The Thief's Journal

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I tolerate this century, but I don't enjoy it.

All of the ephemera that is far too trivial to be bothered with elsewhere on this site or, depending on your point of view, a meta-commentary on it. This ephemera includes, but is not limited to art, music and literature. Most of the content here will be discussed in terms that are as abstract as possible, reality being a singularly overrated concept.

Posted in Uncategorized on June 18th, 2003 by Richard

The Guardian has an excellent obituary (albeit not racy and juicy as Tom Lehrer described that of Alma Mahler) of Bernard Williams;

"Williams simultaneously exploited and undermined established philosophical boundaries. He deconstructed, as Derrida would do if he were cleverer and more pledged to truth. Exhuming moral philosophy from a no-man’s-land of logical, ahistorical analysis, into a sort of moral anthropology, he saw moral codes and writings as essentially embedded in history and culture, and questioned the whole “peculiar institution” of morality, which he considered a particular (modern western) development of the ethical… Hellenic ethics, Williams argued, affords an arena for praise and blame which is wider than Christian-based moral theories (stiflingly concentrated on free will, obligation and personal responsibility), and more accurate to our intuitions. "

To me, the work of Derrida is important largely in terms of denying us the ability to question certain areas in the manner we had previously done so. That is, Derrida undermines the idea of an intuitive correspondance between truth and language in much the same way Hume did between perception and facticity. The task for Williams was to determine why the initial view was so intuitive in the first place and determine a means of re-establishing it through a new route; suggesting that intuitive dealings with our social environment remain ontologically prior to the question of how they are possible (the same approach Gadamer took in Truth and Method)

Posted in Uncategorized on June 7th, 2003 by Richard

John Gray has reviewed George Monbiot’s latest tome and mortified me somewhat by making many observations I agree with:

"Democracy is not a universal panacea. When democracy replaces dictatorship in ethnically and religiously divided countries, the result may be fragmentation of the state. In the Balkans, that meant ethnic cleansing. Far from resolving conflicts, democracy sometimes magnifies them… transnational institutions are not world government in embryo. They are devices through which sovereign states act to protect their interests."

Gray is entirely correct in pointing to many of the weaknesses of anti-globalist arguments; for example, the idea that capitalism is a principal cause of environmental destruction runs counter to the fact that pollution was nowhere worse than in the Soviet Union. Fortunately, there are many other observations that I am inclined to violently disagree with. For example, Gray (rather gleefully) heralds the end of the neo-liberal era and the inauguration of a neo-conservative age of blood and iron. There is much to this; US foreign policy has undeniably moved towards a interventionist model and away from the multilateral model it constructed at the end of the Second World War, while its economic policy of high defecits, tariffs and a weak dollar reject many of the free market policies the US had previously promulgated. However, Gray ignores the obvious question of how the US is to finance this age of blood and iron; would not said defecits represent something of a difficulty in that regard? Equally, I am more inclined to agree with Niall Ferguson that the US is culturally unwilling to accept any imperialist policy than I am with Gray. Above all, his argument that the anti-globalist movement is a symptom of the changes he identifies ignores the fact that the anti-globalist began as a reaction to the Clinton administration.

Posted in Uncategorized on June 6th, 2003 by Richard

Via Junius, Umberto Eco, Jurgen Habermas and Jacques Derrida have called for something that would seem to resemble a pan-European enlightenment;

"Habermas said that the European demonstrations against a war in Iraq would go down in history as a “signal for the birth of a European public.” … Habermas identified five attributes he said Europeans share: the neutrality of authority, embodied in the separation of church and state, trust in politics rather than the capitalist market, an ethos of solidarity in the fight for social justice, high esteem for international law and the rights of the individual and support for the organizational and leading role of the state. "

(full text here)

Which is all very well, but it can hardly be regarded as Pan-European. For example, Poland, Ireland and the the UK lack any separation of church and state (though as a concept I happen to have the same opinion of it as Habermas), while I think it is at best unclear to what extent European states remain social markets and are reluctantly becoming free markets. In particular, the Rousseauist idea of the state as an expression of the popular will (rather than a contending force between differing interests) is a difficult one, if only because it doesn’t seem entirely congruent with the rights of the individual. The proscription of speech deemed offensive is a clear example of this, and another area where UK traditions are very different from European ones. I suspect my main reaction is one of disappointment; I am sympathetic to the idea of post national government and am inclined to feel that Europeans increasingly need to define their identity in ideological terms rather than ethnic ones (as In United States). However, Habermas seems to have put the philosophical cart before the horse, by choosing to hypothesise a set of Pan-European values on the basis of those common in France and Germany. As Junius observed, the examples of Scotland and Louisiana suggest that a more legitimate approach would be based on pluralism.

Posted in Uncategorized on June 2nd, 2003 by Richard

The topic of a revived imperialism continues to murmur softly in the background to current events, this time with a piece from Prospect Magazine. Many of the arguments it advances are quite familiar by now; that many of our transnational institutions are essentially Empire by proxy and that Imperial governance proved more succesful at creating peace and prosperity than Independent regimes. That said, it goes further than the usual arguments at this juncture;

"Behind the claims for democracy often lies a very Enlightenment optimism about human nature… But the Anglophone white settler democracies of the 19th and 20th centuries were the most democratic yet also among the most racist polities of their time. The economic and cultural interests of indigenous peoples were usually safer under bureaucratic or aristocratic imperial rule than under settler democracy… Algerian natives fared better under the military rule of Napoleon III than under the democratic Third Republic, for all the latter’s incantations about liberty, fraternity and equality."

My suspicion is that this betrays a certain confusion as to what is meant by democracy, wherein terms like democracy and liberal democracy are frequently conflated. In its full sense democracy implies a great deal more than mob rule; civil liberties, church-state separation and the rule of law, for example. However, one of the most interesting points in the article is that the term Empire cannot be taken as a given; I would argue that Iraq had suffered from multilateral imperialism for many years before the recent war, at the behest of the UN security council.

As ever, when this topic is raised, a piece from Niall Ferguson is never far away, and this does indeed prove to be the case here. On the whole, I’m inclined to agree with him. I was always sceptical that sufficient evidence for weapons of mass destruction existed, and subsequent events have done little to make that matter any less ambiguous. Accordingly, my feeling remains that the US should, on the whole, be judged on its ability to create a stable democratic state in Iraq.

Posted in Uncategorized on May 8th, 2003 by Richard

Interesting piece from Reason on Thomas Nagel’s argument that market transactions can only be instantiated within the framework of a governmental legal and taxation system;

"they go beyond Stephen Holmes and Cass Sunstein’s relatively straightforward observation that all private rights incur public costs. Nagel and Murphy attempt to show that private property rights not only lack protection without government but are actually nonexistent until the state and its tax system create them."

In some ways I find it odd that this should be controversial, given that it is not entirely dissimilar to Lockean possessive individualism, as opposed to the Hobbesian state of nature (given that Hobbes only recognises a natural right to self defence, rather than any right to property). The piece raises some interesting questions; for instance, concerning the origins of the state in terms of market systems predating the advent of the nation state. But on the whole, Nagel seems to have the better of the philosophical argument; establishing natural rights of any kind is a difficult matter at best, and generally speaking rights must be guaranteed by governments (if only because the tendency for rights to conflict requires a legal system). Particularly since, it must be noted that taking a wholly libertarian argument on such areas, can lead to some rather unpleasant consequences.

Posted in Uncategorized on April 30th, 2003 by Richard

I’ve often pondered why it seems to be that against a backbdrop of secularisation of society in general, or perhaps liberalisation of doctrine would be a better phrase, the most conservative churches nonetheless seem to be the most succesful. So, I was quite interested to come across this piece by Virginia Postrel, which went a long way towards explaining this;

"The group may attract fewer members at first, but it will be stronger over time. Distinctiveness also gives people a reason for affiliation and a sense of camaraderie. … But a church cannot survive if the cost of membership is too great, especially if it wants to draw members from social groups that have other opportunities. By raising the costs of the old rules, social change poses a significant challenge to conservative religious groups. It is harder for members to find a happy compromise between the church’s ideals and social norms, because the two are now far apart."

I suspect this application of economic theory of religion has a lot to it. That said, it doesn’t account for social change as such, which is a backdrop here that the churches are not able to influence themselves. Churches, are after all, surely agents in social change and are not entirely passive in the face of it. On the other hand, one of the features of modern society is its tendency towards individualism. It may well be that economic change does have have the starring role here, which would lead to the individualisation of religion and the decline of religion in the Durkheimite capacity of being the bulwark of social order (it might also suggest that the loose networks of urban living as opposed to close knit rural communities might have a role to play in influencing such matters).

Posted in Uncategorized on March 25th, 2003 by Richard

It would seem that Summer is nearly with us. I do not regard this as cause for celebration; April may well be the cruellest month, but Summer is the cruellest season. The smothering heat, in particular, leaves me drowsy and deprived of sleep. The sharp light blurs my vision. Conversely, I love Autumn; I never get bored of Autumn leaves with their wonderful gold and scarlet colours.

Posted in Uncategorized on March 24th, 2003 by Richard

Interesting introduction to Richard Rorty’s theories. Though I remain sympatheitc to Rorty, it seems to me that one can take the view that univeral interpretations of phenomena are a difficult concept at best, without having to take the view that the phenomena themselves are a secondary concept. In particular, consider the role of science; a formal system designed to provide interpretation of phenomena, but which assumes truth to have a provisional character (an intensely Popperian description, I appreciate). In certain respects, language is no different. Since sign and signifier are not identical, one cannot assume an isomorphic correspondance between the two. However, although the "copying" is imperfect, it nonetheless remains the case that "coping" would not be possible without some degree of pragmatic utility; which of necessity must have some representational function (even if sign and signifier are not congruent, they are still being used to denote, as John Searle put it*, a presence or absence; they are intentional).

*"I understand the differences between the two sentences ‘the cat is on the mat’ and ‘the dog is on the mat’ in precisely the way I do because the word ‘cat’ is present in the first while absent in the second, and the word ‘dog’ is present in the second, while absent from the first … the system of differences is precisely a system of presences and absences. "

As ever, the difficulty in this area is working out what the fuss is about.

Posted in Uncategorized on March 14th, 2003 by Richard

Comic relief seems to me to be the perfect example of a national day of celebration for a post-traditional society; the modern multicultural (or acultural) alternative to traditional days like Easter. Having started as a fun exercise in charity; it now looks like a charitable exercise in fun. Whereas Easter passes by these days without comment, Comic Relief only becomes more de rigeur with time. All of which should, if anything, make me favourably inclined towards it, but in reality the combination of high pressure selling techniques (more commonly associated with the selling of double glazing) peer pressure and bland Butlin’s style entertainment always leave me feeling that little bit more curmudgeonly than usual.

Posted in Uncategorized on March 10th, 2003 by Richard

Following on from his review of Dennett’s Freedom Evolves that I commented on recently, the ubquitous John Gray has now written a review of a new Nietszche biography. As it happens, I’m a little more sympathetic to Gray on this occasion. In particular, I think many of his observations astute, if rarely original; "Rather, Nietzsche’s troubled meditations on truth – he oscillated between denying that it could ever be known and seeing it as the destroyer of humanity’s most cherished illusions … If his writings abound in contradictions, it is not because he was unaware of them, but rather that, believing truth in many areas of philosophical inquiry to be inherently paradoxical, he had no interest in system-building." Or to put it more succintly; Nietzsche is best regarded as a writer of literature than of philosophy.

But, leaving generosity aside, Gray does remorsely continue to apply the same formulae he was inflicting on Dennett; namely, that Nietzsche was seeking a viable alternative to christianity but was never quite able to shrug off the influence of his christian upbringing. Generally speaking, if one goes in search of ambiguity in Nietzsche then one will typically find it, but I’m not really persuaded that Gray makes an especially convincing case. The crux of Gray’s case is that Nietzsche wished to hold on to an essentially Christian view of the human subject while dropping the transcendental beliefs that alone support it. There is some truth to this, but Gray is assuming that the Christian view of the subject was homogenous; for much of the time the Christian view rested upon the same principles of annhiliation of the self as did the Buddhism that Gray states was intolerable to Nietzsche. In fact, Nietzsche remained ambivalent towards Buddhism, but his reason for rejecting Schopenhauer’s advocacy of the death of the self, was that such doctrines were predicated on the same kind of abnegation of will that reinforced the christian doctrine of the meek inheriting the Earth. In other words, the split from Schopenhauer was precisely because he had not rejected christianity enough, not because he had gone too far. The argument that Zarathrustra is a Jesus-like redemptive figure is suggestive but rests on analogy alone; for example, one could suggest Aeneas as being a similarly redemptive figure.