Philosophy, Economics, Science

Since about 1964 I have been trying to disentangle myself from Cold War thinking, academic social science, and academic philosophy. Probably I’d be better off today if I had never gotten sucked in at all, but that was my fate. Along the way I wrote a number of polemics against various aspects of the philosophy and social science I knew (especially economics), but most of them read badly today. I like my parodies better, and a few of my writings about specific topics in in these areas (and sometimes even science) seem to have escaped the curse.

For the record, my own philosophy, if you want to call it that, derives from Chinese philosophy, Heraclitus, the Stoics et al, the humanists of the Northern Renaissance, Nietzsche, William James, various aphorists and memoirists (Lichtenberg, Bacon, Pascal, Chesterfield, Guicciardini, et al) and, I suppose, Marx a little. The twentieth century philosophers I like most are almost unknown: Chaim Perelman, Michel Mayer, and Stephen Toulmin. I also think that sociology and anthropology are on the right track, and not psychology and economics.

Philosophy and Nuclear War

Awhile back I ran across some citations from the years 1947-1952 which showed philosophy in a rather odd light. The topic is nuclear warfare, and the authors are Ludwig Wittgenstein, the process philosopher and Christian theologian Charles Hartshorne, and the world-famous philosopher and public intellectual Bertrand Russell.


From these citations it seems pretty clear that in 1947 and 1948 Russell proposed a nuclear war against the Soviet Union which the Soviets could have escaped only by abject surrender and the renunciation of Communism. The fact that this was was to be preceded by an ultimatum rather done as a surprise attack than makes little difference, nor does the fact that at times Russell believed that it probably wouldn’t lead to war. The Mongols themselves, also in the name of world peace, would always sent ultimatums to the cities and nations they planned to attack, offering unconditional surrender as the alternative to total destruction. (See Kotwicz and Richard).


All three of Russell’s statements are reminders of the enormous anxiety that the Soviet threat caused after the end of WWII and the degree to which WWII had conditioned people, even philosophers, to regard desperate measures as acceptable and mass killing as thinkable. There’s nothing in them or in Wittgenstein’s or Harteshorne’s statements that can be used as evidence that philosophers as a group are wiser or more benign than the average citizen.

(More at the link)

Commonplaces A-L
Commonplaces M-Z

These two pages are readings which were important to me over a considerable period. Several of the authors cited here are little respected today (Whitehead, Prigogine, maybe even Stephen Jay Gould) and others have never been very well known (Harre, Hexter, Gunnell). A few of them are dead ends and false starts — I now think that quantum physics should be left to quantum physicists.

A few topics show up again and again — the mutual definition of self and society, the irreversibility of time and contingency of the future, the failure of the attempts to reduce human affairs to Science which were the background of my early education, and more generally, the neglect of “practical philosophy” and “rhetoric”, the historical, contexted, embedded understanding of human reality.

Tendentiously selected Wittgenstein quotations

The Heap

In my dream I grow taller and taller…. until at last I am completely tall.
Henri Michaux).

Relative differences are real; to put it more strongly, only relative differences are intelligible. That is to say, the difference between hot and cold is relative and something we can think about, but rhere isn’t a lot to say about the more or less absolute difference between hot and green.

Parmenides in Szechuan

During the war years Ch’en devoted himself to an annotated translation of the Parmenides, Fang wrote a 900-page two-volume work on one of the most abstruse of the Chinese Buddhist philosophical schools, the Huayan (Japanese “kegon”). Wang’s activities are not known to me, but judging by his later career, while he was in Chungking he was immersing himself in abstruse and abstract areas of Western mathematical logic.

On the Correct Handling of Contradiction among the Philosophers

There is good to be found in everything, of course, but on the balance I think that the effects in the scholarly world of Strauss’s Jesuitical Kabbalism and Derrida’s euphuistic Gongorism have been more harmful than beneficial. I like Whitehead’s solution better, but who cares? No one read Whitehead any more.”

Le Real is a Kind of Sturgeon

Back when postmodernism was a thing, I did a faux-erudite parody of Derrida and Lacan. It might fool a few people, but it probably be wasted now, since postmodernism is no longer a real thing. (Latin Res+al = “thing-like” = “real”).

A Naive Reading of Descartes’ Discourse on Method

Descartes’ Discourse on Method is short and easy, and it shows you a Descartes far different than the one you read about in survey courses.

Michel Meyer and Practical Philosophy

After several decades of trying to read contemporary Anglo-American and Continental philosophy, I decided that I had been wasting my time, and I feel much the same way about social science theory and literary theory. Along with Stephen Toulmin, Meyer is one of few writers accepted as philosophers who point toward something better. The relationship between timeless, universal, disembedded truths and historical, particular, embedded knowledge is a tricky one and should be one of the main topics of philosophy. For a variety of not-good reasons (careerism and the needs of power), philosophy and the social sciences tend to be unduly biased toward the former set.

Kenneth Burke Faked It Too: Trained incapacity and Institutional psychosis

It turns out that I’m not the only one who makes things up.

Staying at Home

Voltaire laughed at geodeticists like Maupertuis who traveled to far places to take measurements to determine the exact shape of the earth, because Voltaire already knew that the earth was a perfect sphere. As one of the founders of scientism, Voltaire wanted his concepts to be rational and perfect and easy to handle, and empirical studies just made things messy. (Laozi and Thoreau shared Voltaire’s disdain for travel).