This is conceived as an informal and spontaneous annex to my more extensive blog, Grand Strategy: The View from Oregon

25th April 2014

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Political Ends and Political Means

More than a year ago in A Philosophical Disconnect I wrote about the almost total disconnect between philosophy of law and political philosophy, which seems like a strange and inexplicable ellipsis if we think of law as the practical implementation of politics. Law and politics might be understood as the practice and theory, respectively, of human society, or as means and ends. In either case, law and politics ought to be seen as a single, unified approach from a philosophical point of view.

On second thought, I have come to realize that politics can be implemented in more than one way. If we take the famous observation of Clausewitz that War is a mere continuation of policy by other means, this is equivalent to saying that war is an implementation of politics by non-political means. Clausewitz implies a relationship between political ends and political means, and asserts that political ends are sometimes to be obtained by military means, which he clearly recognizes as being distinct from the ordinary political means of obtaining political ends. What are the ordinary means for obtaining political ends? The political process itself, which is a process of making, enforcing, and interpreting laws in accordance with contemporary standards of procedural rationality.

Given, then, that we can obtain political ends by legal means or military means, that means that there is an intrinsic relationship both between politics and law on the one hand, while on the other hand an equal and also intrinsic relationship between politics and military tactics and strategy, which are the implementation of military thought. From a purely theoretical viewpoint, then — that is to say, from a philosophical viewpoint — we should expect to find a close relationship between philosophy of law and political philosophy on the one while, and an equally close relationship on the other hand between the philosophy of war and political philosophy.

Thus the disconnect mentioned above between philosophy of law and political philosophy is actually a twofold disconnect, because there is also a disconnect between political philosophy and the philosophy of war, or the philosophy of strategy and tactics, in so far as this latter exists. It is at least arguable that the second disconnect is the more profound, and therefore the greater ellipsis, because so little has been written on the philosophy of war. In addition to the works of Clausewitz himself, I own a small library of the few titles I have been able to find on the philosophy of war, such as Waging War: A Philosophical Introduction by Ian Clark and Barbarous Philosophers by Christopher Coker, and a few other titles. It is not a large collection. There is an enormous literature on war per se, but very little in the way of philosophical analysis of war. 

The want of an adequate philosophy of war is a neglect that cuts two ways, if we take into account Foucault’s inversion of Clausewitz (what I call Foucault’s Corollary) that I have discussed on several occasions: politics is a mere continuation of war by other means (cf. Foucault on Strategy, The Valorization of Protest, and A Clausewitzean Conception of Philosophy).

If politics is not only an end variously implemented by law and by strategy, but also a means to implementing the ends of war, then we can see that political philosophy and philosophy of law stand in a relation of mutual implication, as also political philosophy and philosophy of war. This also means that philosophy of law and philosophy of war stand in relation to each other at very least transitively through political philosophy, and perhaps also more directly.

An instance of their more direct relationship has been the attempt to formulate laws of war, which, as we also know, are spectacularly ineffective, as war rapidly escalates beyond anything anticipated by law, and war often occurs in a total vacuum of law, as when different civilizations with nothing else in common are forced to settle their differences through war because they have no other common framework within which to resolve conflicts.

While we tend to view Clausewitz’s equivalency of war and politics, as well as Foucault’s Corollary, in a negative light, we ought also to see the possibility of bringing the insights of strategy (which has been intensively studied, because it bears upon the existential viability of societies faced by conflict) to bear upon political and legal questions, and I believe that very little has been done from this perspective, philosophically speaking. There is a great opportunity here for the philosophically adept strategist of the strategically-minded philosopher.

Tagged: Carl von Clausewitzphilosophy of lawpolitical philosophyprocedural rationalityFoucaultMichel FoucaultClausewitzphilosophy of warlaws of warpolitics


24th April 2014


Asteroid impact risks 'underplayed' →

This BBC story describes the efforts of the B612 Foundation to build and orbit the Sentinel Infrared Space Telescope, which would be configured for the express purpose of discovering asteroids which potentially pose an existential risk to Earth.

The emphasis in this project is on early discovery, as if we have sufficient warning, deflecting an asteroid from hitting Earth is something that we could do with current technology. An especially large asteroid that would pose an extinction threat, if seen too late, would be difficult to deflect, but if we know about it early enough, a gentle nudge would be sufficient to move it out of the Earth’s path.

Tagged: existential riskexistential threatasteroidB612 FoundationSentinel Infrared space telescope


20th April 2014

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Exapting the Diffusion of Responsbility

Sociologists have identified a phenomenon known as the diffusion of responsibility, according to which individuals are less likely to provide assistance when they are part of a crowd of bystanders as compared to the likelihood of an individual to provide assistance to another in distress if no one else is present.

Usually when we think of the diffusion of responsibility we think of the “bystander effect,” as in the Kitty Genovese case, when multiple bystanders fail to come to the aid of an individual in distress. Here no one takes responsibility, but another kind of diffusion of responsibility is when everyone takes responsibility. In the film version of The Handmaid’s Tale (I haven’t read the book) there is a scene where all the handmaids must collectively pull on a rope in order that they all participate in a hanging of one of their own.

It is not at all unusual for social institutions to engage in the engineering of this second kind of diffusion of responsibility, when everyone is made to feel guilty, especially when the engineering of the diffusion of responsibility can be employed to shift blame away from a powerful individual or a dysfunctional institution onto those who had little or no choice about participating in the institution in question.

Someone in a position of responsibility and authority, who is supposed to make a decision, may surround themselves with others so as to make use of the diffusion of responsibility in order either to avoid taking action or to shift blame for their bad decisions onto a collective body, proactively creating the conditions under which the diffusion of responsibility will prevail — to their advantage.

Meetings are an excellent venue in which to do this. Under the guise of seeking advice or “brainstorming” one can deflect attention from one’s own role as the responsible authority and draw others in on the pretext of soliciting their input, only to hijack this participation to diffuse responsibility. 

As long as you can maintain a critical mass of persons around yourself, even after a failure of responsibility, when the responsible party ought to be held to account, a sufficient number of persons present can generate finger-pointing, charges, and counter-charges sufficient to muddy the waters and to allow the opportunistic individual to avoid responsibility as needed.

I am not suggesting that this is always done consciously. In fact, it usually happens without being noticed by the perpetrator. We all know people with a natural penchant for manipulation, who have no need of calculation because of the intuitive cunning that they possess. When we realize that we have encountered such an individual we usually take pains to separate ourselves from them, but in the workplace this is not always possible.

Tagged: sociologydiffusion of responsibilityexaptationbystander effect


19th April 2014

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A Return to the Marxian Paradigm


In several posts over the years I have argued that history has not proved Marx “wrong” (nor has history proved Marx “right”) and that we cannot judge of Marx’s predictions until the world entire is industrialized and the condition of the proletariat is thereby made universal. I have tried to make these points in the following posts, inter alia:

Globalization and Marxism

The Continuing Relevance of Marx

Marxist Eschatology

Addendum on Marxist Eschatology

Of course, Marx himself wanted the revolution to come about in his lifetime, and the sooner the better. To read the works of Marx and Engels is to see them grasping at straws, so that any and every strike is heralded as the beginning of the revolution that is going to bring down capitalism.  No one every says that Marx died a broken and embittered man because he did not live to see the revolution he predicted; by all accounts, Marx remained a true believer to the end.

Lenin was an impatient revolutionary (even more impatient for the revolution than Marx and Engels) and wanted to foment revolution in Russia during his lifetime, so he formulated an interpretation of Marxism that served his purposes, calling Russia the “weakest link” of capitalism and thereby identifying it as the point where communist revolution would happen first. This was a convenient doctrine for Lenin, but as an interpretation of Marx it is rather weak. A Paleolithic revolutionary might have argued that those regions of the world in which hunting and gathering was still predominant constituted the weakest link of emergent agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization, and might consequently claim that the real agricultural revolution would happen here. This would not be very convincing.

Almost 150 years after the publication of Das Kapital, and after several nation-states attempted to put Marxist principles into practice and failed miserably to make it work, the intellectual legacy of Marx continues to be a source of conflict. There are those who uncritically dismiss Marx as irrelevant, and there are those who uncritically accept Marx, and find countless excuses and patches for his doctrines even where they have manifestly fallen short.

Five years ago when I started writing about Marx on my blog I had hopes that a more critical and objective assessment of Marx would become possible in the post-Cold War period, but I have since come to doubt this; the spectre of Marx still hangs over Europe and the world. (And I realize even as I write this present post that those few who bother to read it will almost certainly say that it is I who have gotten Marx completely wrong — as indeed a recent writer commented on Tumblr — either because I have been insufficiently critical or insufficiently appreciative.)

Despite the absence of a tradition of scholarship that would, in my view, take up what is essential in Marx’s work and re-formulate it within the theoretical context of contemporary economic theory, I think that it is still possible to shed contemporary light on Marx, and one way to do this is to consider core Marxian ideas in the light of the looming possibility of technological unemployment, which is much discussed today.

In recent discussions of technological unemployment (which I have discussed in many posts, including Automation and the Human Future, Addendum on Automation and the Human Future, and “…a temporary phase of maladjustment…”, inter alia) I have emphasized that, while employment opportunities are changing, we are not seeing a social response on the part of contemporary society to these changed conditions of unemployment. Our attitude to the unemployed is largely punitive rather than supportive. This seems to suggest that, as industrialized economies develop into their mature form, they create the “reserve army of the unemployed” that Marx predicted. This is an obvious interpretation of contemporary economics in Marxian terms. But it is not the only possibility for a Marxian interpretation. 

Often we hear that the solution to unemployment and underemployment is education, and as a consequence we have seen a boom in higher education and competition among prospective employees in the number and prestige of credentials that they can offer to potential employers. These prospective employees supposedly belong Richard Florida’s so-called “creative class,” who contribute to the “information economy.” 

But the information economy is as much in crisis as many traditional sectors of the economy. Everyone who (and every industry that) has hitherto made a living from the enforcement of intellectual property rights is today in crisis. The near impossibility of enforcing intellectual property rights given the ease with which creative work can be copied and redistributed means that new revenue streams must be found, or, if they are not found, some traditional businesses will simply disappear as their revenue stream dwindles to nothing. In the Information Age, information is too cheap to meter and those who would seek to make a living from information must recast themselves as impresarios of information rather than mere brokers of information.

Taking the considerations of technological unemployment together with Matthew B. Crawford’s recent book on Shop class as Soulcraft (which I discussed in Back to shop class! and Some Thoughts for Labor Day), which argues for a restoration of the trades as a viable way of life, not least because many of the trades will be not only difficult to outsource but also difficult to automate, we can imagine the unemployed becoming a jack of all trades and master of none, as in a labor market of chronic underemployment one moves from one trade to another in the attempt to maintain oneself above the most abject measure of poverty.

There is a famous and oft-quoted passage from Marx where Marx imagines the worker’s paradise of a communist society in dilettantish terms:

“…nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic.” (Karl Marx, The German Ideology, Part I: Feuerbach. Opposition of the Materialist and Idealist Outlook, A. Idealism and Materialism)

Perhaps not voluntarily, but purely in response to the need to make a living, we may mostly end up doing whatever we can, which may well eventually include the contemporary equivalents of hunting in the morning, fishing in the afternoon, and rearing cattle in the evening, saving criticism for after supper because no one (except celebrities who have hit the jackpot in a winner-take-all economy) can make a living from criticism.

The story of Marx is far from over, and the reckoning that Marx imagined as an historical necessity — the expropriation of the expropriators — if it must come about as a result of the total industrialization of the world, has not come about yet, and may not come about at all if our civilization expands beyond Earth before it reaches a point of total industrialization.

But even in this event Marx will have a future in outer space, as what is perennial in Marx’s thought will be extracted and reformulated in the context of changed conditions. To slavishly follow Marx’s own formulations of his ideas is as limiting as the claim that Marxism is a defunct idea with nothing to contribute to the future.

Tagged: MarxKarl MarxMarxismtechnological unemploymentThe German IdeologyDas Kapitalrevolution


17th April 2014

Link with 3 notes

4 Reasons You Should Move To Vienna →

Of all the major European cities I have visited (and I have visited many of them) Vienna was among my least favorite, so it was with some interest that I noticed the above-linked article that talks up Vienna as a place to which one would want to pick up stakes and move.

The four criteria cited for making Vienna a desirable place to live are the following:

1. “Unlike the U.S., where public housing too often looks like a series of soulless fortresses, subsidized housing in Vienna is colorful, unique, and occasionally filled with amenities like rooftop pools and Finnish saunas. “

2. “In the early 1990s, Vienna instituted a policy called gender mainstreaming, aimed at providing equal access to city resources for both men and women, who don’t always use the city in the same way.”

3. “…the city uses information technology to improve the efficiency of city operations and the quality of life of its citizens.”

4. “Vienna’s car-free residential projects ask residents to commit to living without a car upon signing the rental agreement. Though the city still requires most developers to build a parking space for each residential unit, the car-free projects and developments like Bike City have managed to build without dedicated parking spots.”

All of these criteria are magnets for the urban design set, and don’t much bear upon the tourist’s impression of a city, and, of course, my impression of Vienna was a tourist’s impression. I have no idea what it is like to live in subsidized housing in Vienna, but if it includes rooftop pools and saunas, it must be very comfortable indeed. Somehow I suspect, though, that if you are newly moved to Vienna, you don’t get put directly into the subsidized housing with the rooftop pool.

One space in which the residential experience and the touristic experience of a city overlap is in the public spaces. If you have the good fortune to live in beautiful city with nice public spaces, well-maintained parks, and a pleasant layout, it is no burden at all to have a small personal living area, since much of one’s life can be lived in public spaces.

And there are many cities with ravishingly beautiful public spaces: the Piazza della Signoria in Florence, the Piazza San Marco in Venice, which has been called the “living room of Europe,”  Rio de Janeiro’s beaches, San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, and many others. If a city has a network of interconnecting public spaces of beauty and functionality — as one finds, for example, in Paris or Kyoto — and it is possible to find reasonably priced restaurants and coffee shops interspersed throughout these public spaces, this makes a city a pleasant retreat for resident and tourist alike. I personally did not experience anything like this in Vienna, but I have no doubt that others have found Vienna much more to their liking. 

Tagged: urbanismurban designVienna


16th April 2014


The Wrong Way to be Right


Among the common presuppositions of a technological society is the prevalent idea that there is a right way that everything ought to be done. I hate this idea, and because I hate it, I notice it when it appears in its many different forms.

Now, when I say that I hate the idea that there is a right way for all things to be accomplished, I do not mean “right” in the way that C. S. Lewis meant “right” when he wrote in The Screwtape Letters:

"The man who truly and disinterestedly enjoys any one thing in the world, for its own sake, and without caring twopence what other people say about it, is by that very fact fore-armed against some of our subtlest modes of attack. You should always try to make the patient abandon the people or food or books he really likes in favour of the ‘best’ people, the ‘right’ food, the ‘important’ books. I have known a human defended from strong temptations to social ambition by a still stronger taste for tripe and onions."

Now, I share Lewis’ disdain for the “right” food or anything else that is “right” in this sense. But Lewis means by “right,” that which is socially acceptable and likely to reflect well on on the individual who avails himself of the “right” commodity in question

I don’t know if you get what I mean, as the kind of meaning I want to try to convey is a bit elusive and I can’t hit on a really clear definition, but I have so many times personally encountered the idea that there is a correct way for life to be lived, and, again, I don’t mean it in a moral sense, or even an aesthetic sense. I mean it in a technical sense. The idea I hate is that there is a technology of life, and it remains to us to find the correct algorithm for each and every circumstance and situation.

Those who know me often hear me say, “There is no right or wrong answer; there’s only what you end up doing.” In so saying I am merely channeling Sartre, who wrote in his "Existentialism is a Humanism":

"…to choose an adviser is nevertheless to commit oneself by that choice. If you are a Christian, you will say, consult a priest; but there are collaborationists, priests who are resisters and priests who wait for the tide to turn: which will you choose? Had this young man chosen a priest of the resistance, or one of the collaboration, he would have decided beforehand the kind of advice he was to receive. Similarly, in coming to me, he knew what advice I should give him, and I had but one reply to make. You are free, therefore choose, that is to say, invent. No rule of general morality can show you what you ought to do: no signs are vouchsafed in this world." 

In saying, there’s only what you end up doing, I am saying, in effect, you are free, therefore choose.

What I have called the algorithmization of the world is a more general case of the algorithmization of the self implied by the quest to find the “correct” way to go about living.

The algorithmization of the self turns one into an automaton; the algorithmization of the world transforms the world entire into an automaton — and what is this but the clockwork universe of Newton and the mechanical philosophers?

Perhaps this is one of the sources of the belief in determinism that I have discussed in The Denial of Freewill as a Philosophical Problem. I don’t personally struggle with an existential dilemma of whether or not I have freedom, but I do struggle with why anyone would believe themselves not to be free against the evidence of their own experience. And because I cannot understand this, I come back to the problem time and again.

I can think of no more visceral intellectual experience than that of exercising one’s own freedom — as Kierkegaard wrote, following St. Paul, we realize our freedom in the dizziness that is dread, and make our choice in fear and trembling. A momentous decision does not remain confined to the strictly intellectual portions of our mind, but expresses itself corporeally, not least because we know that that decision has consequences. In other words, we know on an intuitive level that our choices shape the world and change the course of history.

When someone knows and feels their freedom so intimately, why should they be so ready to deny it? Why should they insist upon that denial and try to rationalize and to justify the self-abnegation of freedom?

Tagged: determinismfreewillfree willchoiceclockwork universealgorithmalgorithmizationmechanical philosophySartreJean-Paul SartreC. S. Lewis


12th April 2014

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Cultural Foucauldianism


"Cultural Foucauldianism" doesn’t have quite the caché of "cultural Marxism," but it describes a particular feature of contemporary history that is worth analyzing.

Cultural Marxism typically refers to the reconstruction or reinterpretation of cultural institutions along Marxist lines, specifically, according to the narrative of an oppressed group that attains consciousness of its repression (perhaps as the result of the agitation of a revolutionary cadre) and, following the raised class consciousness of the oppressed group in question, that group seeks a revolutionary overthrow of the institutions that have maintained the group in a position of social subjection.

Cultural Marxism is especially indebted to the work of Antonio Gramsci, who formulated the central ideas of cultural hegemony, which displaced Marxism (and the Marxist critique of bourgeois society) from the economic realm into the cultural realm.

Cultural Foucauldianism, constructed analogously to cultural Marxism (indeed, one could even say that cultural Foucauldianism is a construction of cultural Marxism), is a generalization and extrapolation of those features of Michel Foucault’s work that have been subsequently called anti-humanist

In a series of books on institutions characteristic of modern “enlightened” (and therefore humanistic) society, Foucault analyzed in detail the structures of power and social presuppositions embedded within mental institutions, prisons, medical clinics, and sexuality. Foucault insisted with a kind of counter-intuitive relentlessness that sociocultural practices that we have been conditioned to think of as being humane if not humanitarian are in fact oppressive, that is to say, that they are instruments of social control, in ways that we have long been accustomed to thinking of religion as a form of social control.

Cultural Foucauldianism takes this critique of the institutions characteristic of a humanistic society a step beyond those institutions constitutive of contemporary political society and democratizes the anti-humanist critique to all cultural and social practices, seeking to overturn our assumptions as to what constitutes a humane and enlightened society. 

The central and infinitely flexible argument is that, despite whatever you may have been taught, your attempts at kindness, caring, and the humane treatment of others have in fact been oppressive paternalistic impositions on the individuals and groups that they have been intended to help. Indeed, in contemporary social work “help” has become a four-letter word, unacceptably patronizing, and an endless variety of alternative formulations are employed to try to avoid the appearance that one is so arrogant to believe that one can “help” others. 

While this radical critique of humanism has sometimes brought a measure of good sense to over-protective institutions of our society, this reformist zeal usually exists in paradoxical symbiosis with a political program of increased state intervention that actively militates against the abolition of over-protective institutions.

Perhaps more damaging yet, the radical anti-humanistic critique can become a cover for bullies who employ the critique nihilistically to justify and rationalize their personal delight in cruelty. As I have observed previously, the last refuge of the disappointed idealist is sadism in the form of a vindictive idealism that revels in retribution. And what is more conducive to the disappointment of a young idealist than the pervasive compromises and corruption of our fallen world?

Aldous Huxley has been quoted as saying, “It is a bit embarrassing to have been concerned with the human problem all one’s life and find at the end that one has no more to offer by way of advice than ‘Try to be a little kinder’.” In so far as cultural Foucauldianism is used to justify unkindness in the name of higher moral ideals, it stands in contravention  to Huxley’s advice, but like any radical critique, what is done with it lies in the hands of its advocates.

Tagged: Michel Foucaultcultural MarxismAntonio GramsciFoucauldianismanti-humanismcrueltykindness


11th April 2014


A Schopenhauerian Fable


There is an aphorism by Schopenhauer that, I think, has even wider application in our time than it did in Schopenhauer’s time. This is from the collection of Schopenhauer’s essays and aphorisms that has been reprinted many times as Studies in Pessimism, but which was originally part of Schopenhauer’s much larger Parerga and Paralipomena:

A mother gave her children Aesop’s fables to read, in the hope of educating and improving their minds; but they very soon brought the book back, and the eldest, wise beyond his years, delivered himself as follows: This is no book for us; it’s much too childish and stupid. You can’t make us believe that foxes and wolves and ravens are able to talk; we’ve got beyond stories of that kind! In these young hopefuls you have the enlightened Rationalists of the future.

True to Schopenhauer’s pessimism, he takes this idea as a dismal sign of what awaits us in the future, and as Schopenhauer was writing in the nineteenth century, it is at least arguable that Schopenhauer’s dark vision has come to pass. The wider implementation of procedural rationality that characterizes industrial-technological civilization is largely a product of the enlightened rationalists that Schopenhauer scorned, and this civilization often ignores the perennial lessons of Aesop’s fables.

And yet, stories of all kinds proliferate. What Schopenhauer observed of Aesop’s fables could just as well be said of science fiction, fantasy, computer games, comic books, and all media in which fantastic storytelling is the norm. We have never had more stories than we have today, and perhaps we understand them less than we realize. 

Story telling in its most fantastic forms, at its best, embodies a line from John of Byzantium that I have often quoted: that which never was but always is. In setting a story in the inaccessible past or the inaccessible future, or telling a story with animals (or aliens) as the protagonists, the storyteller gains a certain freedom that slavish adherence to fact cannot grant. And in this freedom lies the possibility of depicting human nature truer to life through fiction than through fact.

One should remind oneself, whenever one hears something dismissed as mere science fiction or fantasy, that the author has chosen a fantastic genre for a reason. Fantastic narratives consciously sacrifice realism in order to focus on ideas, so that one must look to the idea in order to understand the story.

The moral of the story is the idea it seeks to develop, and the ideas we find in fantastical narratives have a crucial role to play in industrial-technological civilization.


Tagged: SchopenhauerArthur SchopenhauerAesopmythologyfablescience fictionfantasy


3rd April 2014

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A Cairn of Stones


When human beings want to leave a sign of their passing, they make a cairn of stones. It is, I think, a natural impulse, the basal instinct that is to be found at the origin of all building. One takes some elements of the landscape that are ready to hand (tool beings, as it were) and arranges them in a way reflective of human agency rather than of natural processes without purposes.


If you extrapolate a cairn of stones, making it much larger, and transforming it into a communal undertaking, it becomes a pyramid. Enough stones stacked on top of each other take on the shape of a pyramid because of the angle of repose. Almost all early civilizations built monumental pyramidal structures — the Mayans in Central America, the Mississippi Valley mound-building culture in North America, the Egyptians, and the Mesopotamians, inter alia.


David Christian, known for his work in Big History, has identified monumental architecture as one of the markers of civilization:

"Where monumental architecture appears, we can be certain that there exist powerful leaders or managers, for someone has to coordinate the labor of hundreds, even thousands, of people. In this way, secular and religious power often went hand in hand. Leaders hoped to inspire awe by building such structures—awe at the power of the gods, and also at the majesty of the priests and rulers who dealt directly with such powerful gods and who supervised the building of their residences. Monumental architecture is both a sign of power and an instrument of power." (Maps of Time, p. 261)

The pyramids of Egypt and Mesopotamia are monumental architecture if they are anything. Indeed, the pyramids survive today due to their monumentality even while the other six of the seven wonders of the ancient world have been lost to subsequent history. The oldest known pyramid in Egypt is the stepped pyramid of Saqqara, northwest of Memphis (also called the pyramid of Djoser). Built in the Third Dynasty of Egypt around 2650 BC, it is now a ruin, but when completed it was probably clad in polished stone.


It has been observed that when Greek civilization was at its height (say, Periclean Athens) the Egyptian pyramids were as old to them as the classical Greeks are now old to us. That gives a kind of temporal perspective into human history that we don’t often have, not least because there aren’t a lot of civilizations as immediately recognizable to us as ancient Egypt and Periclean Athens. The Greeks, we know, had heard of the Egyptians, but had the Egyptians and the Mesopotamians heard of each other while each civilization was erecting monumental pyramids? The oldest ziggurat known (now in ruins) is at Tepe Sialk, close to what is now central Iran. This ziggurat at Tepe Sialk may date to 3,000 BC and therefore may be older than the Egyptian pyramids, which suggests the possibility of idea diffusion. But in which direction did the idea travel, if it did travel? Some ancient Sumerian might have traveled to Egypt and then back to Mesopotamia, told stories of the wonders they had seen, and the people at Ur (where the largest and best-preserved ziggurat is to be found) may have decided to imitate the Egyptians.Or vice versa.


Later, when technology allowed for it, there were taller and more elaborate cairn-like structures, such as Trajan’s column and the Eiffel Tower. Engineering technologies made it possible to transcend the pyramid dictated by the angle of repose and to more directly implement the basal building instinct. The impulse to build monuments remains with us today in our skyscrapers, which vie with each other to reach greater heights in the way that medieval towns vied to build the tallest cathedral vaulting and spires.


Tagged: monumental architecturepyramidDavid Christianbig historyzigguratcairn


30th March 2014


Metaphysical Biases


Would it make any sense to identify a particular class of cognitive biases as metaphysical biases?

If we can identify metaphysical principles upon which we rely in our reasoning, principles derived neither from purely logical considerations or from empirical sources, and within these metaphysical principles we can identify a pattern of deviation in judgments involving metaphysical principles, then this would constitute metaphysical bias.

In my post on metaphysical fallacies I pointed out that metaphysical fallacies are perfectly parallel to logical fallacies, in so far as there are many systems of logic as there are many systems of metaphysics, but we don’t notice logical pluralism in the same way that we notice metaphysical pluralism because we rarely examine the principles of our reasoning in the way that we are forced to recognize principles that come into play in our ordinary engagement with the world.

In so far as a cognitive bias is a systematic (and systemic, for that matter) pattern of deviation from a logical or scientific principle (under which latter I include statistical principles), the principle is recognized as prescriptive, while cognitive bias recognizes the descriptive reality of attempting to reason in accord with logical and scientific principles. 

We can say the same thing about metaphysical reasoning with metaphysical principles: metaphysical bias is a systematic and systemic pattern of deviation from a metaphysical principle recognized as prescriptive, even if we find ourselves in our actual reasoning unable to follow is prescriptions.

Thus it is important to note that metaphysical bias is not the preference of one metaphysical principle over another, with these distinct metaphysical principles being recognized as prescriptive rules of reasoning in distinct metaphysical systems. One could easily make this mistake, and claim that metaphysical bias is the employment of a fallacious metaphysical principle.

Metaphysical bias sensu stricto would be a pattern of deviation from a principle recognized as a prescriptive rule of reasoning, while a descriptive account of our actual metaphysical reasoning reveals that out attempt to reason in accordance with a recognized metaphysical principle has fallen short of the ideal. In other words, one must acknowledge the legitimacy of the metaphysical principle (perhaps only implicitly, by way of tacit consent to a metaphysical Weltanschauung) in order to reveal one’s cognitive bias is failing to do justice to this principle. Thus rejecting a valid metaphysical principle in favor of a fallacious metaphysical principle isn’t the same thing as metaphysical bias; it is merely error or fallacy.

To conflate metaphysical bias and  metaphysical fallacy is like mistaking a hypocrite for a fool. Now, it may happen the a hypocrite may be a fool, and a fool may be a hypocrite, but one can be a fool without being a hypocrite, and vice versa. This metaphysical conflation is a metaphysical fallacy.   

If, for example, one claims to reason about the world in accordance with a naturalistic metaphysic, but a careful examination of one’s metaphysical reasoning reveals a pattern of deviation from naturalistic metaphysics, and this pattern can be identified, studied, and found in others, this is a metaphysical bias. If, on the other hand, one claims to reason about the world according to a naturalistic metaphysic but one explicitly employs non-naturalistic principles, then one is committing a metaphysical fallacy.

Tagged: cognitive biasmetaphysicsreasoningmethodmethodologyprinciplesmetaphysical biasmetaphysical fallacy