January 2007 reading review (2)

Here I list journal, magazine, and news articles and miscellaneous materials of note.

Frankfurt School

New German Critique, no. 97, Winter 2006, special issue on "Adorno and Ethics."

This interesting issue requires a separate treatment. Elswhere I have reviewed two essays:

Jay, Martin. “Taking On the Stigma of Inauthenticity: Adorno’s Critique of Genuineness,” pp. 15-30.

Gandesha, Samir. “The Aesthetic Dignity of Words': Adorno’s Philosophy of Language,” pp. 137-158.

Schmidt,  James. "Language, Mythology, and Enlightenment: Historical Notes on Horkheimer and Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment," Social Research, Vol. 65, Issue 4, Winter 1998.

Schmidt reviews the genesis of Dialectic of Enlightenment as Philosophical Fragments, Marcuse’s incomprehension, the author’s views of the debasement of language, the parallels with Hegel’s phenomenology, and the logic of what became the title essay.  Schmidt finds D of E unique in comparison with Counter-Enlightenment literature.

Schmidt,  James. "The Eclipse of Reason and the End of the Frankfurt School in America."

The Eclipse of Reason is often treated as a footnote to Dialectic of Enlightenment. It was initially greeted with enthusiasm by Leo Lowenthal, but Horkheimer grew to harbor serious doubts about it. However, it deserves a fresh look, and may prove a counterweight to the usual picture of Horkheimer and Adorno as hopelessly frustrated in the USA.

1971 interview by Sam Keen and John Raser, "A Conversation with Herbert Marcuse: Revolutionary Eroticism, the Tactics of Terror, the Young,Psychotherapy, the Environment, Technology, Reich," in: Psychology Today 4: 2( Feb. 1971), 35-40, 60-66.

What a different world we’re living in today than back in the ‘60s and early ‘70s when society was on the move. Marcuse is at his best in interviews in which he gets to clarify his ideas, correct misrepresentations, and connect to current concerns. 

Clark, John Ruskin. What’s Wrong with Marcuse’s One Dimensional Man (San Diego, First Unitarian Church of San Diego, 1968). Transcript of a sermon delivered to the First Unitarian Church of San Diego Oct. 13, 1968.

This rant by a Unitarian minister does not speak well for Christian liberals.

Soviet Philosophy

Studies in East European Philosophy, vol. 57, nos. 3-4, September 2005. Special Issue: The Philosophy of Evald Il’enkov.

Oitinnen, Vesa. “Evald Il’enkov as an Intepreter of Spinoza,” pp.319-338.

While Spinoza was one of Ilyenkov’s main inspirations, Oitinnen claims that Ilyenkov got Spinoza wrong. I no longer remember the details, but it probably has something to do with the notion of the body producing the mind, which is not Spinoza.

Naturalism & Scientism

Fritzman, J.M. “Almeder’s Implicit Scientism,” Philosophia, vol. 33, nos. 1-4, December 2005, pp. 275-296.

This is a review of Robert Almeder’s Harmless Naturalism: The Limits of Science and the Nature of Philosophy (Open Court, 1998). Almeder purports to oppose scientism, defined as the doctrine that only the methods of natural science yield legitimate knowledge, while defending naturalism. Fritzman claims that Almeder’s “harmless naturalism” nevertheless collapses into scientism. More on this later. In the meantime, see my post in my “Reason & Society” blog:

Naturalism & Materialism

African Philosophy

Dukor, Maduabuchi. “African Philosophy: The Great Debate on Deconstruction, Reconstruction and Cognition of African Philosophy,” Philosophia, vol. 33, nos. 1-4, December 2005, pp. 5-53.

50 pages—25 sheets of potentially good toilet paper—put to bad use.  The same old tiresome themes in African Philosophy.

The Two Cultures

Axess, Issue 2, 2005. Theme: The two cultures.

A notable attempt on the part of culturalists to transcend the two cultures—the split between the sciences and the humanities.

Pragmatism & Race

Colorblindness and Paper Doubt:  A Socio-political Application of Critical Common-sensism

I can no longer trace the source, but this could be related to some meeting of the Society for the Advancement of American Philosophy.  A reaction to this paper would have to be tripartite.  (1) The problem addressed is the false consciousness behind white people’s assertions of colorblindness. Though I often feel intuitively that something is left out of such accounts, there’s no gainsaying the truth of what is said here. (2) I can’t comment on the Peircian analysis or remedy. (3) The author sees this Peircian analysis as a contribution to “pragmatist-feminist standpoint theory”.  Unfortunately, this BS points to just what is wrong with the theoretical academic application of liberal guilt and/or opportunism.  The refurbishing of pragmatism for the irrationalist pseudo-philosophies of intellectual charlatans who purport to represent the viewpoints of women and minorities will not do. While various market intellectuals may well be authorities regarding their personal experiences, they are not automatically theoretical authorities or serious philosophers. Cornel West, for example, has no useful, coherent body of thought to offer.

There is one tragic aspect of racial stereotyping not addressed here: the stereotyping of members of one’s own group, which has become almost as harmful as the stereotyping perpetrated or unconsciously absorbed by the white majority. This could be put down to an internalization of the values of the majority society, but there is more: it is reinforced by actual patterns of association, cultural affiliation, and social stratification, which insinuate themselves into the expectations and “commonsense” judgments of racism’s victims. While intraracial stereotyping is receiving some media attention of late, what has been said publicly is only the tip of the iceberg. It seems that his paper at least implicitly supports an examination of this side of the problem.  While the author does mention various social disparities, there are some missing ingredients, perhaps due to the limitations of the standpoints standpoint epistemologies are held to uphold. As fish are not aware that they swim in water, since they can live nowhere else, so people are not fully aware of the implications of the social segregation that they accept at face value and thus do not recognize—often not even the victims—of the now obsolete and fundamentally evil and pernicious nature of all social segregation, compulsory or voluntary. Segregation makes people stupid, and until philosophy can address this reality as it exists in 2007, it will remain pathetically lame.

Poetry & Pretentiousness

Hux,  Samuel. “Poetry Now and the Space We Live In,” Humanitas, Volume VI, No. 2, 1993.

I myself have some serious complaints about the poetry I’ve been exposed to, from the poetry of the elites to the poetry of the streets. It seems to me our society is suffering from a serious crisis of the imagination. This author seems to be after a similar idea, complaining that the distance between poetic speech and everyday speech, and between the aesthetic sensibility and everyday reality, has been completely flattened. Poetry has not only lost its traditional concern with form, but its traditional ability to elevate. I think this is true, but I see it as a manifestation of a social crisis; I’m less inclined to approach the problem out of Kulcha-worship.

Looking over the journal, particularly its editorial statement, its overbearing pretentiousness becomes inescapable. These people are probably too stuffy to become Straussians; they don’t seem to have the drive to aspire to be fascists. But now I think I see the lure.This is a social type–Really Smart People who fancy themselves important for being Really Smart People—Supernerds. In the final analysis, a mentality that is Really Stoopid.

Noam Chomsky

The Humanist Interview: Noam Chomsky on Humanism, the Vulnerability of Secular Humanism, and the Mother of All Book Plugs” by David Noise, The Humanist, January-February 2007, pp. 20-25.  Click for excerpt.

Chomsky declares himself a humanist, but doesn’t comprehend what’s asked when asked whether he an atheist. He opposes any doctrine that bars criticism, which, he claims, is not true of all theists. Chomsky, contra Dawkins, denies that atheism became credible with Darwin, and that evolutionary or any scientific theory has provided a complete understanding of reality. Chomsky gives his version of the history of fundamentalism, which is not a recent phenomenon, the most recent surge being in the past quarter century, with compulsory public religiosity given the impetus by Jimmy Carter, as well as fostered by bad economic conditions for the majority. Islamic fundamentalism grew out of the failure of secular nationalism. Uncle Sam supported the former and opposed the latter, as well as opposing liberation theology (radical Catholicism) in Latin America. Chomsky, mentioning Thomas Frank, also sees the religious Right in the USA as cynically manipulated by big business pursuing its profits while granting occasional sops to issues it doesn’t really care about. Chomsky goes along with the propagation of secular humanism, but has no problem with religious people if they don’t impose it on others and have the correct politics. He sees the USA as historically religiously extremist, which he also relates to the prevalence of fear in this society, which also involves fear of being destroyed by the very people we are destroying.

The Chomsky enigma” by Chris Knight. Weekly Worker, Thursday January 11 2007.

“How is it that a powerful critic of US imperialism has been regarded as a valued asset by the US military? In the first of three articles Chris Knight of the Radical Anthropology Group begins his examination of the life and work of Noam Chomsky.”

This eccentric article raises some interesting issues, but sabotages them via sectarianism.

Chris Knight has his own web site, where we learn that he is a . . .  gasp . . . anthropologist. There are several essays on linguistics, including the source material of his newspaper essays, e.g.  Decoding Chomsky.

Now there is some fascinating information in here well worth considering in spite of the spin placed on it.  Indeed, there are some interesting correlations between Chomsky’s anarchism and his view of cognition and philosophy of science, which have not escaped me over the years.  However, preoccupied with the inconsistency of Chomsky’s anti-imperialism and the military funding of linguistics, Knight ascribes certain motives to the development of Chomsky’s ideas.

Language and Revolutionary Consciousness

While he contrasts Chomsky’s conception of language acquisition as a cognitive abstraction with the possible developmental and evolutionary aspects of language acquisition–a fair comparison, he doesn’t really put the two together to show exactly here Chomsky’s lingsuitic model begins and ends as an explanatory device.  Chomsky’s conception of an abstract egalitarian linguistic ability shared by all normal homo sapiens is fine and dandy in that it may account for the fact that almost all of us master natural languages for ordinary communication and basic social functioning, but that hardly settles a whole slew of major issues involving the mastery of language, cognition, concepts, and social norms. Here, Chomsky’s anarchism and abstract egalitarianism simply blots out the material facts that many have criticized him for.  Knight’s article doesn’t pull all this together, however.

Knight has a curious take on the "selfish gene" business:

The science of solidarity

It is tremendously difficult to sort out the scientific from the ideological issues in all this.  It’s too bad that Knight is a bit of a sectarian nut, because he raises some interesting issues.

Solidarity and sex

“The first human revolution was led by women”

It’s also a shame that he’s an anthropologist, even if he weren’t wacky.

The Radical Anthropology Group has a web site as well.

Free Will

Overbye, Dennis. “Free Will: Now You Have It, Now You Don’t”, The New York Times, January 2, 2007, Tuesday Science Desk Late Edition – Final, Section F, Page 1.

This is a mighty shallow article, and the extrapolations drawn from it even sillier. Oddly, I’m in agreement with Dennett for a change. But let’s look at these experiments and see what they prove.

In the 1970s, Benjamin Libet, a physiologist at the University of California, San Francisco, wired up the brains of volunteers to an electroencephalogram and told the volunteers to make random motions, like pressing a button or flicking a finger, while he noted the time on a clock. Dr. Libet found that brain signals associated with these actions occurred half a second before the subject was conscious of deciding to make them. The order of brain activities seemed to be perception of motion, and then decision, rather than the other way around. In short, the conscious brain was only playing catch-up to what the unconscious brain was already doing. The decision to act was an illusion, the monkey making up a story about what the tiger had already done.

Note the nature of these decisions and the chain of causality inducing them.  None of them involve any real decisions, lengthy deliberation, or for that matter, a lifetime’s worth of a situation and moral data bank to process them with, consciously or unconsciously.  Random motions, impulsively made before the participations were consciously aware of these decisions.

So fucking what?

Dr. Libet’s results have been reproduced again and again over the years, along with other experiments that suggest that people can be easily fooled when it comes to assuming ownership of their actions. Patients with tics or certain diseases, like chorea, cannot say whether their movements are voluntary or involuntary, Dr. Hallett said.

What does this prove, now?

In some experiments, subjects have been tricked into believing they are responding to stimuli they couldn’t have seen in time to respond to, or into taking credit or blame for things they couldn’t have done. Take, for example, the "voodoo experiment" by Dan Wegner, a psychologist at Harvard, and Emily Pronin of Princeton. In the experiment, two people are invited to play witch doctor.

One person, the subject, puts a curse on the other by sticking pins into a doll. The second person, however, is in on the experiment, and by prior arrangement with the doctors, acts either obnoxious, so that the pin-sticker dislikes him, or nice.

After a while, the ostensible victim complains of a headache. In cases in which he or she was unlikable, the subject tended to claim responsibility for causing the headache, an example of the "magical thinking" that makes baseball fans put on their rally caps.

"We made it happen in a lab," Dr. Wegner said.

Is a similar sort of magical thinking responsible for the experience of free will?

And note how simple and trivial these responses to stimuli are?  What has this to do with making real decisions, especially those that involve problem solving, deliberation, or ethical decisions?  And in such more serious cases, since the moment of any action cannot be observed by the actor from a distance while being made, how would the conscious part of it emerging from the non-tracebale moment of initiation be distinguishable?  Because there is a delay between the two?  But consider, real decisions are not momentary whims concerning stimuli that pop up out of nowhere for no reason.  Deliberation may take place as to what to do and when.  The specific moment of initiation of the action may be isolatable if one had sensitive enough equipment, but even so, we are talking about two moments–subconscious and conscious–which constitute part of a longer causal chain, each link consisting of a conscious or subconscious moment of deliberation, granting for the sake of argument a time delay between unconscious impulse and conscious awareness.   So what can this prove concerning the freedom of the will?  More profoundly what is will,deterministically or indeterministically.  It is the exercise of action, some components of which its actor is aware.  What is ‘free’?  And what is ‘responsibility’?  These micro-studies demonstrating perceptual illusions really don’t touch the larger issue.

Consider qualia, subjective experience which some hold to exceed in some way the raw physiological registering of perception.  Regardless, why is the experience of freedom, or of choice, or of responsibility, or of activity rather than passivity, any less valid because it is physical, or caused, or partially processed beneath the radar screen of consciousness.  Are in fact consciousness and subconscious information processing disjunct?

One expects the New York Times to be shallow, but can’t we do better?  Or are we dumbing down like the rest of society?

I could not be less impressed by the allegedly profound implications of the research under discussion.  What is really new here, as compared to previous scientific explanations of human behavior that threatened our most cherished notions of free will?

Anybody remember B.F. Skinner’s Beyond Freedom and Dignity?  Now there was a challenge.  Here’s what Chomsky had to say about it:

Chomsky, Noam. "The Case Against B.F. Skinner," The New York Review of Books, December 30, 1971.

Bourgeois thought, unable to grasp the significance of praxis, periodically vacillates between extremes.  Both environmentalism and biologism show up the dilemma of the bourgeois specialist trapped in unresolvable dichotomies.


Robert Solomon, "Pessimism vs. Existentialism," Chronicle of Higher Education, January 26, 2007.

I’m not terribly enamored of this article. While I appreciate the title, and the desire to set the record straight, I’m not thrilled with the reasoning or the examples given.  Of the people mentioned, only Sartre and Camus and I suppose Frankl are redeemable.  The tradition, however, is irrationalist and reactionary, packed with obscurantists and scumbags. Solomon unaccountably forgot to mention Heidegger’s notion of regeneration: Sieg Heil!  Solomon doesn’t seem to be politically particularly profound, either.

Mr. Grumpy (Sartre), I would say, intended his philosophy to be affirmative, but I really don’t care much for it as a philosophy.  He tried to come to grips with its inadequacies in the ’50s, but who has the fortitude to read Critique of Dialectical Reason, in two volumes no less? I’d rather read Marcuse.

Herbert Marcuse, "Existentialism: Remarks on Jean-Paul Sartre’s L’Etre et le Neant"

See also my Anti-Nietzsche Bibliography.

I heartily recommend this book:

Cotkin, George. Existential America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003.

Among other things, it taught me how to hate Kierkegaard in a whole new way.  But there’s tons of information in it, including a lengthy treatment of black existentialism: Wright, Ellison, and the civil rights movement.

Coincidentally, I just discovered this book: Apostles of Sartre: Existentialism in America, 1945-1963 by Ann Fulton. Cotkin gives it a good review on amazon.com.

My favorite branch of existentialism is Brazilian: Sarah Vaughan singing "The Smiling Hour".


Robert W. Williams, Politics and Self in the Age of Digital Re(pro)ducibility

Postmodern BS.

Liam O’Ruairc, Fundamentally Irreconcilable, Review of Andrew Collier, Christianity and Marxism: A Philosophical Contribution to Their Reconciliation (London and New York: Routledge, 2001).

Learning of Roy Bhaskar’s New Age phase some years ago was bad enough, not to mention his groupies’ desperate attempts to exonerate him. But his allegedly more sober acolytes seem to be just as full of it as Bhaskar himself.


One reply

  1. Kierkegaard is not to be included with the degenerate Heidegger and the scumbag Nietzsche. Sadly, it is the latter two, whom are detrimental to Kierkegaard as a great theologian, if not a good philosopher.

    Read "Works of Love"; that book alone makes him one of the great theologians of our times.

Leave a reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.