“When the sunlight shines through the blackness of space it’s black, but I was in sunlight and I was able to look at this blackness! And what are you looking at? Call it the universe, but it’s the infinity of space and the infinity of time. I’m looking at something called space that had no end and at time that has no meaning. You can really focus on it because you’ve got this planet out there, this star called Earth, which itself is in this blackness, but it is lit up because the sunlight strikes on an object, strikes on something called Earth. And it’s not a hostile blackness. Maybe it’s not hostile because of the beauty of the Earth that sort of gives it light.” — an Apollo astronaut.
I am a professor of philosophy. I am also a great admirer of some of the things that are thought of as postmodern so, caveat, this is not about that.
One of the things that bothers me about the world I live my professional life in is that philosophers teach the founding texts, not just of western civilization, which almost sounds pretentious to insist on, but of modernity, and yet there is a perception that philosophers are at best teachers of some nebulous thing called “critical thinking” and at worst Middle Earth cartography (charting their own fantasies). But the impact of the Enlightenment figures on our culture is huge, pervasive, and basically we own those guys. “It’s a pity that no one has ever inquired into the notion of political legitimacy resting on popular sovereignty,” says someone reading an article about Arab Spring. “It’s a pity that no one has ever tried to really explain to anyone how all knowledge rests on the evidence of the senses,” says a New Atheist.
Sidenote: when I teach Hegel, I teach him as primarily engaged in cultural politics and not one thing he discusses isn’t relevant to us, even down to his trenchant critique of neurobollocks (i.e., “phrenology”).
And because no one outside the profession knows that we promote, and may be the only ones who promote, historical awareness of the conceptual basis of our culture, the tendency is to think that science and politics are just rooted in common sense which requires no discussion, or horrid ideology which requires dismantling. The critics say “but why does it go without saying that ___?” The answer is a resounding silence. Who does this leave the initiative with, by the way?
Oftentimes our students’ first and only exposure to explicit thought about the natural of rationality, or freedom, will be in a required course called “Gender and Photography” or something. That class will be required. “Modern Philosophy: Descartes, Locke, Hume” or “Modern Political Thought: Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau” won’t be. And then when I look at the consequences, what I notice is that people who read, say, Andrew Sullivan as aggregator, are encountering shallow discussions of centuries old debates as if some blogger was the first to ask if there isn’t more to life than science… or not, etc. unaware that there was this thing called the Romantic Reaction in the 19th century… And I look at the students we’re churning out, and basically they either dismiss the humanities as a complete waste of time (they’re trying to learn how to program in “C” and have no time for “Gender and Photography”) or they think that what it is to think reflectively about their culture is to oppose it self-righteously based on some hazy impressions of what they’re opposing from classes about pop culture or something.
Everyone knows what Santayana said about being condemned to repeat history. But such repetitions need not be catastrophic. Sometimes they are just shallow chatter.
I’m absolutely staggered when I see people getting really agitated for or against ideas that are centuries old who show no awareness of this fact, people who are products of a system which itself shows no awareness of the fact that my discipline is (if nothing else) the custodian of that awareness. I’m not saying “when you criticize a farmer, don’t talk with your mouth full.” I’m just sad that I see so much intellectual starvation around me when a banquet has been laid, but no invitations sent.
“We’ll enjoy unlimited submission—from men who’ve learned nothing except to submit. We’ll call it ‘to serve.’ We’ll give out medals for service. You’ll fall over one another in a scramble to see who can submit better and more. There will be no other distinction to seek. No other form of personal achievement. Can you see [Matt Taylor] in the picture? No? Then don’t waste time on foolish questions. Everything that can’t be ruled, must go. And if freaks persist in being born occasionally, they will not survive beyond their twelfth year. When their brain begins to function, it will feel the pressure and it will explode. The pressure gauged to a vacuum. Do you know the fate of deep-sea creatures brought out to sunlight? So much for future [Taylors]. The rest of you will smile and obey.”
Rand, Ayn, The Fountainhead (modified).
I think that critics of manned* space exploration do not quite “get” what space exploration is and could be, and advocates of manned space exploration simply don’t know how to talk to them. So let me try (again).
There are several objections to manned space exploration, and all of them are wrong. The most moderate objection is that the knowledge acquired through manned space exploration is more cheaply available through unmanned space exploration. What’s the suppressed premise? That the only value space exploration has lies in knowledge acquisition. Imagine this argument being offered for closing national parks (we have lots of scientific knowledge about trees already). The “unmanned is cheaper” argument cuts little ice because the purpose of manned space exploration is not to acquire knowledge about nature (yes, places off the earth are also “nature,” nature-lovers) by the least expensive means necessary. This applies to the related objection that knowledge has no value unless it has “practical” value, and so even unmanned probes shouldn’t exist. What is “practical” is left uncharacterized, of course, but even if we set aside the complaint that this generally means “practical in the short-term, presupposing existing conditions” (which makes almost everything we benefit from formerly impractical) there is still a Maslovian point: “practical” here tends to mean “satisfying the most basic needs as much as possible, while ignoring all the higher needs indefinitely.” This could be argued for, but it seldom is, and I think most people would reject it, if it meant that no more complaints about sexism in video games should be uttered until everyone on earth has their minimum daily nutritional requirements.
Of course this is my segue into your real objection: “what higher needs?” Well, I have already told you, haven’t I? Nature is not the same thing as the recent ecological condition of the planet we happen to have evolved on. Nature is everything. And if you want to qualify that by saying that your concern is not with everything regardless of its condition, but with what we would call wilderness, well, the wilderness on this planet is but a near infinitesimal fraction of all the wilderness that there is.
Space advocates often talk of the need for a frontier. I’m not going to touch that one, because space opponents, many of them, are likely to think that space being a new frontier is the best reason for us not to go. So let’s set that topic aside for a moment and return to parks, and, if I may, the sacred. Most people who approve of parks do not think that human beings should be prevented from experiencing them or being aware of their existence, even if most people who approve of parks would not say that our human experience of them is their only justification. It would be a very strange discussion indeed if a debate over national parks were couched in terms of an either/or: either we level them, develop them, consume them, or we make a special point of having nothing whatsoever to do with them, to the point of everyone being unaware of their existence. Talk about a false alternative!
(You may not like this comparison because parks, a kind of not-doing, is free, whereas space, a kind of doing, is not. This is to overlook opportunity costs. Parks are not free, since they represent everything we must give up, to keep them.)
Here’s another false alternative: either we focus all our sense of the sacred (which is, I hope you already know, something independent of religious belief, and thus separate from the question of the rationality of our beliefs) on the Earth Mother, or we have no sense of the sacred at all. No ancient, self-respecting pagan would’ve recognized such a view. There are many gods, and many of them are… sky gods. Perhaps it is our modern ecological pagans’ suspicion of at least their local varieties of monotheism that makes them deeply suspicious of sky gods, but one can take this too far. Wonderment at the depth and vastness of the sky, and bewildered awe at the thought of the extravagant profusion of whole worlds, a diversity of wildernesses we can scarcely imagine, and, presumably, a diversity of ways of being conscious and self-aware… this is not sacred? This has no place in a sense of the sacred?
I understand the fear: you think that there is nothing to this except twisting nature to our ends and dominating it for our own purposes. Except that it isn’t. That’s just a stereotype (and, I suspect, a gendered one). And of course, you don’t want to have no technology and no purposes whatsoever. I know you don’t. You want appropriate technology, appropriate purposes. What you don’t realize is that taming fire to open the sky is both of those things. We who do know this have not done much to communicate this fact to you with our talk of frontiers and spin-offs, but it’s still true.
The film Gravity begins with a title card that reads “in space, life is impossible.” This is, I’m sorry to say, one of the most egregious and seductive lies of the many lies that film has promulgated. Because, first, obviously, life in space is possible. Almost the whole film takes place in space and is about someone who is alive. But more subtly, the sense in which it is true that in space, life is impossible, is the following: in space, if you do not understand and respect the wilderness that surrounds you, and adapt yourself to it wisely, your life becomes impossible. Now explain to me where that isn’t true! Yes, everywhere, life for us is impossible… unless we are wise. (The second most egregious lie is that the most important thing a woman can do with herself is get in touch with her emotions and stay close to home. Seriously? And you didn’t even notice that it was saying that? Contrast that with Interstellar and its two female leads, the explorer who ends the film, not on earth but in the interstellar wilderness, and the physicist unriddling rather than succumbing to the nature of gravity.)
It would take me a whole ‘nuther post to explain why it is that I think Interstellar calls us to receive the sky because the sacred is there too, and not a sacredness that issues belittling orders, tells fanciful stories, and lies to us about death, but a sacred which is content to simply be, and which gives us a possibility of awe if we only see fit to receive it. A thinker said this better than I can, so I will end with his words: Mortals dwell in that they receive the sky as sky.
* The term is traditional; I await its replacement.
Yesterday was the anniversary of the opening of the Statue of Liberty. But what is liberty? And if we’re all for it, why do the two parties here seem so at odds with each other? One common explanation goes back to Isaiah Berlin and the distinction between “negative freedom” (freedom from coercion) and ‘positive freedom” (possession of resources necessary to attain one’s goals). This distinction is certainly relevant to the fact that the advocates of larger government and redistribution have called themselves “liberals” and in response, classical liberals have had to rebrand themselves as “libertarians.” The historical experience that lies behind the entry of this conflict into American politics is probably the defection of some classical liberals from the Democratic Party in the wake of the New Deal, triggered by FDR’s unprecedented decision to seek a third, and later, a fourth term, and perhaps only prevented from an endless reiteration of this un-Washingtonian stance by death. But I think there is a deeper historical experience behind the conflict. (I also think that political concepts and ideals are created by historical experience rather than discovered in them, which is why I place such an emphasis on history here, but nothing will turn on this in what follows).
The ancient Greeks experienced political life as lived in city-states. There is much to be said for politics at this scale: much smaller and there’s too much you can’t do effectively (including defend yourself) and much bigger and the organs of state begin to drift away from the control of those whose state it is. Empires, from the Persian one that tried to subjugate the Greeks on down, have always sought to conquer such cities, to govern and tax them. When that happens (and it is still happening, as witness Hong Kong, right now) the ability to control the political affairs in your community dwindles, for it is at best self-government with permission, and your influence comes to depend not only on the support of your neighbors, but on your connections to the foreign empire and its local agents. There are also some advantages to empire (as Monty Python memorably pointed out: the aqueducts, the roads, etc.) but something vital is lost.
In one sense of the word, we can say what is lost is freedom. But notice that the freedom lost is not primarily individual freedom, or if it is, it is so derivatively. It is my city that is not free, and as a citizen of it, I am therefore not free. One of the central obligations of a citizen of a city-state is to do their fair share to prevent such a loss of freedom, and if necessary, what they can to regain it. The goal, simply put, is to send the agents of the empire away, to send them back home, so that one can say “no one rules us here, no one but ourselves.”
This is both an ancient and a modern experience, whether it is Greek cities warding off Persians, German tribes warding off Romans, Americans warding off the British, or any number of modern, non-European societies warding off colonialism. The freedom earned is the freedom of collective self-governance. It is not “libertarian” freedom, which is freedom from government, regardless of its domestic or foreign origins. And it is this notion of freedom, even deeper than the Rooseveltian freedom from want, that inspires liberals in the United States, and why liberals return, repeatedly, to the issue of campaign finance reform, because in so doing, they wish to assert that: no one can buy our state, no one rules us here, no one but ourselves. It is also at the root, deeper than any twentieth century ideology, of many liberals’ and progressives’ revulsion at foreign adventures; for how can one experience pride as a self-governing people and at the same time lord it over others who live far away? Won’t one be obliged to treat others who fight for their freedom as criminals or worse? Won’t the revulsion right-thinking people feel at a bully become self-revulsion?
It is a notorious fact about this kind of freedom that it is compatible with forms of subjection within the self-governing city. This is not just an American experience (i.e., slavery). It is a recurring experience throughout history that some who suffer under their own governments cannot help but be pleased by the thought of the destruction of their own government by some empire’s conquest. Because this is a genuine phenomenon, conquerors for I don’t know how long have characterized their conquests as “liberation” and sometimes they are right. Napoleon was greeted by many of the non-French he invaded as the solvent of local and antiquated forms of subjection. Even Hitler was initially received by some in this way (recall that he warred with another totalitarian state), until he made it clear that he came as a solvent, not of local oppression, but of everything that is.
A “good invader,” however, reaches around the local powers that subjugate locally, to protect the interests of the least powerful among the conquered. To some degree, Napoleon was a “good invader” but the best invader of this sorts in our experience was Abraham Lincoln. And Abraham Lincoln was not exactly a staunch advocate of local rule. He became a symbol of the liberation of the individual from local subjugation, and by virtue of his influence (and the influence of those more radical members of his party who tried to revolutionize the South after conquering it) brought into our tradition the idea of freedom for the individual from his own government. It is the peculiar optics of nostalgia which makes us think that the Founding Fathers wanted freedom from their own government. Rather, those who thought of the new federal government as their own government saw little need to be free from it, and those who wanted to be free from it saw no reason to think that it would ever be their own government. Or so I claim.
It is one of the great ironies of our history that when a faction of liberal Democrats concluded that FDR had gone too far, they came to seize on this Lincolnian tradition, came to champion the individual’s freedom from his own government, and eventually called themselves “libertarians.” For, having to choose a party, many of them fled to the Republican Party. And when the Democratic Party decided to take up the long neglected cause of revolutionizing the South a couple of decades later, the South, for largely unsavory reasons, also fled to the Republican Party. And Southern conservatives have been championing the individualistic conception of freedom, and casting their predominantly white selves as slaves, and characterizing the civic republican, collective self-governance ideals of the Left as “socialism” ever since.
I do not tell you what to do. I show you your tangled and confused history. The task is, to create something worthy out of its legacy. A good starting point, if you have the trust and optimism necessary for it, is to realize that as a political being, you and your opponents are in a conversation about the meaning of freedom, and the meaning of freedom is a complex, obscure, and contestable thing. To do that, however, would mean to recognize your political opponents as fellow citizens, as those who dwell with you in a common, self-governing “city”. That may beg an important question, but even if it didn’t, I see almost no one strong enough, generous enough, hopeful enough for it, today.
The handful of people who have read anything here know that I’ve been attacking what I call “politicism” for a long time. But most of this “attacking” is probably too low-key and too convoluted to do much good as anything other than self-expression and navel-gazing. This guy seems to be pretty clear and direct, i.e., better. So read him. The only thing I keep wondering about is why we continue to idiotically look for genetic predispositions for Red Tribalism and Blue Tribalism (insert every criticism of heritability of IQ research HERE) and not even begin to ask the more obvious socioeconomic questions about who benefits (my own hypothesis is that “what’s the matter with Kansas” is that you keep exploiting it, and suffer from self-deception all the while). My own attempt to start making sense can be found here.