Liberty and the common life

One of the dominant Enlightenment notions of liberty is whatever the law leaves undetermined, which is why Hobbes takes it as axiomatic that the greatest liberty of the citizen is the silence of the law.  This was in accord with the older sense of the term liberty which was what we now call free time, i.e. we were “at liberty” in that domain where nothing was scheduled or required for persons to do together.

This division of life into law and liberty was thus the same sort of division that schools or monasteries make into [class time/ structured time] vs. [recreation/ free periods]. The crucial point is that the free period is always contextualized: it’s not as if the monks can use recreation time to open strip clubs or recruit for Scientology, and students are continually trying to negotiate and expand just how much they are allowed to do during free periods or open gym.

Again, Liberty presupposes a common life just as free time does. Liberty is in fact one aspect of a shared life. To the extent that we have no agreement about this shared life, therefore, our notion of liberty unavoidably consists in little more than an arbitrary antagonism between those who exercise authority and those who fall under it.

The Left has had a clear sense of the shared life for well over a century as the advance of social justice, which had a Gospel variant but is now safely secular. “Social justice” has two main components: (1) the increase of democracy, i.e. the maximizing of equality by the elimination of hierarchy and (2) the prioritization of meeting basic needs by collective action. Like any notion of shared life it is a critique of the extent of liberty, which, from the perspective of the Left, can only be that part of the secular life of social justice that persons can determine for themselves.

The Right is the numerically larger but more diffuse and unprincipled group that resists the Left’s account of a shared life. At one of its fringes the Right goes so far as to claim that liberty is the common life, arguing that collective action is simply violence and needs to be maximally contained or even eliminated altogether, and at another fringe it sees the collective life as blood and nation, but neither fringe has marshaled enough support to mount a lasting or serious challenge to the Left. The only power of the Right is its numbers, and its numbers arise only from the vast multitude of incompatible ways that people can be against secular egalitarian internationalist collectivism. This is why, say,  Americans might have twice as many professed conservatives as liberals, but the conservatives include everyone from Monarchists to Anarchists, Evangelical Christians to Objectivist Atheists, Natural law moralists to Cutthroat pro-corporation shills.

Both the Right and Left make appeals to liberty and to rights, but even if the appeals have real effects it is hard to take them seriously as moral claims. The Left allows liberty only in a context that is so overdetermined that anyone not of the Left will take it as a joke – my liberty is only what I can do in my free time in support of secular egalitarianism. The Right tries to pick away at the Left’s vision of the common life by appealing to various liberties like free speech or free exercise of religion (and, once upon a time, free association) but, again, liberties are only intelligible in the context of a vision of the common life and the Right has none to offer outside of its various small incompatible fringes.



Freedom and evil

To insist that freedom requires the ability to do evil is either to deny freedom to God and the blessed or to say that the will is just as fulfilled by evil as by good. Both options have their horrors: The first seems to make the blessed into zombies or even to deny any reason to praise them (As Paul Draper put it, why praise a God who must do the good he does? Isn’t this like praising stones for falling?) the second is nihilism, and it ends up teaching that greatness of will is only greatness in willing, no matter what one chooses.

Most Christians are as caught in this problem as everyone else, given that the typical response to the existence of evil is some appeal to freedom, usually devotionalized as “the ability to love God” or “God making creatures who could love him freely”.

Action is structured by necessity since any peculiar ability to do something needs a peculiar object, and so for it to act at all requires the tendency to that object. In this context, “good” simply means hitting the object and evil is every other possibility, but the tendency to the good is ineradicable and not an object of free choice. This explains several otherwise bizarre and seemingly outmoded claims of pre-modern thought like:

1.) Every action, even of the inanimate, is for a good. This claim followed simply from the action arising from a definite power, and that we can make sense of the power either being exercised or impeded. Inertial accounts of motion did not changed this but changed our sense of what bodies could be said to be up to. The exercise of a power now seems to mean something other than a single body in isolation acting or resting in itself, and so lost a good in itself as a single body. Individual physical actions as physical lost an absolute description and so an absolute good. The only absolute good left for the physical as such was the universe universing.

2.) A cognitive power is infallible with regard to its proper object. The claim strikes many readers of the Aristotelian tradition as so bizarre that it is passed over in silence. But the basic claim is only that any action necessarily attains its proper object, and so in the case of a cognitive power it will attain a necessary truth.

3.) The privation account of evil. Students imagine this requires that those who do evil are trying to reach a destination called “nothing”. All it means in fact is that they pick means that can’t get them to the good they seek necessarily.

Evil and objects of free choice both arise because some of the means to the good-we-necessarily-will do not necessarily attain it. Some means can attain it and others can’t, and the first can be freely chosen, while the second cannot be objects of choice except accidentally. We can be responsible for picking a means that cannot attain a good but there is an incoherence in saying we choose it since we can only choose a means to some goal and so what cannot attain a goal cannot count as a means either.

So how can we choose a “means” that cannot be a means? For human beings in via ignorance does much of the work, whether it is the ignorance of not knowing something or of not thinking about what we happen to know. For angels or separated souls outside of the beatific vision the problem is much more difficult and it is not clear that we have any satisfactory answer. For Eastern Christians, the consensus seems to be that repentance is possible for anything south of heaven, and, though the fires of Hell might be eternal the presence of any persons in them need not be. Western christians are more conflicted (especially of late) but seem to allow for a fixity of the will to means that cannot attain supernatural goods, though perhaps all this means is that such means are no longer offered.


1.) Perception and judgment: A speck inside the eye is perceived as an object outside the eye while needing to be judged as a symptom of something in the eye. All of the objects of metaphysics and theology are like this: we might perceive actions as interactions, God and the world as forming two parts of a pyramid of being, self action as opposed to being a secondary cause, one substance as one numerical unit, individuals as necessarily different from their types and types from their existence… but to judge that these perceptions (which are really the detritus of thinking with images) are the objects of thought would be to chase an illusion – a frantic attempt at muffling the room to stop the ringing in our ears.

2.) Knowers are not subjective as knowers: Describing cognition as subjective is fundamentally cartesian, and it presupposes the fear that, in fact, we might not have any objects at all. In speaking of a human subject we are implicitly saying “Even if I assume there is no world outside myself, at least I am a subject”. Well, sure, but all this means, as Descartes said flat out, is that even if we did not think of an exterior world we would still exist. 

But what happens when, like Descartes, we become convinced that we know an exterior world? Then it is no longer adequate to describe knowledge as belonging to a subject, except in the vacuous sense of saying “whatever knows, also exists”. What we now need is something that makes the knower more than a subject. It is precisely breaking out of subjectivity that constitutes knowers as such.

In other words, once we become convinced of an exterior world (i.e. that we know stuff) we are not constituted by subjectivity or consciousness but objectivity as such. It is only by our being another beyond our subjective selves that we are knowers.

It is not our subjectivity that constitutes us as knowers, but the exterior world itself giving rise to an objective existence in addition to subjective existence. One and the same form that makes cats exist (and which is more or less perfectly realized in its substrate) is the same form that gives rise to knowledge in those who know it (though it is, again, more and less perfectly realized in the diverse intelligences).

In human beings, this form is known by sense, and so is not entirely objective. Sensation can, in the end, only report its own alterations, and it is unable to tease out how much of the alteration is due to the object from how much is due to itself. In this sense, forms that we know are never purely objective but involve both taking form from the world and putting form back into it. Human knowledge is only purely objective so far as it is speaking by negation or so far as it says that something is. It must call upon sense to say what the world is, which always consists in reports the organ gives on its own alteration.

In angels, the single form is not taken from sense but from the angels own essence. The angel is thus infinitely closer to the sense world than human beings and is much more involved with its tending and care. Nevertheless, this world is drawn forth from the angel as given (whether to theoretical or practical knowledge) and so its existence is already a fait accompli. In this sense the knowledge of the angel can only come to a world that is already there and cannot give rise to its existence. This requires something analogous to subjectivity




Language and formal systems

Metalanguage is essential to human language, i.e. every language use can be in turn analyzed by language into the sort of discourse it is. But no formal or axiomatic system can analyze the sort of formal system it is, e.g. Euclidean postulates and definitions sufficing to prove Euclidianism.

Liturgies to come

-As we cannot do without absolutes they must at sometime be acknowledged. As the absolutes are structural and given to all our actions we must acknowledge them by an action that recognizes their dominion over all possible actions. This is certainly a liturgy or worship service or prayer of some sort. Naturalism might not end in any known theism, but it must either become liturgical or cease to be.

-Faith in the religious sense can exist in anything with totalizing power over action and so over the whole of time – faith thus is implicated in hope for the future.

-Christ and Anti-Christ both tap into the same reserve of energy – what Kolokowski and Midgley would call myth. Naturalism is a clumsy and ambivalent myth with no liturgy since it is the first stage after a renounced liturgy, but declaring oneself as without symbols and worship is the only the first stage to forming new ones. The true ones, of course. Who could argue against a collective and symbolic recognition of the true source of our hope? Attendance should practically be mandatory!

-Science is idealized rationality, or so the story goes, and idealized rationality is idealized humanity. If taken as an object of hope (and so of faith) it has to eventually turn into a worship of the human ideal: the collective, the well-formed, the strong. This forms the first church in the city of man, or of the flesh in the Biblical sense.

-As Augustine shows in CoG 14, the flesh is simply man. So where does the overtone of carnality or the phallic come from in flesh? When man is an object of worship there is an ambivalence between the idealization of rationality and the assertion of the phallic, and I say phallic and not sexual because we only desire sex as power to act, transform, assert dominion, be free from all ties. Any hint of sex as receptive, given, desiring commitment, or as the tamer of phallic energy – any hint of the feminine – must be degraded, redefined, and dismissed as not really feminine.

-In losing the liturgy, low church Protestantism lost any exercise in the belief of the trinity, the incarnation, the dogmatic declarations, etc. But where a belief has no exercise it has no point, and so even by the time of Schliermacher low couch protestantism could see no point in any of these beliefs. Kant, raised with no liturgy, saw nothing in Christianity beyond the moral. If it is nothing beyond the moral it is not clear how it is anything beyond idealized humanity. The flesh again.


American Christian smart kids on love

Young people are fascinated by love, but American Christian smart kids seem to have boiled down what they think the grown-ups say about it to a handful of axioms like:

1.) Love is a choice as opposed to a feeling.

2.) Feelings are fleeting and cannot be trusted.

3.) Love is completely different from infatuation.

The axioms form a garbled Stoicism and Kantianism. Feelings are untrustworthy things we suffer and which contribute nothing to the value of an action. Reason and deliberate choice is far more stable and lasting than feelings and is both lasting, moral, and trustworthy.

The claims are either trivial (i.e. mere stipulative definitions that lead nowhere) or false. We change our minds as often as our feelings, some feelings can become structural to one’s personality and so be just as lasting as any choice, and while no one would say that all loves are infatuations, the difference between them has to be cashed out in terms other than feeling and it is not clear that any such explanation is on offer.

All the arguments seem to be made by well-intentioned people who are terrified of eros and want to domesticate it into a circus lion or statue of Apollo. One could forgive the obvious impracticality of the theory if it weren’t also completely wrong, since eros is madness and there is nothing wrong with it being so.

The reality of eros is much more interesting than this stoico-kantian garble. Feelings of infatuation might be (by definition) fleeting and fickle, but this is because they are tied up with novelty and novelty cannot last. But there is a whole vast palate of feelings that are not only other than novelty but that require familiarity and shared history, like, I dunno, intimacy.  To speak of being intimate with someone you’ve only known briefly is either a euphemism or a joke. So it would be truer to say that love starts with a choice and only later becomes a feeling, since the feeling eros is going for is intimacy and intimacy can only be felt after a fairly long period of time. In the beginning it is only something we seek by choice and hoping.

The critique of feeling, like the critique of anger or revenge, is in fact a critique of unjust or perverse feeling (yet another reason to see this theory as muddled stoicism). But even after one clarifies that one should target unjust emotions the theory misfires badly by tagging infatuation as unjust. The better critique is that infatuation is a primitive or initial stage of intimacy that shouldn’t be confused with intimacy itself, and it’s lost only in the way that all primitive or initial stages are lost by what fulfills them.

Four senses of human equality

Human equality has meant at least four distinct meanings that can both complement and conflict:

1.) The denial of kingship or hereditary rule. This is the (minimal) sense of Jefferson’s claim that some men are not born with saddles on their backs, nor others born booted and spurred ready to ride them. Government is not provided for us by being born, nor are human beings like bees who are sorted into hierarchies by birth.

2.) The immorality of slavery. Lincoln shows how far this goes in his response to Douglas:

I have no purpose to introduce political and social equality between the white and the black races… I, as well as Judge Douglas, am in favor of the race to which I belong having the superior position…. but I hold that, notwithstanding all this, there is no reason in the world why the negro is not entitled to all the natural rights enumerated in the Declaration of Independence, the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. [Loud cheers.] I hold that he is as much entitled to these as the white man. I agree with Judge Douglas he is not my equal in many respects-certainly not in color, perhaps not in moral or intellectual endowment. But in the right to eat the bread, without the leave of anybody else, which his own hand earns, he is my equal, and the equal of Judge Douglas, and the equal of every living man.

3.) The supremacy of democracy. In this sense we are not just denying the existence of kings or hereditary rule but taking the further step that no one is more fit to rule than anyone else, and so the best regime is one that maximizes participation by the whole.

4.) Animal rights or the denial of speciesism. On this account “human equality” is an equality not to each other, but to other animals and perhaps even the whole biosphere. Plato sees this at the limit of human equality in the democratic state:

I must add that no one who does not know would believe, how much greater is the liberty which the animals who are under the dominion of man have in a democracy than in any other State: for truly, the she-dogs, as the proverb says, are as good as their she-mistresses, and the horses and asses have a way of marching along with all the rights and dignities of freemen; and they will run at any body who comes in their way if he does not leave the road clear for them: and all things are just ready to burst with liberty.

Compassion in carnivores

There ought to be a decent argument in that rules out animal cruelty while still allowing for human carnivorism, but all the contemporary arguments against animal cruelty I’ve read either fail to give any justification for eating meat or suggest that we shouldn’t. If, for example, it is always wrong to cause a sentient creature to suffer, a fortiori it is wrong to cause its death, right? The typical reason for avoiding animal cruelty thus lands us in Tom Regan’s absolutist animal-rights position: no hunting, meat, experimentation, etc. Almost no one finds this plausible in principle or practice.

Utilitarian arguments seem to allow carnivorism while ruling out cruelty, but only because they allow for any all-things-considered balance of interests, and I’m not in doubt that carnivores and meat-animals each have interests. That said, it seems absurd to argue that the killing an individual animal can fit into an account of that same animal’s interests, so I don’t think Utilitarianism will give us much help in avoiding cruelty while allowing carnivorism.

Humane treatment and carnivores might coincide with a teleological account of natural things. The existence of animals is subordinate to persons, which both allows for persons to justly kill them while also requiring that they exert a care analogous to (even if markedly different than) what any superior is expected to give to a subordinate.

Existential subordination is unavoidably speciesist though it need not rule out the feelings of empathy and concern for suffering in the animal world, and it might even explain such concern. Animal suffering is something we must not only avoid inflicting but also something we should minimize even when we do not cause it. But to do this is to declare ourselves as those in the position to remedy a condition that the animals cannot  remedy for themselves, which requires playing the role of a superior species.


Epicycle is a byword for hopelessly maintaining a theory by increasing complexity. But what are we to make of the shift in visualizing natural action as a clockwork, to a steam engine, to a mechanical computer to an electrical computer?

Whether brute facts are possible

Hume gives what is still the best account of what it would be to reduce phenomena to brute facts:

[The] ultimate springs and principles are totally shut up from human curiosity and enquiry. Elasticity, gravity, cohesion of parts, communication of motion by impulse; these are probably the ultimate causes and principles which we shall ever discover in nature; and we may esteem ourselves sufficiently happy, if, by accurate enquiry and reasoning, we can trace up the particular phenomena to, or near to, these general principles.

But success at reducing material activity to, say, gravitation is evidence that the statement “matter is gravitational” involves the same sort of predication as “squares are quadrilateral”, and the more success we have at the reduction the more confident we become. Successful reduction therefore drives out the idea that the explanans is simply a contingent, given brute fact and instead is taken as evidence that it involves per se predication.

Hume wants to divide reductive success from discovery of something ultimate, but the division seems unreasonable: Reductive success consists in finding the ultimate. The sense that we really can go no further in analysis is the grasping of an ultimate. We don’t take our failure to find a further reductive explanans as evidence that there is one out there we can’t find.

Sure, we can be mistaken about what is ultimate. Per se predicates are very difficult to find and very prone to refutation by experience. But we already knew that from Aristotle.

The basic issues are (a) whether sense experience ever gives insight or whether it is simply homogeneous repetition, and (b) whether the defeasibility of insight requires that insight never actually occurs. Both claims strike me as untrue to the experience of repeated events, and the second seems to conflate a fallible activity with one that cannot happen.

Most Empiricist or Kantian epistemologies suffer from just this sort of overlooking the reality of sensation giving rise to insight. Even Aristotle seems to do this – though he was probably the most eel-balanced empiricist who ever lived, when asked to explain insight he mumbled an enigmatic metaphor about soldiers fleeing from a battle. The difficulties in accounting for insight are very real – it’s not clear that one can define insight in a positive way, and there is certainly no formal-logical account of the process. The temptation to brush it aside altogether is unavoidable. That said, even the sharpest critique of the reality of insight – say, the grue-bleen problem- is still proposed as an insight into cognition.

The theory of recollection is still probably the most rigorous theory of insight on offer.

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