In defence of ultimate meaning and truth

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While the cover of Seth Zuihō Segall’s The House We Live In claims the book draws its account primarily from Aristotle, the Buddha and Confucius, the deeper, animating influence turns out to be pragmatism. There’s no problem with taking inspiration from pragmatism as such; the problem is that Seth’s pragmatism is so relentless and extreme that it rules out of court all opinions that differ from it – including, it turns out, those of Aristotle, the Buddha and Confucius.

The excessive pragmatism in question is expressed above all in this sentence: “whenever we ask ‘what’s the meaning of “X?”‘, we are really asking, ‘what is the significance of “X” for maintaining and enhancing our lives.'” (107) This pragmatic claim is simply not true. Some of us are really asking the latter question when we ask the former. Seth would like it to be the case that all of us are asking the latter question. But it’s not.

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The importance of deep differences

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In thinking further about Seth Segall’s The House We Live In: Virtue, Wisdom and Pluralism, I want to turn from reviewing the book itself, whose broad approach I generally agree with, to exploring my major points of philosophical difference with it. I think this is a particularly important approach here because the book’s biggest weakness is its refusal to go down to deep philosophical differences, differences in questions of ultimate value, meaning, truth, reality. Such an approach leaves Seth in no position to understand his political opponents, many of whom are going to be conservative Christians (in the US) or conservative Muslims (worldwide). I don’t think you can reach a full mutual understanding with them unless you understand their differences from you at this very deep, foundational level.

For when we look at Seth’s engagement with monotheistic thought – the thought that underlies those conservative Christian or Muslim views – it turns out to be unfortunately superficial. They get their most extensive treatment on pp 133-7, in which the wide range of thinkers quoted includes Francis of Assisi, Rabbi Hillel and Albert Schweitzer. But notice how the section characterizes the work done by its quotations:

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A vision of flourishing and mutual understanding

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It has taken me longer than expected to get to reviewing Seth Zuihō Segall’s thoughtful and engaging The House We Live In: Virtue, Wisdom and Pluralism. Most of the reasons for that are personal, but some have to do with the book itself: the book is short (less than 200 pages) and in admirably simple prose, but I spent a long time reading it because of the number of times it made me stop and provoked my thinking. It’s provoked me enough that my review and response to it will stretch over four different posts; the other thing that took a long time was organizing all the many things I had to say about the book. (I had even more to say than those four posts, but decided to restrain myself to the most important.)

The book is an ambitious attempt to set out Seth’s own constructive philosophy. (I went back and forth on first vs. last name – although when reviewing a book it’s conventional to use a last name, since Segall is an active contributor to Love of All Wisdom’s comments on a first-name basis, I prefer that friendlier usage.) I’m broadly sympathetic with this attempt, since like my own philosophy it is broadly eudaimonistic (and naturalistic). We agree on an ethical account that focuses on human virtue and flourishing.

Specifically, the book is Seth’s philosophical account of two things: the good modern human life, in an ethical and psychological sense, and a political direction for modern societies, especially the USA. (It does not attempt to probe other philosophical areas, such as metaphysics – possibly to its detriment, as we’ll see later.) The ethical account of the good life is relatively strong; the political account, somewhat less so. At its best it provides an admirable political vision to aspire to. The biggest problem with the book is its papering over of the major differences among traditions. I am going to spend more time on the criticism of that latter point than the praise of the former, just because I think there’s typically more to be learned in disagreement than in agreement. (And indeed, the importance of difference and disagreement will be at the heart of my critique.) I want to be clear that I think the book is well worth the read, at least its middle ethical chapters, and that’s a big reason I am engaging with it at length. For a long time, virtue ethics of any kind was so underrepresented in philosophy that we virtue ethicists all had to stick together against our Kantian and utilitarian foes. I think it’s a sign of major progress that books like Seth’s are now out there – in a way that allows us to turn our attention to our differences.

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The varieties of right-wing authoritarianism

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“Fascist” has long been a go-to pejorative to describe political enemies, especially for leftists like myself – I recall using it as a youth against hard libertarians like Mike Harris, even though they bore basically no similarity to fascism beyond the bare fact of being right-wing. But in those days there were very few politicians who had the authoritarianism or nativism characteristic of historical fascism. Today there are more – but it’s still rare for them to call themselves fascists. The word isn’t going to go away, and, it appears, neither are the new more-fascist-like breed of politicians and voters. So it’s probably helpful to think on what historical fascism actually was – the people who once actually called themselves fascists.

I got an education on historical fascism in Lisbon a few years ago, when I visited the Aljube Museum of Resistance and Freedom. The museum was devoted to the dark years 1932-1968 when Antonio de Oliveira Salazar ruled the country, and to the heroic struggles of citizens to fight against his rule – a difficult task when his authoritarianism went as far as the confiscation of typewriters. Salazar had everything I would have considered the hallmarks of fascism: he took dictatorial power over the government with no checks and balances; his não discutimos speech proclaimed there would be no debate over any ideas guiding the country; he had secret police spying on the people to stamp out dissent. None of this surprised me as I read it, until I read one additional thing:

The Fascists opposed Salazar.

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Mystics, Marx, and negating the negation

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The phrase negation of the negation is best known from Karl Marx’s work, as when he uses it to describe capitalist production in Capital. It’s an odd phrase that seems simply redundant in the formal logic taught to analytic philosophers and computer scientists. There, the principle of double negation elimination tells you ¬¬P -> P: that is, the negative of the negative is the positive, and nothing more. Russell and Whitehead in Principia Mathematica say simply: “a proposition is equivalent of the falsehood of its negation.” On that account, to “negate the negation” of something just leaves you with its affirmation, the original thing you were negating: all you’re doing is being unnecessarily wordy, by saying not-not-P when you could have just said P.

But in Marx’s inspiration Hegel, there is much more to the phrase than this redundancy. A great deal of Hegel’s thought proceeds in the kind of three-part progression that introductions to Hegel often call thesis, antithesis, and synthesis (though Hegel never used those terms in that way). When thinking through a particular idea we begin in a first, unquestioned or immediate, position – a prejudice. This idea gets challenged by its opposite, the negation or negative moment. The third and final step is in some ways closer to the first than to the second, but it is crucially different: it takes up the truth of the second within it, transcends and includes it. This is negating the negation: negating here is a process, not a simple inversion or opposite but a rational movement forward. That movement is at the heart of Hegel’s thought.

I was startled recently to encounter the phrase “negation of negation” in a rather different place: the medieval Christian mystic Meister Eckhart. At first, Eckhart’s only obvious commonality with Hegel and Marx is that they are all German. But the commonalities go deeper, at least with Hegel. Hegel isn’t obviously a mystic: his logocentrism leaves little room for ineffability or mystery, and leaves him to be disdainful of mystical experience. Yet depending on how one defines mysticism, there is a mystical dimension at least in Hegel’s nondualism, where everything comes back to a spirit or mind (Geist) that is both subject and object, both God and self. And Hegel traces that nondualism directly back to Eckhart himself. In the Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion, Hegel describes Eckhart as having “a thorough grasp of the divine depth” in this passage from Eckhart’s sermons:

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Mysticism vs. magic

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While lecturing at Stonehill I made a comment about some traditional practice, I don’t remember which, that it was “less mystical and more magical.” Or maybe it was the reverse. What I remember clearly is that, as I was about to move on, one brave and perceptive student raised her hand to ask “Could you maybe explain the difference between magical and mystical?”

I paused for a moment, a little stunned by the reminder that I hadn’t explained that distinction. I was very grateful for the question: of course I should have explained the distinction, how could I have expected them to know it? The question reminded me that the distinction between magic and mysticism is something I tend to take for granted – even though it is not at all obvious to a layperson. It’s also quite important – for the key reason that the claims of mysticism are more likely to be true than those of magic. Or at the least, they are less unscientific – likely to conflict with the evidence of natural science. So it’s a key distinction I keep in mind when I read works like Jeffrey Kripal’s The Flip, which argue for viewing the world in ways that go beyond the natural-sceintific.

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Introducing Love of All Wisdom on Substack

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Starting now, for reasons explained below, Love of All Wisdom will be both a blog (as it has always been) and a free Substack newsletter. I will be posting Love of All Wisdom simultaneously on both; this blog site will remain its primary home. If you’re already on Substack, feel free to subscribe. I’d also be happy to have you stay here: I intend all of my post content to be the same on both sites, so you won’t miss anything if you’re subscribed to one or the other (except for comments and possible cross-posts). This week I will kickstart the Substack by copying over a few of my favourite blog posts from the past couple years. After that, the posts will go up at the same time on both. What follows here is the first Substack post, aimed at introducing Love of All Wisdom to a new audience. I post it here for its summing up of what LoAW is and has been about.

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Power in anarchism and project management

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In everyday communities and institutions – families, universities, businesses, clubs – we cannot help but engage in politics, in the sense of influencing or making collective decisions. I think political philosophy does better when it turns its attention to those communities and institutions smaller than the state, where most of our political actions take place: political philosophy should be a philosophy not just of the state but of office politics, of academic politics.

In that regard, I’ve noticed an interesting commonality between two works whose authors likely wouldn’t see themselves as having anything in common: Graeber and Wengrow’s anarchist anthropology The Dawn of Everything, and the standards set out by the Project Management Institute. Graeber and Wengrow look at a wide range of anthropological and archaeological sources on how humans organize their societies; the Project Management Institute examines how an individual (a project manager) can get a group of people to succeed at a collective institutional goal.

To the former (one of whom is the author of Bullshit Jobs), the latter probably looks like a deadening or sinister tool of The Man. To the latter, the former likely looks like a juvenile whining that refuses to sully its hands with getting anything done. Yet both concern themselves with the questions of how non-state institutions can be run: the latter in the day-to-day practice of making those institutions’ projects succeed, the former in imagining the functioning of a world without a state. And so both wind up exploring one core and inescapable concept: power.

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Sudden and gradual together

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The past few years have taught me the wisdom in Daoist-influenced traditions of sudden liberation: in a certain way we can improve ourselves by not improving ourselves, through an acceptance of everything, including ourselves, in the present moment. Yet I had had good reason to be frustrated earlier with such traditions – for their rhetoric sometimes implies that that present-moment acceptance is easy, which it is not. It was a long and painful lesson for me learning how hard it is to be good. That made me a longtime advocate of what East Asian Buddhists would call the gradual path, but I increasingly also see the wisdom in its converse, the sudden. Can the two be reconciled?

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In praise of the present moment

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One of the things that helped me realize the need for self-improvement by not-self-improvement was regular practice with the excellent Headspace meditation app, created by a former Tibetan monk named Andy Puddicombe. Headspace is at the epicenter of “McMindfulness”: the app normally charges for access but I get it for free as a work wellness benefit, and this arrangement has made Puddicombe millions of dollars. In turn, the app is a big reason I defend McMindfulness – especially through John Dunne’s hugely helpful distinction between “classical” and “nondual” mindfulness.

That is to say: the core practice in Headspace is noticing your emotions, positive and negative, as they arise, and reacting to them with nonjudgemental acceptance. And you do so, yes, in the present moment. Critics like Ron Purser correctly note that that present-moment focus is not found in classical Indian texts like the Pali suttas or Śāntideva – but Dunne notes that it is found in other premodern Buddhist traditions, like the Tibetan writings of Wangchuk Dorje. And I dare say that that present-moment technique is an improvement: one that does a better job than the classical tradition’s techniques at their shared goal of reducing our suffering.

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