bits of a landscape, too much trouble to tear down when the elements will eventually do the work for you.  Some old homeplaces don’t even have the care of wealthy ranchers but instead sit nested in trees that have come up since the families left, the houses now effectively forested.  Bereft of the people who kept the houses whole, they become home to all manner of wildlife, though given the area, some also come to host meth cookers.  But the most haunted examples, I find, are the old family farms where no house at all still sits.  On spring’s arrival they emerge like ghosts across the landscape, as vast armies of yellow daffodils arise to tell of what once was.  The daffodils stand in fragile, temporary signal, their patterns marking out where a house once stood – now lining a path where no path sits or surrounding where a porch once stood.  The daffodils stubbornly outlast the ones who planted them and abide as the only sign of what was once a homeplace. 

Without thinking, I turn left to the tube station. It's slightly longer that way in the shadow of the BT tower. On the sidewalk I evade two boys  on their electric step-scooters who seemed indifferent to the possibility of running me over. It's pouring.

It's been a decade since Lehman. I see myself reflected in the window of another abandoned shop. I am clean-shaven today; not quite an old man yet, but when I look around I see an older man shuffling in a Zimmer-frame. He is drenched. I know I see the dreary future staring at me. He smiles. It's the first maskless smile from a random stranger in months.

As I walk to the entry of the station, all I can think of are those vast armies of yellow daffodils filling Fitzroy Square.

RIP: Arthur Wijnschenk (1971-2020); On Caravan Camp Sollicitude

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 11/09/2020 - 10:48pm in

This morning my sister informed me that she had learned from Maureen Wijnschenk (his sister) that my distant distant cousin, classmate, and friend, Arthur Wijnschenk died. I have known Arthur, and his family, my whole life. Before his coming out he dated my oldest living friend, Liora the youngest daughter of my father's best friend (Chaim), in high school. (I sat next to Arthur at her wedding.) We were not mates in high school, but each in our own way, we tried to escape our childhood environment by fleeing into the wider world--Arthur more boldly and with more panache. But despite cultivating a bad-boy, go-happy, work hard, party harder image, he was loyal to his roots and kept in touch. From my distant perspective, he was one of the early hackers; then let himself be paid by financial firms to protect them from attack; serial entrepreneur (including his favorite, Barcelona Car Tours), moving among Rotterdam, Los Angeles, Madrid,  Barcelona, and even our Amsterdam in restless fashion celebrating each trip with a champagne toast in first class. Even so, he would always track me down all over the world and, when I was broke or trying to make ends meet on an academic salary, would treat me to lavish meals in fancy restaurants always just before they were to become famous.  Often at the end of a night, as I went home, the night would start for him. Sometimes I saw pictures of his adventures in the clubs on social media the next day before he went to the gym.

When my family moved to London a few years, I learned I was not his only regular on his itinerary. There were other distant relatives he kept track off, happily being drawn into their family milestones--giving and accepting nurture along the way. 

I tell you about Arthur, dear readers, not just because I can't think of anything else right now, but because he is one of the proximate causes for my blogging. A decade ago, when I was trying to turn myself into a Dutch public intellectual, I mentioned to him I couldn't get a piece published by any of the main newspapers. Arthur asked to read it. Then told me he had created a website and started advertising the piece on Google up to €50 per day. The effect was shocking: I got an endless stream of hate mail, threats, including death threats, and for many years you could find my name denounced on far-right websites.* To me this was eye-opening because I recognized that one didn't need mainstream media to find an audience; and this helped me reconcile myself to my failure as a public intellectual and develop into this different kind of authorial persona. 

You can read a translation (by his friend Brian Gross) of the piece on NewAPPS. If you look at the NewAPPS archive, you'll see it is one of the very first pieces I published at NewAPPS when it was just a week old (and we had a few dozen daily readers).  Arthur read nearly all of my blogs, always welcoming the pieces in which I dropped my scholarly guard and shared my views in forthright manner. Sometimes, he would send me a quick note thanking me for the occasional, lucid paragraph in the middle of a digressions. 

Eventually Arthur stopped advertising my piece, and discontinued the webserver that hosted it. The right-wing websites that polemicized against it mostly disappeared (today I could only locate one that notes its existence).

Recently, after I won a grant to study debt, just before the corona-lockdown, I was contacted by a leading Dutch banker to come meet with her and discuss. I thought she had read about the grant in the newspaper, but it turned out Arthur had nudged her into meeting me. During our last dinner, a few weeks ago on the back balcony at “Bickers a/d Werf” during one of the endless corona-Summer days, he told me he knew her since his membership of the JOVD, the youth wing of the Dutch main right wing party, and that they had stayed in touch. 

To my delight I found a splendid essay by him (1993) in the JOVDs zine, railing against the internal shenanigans and lack of internal democracy at the JOVD's annual conference -- the article makes clear he was a regular --, and in it he unmasks self-serving careerism and opportunism and he pleads for one-man-one-vote. Anyway, behind the bad boy, there was true engagement. I dont think Arthur had much formal education, or that he was especially bookish, but, not unlike our classmate Arnon Grunberg, he had the gift of an excellent polemicist.+

I mention Arnon not just to name-drop; as it turns out that for a few years we had an intense three-way email correspondence, which started with a note by Arthur to Arnon in September 2000.**  The note congratulates Arnon on his literary success and implies that Arthur is earning money as a porno-producer.*** In our letters we recognized ourselves as prisoners/wardens of 'caravan camp sollicitude' (woonwagenkamp de eenzaamheid).

Because Arthur and I traveled a lot, we started talking about Corona in January. We were both mystified, even outraged by the utter lack of care and reaction by national authorities. We found the role of the WHO mysterious. I tried to nudge him into developing mobile and airport testing capacity. Corona has been very tough for him. It hurt his businesses and undermined his life-style. He was (quite rightly) angered by the ways governments supported better connected businesses than his own. But most importantly it threw him back onto himself.

In response, while he tried to keep his businesses afloat, he checked in almost daily, including with my mom--they both would express concern for the other to me. (Early in the lock-down with PPE shortages everywhere, he surprised her with state of the art face-mask.) I found their mode of contact reassuring, perhaps too re-assuring. 

Arthur and I came from families shaped by the Holocaust, by betrayal and by great acts of compassion and rectitude. It would be tempting here to write something about our shared sense that all of that was not an aberration, that we're sleepwalking into more disaster. So often he would ask me what we could do.

I wish I were better at capturing the cocktail of survivor guilt, perseverance, love, and hardness of those we grew up with; the focus on money-making, the impatience with official delusion; the moving between many different worlds at once; the sense of connection with distant relatives who had to stand in for never-born cousins and uncles/aunts. But we rarely talked about the past; we were immersed in a present haunted by omissions and ellipses. Adult friendship is the art of tactful silence. And during the last few years, after my dad died, and as he quietly become a more regular fixture in my life, I learned from him to be more accepting of good fortune as our lives glide too closely alongside the precipice.   

Arthur's mom, (like my own) youthful when she had her first child, died early at the age of 45 from cancer. My heart goes out to his dad, and Maureen. 


*It also generated some interesting correspondence with articulate supporters of the new Dutch far right which helped me understand them far better.

+Through google, I also found a politically incorrect satire on women's lib from 1991 prefiguring Incel themes.

**As an aside, in re-reading our correspondence from this period, I notice that Arnon had left me a few hints (I was too self-absorbed to notice) about unfolding Marek van der Jagt episode.

***This is eminently plausible, and certainly not intended to shock. But it was surely also a reference to some of  Arnon's then literary productions (including, say, Liefde is Business).

On Hitz's Lost in Thought

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 28/07/2020 - 9:57pm in

For intellectual life to deliver the human benefit it provides, it must be in fact withdrawn from considerations of economic benefit or of social and political efficacy. This is the case in part because, as the little human things testify, a human being is more than an instrument of personal or public benefit. Intellectual life is a source of human dignity exactly because it is something beyond politics and social life. But withdrawal from the world is also necessary because intellectual life is, as I have said, an ascetic practice.

If intellectual life is not an elite property but a piece of the human heritage, it belongs first and fundamentally to ordinary human beings. All intellectual life, no matter how ultimately sophisticated, originates in the human questions arising in and behind ordinary life. Scholarship is exciting in its own right, but it means nothing in a world where there is no first-order reflection, no ordinary thinking about human nature or the structure and origins of the world. Higher study is pointless if literature or philosophy or mathematics or the nature of nature has ultimately nothing to do with the human good of ordinary people or with paths of understanding one might follow in daily life. So, too, scholarship is owed back in return to ordinary people, in forms of outreach that respect the role of a free intellect in a good human life.

Anyone seeking a good human life benefits from learning in all of its breadth and depth. Nor need one work in a university or attend one to cultivate the virtue of seriousness. Zeal for the fundamentals in life is fueled by aspiration, by imagining forms of human life that we wish to inhabit or become. Our intellectual culture prizes destruction over edification, a thrill of superiority over deep encouragement, and the reinforcement of factional loyalties over common ground. Yet any thoughtful person, not to speak of a writer, artist, critic, or journalist, can seek out examples, living and dead, historical and fictional, of human beings who have strained every nerve to seek more, better, finer, nobler ways of living.

In this book I have been forced to use mostly examples of high achievers in the realm of the intellect: Einstein, Gramsci, Goethe, Augustine. That is because these are the modes of intellectual life one can easily find in a library—the high achievers are worthy of books. One of the diseases of our spectacle-riddled culture is that we forget that the invisible life has all the human splendor of the visible one, and often more. I have had in mind all along, and have appealed to where possible, the humble bookworm, the amateur naturalist, the contemplative taxi driver. If you, like me, are naturally drawn to achievement, collect examples of ordinary thinkers—human beings whose splendor is known only to a few, their family, their neighbors, their coworkers. Settle back in awe from time to time, as I do, in thinking about the vast treasury of thought and experience that will never be available to us.

Let us remind ourselves of the broad scope of human enterprise as well as the depths available to anyone with a bit of time to think. Let us give free play to the human intellect and the human imagination, in an attempt to ground all that is in our hearts in what matters most.--Zena Hitz (2020) Lost in Thought: The Hidden Pleasures of an Intellectual Life, 202-203

Lost in Thought is that rare book that is manifestly better, more interesting and more compelling, than the essays (recall here; and here) that gave rise to it. It is also a polemical book, polemicizing against the contamination of the intellectual life by the vices of a "spectacle-ridden" culture. As such, it is a book that hopes to restore, even rebirth, a way of life that it is attacked not just from without (which Hitz mostly ignores), but also from within by its ersatz friends. In particular, some of the most bitter, and cogent, polemical attacks are on fellow academics, especially the "elite professors" (200) who, in an imperial context, are seduced by "prestige and status" (10),  who engage in "cruelty," (9) and who justify their wealthy lifestyles in terms of their instrumental value to society (201-202).

This polemic is situated in the interstices of a veritable gallery of intellectual (and sometimes also Catholic) saints, who are the subject of near perfectly executed vignettes. And while the book is very moralistic, the morals are preached lightly and with self-deprecating humor.  Before I engage with her polemic, it is worth noting that part of the fascination of Hitz's argumeny is that it is framed by an autobiographical conversion narrative. It is especially interesting to me because I was a (very) partial witness to a stage of her journey; we overlapped a bit, as PhD students, at The University of Chicago. But that's for another time.

The passage quoted above is from the epilogue of Hitz's book. Her contrast between the false, and fleeting goods of the spectacle-ridden culture, which always are zero-sum and so conflict ridden, and the enduring if not eternal, shareable treasures of inner life re-activates a contrast familiar from the Stoics and Augustine. I mention this not to undermine the diagnosis -- which is wholly on target --, but to caution against the thinly disguised strain of nostalgia that runs through Hitz's argument (this is why she uses the language of 'restoring' (197ff; see also p. 167)). The quest to preserve a site for human dignity and true learning is always with us, part of the human condition.

Because I agree with so much in Hitz's book, it's taken me awhile to figure out my sense of unease with it. This post is an attempt to clarify this unease. And I want to note two features of her account that trouble me. First, Hitz is no friend of scholarship. I quote the relevant passage again: "[scholarship] means nothing in a world where there is no first-order reflection, no ordinary thinking about human nature or the structure and origins of the world. Higher study is pointless if literature or philosophy or mathematics or the nature of nature has ultimately nothing to do with the human good of ordinary people or with paths of understanding one might follow in daily life." 

It is important to be clear on what Hitz is not doing here. She is an eloquent critic of the tendency to subordinate education to moral or political ends; she calls this the "false god" of "opionating," (193)/"opionization" that is, "the holding of a viewpoint" or  the "reduction of thinking and perception to simple slogans or prefabricated positions" (p. 167). She is critical of all political and ethical programs that are tempted by this. This is false education. 

So, Hitz's attitude toward scholarship is not that it must serve some direct political or moral end. In addition, we must distinguish what Hitz calls 'learning' from scholarship. She highly values learning for its own sake because "human beings are essentially knowers, or lovers, or both" (112). But scholarship is a form of learning that somehow (we are never told how) dissociated from the original impulse. It is quite clearly a perverted form of learning.

That is, Hitz wants to resist the idea that scholarship, and excellence in scholarship, is self-justifying. It must, in some non-trivial way, be integrated into the life-world of what she calls "ordinary" human lives. This is why she is attracted to agents and representations of agents (ordinary and extraordinary) whose depth consists in part of a rich and dignified intellectual inner life, but who are engaged in what we may call, humane works (e.g. Dorothy Day, Malcolm X, Augustine). And it is to Hitz's credit that what works will count as meaningful can be a wide variety of (possibly conflicting) political and social activities.

It is not entirely clear why Hitz rejects scholarship for its own sake (other than its elitism).  Perhaps her argument is consequentialist-democratic in that she treats it as ultimately selfish ("pointless if...has ultimately nothing to do with the human good of ordinary people"). Yet, we are not told why the joy of the scholars -- they seem like ordinary people, too, up close -- should not count. 

I believe her more fundamental argument is this: she thinks scholarship for its own sake gives rise to a certain disease of the mind, or a vice, that is characterized by the loss of joy in truth, or what the "ancient monks" call acedia (147). She is right to resist the common translation of 'sloth'; I prefer “a lack of care.” Acedia is distinct from the escapism that, say, Adam Smith thinks is a danger of intellectual life, but it is part of the same species as the 'torpor' which Smith thinks is the effect of the repetitive, work in extensive division of labor.  Notably, the only, authoritative mention of Aquinas in the book is on the nature of acedia (147).

Hitz does not explain why scholarship must give rise to acedia. But she clearly thinks that in so doing it generates the conditions that are conducive to "the pursuit of spectacles." (147) Perhaps, she thinks that the behavior of the elite professors, who are purportedly devoted to a life of scholarship, but glory in cruelty (etc.) is sufficient evidence for her case. But I believe this is a selection effect caused by the incentive structure of the academy, and the way our gaze is oriented toward spectacle and so misses the scholars worth emulating sometimes right in front of us.*

I do not deny that scholars recognize the danger of acedia. Second, our tendency to indulge in esoteric, competitive games and puzzles, are part of our response to it. Let me give a historical example. In the early modern period, the republic of letters had a tradition in which major mathematical and scientific breakthroughs were both announced, and partially hinted at, through anagrams and other puzzles. So, for example, when Galileo saw something unusual nearby Saturn in 1610, he sent out letters with an anagram (here's a fun introduction to the story).

What Hitz ignores is that the otherwise lonely scholarly life is itself organized around competitive emulation in which credit is apportioned in virtue of achievement and excellence. And this competition is practiced and structured in a lot of ways. Hitz mistakenly assimilates this economy to the better known spectacle culture. That is no surprise, because the credit economy of the republic of letters is embedded, perhaps always dangerously so, in a wider institutional economy which is organized along the production and maintenance of prestige hierarchies (which, in turn, are a feature of, and support, our olicharchic culture). This wider institutional economy gives rise to spectacle ridden culture Hitz decries. 

But competitive emulation among equals is the mechanism by which acedia is held at bay. Hitz's distaste for competitive emulation is clear throughout the book not just because she can't find anything to admire in (say) sporting excellence (all the references to sport or negative). But it is exemplified by her analysis of a comment by 'Lenù" (a character in Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan novels--which receive an extended treatment). Lenù, who has just published her own novel and sees it in the bookstore, is quoted as follows:

But was that what I wanted? To write, to write with purpose, to write better than I had already? And to study the stories of the past and the present to understand how they worked, and to learn, learn everything about the world with the sole purpose of constructing living hearts, which no one would ever do better than me, not even Lila if she had the opportunity? (158; emphasis in Hitz.)

The emphasis is in Hitz, but not in Ferrante's original. And I agree with Hitz that what she emphasizes is very important in the passage. But the effect is that Hitz largely effaces the existence and significance of competitive emulation ("which no one would ever do better than me, not even Lila if she had the opportunity") Yes, Hitz acknowledges the significance and existence of competition on the next page (159), but she can't find a good place for it in her analysis. In fact, in general Hitz qualifies competition with negative adjectives ('brutal,' 'grinding,' ''cutthroat,' etc.) and analyzes it in terms of examples in which it degenerates into harm and spectacle.

So, despite her fondness of exemplars, this is why 'emulate/emulation' are near absent in her vocabulary; the exception proves the rule (viz "should we emulate the pure uselessness of Aristophanes’ Socrates, choosing intellectual projects that will be certain to provide no one with any good whatsoever? (p. 188)--the answer is clearly no. This echoes a nuanced analysis of the Clouds earlier in the book worth re-reading.)

There is no denying that competitive emulation risks the dangers of the spectacle. But even then it can be (although need not) also excellence in action. And sometimes it is both at once (poetry competitions/slams and wimbledon finals, etc.). This hybridity, and the danger of degeneration repels a certain kind of extreme purist. Of course, a lot of competitive emulation is incapable of ever becoming a spectacle because it holds no interest to those unwilling to try to understand it. 

That is to say, I admire Hitz's desire to promote "forms of outreach that respect the role of a free intellect in a good human life." This is our common ground. But while I am happy to agree with her criticism of universities; I do not share her criticism of scholarship even where it is often too complacent about the conditions that give rise to it. True scholarship owes nothing to anybody; its allegiance is to truth and to the standards of excellence (including beauty) that constitute it.



*Recall this post on Ian Mueller.