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Spinoza on Incentives, Human Nature, and Church Corruption

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 10/07/2020 - 9:51pm in

To do this it was necessary to indicate the main prejudices regarding religion, i.e., the traces of our ancient bondage, and then also the prejudices regarding the right of the supreme 'powers. Many, with the most shameless license, are eager to take away the greater part of that right, and under the pretext of religion to turn the heart of the multitude (who are still at the mercy of pagan superstition) away from the supreme 'powers, so that everything may collapse again into slavery. I’ll indicate briefly in what order I show these things; but first I must say what reasons have impelled me to write.
[14] I’ve often wondered that men who boast that they profess the Christian religion—i.e., love, gladness, peace, restraint, and good faith toward all—would contend so unfairly against one another, and indulge daily in the bitterest hatred toward one another, so that each man’s faith is known more easily from his hatred and contentiousness than from his love, gladness, etc. Long ago things reached the point where you can hardly know what anyone is, whether Christian, Turk, Jew, or Pagan, except by the external dress and adornment of his body, or because he frequents this or that Place of Worship, or because he’s attached to this or that opinion, or because he’s accustomed to swear by the words of some master. They all lead the same kind of life.
[15 What’s the cause of this evil? Doubtless that religion has commonly consisted in regarding the ministries of the Church as positions conferring status, its offices as sources of income, and its clergy as deserving the highest honor. For as soon as this abuse began in the Church, the worst men immediately acquired a great desire to administer the sacred offices; the love of propagating divine religion degenerated into sordid greed and ambition; and the temple itself became a Theater, where one hears, not learned ecclesiastics, but orators, each possessed by a longing, not to teach the people, but to carry them away with admiration for himself, to censure publicly those who disagree, and to teach only those new and unfamiliar doctrines which the common people most wonder at. This had to lead to great dissension, envy, and hatred, whose violence no passage of time could lessen.

[16] It’s no wonder, then, that nothing has remained of the old (or ancient) Religion [antiquae Religionis] but its external ceremony externum cultum, by which the common people seem more to flatter God than to worship him. No wonder faith is nothing now but credulity and prejudices.--Spinoza, Theological Political Treatise, "preface" translated by E. Curley

The quoted passage is the start of a curious aside within the preface of the TTP. In the lines before it Spinoza has announced the celebrated thesis; at the conclusion of the argument, he offers a summary of the book. The main point of the aside is the conclusion that the existing church has lost its way; nothing [nihl] remains of the religion; it's an empty shell with some adornment [externum cultum]. And before Spinoza goes on to give the summary of the book, he offers examples of this state of affairs. 

My present interest is in Spinoza's diagnosis and explanation of a church that has become an empty shell. For, this is not just a story of decline. It is a story of corruption from within, with a potentially good resource wasted [abusus], with a clear institutional cause. And Spinoza is explicit on the first cause: that Church office (of the common people [vulgo religioni]) has highest status [summo honore] and a source of material benefits [beneficia].

As an aside, Spinoza's conceptual point is clear, butI think Spinoza's wording is ambiguous between two historical possibilities: (i) allowing an uncorrupted early church that got corrupted by a norm/institutional change (which I describe below) or (ii) that the people's church has always been corrupt, once institutionalized, because their shepherds always gain status and other benefits. In what follows I assume (i) because it reveals something interesting about Spinoza's conception of human nature.

Spinoza's argument assumes that once incentives shift toward status and income, different kinds of people will want to become church leaders. For there is a clear shift from people motivated by love of preaching the gospel [amor divinae religionis propagandae] to sordid people who are vain (eager for attention), avaricious, and demagogues [sordidam avaritiam, et ambitionem]. (Recall this post why, in Spinoza, I read 'ambition' as demagoguery.] So, when the incentive structure changes, the labor pool for pastoral care jobs is changed, and the kinds of people that rise to the top within the church is utterly transformed if not corrupted. 

It is important that Spinoza does not think that the pastors are corrupted by and in their jobs. (This is clearly Adam Smith's view later.) He thinks, rather, that people with excessive longings [ingens libido] will become attracted to careers in the clergy. I don't want to put too much emphasis on Spinoza's use of 'libido' but it's clear he thinks that once such people enter the Church a species of love is displaced and it becomes infused with a fetishized energy where spectacle and sensuality reign. 

Now, at this stage I want to backtrack to Spinoza's fascinating claim that now  all lead the same kind of life [vita eadem omnibus est]. Long before Sombart and Marcuse, Spinoza diagnoses a flattening of human kind such that within modernity the differences among people become very narrow and track shallow exterior features, opinions, and religious practices. Spinoza's polemical point, anticipating Swift, is that people kill each other over trivial differences egged on by bad people that exploit religion to malicious self-interested ends. 

Spinoza does not say whether in some previous age human diversity reached into, as it were, our interior. So, he leaves open whether ancient human diversity was due to radically different practices (at, say, the level of cultural anthropology), or whether he is entertaining the possibility of a diversity of human origins and so kinds (at the level of physical anthropology).+ Either way, there is a common (and now i use, recall Susan James' terminology) "thin" human nature now

Even so, more than, say, Hobbes or Adam Smith, Spinoza is willing to distinguish among human kind. So, as I noted last week, while commenting on the Political Treatise, he clearly thinks there is a rather steep cognitive hierarchy among men (with about three percent of folk being outstanding in leadership qualities) and he thinks women are subordinate to men even in potential. And, here, in the preface to the TTP, Spinoza clearly distinguishes between humans oriented toward love of the gospel and the more vicious kind of humans with excessive libido.

To be sure, in each case, it is possible to construct a Spinozistic narrative that looks at social causes, at nurture, to explain revealed human differences. But it is notable Spinoza does not do so himself. So, while Spinoza clearly rejects Aristotle's claim that there are natural slaves, the natural reading of Spinoza is that while there is a thin, rather passionate human nature that is governed by unchanging laws, within that nature human diversity reigns.

So, let me wrap up. For Spinoza the mechanism of corruption of the Church is a shift in incentives that attract the wrong sort of people motivated by status and possessiveness of material goods; once such people are in charge, they displace those motivated by love and gift-giving, and the very institution is transformed into one in which office holding takes on a complex transactional character where the church becomes a source of material benefi. It has lost its original mission and can easily destabilize society. This diagnoses also suggests a solution: to ensure that remuneration and benefits of Church offices are controlled (but about some other time).

For now, I just want to note that for Spinoza account of the corruption of the church fits a larger pattern. As the Political Treatise shows, Spinoza thinks lots of institutions are vulnerable to corruption, including outright bribery.* What is key here is that for Spinoza, in institutional design one should not just be alert to the incentive structure of the institutions in shaping behavior, but also in the way these incentives attract people one ought to keep out.


+In chapter 3, he explicitly rejects multiple origins of humans: "unless we want to dream that formerly nature produced different kinds of men."

*And when bad people, who are susceptible to bribery, cannot be kept out (say in legislative councils or among judges) he proposes institutional safeguards against the via. 

How Christians React to the Religion-Science Conflict

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 06/07/2020 - 9:03pm in

Can scientists also be religious? It all depends on whether they view science and religion as compatible or not.

Decolonizing the Curriculum and Viewpoint Diversity

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 02/07/2020 - 9:25pm in


Racism, Religion

But then I look at the stereotyped Non-Western philosophy list and I can't help but notice another thing - it's a rejection of things that contemporary heirs to the Romantic tradition hate. Fair enough, they are trying to draw out what seems to them best in the texts they are interpreting, and its my linguistic inadequacies which introduced the filter. But still, in the end, this focus, that this seems like the most salient positive achievement of the school or group under study - it still seems to me to be a reflection of disputes in contemporary mainstream Western philosophy.  (Or at least recent contemporary, at this point I think they are somewhat caricaturing their opponents.) I am not fully persuaded the focus reflects the priority or agenda of those either being studied or whose worldview is being represented,  rather than the schedule of priorities of those in contemporary academia. It just seems like too much of a coincidence.--Liam Kofi Bright (April 2019) On Eurocentrism

There are, roughly, two ways in which one can decolonize one’s bread and butter introductory, historical survey of political philosophy/theory curriculum. One is to give direct voice to those who challenge the universal authority of Eurocentric political ideas (hereafter: direct voice); another is to include traditions of thought that are not centered on, and often pre-date, European modernity (hereafter: comparative).* Both approaches have advantages, and both create, and are a consequence of, complex selection effects.

Before I get to to that, I want to get there by reflecting a bit on Bright's post (which, by his standards, got little attention in the blogosphere when it first apepared; but see Ethan Mills). Bright is focused on works that typically are not studied by English speaking philosophy students. The features of these works he is discussing can be categorized, roughly, as belonging in the philosophy of mind/metaphysics/epistemology areas. But they have a counterpart in features familiar to political theory. So, amidst a diversity of style and outlook, here are two additional stereotypical features one is likely to find. First, that the universal authority of Eurocentrentic reason is rejected in terms of parochial, local values (embodied in traditions ). Second, despite the apparent rejection of universal claims, they all end up saying pretty much the same thing: capitalism and imperialism are bad, egalitarian customs and institutions that celebrate communal life of mutual care, which reflect an authentic possibility, are good. What's indeed striking about the list -- and I only noticed it after reading Bright -- is that these reflect the program of romanticism, or at least the part influenced by the popular version of Rousseau. David Graeber and David Wengrow have been (recall) astute on this. 

So, Bright speculates that this may be due to a selection effect. To put his insight in catchy terms, there is a dominant Enlightenment narrative and the 'non-Western' readings are found to play out a dialectic familiar to European thought in which the 'non-Western' readings play a role that is despite their more egalitarian tendencies, the functional equivalent of Romanticism and its legacy in it. And, indeed, the 'non-Western'+ readings helped shape Romanticism (see also Graeber&Wengrow), and were subsequently shaped by it. I think Fanon is aware of this dynamic and pushes back against it, but about that some other time. One of the clear effects of this dialectic is to flatten the 'non-Western' landscape and efface the heterogeneity within the 'Western' traditions.

Now, if this were a polemical post, or a journal article, I would provide lots of examples. And the skeptical reader has every right to suspect I am stereotyping. But, instead, I articulate the risks of the first strategy (which also explains the selection effect Bright worries about); in shaping the curriculum -- here's a familiar route: Plato, Aristotle, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Madison, Hegel, Mill,  -- it is tempting to correct their racism and imperialism by giving direct voice to those who challenge the universal authority of Eurocentric political ideas. Here the function of direct voice is to oppose. And one can even hope that the opposition is effective in creating an intellectual struggle that will lead to a kind of progressive synthesis in which the now existing 'Western' worldview is transformed through the confrontation with the voice of its opposite. 

Since curricula involve choices under extreme scarcity (time and student attention) that inevitably means sacrificing works of Europe's long illiberal, Christian and utopian history (so out go much of Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, More,  Burke, Paine, Saint-Simon, Fourier, Luxemburg, etc.) in order to make space for Equiano, L’Ouverture Cugoano, Gouges, Grouchy, L’Ouverture, Douglass, Sojourner Truth, The Declaration of Sentiments, Du Bois, Ambedkar, Gandhi, and MLK. (Because I have a cut-off before WWI, I teach about a third of these regularly.)**

As I note above, the effect of giving voice in this way -- and yes that locution is intended to problematize my own position -- is that it reinforces the idea that European modernity is this decisive world-historical rupture and that all thought must respond to it. One can recognize that racialized slavery, eugenics, patriarchy/misogyny, and imperialism are evils that shape our world and still note that the rupture-responsive model has its own flaws as a way to structure a curriculum. Effectively, the students are taught 'liberalism and its heroic, egalitarian critics.' (This is so even though there are plenty of genuine elistists among decolonial authors [see here for fruitful document initiated by David Owens].) Often, the critics draw on the lived experience under imperialism, and the egalitarian and spiritual strains in Christianity, Stoicism, Marxism, and Utopian anarchist/socialists. 

Another route is to seek out exemplary thinkers of intellectual traditions untouched by footnotes to Plato syndrome. I was first exposed to this when I encountered the curriculum of Singaporean undergraduates. One quickly ends up teaching some of the thinkers of the Chinese Warring States period (e.g., Mencius, Master Mo, and Han Fei) and Kautilya and/or Buddhist ideas. There is a real risk here in reinforcing the (idea popular in the late nineteenth century) of autonomous great civilizations with their own distinct (illiberal and/or spiritual) political outlook. But this can be prevented if one teaches a multiplicity of voices. I also tend to point out that Europeans became familiar with these traditions just as they started to articulate modernity. I doubt it is a coincidence that Rousseau and Grouchy can sound a bit like Mencius sometimes. 

I also end up teaching Al-Farabi (who is influenced by Platonic tradition) and Al-Ghazali (who pretends not to be) because it is important, especially in the Netherlands (where most students grow up functionally atheist) that revealed religion, theocracy, and political mysticism are discussed seriously. And, given the public hostility to Islam (which is treated as synonymous with backwardness and barbarism), I want all my students to immerse themselves in extremely sophisticated discussions within it. That they encounter a version of proto-feminism is a bonus.

One advantage of this alternative is that the defenders of meritocracy, hierarchy, and empire, and honoring the traditional rites all get their articulate say. (I suspect this is one reason why some are so attracted to teaching Confucianism these days.) This generates genuine viewpoint diversity, and has odd effect of pleasing, simultaneously, cosmopolitan and conservative/authoritarian students. Another attraction is that students notice that the post Hobbesian social contract tradition (with its arc -- via Locke, Rousseau, and Kant (and possible critique by Hume) -- toward Rawls) is just one possible strain of social contract theorizing. One other advantage is that one escapes the  quiet cognitive stranglehold of westphalian statehood, which is permissive of a relatively sharp demarcation between domestic and international political arena. Of course, many critics of, say, imperialism and slavery also note the interaction between political economy and international relations. 

It's possible, of course, that we are on the precipice, of the implosion of modernity, and that would allow much more adventurous decolonizing and decentering choices if there will be universities like ours then. But going against my natural pessimism, assuming we're not, lots of blends are possible (and, in practice, I blend). Direct and indirect voice can generate exciting courses that use 'history' to provide an introductory 'survey' of important arguments, concepts, and institutions in political philosophy. I don't mean to suggest that direct and indirect voice exhaust the possibilities (recall these posts inspired by Khader (here; here; and Bright here) on grasping and modeling the constrained choices of the oppressed). But there is, in fact, a clear choice lurking here. Decolonizing through direct voice indirectly facilitates a curricular narrative of historical progress (or dialectic); while comparative voice indirectly promotes a view that political theory involves learning to model fundamental trade-offs. Perhaps this is a false choice, and we need both.


*I include the colonial-settler enterprises in the Americas, and the US and Canada in the category of European Modernity.

+I dislike 'non-Western' and the role it plays in analysis. But it seems fine to use it in context of this dialectic. As I have noted the rise of 'Western philosophy' is tied to the rise of study of comparative civilizations in the late part of the age of imperialism.   

**Meena  Krishnamurthy has nudged me into teaching Ambedkar on caste.

From being to seeming: why empirical scientists failed in times of Covid.

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 29/06/2020 - 7:53pm in

There have long been scientists who were celebrities in their own time. Galileo, Keppler, Goodall, Linneus, Cousteau, Darwin, Smith, Leeuwenhoek, Da Vinci, Ibn Khaldhun, Curie, and many others in the last 800 years were followed and admired. They in many ways performed their science, as when medics performed autopsies in theaters, astronomers performed their experiments and claims in large observatories in major towns, and geologists and botanists had whole populations bring them samples to put on display. The paleontologists displaying the bones of dinosaurs in Western museums were as much performance artists as Kayne West is today.

And yet, nowadays, the business of performing science has gone a level deeper, both inside the halls of academia and outside. Nicholas Gruen has written many times about how governments and other large organisations “perform expertise”, at the cost of actually having much expertise or valuing its application. Not only do I think he is totally right, but the need to be seen to perform has taken over much of science itself. Like Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray, whose picture shows the degrading real character of a master of pretense, so has the whole of empirical science been sliding for decades into seeming over being.

The Picture of Dorian Gray - WikipediaI suspect this slide towards “seeming over being” is why empirical science so spectacularly failed us during the covid-19 pandemic. It lead to a loss of independence from group think, a loss of awareness of basic rules of thumb, and it lead to poverty in reasoning.

In this long piece, I want to sketch the content of that slide and the deeper reasons for them. Importantly, I don’t think any individual or group is clearly to blame, making it hard to see how we get out of the trap it has put us in.

Government budget performances

Take government budgets as an example of a science-like modern performance. They once were sober affairs wherein governments would put in some state-run newspaper some general information as to how the state finances were going and which taxes were going up or down.

Nowadays, almost everywhere in the Western world, budgets are annual performances. As Nicholas Gruen termed it nicely, governments engage in accountability theater. Someone official announces budgets in an important place. It is televised and podcast. Lots of dressed-up people talking gravely, getting equally grave “responses to the budget”. Snippets are leaked to the media beforehand to get attention for something or to diffuse attention away from something.

The content of budgets is worse. They are now long documents with graphs, numbers, projections, and other “scientific looking” bits. Policies are announced, explained, given an account of. All on the basis of things that seem science. A narrative is spun wherein the government is cognisant of all major problems in society, allocating resources and drawing up plans to solve those problems. In appearance it is all very rational, thought-out, analytical, and statistical.

And yet, government budgets are made to look much more than they are. They are collections of “official lines” on problems society is worried about, not honest analyses of whether those problems even exist or can be addressed in a meaningful way. Announced new plans are often old plans, and nowhere near as coherent or centrally directed as they are presented. Money is pretended to be allocated in a very precise manner, conjuring an image of a back room in which some pie is divided over projects. But no such backroom exist as no-one even knows the current financial position of a whole government: financial positions of the present are, at best, estimated and remain uncertain until years afterwards. The announced costs of announced plans pretend a certainty that does not exist. Government budgets are just a collection of announcements leading to easily digestible talking points for the public. There is some real content, but a lot of non-content too.

Enormous bureaucratic effort thus goes into presenting a rational front of a government that is in charge and is planning ahead using scientific methods. The performance uses phrases the audience wants to hear, promising things they want to hear, and taking on the burden of seeming in control. The language of budgets are fine-tuned, using focus groups and background “papers”.

This scientific theater is not done out of any evil intent, but because governments that don’t perform in this manner get displayed as incompetent by onlookers and are booted out. They have no choice but to put up such a façade and pretend to adhere to a model of planning and evidence that they couldn’t possibly live up to in real life. The level of eontrol-pretense matches the expectations of the audience.

Empirical science is the clothing-of-choice of this increasingly elaborate façade of governments. The façade is normal business in all government departments too. There is a chief medical officer, a chief engineer, a chief economist, and many other chief scientists. They largely perform empirical science, spinning words and reports, making up stuff to appear in charge, aided by large groups helping them cook up all sorts of pretenses. Very little of it is out of bad intentions, nor is it necessarily all dysfunctional.

                   International agencies

Other large organisations too now nearly all have media departments that perform empirical science in this manner on a daily basis. The WHO “brings out” reports, information, and “discoveries”, spun by media managers to suit audiences. So too hundreds of international and national organisations. Its all full of “our scientists have found that, discovered this, warn about that, will study that”.

Frameworks are brought out so that organisations seem to control and understand stuff, whereas in actuality the frameworks replace understanding and control, full of meaningless feel-good phrases. The sustainable development indicators and frameworks are a great example of this genre, 169 underlying variables and counting, many of which tug in totally different directions (including polluting economic development!): the sustainable indicators don’t represent or aid actual policies, but replace them, allowing anything to be dressed up as sustainability policy because every policy will hit several of those 169 indicators.

Yet, if international organisations don’t present themselves like this, their funding is cut pretty quickly as few will notice them. They wouldn’t seem in control and wouldn’t seem to be working towards acceptable solutions. Being unnoticed and not seeming to do the right thing is a deadly sin in our celebrity and media-connected culture. Everyone needs to seem something and be noticed for it. Be noticed and praised, or perish.

Yet, this is but the tip of the iceberg. The above is merely how “non-academics” perform science, twist science, and cloak themselves in what seems to be science.

           The modern image of pure science

Worse is that empirical science itself has become obsessed with style over substance, with seeming over being.

The training into seeming goes very deep into the structures around empirical science now. It affects how students are told to think and write, how the reality of research is presented to them, and how they are supposed to communicate their work.

The image of what empirical science is has largely become a monoculture, based on the notion that scientists follow divine inspiration. The quintessential image is of Archimedes sitting in his bathroom having a Eureka moment of inspiration about water levels and things floating on the water, after which he “tests” his “new theory” with experiments, “confirming” that his theory is “correct”. Newton and the apple is another such example: science starts with divine inspiration, preferably followed by a randomised control experiment.

Very little of actual empirical science is like this, but students and academics are now almost universally forced to pretend it is like this. Research grant agencies nearly all want scientists to list their research questions or hypotheses, present the methods for checking those hypotheses, and give dissemination plans for telling the world about whether they were right or wrong.

                    The broad church of real science

If an astronomer asking for money for a telescope were to say “I am going to gaze through my telescope for years, hoping to find something of interest that then motivates me to think what is going on in the sky’, she would not get a cent of grant money. She has to pretend to be looking for something in particular. And yet “looking for something interesting” and only then “wondering what it might be” is a very old and prevalent scientific activity.

Similarly, there is “combining random data and previous thoughts from lots of differing time-periods, to come at an overall assessment of how things work and what the most important elements in a particular context are”. That kind of reflective armchair activity is pretty much the only thing many economists did for centuries, with their ideas and deductions still dominating the textbooks teaching new students. The market cross taught all students in their first lessons in economics, for instance, is not “tested”, and certainly not “confirmed”. It’s a causal story that fits lots of stuff about what goes on in markets, but is also inconsistent with lots of other information and is thus only useful if you have knowledge of a lot of context and applications.

Then there is “throwing oneself into unfamiliar situations that display the phenomenon I am interested in to see if I can figure out what is going on” which is how whole generations of social scientists made discoveries on the nature of revolutions, dictatorships, markets, etc. They traveled to places in the midst of revolutions, hyperinflation, and other social upheavals, to look around and notice what was of importance, checking causal storylines on the spot, asking others what is going on. Anthropologists still do this, though they now have to pretend they know beforehand what they are going to find, and they are often barred from really interesting field trips that might get them killed, so usually they are confined to a particular village to look at a pre-announced quirky form of behaviour.

Only journalists can still use one of the most powerful scientific methods there is by simply traveling to interesting places and observing humans in action.

These scientific methods used to produce much of the best empirical science we have, including much of economics, biology, history, chemistry, physics, etc.. Alas, very little of this is reflected in the current mandated format by grant agencies, who have the divine inspiration model in mind.

           How scientific teaching now outlaws broad science

Teaching is not truly broad anymore, anywhere. Just ask yourself: which university will allow a lecturer to take students on a field to trip to Syria now to see how a civil war affects people? The answer is “none”. It would be illegal to do so. The days of risky participatory field trips and immersion are over, replaced by the simpler view that science consists of the trifecta “hypothesis, test, and result”. Easier to teach, easier to examine. But it neglects the process via which an interesting hypothesis emerges, confining them to divine inspiration in the bathroom.

Yet, most ideas do not come in a bathroom and do not then get “tested”, but occur to scientists when looking at lots of stuff they happen to be interested in, not knowing what they are looking at or what they might find, using their wits and knowledge of many other things. Even the notion of proving something later on is odd when you reflect on it: the proof that there are such things as tiny moving objects like bacteria happens before ones very eyes as one sees them crawling about under a microscope.

The notions of “prior hypotheses”, “appropriate methods”, etc. are thus largely a form of ex-post explanation in many empirical sciences. That’s not how you discover something, but how you pretend you discovered something.

                 How the pretense has become mandatory

This pretense has deepened further and further in recent decades, particularly in social science and medicine. Ethics rules that empirical scientists now are bound by in many universities demand one pretends that science is divine inspiration: the ethics committee only allows one to gather data (or analyse existing data) if one has “prior hypotheses”, “consent plans”, etc. They thus demand you know beforehand what you are looking for, which means true new knowledge only comes via divine inspiration.

A major reason for this is that is allows for accountability theater: only within the world of divine inspiration can one possibly know beforehand what data one wants to gather and thus what consent or other things one might need of “participants”. The divine inspiration model allows every aspect of research to be controlled, checked, and mandated. Ethics rules thus mandate empirical scientists become producers of a very particular form of scientific theater.

It gets much, much worse. Not only do administrations and granting agencies now demand a kind of “science role-playing” from all and sundry, but scientists themselves are now doing this to each other. The divine inspiration model is what many teach as the “scientific method” to many students, particularly business students and medical students.

The latest in this slide is the notion of “pre-registration plans”, not only on experiments, but on all forms of empirical discovery. In an increasing number of (top) journals, one is frowned upon if one has not pre-registered the planned analysis in a paper. The weird reasoning behind this is that if one didn’t go looking for something in particular, it’s not science if you discover it. That leaves divine inspiration as the only valid form of science: divinity whispered ideas into one’s head, after which one wrote down the tests and the data to go check on that idea, followed by the performance of the appropriate tests and the resulting answer. It makes anything else, like combining observations from different accidental empirical sources, illegal and unethical because one didn’t ask permission of those accidental sources to be probed for knowledge. The science of old wasn’t pre-registered, so its not science. How bizarre can one get? And yet, that is now the supposed pinnacle of empirical science.

Pre-registration plans do not help science, but constrict scholars into play-acting science. It is accountability theater. And it wasn’t ethics committees or evil university managers that cooked them up either: it was other scientists telling themselves and others this was “purer” and a way to “prevent abuse”.

In economics, this has now crystallised into what is known as the randomista culture: if it cannot be presented as a “clean experiment”, you simply have no chance at top journals with your empirical paper, unless it is of innate concern to the country that journal is based in. So young scientists have learned not even to look at important events or big-picture thinking, but to scan the world for what looks like an experiment. This leads to lots of papers showing estimated causal relations in highly specific contexts, often useless, but conforming to the image of science as running experiments based on divinely inspired ideas.

                    How the pretense has become a habitual self-image

It gets worse still if one considers how scientists now “write up” results. In many disciplines a very particular form of communication has arisen: the scientific article. Many journals and disciplines have developed extremely tight notions of what such an article should look like. In economics, for instance, most journals expect a particular length, an abstract, an intro, a methods section, a results section, conclusions, and reference lists. Other disciplines and journals have other habits, but they are just as proscriptive. There are very particular rules on what to reference, how to reference, what to include in the methods, and how to report results.

The subterfuges involved in writing now taught to students as a matter of course mimic the way budgets are presented: everything is presented as rational and a strength, even if its a weakness. So suppose a scientist trialed a pill on some patients who had low education and spoke an obscure dialect, with little idea as to what was happening to them, merely consenting because that way they hoped to get some medical attention. Those patients will probably not have taken them in the correct dosage at the correct times, and hence its very far away from the ideal group. How would a scientist “inform” the referees of this disadvantage in his study though? He relates the information in a way that makes it look good, and not bad. So he will sell the lack of language and education skills of the patients as an advantage, for instance because those patients have no “prior expectations of the working of these medicines and will thus not realise during the trial whether they got the active pill or the placebo, and hence not be biased in their responses”. Sounds good, no? Not quite untrue, but not the whole truth either, is it? Its just an example of how scholars are now trained to show the shiny side of any coin, not its grubby side. Spin is now a way of life.

Deviations from the norm are punished, even if the deviation is purely in style and actually functional. For instance, if a scientist would send an economics journal a video in which some market phenomenon is much better explained than words ever could, she’d have no chance, certainly not as a stand-alone piece. Videos are not considered “real science”, at least not in economics, even if moving images can be a more powerful explanation than the non-moving images inherent in texts. Smells, artworks, etc., are also deemed non-scientific. A collection of explained pictures is similarly not-done as a stand-alone piece of science. And yes, I have tried it a few times!

Still, scientific museums are full of such artifacts used by scientists past and present to demonstrate scientific truths and explain things to the next generation and their colleagues. But conforming to the quasi-religious strictures that exist around “scientific articles” is the way individual scientists get kudos for their research from the gate-keepers, their peers. So once again, the conformism and monoculturalism is not done by outsiders, but insiders, and not out of evil-intent but out of the heart-felt notion that this is “how it should be”.

                   How deceitful pretense is now the norm

The perniciousness goes deeper still. Every sentence of what scientists nowadays write in articles is a performance of sorts, with an element of deceit. One for instance has to acknowledge powerful figures in a discipline by mandated forms of flattery, such as by saying “the seminal paper by X showed” where X is someone powerful in that discipline, often the intended editor of the journal a paper is sent to. If one would say “it was probably widely known for centuries, but X got his name on the following piece of common sense knowledge” one might in a strict sense be more scientific, but it would never get passed the refereeing process. Dividing knowledge neatly into packages of “truths” that were each “discovered and proven” by someone in particular is now a pretend-view of the world that one cannot avoid buying into when writing an article. It is a practice that is totally unscientific, but completely fits the ”hypothesis, test, result” mantra.

The same goes for the issue of what counts as a contribution, what is deemed a “significant result”, how much evidence is required depending on whether the audience already believes it, etc. Scientific papers, particularly at the top journals, are now more like a walk through the subconscious prejudices of the editors and referees than that they explain and reflect good science. Only by hitting the subconscious boxes of editors and referees can one get “accepted”.

Junior scientists very actively try to second-guess the subconscious of their judges, down to the font type and the particular Latin phrase they think an intended referee would appreciate, based on an analyses of which school she attended and what she wrote in her last 5 editorials. And no, I am not kidding. That’s not the worst I have seen. There is the “seminar dance”, “the first draft slant”, “the after conference-dinner pitch”, and of course the “hiring of the student of the editor”. It really is a commercial circus now.

This hence goes to the deeper point that scientists nowadays are nearly all degraded into performance monkeys: they no longer own science but have to continuously earn their place by appearing to be the right sort of monkey. They are forced into theater and are honed in the art of deception towards colleagues, grant agencies, themselves, and the general public.

This is the reality of empirical science now. No-one planned it to be this way, but here we are. And it is too easy to blame university managers or research-performance exercises for this slide. Those external pressures sped it up, but much of the change was championed and pushed by scientists themselves, responding both to internal competitive pressures and the evolving notion of what science is supposed to be.

                How it came to be thus

How does this “performing monkey” reality of modern science and scientists compare with the scientists of centuries past? Why did the previous model stop functioning?

Well, the performance art of the previous generations of scientists was a somewhat aristocratic pass-time, done by a small layer of privileged people who thought they were better than everyone else. They performed science to their audience largely in a display of their superiority, showing off. The production of science behind the scenes though was whatever practical way there was of finding out about something.

The main merit to the old system was that there was a lot of pragmatism involved in how scientific knowledge was produced. Charles Darwin just packed up and went gallivanting to far-away islands to have a look at exotic animals in a situation no-one would stop him experimenting on them, dissecting them, or whatever else he wanted to do with them. He combined his close observations with knowledge of breeding dogs and cows back home, inspired by economic ideas of social selection. He asked no permission, had no clear idea of what he was looking for, and interfered with any animals he felt he needed to interfere with. He’d never get away with it today.

There was also a larger scope of inquiry because there was less competition, so scientists felt more entitled to wonder through large territories. The lack of much scrutiny meant it was easier for an individual to do “grand science” about the whole political economic system, or how to view a complex problem like covid-19. We no longer train scientists to think grand, and we certainly don’t reward it: cut-throat competition rewards specialisation and “keeping to what you know best”. In some sense hence, part of the current problem is that there are just too many empirical scientists leading to these tiny territories.

The “performing monkey” reality of modern science has then lead to a great impoverishment in scientific teaching and methodology used, essentially losing the benefits of pragmatism and aristocratic grandiosity. The monkeys are now all small-time performers having lots of pretend-Eureka moments. Even if the “winners” among them then start to comment on big things, the problem they face is that they were not trained to do so and in my opinion, usually very bad at it.

The main disadvantage of the old system was that it was inherently not very accountable and openly wasteful as most supposed scientists did very little but rake up a salary whilst pontificating to students. Moreover, it often didn’t seem like science when one looked a bit more closely because of course the aristocrats performing towards the public liked to present a much more pristine face than the reality. They were often sloppy and wrong, inevitably so if they talked about many things at once. It was easy to challenge them.

There is no obvious single person, country, or development to blame for the slide towards mass pretense in empirical science: it is the way it has gone, probably because of the incentives of all organisations to seem scientific, and the ability of particular groups inside academia to force others on the defensive by forcing them to conform to a much more narrow and particular view of science. I think competitive pressures got us here. Too many scientists combined with with the relentless need to have appealing but defensible positions. Exactly the same force that has lead governments into accountability theater.

                 The costs of all this pretense and deceit

We are only just discovering the areas in which the monocultural reality is costing science and society, but I suspect that the massive failure of science and scientists in the covid-19 crisis is largely due to the transformation of science from an aristocratic but pragmatic endeavour into this “performing monkey” accountability theater.

For one, being in constant monkey-mode themselves, many scientists have lost the ability to separate the wheat from the chaff. They think something must be true when a top journal publishes it because it’s a top journal. They think it has authority because it makes the media and is taken over by prestigious international organisations. They do this partly because the high degree of specialisation makes it difficult for them to judge anything outside their field, but also partly because they have been trained to think outside rewards represent the ultimate judgment of whether something is true. They are totally focused on those rewards themselves and they are truth-seeker, aren’t they? How could those journals and organisations then get it wrong? Unimaginable. Their own lives would suddenly make less sense in a world where one couldn’t trust the supposed top outlets.

Relatedly, governments only have these one-trick monkeys to draw upon. They’re the ones who get the grants, are directors of institutes, and play by these rules. They also play along with the performance-needs of the government, so they are naturally the ones in their vicinity. That’s a general problem in our society, but one more visible in an emergency. What makes it more of a problem in an emergency is that the performing monkeys are automatically more “audience oriented”. They really do not like to be seen to disagree with “mainstream science”, nor with what government wants of them. They have been selected to be like that.

Yet, Covid-19 presented an acute problem needing a broad view. The response to Covid-19 needed an overall view of a hundred and one areas involved (many subfields in economics, sociology, psychology, virology, public administration, transport, etc.), and it needed that view to be generated within days, not months or years.

In the kind of complex situation the pandemic represented, the limited number of bits for which one in a hurry can do “hypothesis, test, result” science is far too slow and too detail-oriented to be more than a small piece of the puzzle. What do those trained in very narrow areas do though when they suddenly get responsibility for making judgments on much more complex problems? As we now know, they follow the group for their actual opinions.

Lacking training in coming up with general pictures themselves, the epidemiologists and virologists suddenly thrust in the role of chief scientific advisers to governments just didn’t realise the potential effects of various actions. And how could they? This made them highly susceptible to sacrificial group think: “Something must be done. That dramatic course of action (locking up everyone) is something. So let’s to that”.

Hordes of “scientists” on the outside were egging them on to do just that. It gave them safety in numbers, with some top journal and international organisation pieces to back them up. What else could they have come up with than ridiculous models with ridiculous numbers of projected casualties unless one did something totally unproven? As we now know, the advising scientists in nearly all Western countries gave in to this pressure, except in Sweden.

In what was another across-the-board betrayal of science, the hordes of scientists advocating lock downs and other unproven experiments reversed the onus of proof. They simply turned around and asked those who disagreed with them to prove to their satisfaction that there was a better course of action. And when they learned over time that no country in the world got even a small fraction of the deaths-from-covid that were predicted (even with lock downs), the unproven assertion many of them moved to was that “that was because they implemented our advice”. Two betrayals of science in one short statement. Essentially, the “scientists” covered up. Just like governments presenting their budgets cover up what they don’t know. Seeming is everything.

                     Accountability theater gone covid-mad

The clearest indication of how poor the training and thinking of most empirical scientists has become is how they are now falling over themselves to analyse and comment upon how governments and countries have “performed” in times of Covid. They take the numbers on those tested for covid-19 or deaths from covid-19 as the key “performance indicators” in this accountability theater, and are discussing in thousands of papers and blogs how this or that country, government, and advising body stacks up relative to others.

Just a year earlier, performance was on totally different indicators, like GDP growth, or perhaps trade-deals and “sustainable development”. Those previous goals have been momentarily forgotten, as if they are of no value at this time.

Worse still, Covid-tests and deaths are not a sustainable or logical way to look at government performance right now. One can quibble over what would be a reasonable indicator, but surely it would include all deaths, some notion of how sustainable current policies are, some notion of changes to our wealth-generating capacity that has to pay for future policies, and some wider notion of changes in how the population is feeling about a whole raft of things. Surely the future of our children and. our businesses still matter, even in times of covid, and hence changes to those futures still matter for judging current performances? And surely, abused women, the wider health of society, our military prowess, and everything else we normally care about is still part of the goal function too?

So how can one possibly fall over oneself to assign blame or praise to governments on the basis of the tiny wobbles in total deaths connected to covid-19 without looking at some notion of how the big things are going? It is a total loss of perspective.

It makes no sense at all, except within the logic of accountability theater. Narrow-minded ignorance of wider questions is exactly how empirical scientists have now been raised to think for a generation or more. It is exactly how grant agencies judge things. It is exactly how the government accountability machinery now works. It is exactly how international organisations now work: they all habitually pretend to have frameworks, plans, and answers to the current specific concerns of the population, judging others and themselves on “performance” in those realms. When those concerns are wide, the pretense is broad and the notion of performance is broad. When those concerns are narrow, the pretense is narrow and the notion of performance is narrow. Scientists are simply joining in.

So the whole circus of performing monkeys now chases the whims of the population, because that is what they have increasingly been doing the last 30 years. We are not watching hordes of scientists losing their minds, but hordes of scientists doing exactly what they have been increasingly trained to do.


                 What we need.

We need different scientists. To help with a fast-changing situation, we need scientists who are nimble, pragmatic, broadly-informed, immersive. Most of all, they should not be afraid to disagree with supposed top journals, top institutions, or top scientists, but take their own council. That needs a form of confidence that comes from real independence and long training.

We also need the involvement in government of people with a reasonable view of how many things fit together and what various relativities are, able to critically evaluate science. This is the sort of person top civil servants used to be. Nowadays, the advisers closest to government in many countries are media-managers, highly adept at reading what the population wants to hear. Seeming is everything. But, alas, spin-doctors are not all that good at understanding a complex situation they haven’t seen before, with their instincts honed not towards what is best for the population, but towards what that population wants to hear. They manage the audience, not the problem, running rings around those “hypothesis, test, result” scientists who are now in essence chasing seeming over being as well.

To prevent a recurrence of the entirely avoidable economic, social, and health disaster now befalling us and to get us out of this mess will require a radical overhaul of scientific teaching, funding, and its relation with mass-communication. This will take some doing though.

Nietzsche On The Relief Of Mortality

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 24/06/2020 - 5:45am in

In The Dawn of Day: Thoughts on The Prejudices of Morality, Nietzsche writes:

With regard to knowledge the most useful accomplishment is perhaps: that the belief in the immortality of the soul has been abandoned. Now humanity is allowed to wait; now it no longer needs to rush headlong into things and choke down half-examined ideas as formerly it was forced to do. For in those days the salvation of poor ‘eternal souls’ depended on the extent of their knowledge acquired during a short lifetime; they had to make a decision overnight – ‘knowledge’ took on a dreadful importance. (D 501)

Mortality places a terrible burden upon us: fear of the un-redeemed life, the incomplete, under-achieving, unsuccessful life, the one that did not find its summum bonum during our living years. But we’ve always known that finiteness was our friend too; with the clock running out for all of us we find many sympathetic ears when we announce that we simply cannot be bothered taking on too much for this life, this poor, short, all too easily terminated life, this mere blink of an eye. Can any serious projects, existential or intellectual, really be undertaken in such a brief repose from the eternal waits of the prenatal and the afterlife? Much as we might curse death and the interruption it induces in our life plans, we are secretly grateful; we have been saved by the cosmic bell. No more impatiently looking askance at us as we clumsily toil away at our pitiful life projects; we must down tools when Death comes calling. We are especially comforted when this death, this mortality, is combined with the lack of the Great Examiner or Proctor, the one who might otherwise have been imagined placed in charge of ‘grading’ our lives; our incomplete, unfinished work will not be evaluated or critiqued; it, like us, will pass into mere blissful anonymity. 

Nietzsche is right above to make note of the relief promised in case of mortality, in the case of ‘God’s death’: there will be no assessment of this ridiculously short life, one in which it is all too apparent that the ‘right’ or ‘correct’ knowledge could not be obtained within its pitifully short specifications–the dreadful importance of this brief preparation for the long immortality of the soul was thus mercifully negated. Investing the world and our life with the terrible significance of immortality comes with a burden all its own; the meaninglessness of the tenure of the not-immortal soul promised its own blissful anonymity. The disproportion between the immortality of the soul, that majestic eternity, and the miserable petty shortness of the life meant as testing ground had always seemed radically unfair; deliverance by death rightly seemed a great relief, an escape, from such existential burdens.

Immortality, without adequate instructions for the journey, always seemed like the greatest curse of all; mortality the greatest blessing of all. The mortal life returns to its humble specifications–it is no longer a prized microsecond of respite from the darkness, one artfully constructed to give us the opportunity to settle down for immortality. Instead, it is what it has always seemed: a meaningless interruption with no particular significance in some invisible cosmic schemata, one that awaits investment with meaningfulness by the living of our own, unique, particular life. 

On Foucault on 24 January 1979: On Perpetual Peace and Governmental Naturalism (VIII)

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 16/06/2020 - 10:43pm in

Yet another example of this appearance of a governmental rationality that has the entire planet for its horizon is the eighteenth century projects for peace and international organization. If you consider those that existed in the seventeenth century, you will see that these projects for peace were essentially based on European equilibrium, that is to say, on the exact balance of reciprocal forces between different states; between the different powerful states, or between different coalitions of states, or between the powerful states and a coalition of the smaller states, and so on. From the eighteenth century, the idea of perpetual peace and the idea of international organization are, I think, articulated completely differently. It is no longer so much the limitation of internal forces that is called upon to guarantee and found a perpetual peace, but rather the unlimited nature of the external market. The larger the external market, the fewer its borders and limits, the more you will have a guarantee of perpetual peace.

If you take Kant’s text on the project of perpetual peace, for example, which dates from 1795,4 right at the end of the eighteenth century, there is a chapter entitled “On the Guarantee of a Perpetual Peace.” How does Kant conceive of this perpetual peace? He says: What fundamentally is it in history that guarantees this perpetual peace and promises us that one day it really will take shape and form in history? Is it men’s will and their mutual understanding, the political and diplomatic devices that they will have been able to construct, or the organization of rights that they will have been able to install between them? Not at all. It is nature, just as in the physiocrats it was nature that guaranteed the good regulation of the market. And how does nature guarantee perpetual peace? It is very simple, Kant says. Nature after all has done some absolutely marvelous things, since it has managed, for example, to get not only animals, but even peoples to live in lands completely scorched by the Sun or frozen by eternal sheets of ice. There are people who manage to live there in spite of everything, which proves that there is nowhere in the world where human beings cannot live. But for people to be able to live they must be able to feed themselves, to produce their food, have a social organization, and exchange their products between themselves or with people from other regions. Nature intended the entire world, the whole of its surface, to be given over to the economic activity of production and exchange. And on that basis, nature has prescribed a number of obligations that are juridical obligations for man, but which nature has in a way dictated to him secretly, which she has, as it were, marked out in the very arrangement of things, of geography, the climate, and so on. What are these arrangements?
First, that men can have relations of exchange with each other individually, supported by property, etcetera, and this prescription or precept of nature will be taken up in legal obligations and become civil law.

Second, nature determined that men be distributed across the world in distinct regions and that within each of these regions they have privileged relationships with each other that they do not have with the inhabitants of other regions, and men have taken up this precept in legal terms by forming separate states which maintain certain legal relationships between them. This will become international law. But in addition, nature has wished that there are not only juridical relationships between these states, guaranteeing their independence, but also commercial relationships that cross the borders between states and consequently make the juridical independence of each state porous, as it were. Commercial relationships cross the world, just as nature intended and to the same extent as nature intended the whole world to be populated, and this will constitute cosmopolitan law or commercial law. This edifice of civil law, international law, and cosmopolitan law is nothing other than man’s taking up of a precept of nature as obligations. So we can say that law, inasmuch as it resumes the precept of nature, will be able to promise what was in a way already outlined in the first action of nature when it populated the entire world: something like perpetual peace. Perpetual peace is guaranteed by nature and this guarantee is manifested in the population of the entire world and in the commercial relationships stretching across the whole world. The guarantee of perpetual peace is therefore actually commercial globalization. Michel Foucault, 24 January 1979, Lecture 3, The Birth of Biopolitics. 56-58*

Foucault quite correctly inserts Kant's Perpetual Peace into the framework of eighteenth century liberalism.* But  he does so with an unusual, uncharacteristic for him misstep. On his view of the eighteenth century, perpetual peace is derived from the size of the external market, which presupposes few borders, which are, presumably sites of conflict ("the larger the external market, the fewer its borders and limits, the more you will have a guarantee of perpetual peace.") It's very much in the spirit of some such discussions. 

But this is not (recall) Kant's Madisonian position, which relies on the growing size of the internal market without or, perhaps better put, relatively minimal borders. As these internal markets expand they create continental wide spheres of peace within these federations and promote pacific relations among multiple continental-wide federations. In particular, and this draws on Addison), trade is then conducive toward peace in virtue of generating a shared legal framework and facilitating a cosmopolitan outlook.

While he is an important influence on Kant's views on federation, Smith, in turn, deviates from this narrative because he thinks, presciently, that export led growth and international trade increase the possibility of conflict when such trade is conceived in zero-sum terms (see also Paganelli & Schumacher). That is to say, and Kant mentions it explicitly in Perpetual Peace, what's required is that the pacific "spirit of commerce" (as distinct from the warlike mercantile spirit) diffuses itself through a federation. Thus, while Kant and Smith do not agree on all the details, they agree that a peace-conducive ideology or civic religion is one of the building blocks of a peaceful international system.+

Foucault's mistake makes sense because he also wants to help explain a regional consciousness that leads to a particular kind of nineteenth century imperialism. And for that narrative (pp. 54-46) growing markets external to Europe are central part of the story.

I don't mean to suggest that Foucault's interpretation of Kant is mistaken on a more fundamental level. Kant, indeed, echoes the providential literature in which the existence of trade is both explained by the post-tower-of-Babel and post Noah-ite flood spread of humans and animals, and justified by the mutual gains from trade and specialization. (I warmly recommend Joost Hengstmengel's, Divine Providence in Early Modern Economic Thought.) And, quite clearly, God's providence (which can be merely regulative) has been displaced on or is exhibited by nature, or, Nature's Order, which, in turn, becomes the source of a funny kind of normativity (in terms of precepts). Of course, in this sense Kant echoes not just Smith, but the whole strain of natural law thinking in authors as diverse as Hobbes, Vittoria, and Leibniz (Hume being the main outlyer) some of which, indeed, constitutive of international law (Francesco Suarez, Grotius, Pufendorf, etc.). 

And, indeed, we can recognize in the (quasi-Stoic) demand to live in accord to nature's precepts, which are themselves orderly, and increasingly even law-like, a guide both an ideal of peace and an ideal of law-governed-ness. To be without law is to be in the state of permanent war and to be uncivilized. The desirable contrast is a global political order of the civilized.

What Foucault recognizes about the previous paragraph is that alongside the juridical-theological conceptualizations, this is also inscribed, constitutively into science of political economy. For, and here I am drawing on my work on the afterlife of the so-called Posidonian argument (recall here; here; here; here), in this period, it is standard to assume that nature's order, now understood as a global, political order, is constitutive, a condition of possibility, on scientific progress. When this conceptualization is inscribed in the liberal art of government, Foucault calls this "governmental naturalism" (61). 


*The present post is number (VIII) because it should be read after this one (here)

+In Smith it is pretty clear that this, in turn, is, in part, a matter of material and economic circumstances of a polity.

On the Rule of the Solitary

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 13/06/2020 - 2:16am in



Because the ideal city is specially characterized by the absence of the arts of the doctor and the qadi [magistrate], love being the strongest bond between them, there is no contention at all. When a part of it is lacking in love and contention occurs, justice must be established, and inevitably someone to dispense it, viz. the qadi, is required. Further, all actions in the ideal city are right, this being its special characteristic which it never lacks. Hence its people will not indulge in harmful foods. Therefore they will not need knowledge of remedies for choking at the breaking of the fast nor anything else of the kind, nor remedies for excessive drinking, since nothing not properly in order is there. Similarly when people give up exercise, numerous diseases arise in consequence. Clearly this does not apply to our city. It may also be that there will be no need in it for most of the remedies for dislocation and the like. In general, cannot the healthy body rouse itself to resist diseases whose obscure causes come from outside? For its desire is not great. The severe wounds of many people of sound health are cured of themselves--with numerous instances of the same kind. And so a special characteristic of the ideal city is that there is neither doctor nor qadi, while among the traits of the four simple [ignorant?] cities is their need of both. The further removed from the ideal, the more a city needs them, and the more honourable is the rank of both these classes. Plainly in the perfect city a man is given the best of which he is capable, and all its views are true. How could a view in it be false? Its actions alone are ideal in the absolute sense, and every other action, even if excellent, is in relation to the corruption of its existence. If a limb is cut from the body, it is essentially harmful, though incidentally it may be advantageous to one whom an adder has stung, and his body is relieved by cutting it off. Similarly scammony is essentially harmful, though useful for one who is ill. A short account of these matters has been given in the Nicomachean Ethics. It is clear that every view except the view of its people which appears in the perfect city is false, and every action which takes place in it, except the customary actions, is wrong. Now the false has no definite nature and cannot be known at all... Ibn Bajjah's  Rule of the Solitary, translated by By D. M. Dunlop, 75-76

This morning I listened to Peter Adamson's lovely podcast on Ibn Bajjah [Avempace] and Ibn Tufayl. It made me re-read Ibn Bajjah's Rule of the Solitary. As it happens Ibn Tufayl is explicitly rather critical of Ibn Bajjah and, implicitly, he seems to be (recall) scathing. At the end of this post, I will return to this polemic. But first I focus on Ibn Bajjah's treatment of the best city quoted above.

Rule of the Solitary starts with a conceptual analysis of the linguistic diversity of 'rule' in Arabic.  To simplify: rules involve teleological generalizations. The "absolute" and "noblest" rule is God's providence. One set of rules is the subject matter for "political science," and this includes rule of commonwealths and "households." (73) When it comes to cities (and households) rule can be right and wrong. Ibn Bajjah asserts that "Plato has made clear the nature of the rule of cities in the Republic." (74) Ibn Bajjah treats Aristotle's Politics as a work by Plato, and insists that it consists of the nature of the rule of households.

One complication, thus, is that he treats the Republic and Politics as two parts of one science (by one author). A further complication is that it is not obvious he has access to either text, especially doubtful that he would have had an Arabic version of Politics (and may be working from summaries).* I mention this, too, because household management (οἰκονόμοι) is mentioned at Republic 417a as something the lower classes do, although the Republic is, in a certain sense, indeed ignoring the principles of it.

He treats household management as the occasion to enunciate a general principle: "That home only is perfect in which no increase is possible, lest it may turn to loss like a sixth finger. For it is characteristic of what is exactly right that an increase is loss." (74) So, a perfect social organization is in balance or equilibrium. Presumably "increase" here refers to population and/or goods (but Ibn Bajjah does not say).

Okay, with that in place, it seems pretty clear that the four ignorant cities are a reference to the timocratic, oligarchic, democratic, and tyrannical cities. it is striking, however, that Ibn Bajja treats the city without magistrates and physicians as the best city. For, while it is true that Socrates thinks it is unworthy or unfitting to discuss these matters and to legislate on them, and leaving them to the citizens of Kallipolis to discover, he clearly implies that the city will require magistrates [425c-d]. Presumably this is one of the lesser tasks of the guardians. Something similar can be said about the role of physicians in Kallipolis. While Socrates is clearly against the kind of medicine that keeps or prolongs badly diseased bodies alive, the implication seems to be that the medicine that keeps folk doing proper their function in the state is available in Kallipolis [407cd & 409d]. In addition, the eugenics project of Kallipolis is articulated in a medicalized fashion [459C]

So, I think an alternative is possible: Ibn Bajja is treating the 'true city" (372e) or 'city of pigs' as the very best city. For despite the existence of commerce and trade, it seems to be a city without magistrates. Of course, it is (recall) a city with carers of bodies, and  (369d), and because of 341C it is natural to understand these as physicians.** But in context it is quite natural to treat these carers of bodies as akin to fitness trainers.

There are three other reasons to think that Ibn Bajja may be referring to the 'city of pigs' as his model of the best city. (I have some fondness for this city; recall extensively herea bit hereand also more here)) First,  he claims that in it there is no falsity at all. This is manifestly not true of the Kallipolis, which requires some noble lies [414cff]. In addition, in the heart of Socrates' eugenics deception is also explicitly practiced [459CD]. 

The second reason is more tricky. Above I noted that Ibn Bajja clearly assumes that the best city is in fine balance, an increase would be a loss. It respects some kind of equilibrium condition. Those familiar with Kallipolis, will naturally think of the passage where the guardians are taught to follow the rule: “that they should let it grow so long as in its growth it consents to remain a unity, but no further [[423bc]. And it is natural to read into this population control because Socrates implies that there are only a thousand warriors in the polity. But that leaves quite inexact how large the total population is (as distinct from the exactitude of Magnesia in Plato's Laws).

By contrast, there is no doubt that the true city practices (recall) strict population control: using Reeve's translation: "they will produce no more children than their resources allow, lest they fall into either poverty or war." [372bc] Moreover, the way Socrates puts it allows a trade-off between population and goods, which is the ambiguity I noted in Ibn Bajja.

Third, Ibn Bajja is adamant that "all actions in the ideal city are right." (This is why there is no need of a qadi). Strikingly, this is not because all the inhabitants are sage-like philosophers. (Spinoza makes the point somewhere that a city of sages would not require laws.) But, rather this is so because people behave correctly from tradition ("custom"). I think this fits the true city very nicely; it seems to lack philosophy altogether. By contrast, as is well known, in Kallipolis correct behavior is the consequence of extensive drilling and censorship (etc). 

Okay, let me wrap up. Remember that Ibn Tufayl's explicit criticism of Ibn Bajja was two-fold: Ibn Bajja is mistakenly anti-mystical (and rejects the intuitive faculty) and he is personally materialistic. The more subtle criticism is that it reduces religion to the regulation of human desires as a set of customs or practices; it leaves no space for higher things. And so, religion cannot be a conduit to a philosophic life (which Ibn Tufayl and Ibn Rush claim just is living according to the inner truth of the Qu'ran). And, indeed, that argument makes sense if we understand Ibn Bajja as treating the true city, where there is a natural religion of the flesh, 'singing hymns to the gods in pleasant fellowship,' as ideal, but decidedly odd if he were taken to be thinking of the Kallipolis. 



*A final complication is that while Adamson (in the podcast) treats Ibn Bajjah as a kind of follower of Al-Farabi, Ibn Bajjah clearly thinks that household management is a proper  part of political science, whereas Al-Farabi seems less inclined to think so. I don't want to deny that Ibn Bajjah is in dialogue with Al-Farabi; he has a whole treatment of the treatment of political "weeds" that is clearly a response to Al-Farabi's, but he takes up a contrasting position. (Michael Kochin is good on this.)

**I am indebted to Eric Brown here.

Why People Kill in the Name of God

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 08/06/2020 - 10:37pm in



New research shows that people who use religion to enhance their status also advocate for violence against non-believers.

We Hold This Truth to Be Self-Evident: It’s Happening Before Our Very Eyes

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 06/06/2020 - 4:02am in

Democracy in America has been a series of narrow escapes. We may be running out of luck, and no one is coming to save us. For that, we have only ourselves. Continue reading

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Tear Gas and The Bible

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 04/06/2020 - 3:01am in

The White House ordered Lafayette Square cleared of protesters so Trump could walk from the building to nearby St. John’s Episcopal Church. To clear the square, National Guard units attacked the peaceful protesters there with tear gas, rubber bullets, and flash-bang explosives. Continue reading

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