Author: john mcgowan

Violence and Inequality (Part Two)

The thesis of Walter Scheidel’s The Great Leveler:  Violence and Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century (Princeton UP, 2017) is easily stated: “Thousands of years of history boil down to a simple truth: ever since the dawn of civilization, ongoing advances in economic capacity and state building favored growing inequality, but did little if anything to bring it under control.  Up to and including the Great Compression of 1914 to 1950, we are hard pressed to identify reasonably well attested and nontrivial reductions in material inequality that were not associated, one way or another, with violent shocks” (391).

In particular, Scheidel says there are four kinds of “violent shocks” (he calls them the four horsemen): war, plague, system or state collapse, and violent revolution.  But it turns out that not even all instances of those four can do the job of reducing inequality.  The violent shocks, it turns out, must be massive. Only “mass mobilization” wars reduce inequality, so (perhaps) only World War I and, especially, World War II actually count as doing the job.  The Napoleonic Wars clearly do not–and it is harder to tell with the possible mass mobilizations in the ancient world.

Similarly, except for the Russian and Chinese revolutions of the 20th century (both of which caused, at the minimum, fifteen million deaths), revolutions rarely seem to have significantly altered the distribution of resources.  The Black Death (lasting as it did, in waves, over at least eighty and perhaps 120 years) and perhaps similar earlier catastrophic plagues (of which less is certainly known) stand as the only examples of leveling epidemics.  For system or state collapse, we get the fall of Rome—and not much else that is relevant since then, with speculations about collapses prior to Rome and in the Americas (Aztecs and Incas) where (once again) the available evidence leads to conjectures but no firm proofs.

Where does that leave us?  In two places, apparently.  One is that inequality leveling events are rare, are massive, and are, arguably, worse than the disease to which they are the cause.  Also, except for the revolutions, the leveling effects are unintentional by-products.  Which leads the second place: the very conservative conclusion (much like Hayek’s thoughts about the market as being beyond human control/calculation or T. S. Eliot’s similar comments about “culture” being an unplanned and unplannable product of human actions) that, although the creation of inequality is very much the result of human actions that are enabled and sustained by the state (i.e. by political organization), there is little that can be done politically (and deliberately) to reduce inequality.  Scheidel is at great pains to show a) that even the great shocks only reduce inequality for a limited time (about 60 to 80 years) before inequality starts to rise again; b) that the various political expedients currently on the table (like a wealth tax of the kind Elizabeth Warren is proposing or high marginal tax rates) would lower inequality very slightly at most; and c) that the scale of violence required to significantly lower inequality (as contrasted to the marginal reductions that less violent measures could effect) is simply too horrible to deliberately embrace as a course of action.

So the conclusion appears to be: bemoan inequality as much as you like, but also find a way to come to terms with the fact that it is basically irremediable.  Scheidel is good at the bemoaning part, portraying himself as someone who sees inequality as deplorable, even evil.  But he is just as resolute in condemning violence aimed at decreasing inequality.  So his unstated, but strongly, implied recommendation is quietist.

In line with my ongoing obsessions, the book appears to reinforce what I have deemed one of the paradoxes of violence: namely, the fact that the state is undoubtedly a constraint upon violence even as states are also undoubtedly the source of more violence than non-state actors.  In the new version of this paradox that Scheidel’s book suggests, the formulation would go like this: the state enables greater economic activity/productivity while also enabling far greater economic inequality.

Yet the state’s enabling of inequality doesn’t work the other way.  It seems just about impossible to harness the state to decrease inequality—except in the extreme case of war.  World War II certainly bears that out in recent (the past 300 years) history.  The US (in particular) adopted (in astoundingly short order) a very communistic framework to conduct the war (with a command economy in terms of what was to be produced and how people were to be assigned their different roles in production, along with strict wage and price controls, and rationing).  It would seem that the war proved that a command economy can be efficient and, not only that, but in times of dire need, a command economy was obviously preferable to the chaos of the free market.  The war effort was too important to be left to capitalism.  But outside of a situation of war, it has seemed impossible to have the state play that kind of leveling role, strongly governing both production and distribution.  Why?  Because only war produces the kind of social solidarity required for such centralized (enforced) cooperation?  To answer that way gets us back to violence as required—because violence is a force of social cohesion like none other.

To phrase it this way gets us back to an ongoing obsession of this blog: the problem of mobilization.  How to create a sustainable mass movement that can exert the kind of pressure on elites that is required to shift resources downward?  If violence as teh source of cohesion for that movement is taken off the table, what will serve in its place?  Which also raises the thought of why nationalism is so entangled in violence and in rhetorics/practices of sacrifice.  The means by which social cohesion is created.  Maybe that’s the “numinous” quality of violence to which Charles Taylor keeps gesturing.  A kind of Durkheimian creation of the collective, a way of escaping/transcending the self.

A different thought: Scheidel makes a fairly compelling case (although it is not his main focus) that the creation of inequality is itself dependent on violence.  Sometimes the violence of appropriation is massive–especially in the cases of empires which are basically enterprises of either outright extraction (carting off the loot) or somewhat more indirect extortion (requiring the payment of “tribute” in return for peace/protection).  Or sometimes the violence of appropriation is less massive and less direct.  But appropriation still requires a state that, in the last instance, will protect appropriated property against the claims of those who see that appropriation as either unjust or as inimical to their own interests.  In short, the power of the state (a power that resides, to at least some extent, in its capacity for violence and its willingness to put that capacity into use) is necessary to the creation and maintenance of inequality.  So, in one way, it seems like a “little” violence can get you inequality, but it requires “massive” violence to dislodge that inequality in the direction of more equality.  And it is this difference in scale that places the exploited in such an unfavorable position when it comes to remedial action.

Of course, the growth in inequality since 1980 in the US was grounded in legal instruments and institutional practices.  The increasing power of employers over employees, the prevention of the state from intervening in massive lay-offs or equally massive outsourcing, the onslaught of privatization and deregulation (or lax enforcement of existing regulations), the legalization of all kinds of financial speculation and “creative instruments” etc. etc. was all accomplished “non-violently” through a classic “capture of the state.”  This is what inspires the most radical leftist visions; the left seems utterly paralyzed as it witnesses all these court cases, new laws, revisions of executive practice, a paralysis generated by the fact that the shifts of power and wealth to the top 10% are all “legal.”  The radical claims there is no “legal” room left for the radical egalitarian to occupy.  The system is so corrupt that it offers no remedies within its scope.  But the distaste for massive violence (here is where Scheidel is relevant) appears to take extra-legal methods for change off the table.



Violence and Inequality

Mollie Panter-Downes wrote a weekly letter from London for the New Yorker during the course of World War II.  On April 29, 1945, with the end in sight, she writes of the Budget report just released: “The figures on net incomes, prewar and war, which were given in the Budget provides much food for brooding in the clubs.  Seven thousand people had net annual incomes of six thousand pounds and over in 1939, the report said, but there were only eighty in the category in 1943.  The figures showed an increase of three million persons in the group which earns between two hundred and fifty and five hundred pounds a year.  Some of the things that Socialist orators in Hyde Park have long been clamoring for on Sunday mornings seem to have come about not through a bloody revolution but through a very bloody war” (London War Notes [London: Persephone Books, 2014]: 452-53).

To begin with an irrelevancy: I can’t help but be astonished by the numbers.  Six thousand pounds at the high end; two hundred fifty pounds as a decent income!  The UK National Archives website has a handy currency converter that tells me 250 pounds in 1945 had the purchasing power of approximately 9000 pounds in 2017. (Hard to believe you could live on 9000 pounds in 2017 England.  Double that–i.e. 500 1945 pounds–might just barely keep you in house and food.) That means 6000 pounds in 1945 comes out to 216,000 pounds in 2017 dollars.  And an income of 6000 pounds is 24 times greater than one of 250 pounds.

So: three things to note.

  1. Pretty substantial inflation between 1945 and the present—after a very long run of non-inflation and, in fact, slight deflation between the Napoleonic wars and World War II (about 125 years).

2.  The number of the population receiving high incomes is very, very small.  Seems hard to believe.  Only 7000 people at the top income level in 1939?  When there are at least 3 million lower wage earners.  That works out to two tenths of a percent at the top income level.  Digging around a bit, (one good source: I get these historical figures for the UK:

The top 10% had 35% of all incomes in 1939; 22% of all incomes in 1972; and it was back up to 35% in 2016.  The top 1% had 19% of total income in 1913; it had sunk all the way to 6% in 1972; and was up to 15% in 2010.  (We can safely assume it is a point or two higher in 2019.)

What do those figures tell us?  Basically that, for the UK at least, the very high level of income inequality that prevailed prior to the triple whammy of World War I, the depression, and World War II has almost been completely reestablished since 1972.  This result, of course, should not surprise us.  It is what Thomas Piketty and his various colleagues have been telling us for the past ten years.

But these figures suggest that more than 0.2% of the population were earning the top incomes in 1939.  And they also suggest that some of those top incomes must have been substantially higher than 6000 pounds—which is only 24x greater than 250 pounds (a laughable figure by 2019 standards when CEOs earn 250x and more than the average worker.)

  1. Walter Scheidel, a historian at Stanford, set out to test Piketty’s theses about the fluctuations of income and wealth inequality in the largest possible historical frame. Scheidel’s fascinating (and deeply depressing) book is The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century (Princeton University Press, 2017).  Panter-Downes, in 1945, already recognized what Piketty was to assert in his 2014 Capital in the Twenty-First Century (Harvard University Press): the “great compression” of the years 1914 to 1970, the dramatic decrease in income and wealth inequality in the middle years of the 20th century, were the direct result of long and bloody wars.  Europe in the 20th century conducted a huge potlatch, a wanton destruction of vast amounts of wealth.  And since the already wealthy had the most to lose since they possessed the most at the outset, the outcome was a general leveling.   When we recognize that 1972 marked the pinnacle of economic equality in countries like the UK and the US, the counter-revolution begun in the Thatcher and Reagan years comes into sharp focus.


I am going to write at length about the Scheidel book, but will leave that to the rest of this week.

The Sam Saga

UNC Chancellor Carol Folt resigned yesterday—and took the remnants of the campus’s Confederate monument out the door with her.

While the UNC system’s Board of Governor’s met in an emergency session to discuss “Chapel Hill leadership,” Folt stole a march on them, announcing her resignation and her order for the removal of the toppled statue’s still-standing pedestal to an undisclosed location, before the Board’s meeting ended.

Campus work crews had dismantled the pedestal and hauled it away by midnight last night.

Good on her.

The Chancellor has now committed her own act of civil disobedience.  I wonder if there will be calls to prosecute her.  To the best of my knowledge, the law that forbade removal of monuments did not specify the sanctions for those who broke it.  The Gordian knot of the statue was always there to be undone by Folt; it always seemed it would be a trade of her breaking the law in return for losing her job.  She waited a long time–perhaps until the very last moment–to take that step.  But surely there will be those on the right who think her losing her job is not punishment enough.

Now is not the time, it seems to me, to repine over what could or should have been.  Instead, we should accept where things currently stand and, as a campus, stand braced to fight back against any retaliatory actions coming from the BOG.  Reviling the BOG or speculating about what it has or will do is also not very useful in my view.  But we should be clear that BOG is not in our corner and that its actions must be carefully monitored and steadily resisted.

In the meantime, all honor is due to Maya Little and her many allies.  They forced the issue.  Resolute action triumphed over dithering.  What a lovely, perfectly expressive, word: dithering.

Broken America

At the MLA Convention, I picked up a book from Penguin with the title Tales of Two Americas: Stories of Inequality in a Divided Nation, edited by John Freeman.  The book collects various vignettes, along with some poems and longer essays, on life in these Untied States by a set of novelists and poets.  They are almost completely free of attempts to generalize; instead, they just focus in on particular stories set in particular places, almost all of them (reflecting their writers’ own lives) in cities.  They are consistently well-written and moving.

In his introduction, Freeman writes:  “America is broken.  You don’t need a fistful of statistics to know this.  You just need eyes and ears and stories.  Walk around any American city and evidence of the shattered compact with citizens will present itself.  There you will see broken roads, overloaded schools, police forces on edge, clusters and sometimes whole tent cities of homeless people camped in eyeshot of shopping districts that are beginning to resemble ramparts of wealth rather than stores for all.  Thick glass windows and security guards stand between aspirational goods and the people outside . . .” (x).

I don’t know why such a stark statement of the case should shock me.  And shock isn’t exactly the right word anyway—unless it is the shock of recognition.  Still, there are the multiple ways we all find everyday to evade this knowledge, the ways we carry on our normal lives and try to ignore the fact that our politicians refuse to face up to even the most glaring of our nation’s problems, and that our media/culture never focuses on anything substantive, and that our elites work hard to make things worse even as they spin tales about how they are making things better.  We think of emergencies of the past—the Depression, World War II—and imagine a nation actually focused on the real issues and determined to roll up its sleeves to address them.

Maybe that’s a fantasy, but FDR (for all his faults) did things—and he had a solid majority urging him to do those things.  Today, instead, a strong minority (and one that has power beyond its numbers due to gerrymandering and the undemocratic Senate) aims to take away the healthcare subsidies and food stamps that are just about the last meager help offered to the most destitute.  There appears to be an absolute refusal to even acknowledge the suffering at the bottom of our society.  And it is that refusal, along with the fact of the suffering, that marks America as broken.  The old conundrum of poverty amidst plenty stalks the land.  How can we be so rich and so mean at the same time?  How is it that we use our resources so foolishly?






Kim Evans Responds

Here’s is Kim’s correction of my mis-understanding of her project.

Dearest John,

Many thanks for the shout out! I’m intrigued by your account of my argument and your response to it—which has sent my head spinning (not in an unpleasant way). Here are a few initial reactions, and since you paint the scene with a useful mix of the personal and the intellectual I’ll respond in kind.

First, you have perfectly captured the gist of our not-wasting-any-time-with-chit-chat encounter: that by changing the original meaning of “noumena” from “that which is thought” to his own “things as they are, independent of observation,” Kant not only altered (detrimentally) the trajectory of thought in the modern era but also created the conditions for our enduring misreading of Plato. Ironically, Plato gets the rap for Kant’s dualism.

However, I did *not* say (as you report) that “we should understand the Forms as the concepts by which we (humans) grasp things.” I’m sorry to be so fastidious on this point, but something I find preoccupying is how confused many people have become about concepts (or what it means to have the use of a concept) and concept formation. The confusion is largely due (thanks for nothing, Kant!) to the belief that concepts are formed in the individual theater of the mind. You are still reading Kant or operating out of a set of assumptions established for you by philosophers in the modern era (after the defining work of Descartes and Locke) when in the second half of your post you object to what you call my idealism or worry about the way that all this talk about concepts “confines humans within the boundaries of our languages.” This Kantian view of concepts (as an activity of mind) simply does not map onto the view we find in Plato’s writing. Plato calls attention to the world of forms in order to help us see how language actually works. And discovering how language actually works, according to good readers of Plato (like Wittgenstein) and good readers of Wittgenstein (like Bernard Harrison), helps us to see how a) the “meaning” of a word or linguistic expression—“whale,” for example—doesn’t come, as it were, from Nature and it doesn’t come from Mind; it comes from the role the world plays in language, and b) the meaning of a word can’t be divorced from the wide array of socially devised and maintained practices in which the speakers of language are engaged.  This should come as an enormous relief to anyone who wishes, as you do, to emphasize the central importance of practices in the formation of concepts. I could also say here that something you presumably like about Wittgenstein is that he both denies the existence of a referential relationship between words and things and at the same time dispels the view that language is self-referential, the meaning of its signs established by nothing more than the history of language. But for goodness’ sake let’s please finally concede that this is in fact the position of the classical realists and their best readers (like C. S. Peirce)—though this will presumably only happen when we get back to reading Plato’s dialogues instead of using him as a foil.

SO, to repeat, I did not say that “we should understand the Forms as the concepts by which we (humans) grasp things.” After all, we’ve never had any problem grasping things! The matter that needs explaining is how we grasp thoughts (or the thoughts our words express, which all together make up what Plato called the noumenal realm) and also how the thought a word expresses is affected by or sedimented out of our undeniable placement in the phenomenal realm or world of empirical objects, forces, etc.

The formulation I prefer (and if I get hit by a bus tomorrow, would like to be remembered by) is this one:

For Plato, the real world is the world of things signified by the signs in our language. 


The things signified by the signs in our language (“the living whale in his full majesty and significance” in Melville’s signature expression, when the sign is “whale”) are what Plato calls real.

What I like about this formulation is that it gets us away from all the garbled transcendentalism misleadingly associated with Plato but really pushed by philosophers in the modern era (for example all the talk about the “stability” of the forms) and back to the view, which is the view we get from reading Plato’s dialogues, that our concepts are in motion. (They are in motion because they are always being revised and added to, as you say, but this does not make them subjective. For Plato concepts are not private but public.)

Now, there is something else at work here that I think is worth remarking on. In your post you comment on your reading habits (that you only skim the news but prefer to read books, the longer the better) and you reference (with sympathy or shared feeling, I think) my remark that the sound of not reading is what we mostly hear. But then, after introducing my position (as found in my MLA talk, but given full development in my new book, One Foot in the Finite: Melville’s Realism Reclaimed) you go on to spell out a difference you see between your position and mine on the grounds that what I say about concepts has not taken enough account of practices. But good god, man! As the author of a book about, precisely, the relationship between concepts and practices or the materiality of our conceptual lives (through the lens of Melville’s Moby-Dick, the most practice-aware study of concepts in all recorded thought!) I’m puzzled by your account. I can only imagine that you are not reading all of the book in which the view you characterize is laid out. This would be perfectly understandable, given the demands of life. Even the most intelligent and serious of readers learn to make use of reviews, rumors, and what they can glean from titles. (And speaking of reviews, I’ll paste below the first few paragraphs of one of the reviews of One Foot so that you don’t have to take my word for it on the question of my focus on practice.) But I am nevertheless interested in the likelihood of people not reading because not-reading seems to have become the means by which our profession keeps chugging along. Well, to speak more accurately, your profession, since as you point out I am no longer paid by anyone to be a reader of texts or to help other people undertake that work. Payment, as my latest labor of love suggests, is not necessary—though the want of it is profoundly uncomfortable & of course the kids suffer.

In any event I am brought back to something you said at the beginning of your post. I am extremely happy to be characterized by you as “a scholar of rare conviction and a thinker of even rarer originality,” and wouldn’t it be nice to think that this is the reason I am presently unemployed! My feeling is that the truth is more mundane and (to me) more unsettling. My last position, as you know, was Associate Professor of Literature and Philosophy at Yeshiva University, and when I am asked what happened there the best way I have of explaining is with a line cribbed from The Great Gatsby. I say I fell into the hands of careless people. ‘Careless’ is perhaps less damning a mode than many others (like ‘ill-willed’ or ‘frightened by originality’) but I think that when it is the mode taken up by professional readers and critics it can feel almost calculated—an engine of professional life rather than an obstacle to it. Isn’t that what Kant demonstrated, when in his Critique of Pure Reason his “unwarrantable” use of the word “noumena” (to quote Schopenhauer) both launched his own career and buried Plato’s own view under two centuries of misreading?

I’m sure I have made certain missteps, here—but oh, the pressure of a blog to respond quickly! I prefer the slowness of books. And shouldn’t books be read as deliberately as they were written? When did that way of reading end, and what will be the result?


Very much love, Kim

Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews

2018.04.28 View this Review Online   View Other NDPR Reviews

  1. L. Evans,One Foot in the Finite: Melville’s Realism Reclaimed, Northwestern University Press, 2018, 210pp., $34.95 (pbk.), ISBN 9780810136120.

Reviewed by Gary Shapiro, University of Richmond

Recently there has been an explosion of Anglophone philosophical interest in Herman Melville. The author of Moby Dick, or the Whale (1851) was neglected until the Melville renaissance that began among literary critics and historians in the 1920s and that has grown steadily since. However, it is only recently that those working in the analytical philosophical vein have turned their attention to the writer. Others writing in English with a more continental orientation have produced several monographs and essay collections in just the last three years or so. These studies were preceded some decades ago by a number of European thinkers, such as Gilles Deleuze, Jacques Ranciére, and Giorgio Agamben. Evans’s book should be of great interest to those seeking a strong interpretation of Melville’s great novel and to those exploring the value of Wittgenstein’s thought for literary analysis.

Evans focuses specifically on Moby Dick. As her title suggests, she is interested in reclaiming Melville’s realism. In a larger sense, she joins in an effort to reclaim American literature for philosophy, a project identified most frequently, but not exclusively, with the work of Stanley Cavell. She advances a Wittgensteinian reading of the novel, claiming that Melville “in effect lays out a solution to the problem that has vexed philosophy since its inception — the problem of how we grasp thought” (118) or (just a bit more modestly) that he dissolves the Cartesian problem of bridging “the ontological chasm between nonspatiotemporal thoughts and spatiotemporally bound thinkers” (164). While Evans devotes about as much time to explaining her version of Wittgenstein’s philosophy of language, knowledge, and reality as to explicating and commenting on Melville’s text, she does offer a number of distinctive readings of the latter inspired by the former analysis. This book offers an original understanding of Melville’s realism and argues that, so understood, the novel is quite coherent, contrary to many critics who regard it as a poorly patched together combination of a realistic whaling narrative and a metaphysical tragedy.

Evans comments acutely on a signature philosophical passage in Moby Dick that compares a whaling vessel hauling along two dead whales, one on each side, and so precariously balancing itself, to a thinker attempting to juggle Locke and Kant (chapter 73). Nominalistic empiricism competes with the transcendental a priori: is our knowledge limited to the things of sense, or do we possess concepts and forms of intuition that invariably structure our experience while rendering the noumenal world inaccessible? The narrator comments on the plight of those who “for ever keep trimming boat” as they compensate for a tilt toward one by hoisting up the other side. Evans endorses the narrator’s exclamation: “Oh, ye foolish! Throw all these thunderheads overboard, and then you will float light and right.” Melville, as read through Evans’s take on Wittgenstein, recognizes that our concepts are embedded in common forms of life, elements of a rich and complex network of habits, customs, practices, and institutions. The “living whale in his full majesty and significance” — a phrase that Evans repeats with increasing resonance — is not to be reduced either to a set of sensible experiences nor to the idea that a single person might form of the cetacean. The whale is the object of those forms of life practiced by whalemen who pursue, catch, slaughter, process, and are sometimes the victim of the leviathan.

Throughout, Evans engages in a running discussion with a number of Wittgenstein’s leading interpreters and commentators. She is particularly partial to Bernard Harrison’s explication of meaning as use and the concept of language games. Evans suggests a continuity which has not always been apparent between the “logical space” of theTractatus and the Investigations‘s focus on use. In clarifying this project, she observes — rightly, I believe — that it is misleading to reduce Wittgenstein’s meaningful “facts” to mere “things,” as the Pears and McGuiness Tractatus translation tends to do. Literary scholars inspired by (say) Cavell’s readings of Emerson and Thoreau should find these analyses, which are bolstered by discussions in the extensive notes, especially helpful. Philosophers who are in the current Wittgenstein loop may find them a bit repetitious, while others less conversant with relatively recent relevant discussions may be grateful for them……


Platonic Realism

Just back from the annual MLA convention.  The most interesting conversation I had there was a ten minute off-the-cuff unplanned encounter with Kim Evans (author of two splendid books on Melville and whom I shall call K.).  The Kafkaesque name is appropriate since K, a scholar of rare conviction and a thinker of even rarer originality, has never secured a place in the academy, mostly because fierce devotion to stringent thought terrifies most people, even purported intellectuals.  As K put it this time, you don’t have to listen too hard to hear the sound of people not reading.

Made me think of my own reading habits, which have not changed much over the years.  Skimming is all I ever do with a newspaper or anything on the internet, although I do check in on them both.  I have given up on NPR entirely, with its studied air of profundity as it dishes out the most tired platitudes and always manages to somehow fail to get to the heart of the matter.  I read the New York and London Review of Books, and Kevin Drum (the Mother Jones blogger) very faithfully, and selectively read bits of the New Yorker.  I have never been one for academic journals, confining myself almost entirely to books, particularly books I can own and mark up. The longer the book the better since I like to climb deeply into a writer’s thoughts.  And I read novels, biographies, and histories that I take out of the public library as my nighttime avoidance of TV since I find the various programs that people recommend (Orange is the New Black, or The Good Place for example) too thin to hold my interest.

All of this is by the way, however.  Characteristically, K was not really interested in exchanging chit-chat with me, but with explaining the insight that Kant had got Plato utterly wrong—and thus initiated our prevalent misreading of Plato.  By designating “noumenon” as the “thing-in-itself” and deeming that thing inaccessible, Kant had created a chasm between the (not fully real) world of “phenomenon” and the unreachable world of the noumenon.  We (i.e. humans) couldn’t fully exist in either, since we are the mere playthings of material laws (of physics) in the phenomenal world, while our true vocation, our freedom as rational beings, depends on a relation to the noumenal world that we cannot fully inhabit.  To think that Plato shared this dualism, in his distinction between the world of appearances and the world of Forms, is, K insisted, a mistake.

Rather, we should understand the Forms as the concepts by which we (humans) grasp things.  The world only becomes real when apprehended, and the forms are both the means and the result of acts of apprehension.  A thing without its animating concept is just inert matter.  The concept opens up the thing to use, to participation in human projects.  And if that can seem too utilitarian, we need only have a very capacious notion of human projects, of human ways of being in the world, of being with things and with others.  Or to quote K: “knowing what something is means having the use of a concept.  And having the use of a concept doesn’t mean connecting a word with some extra-mental feature of the natural world or with knowing the meaning of something that exists independent of observation.  On the contrary, a person’s understanding of a concept is distributed throughout their way speaking, throughout their ability to talk sense.  Or as Melville would have us remember, knowing the meaning of the word ‘whale’ involves knowing the role the word plays in language” (K’s emphasis). [The quoted passage is from K’s MLA paper, which is itself a teaser for her full development of her case in One Foot in the Finite: Melville’s Realism Reclaimed (Northwestern UP, 2017).]

The point is that despair over our epistemological limitations is characteristic of modern philosophy (from Descartes through the empiricists and Kantians right on to the logical positivists), not of Plato or the medieval realists.  Our concepts are not identical with the material things they grasp, but they are adequate graspings.  What is the proof of their adequacy?  Here K and I part company.  Her answer seems too idealistic (in the technical sense) to me.  To stress the ability to use the concept as “the ability to talk sense” confines humans (it seems to me) within the boundaries of their languages.  I want knowledge to be more that “knowing the role a word plays in language.”  I want, in other words, some push-back from the whale.  I want our concepts to grow and change in response to our interactions with the things those concepts would grasp.

In short, I am inclined to move from “language” to “practices.”  Just as we step into our culture’s language (individuals do not invent language, they are “thrown” [to use Heidegger’s term] into a language they must learn how to use), we also step into its practices, its institutions.  We do things as well as speak.  When we go whale-hunting, we are guided by a set of procedures that have been established by those who proceeded us.  Those predecessors have also created a whole set of tools they found useful for doing the job.  But the next generation can also alter the practices, create new tools, in response to their experiences in trying to get the job done.

Similarly, of course, our language’s concepts are always in motion, always being revised in an attempt to make them more adequate, more expressive of all the qualities (complexities) of the item they are trying to capture.  Whether it be a “whale” or “guilt,” experience keeps outrunning our received notions, our inherited concepts.  This is the “more” to which William James was always fond of calling our attention.  Our language is open to the world, just as our practices often experience the frustration of not working because things resist our manipulation, our grasping, of them.  Perhaps the way to characterize this difference between K and me is the stress she places on “knowing.”  K is interested in “knowing what something is.”  I, along with the pragmatists (and I read Wittgenstein and J. L. Austin as fellow-travelers here), am not interested (particularly) in knowing what something is; instead, I am interested in the terms of my relation to that other, to my interaction with it.  Concepts and practices establish (project) modes of relation, of interaction—and then the unfolding of the actual interaction shifts the relation (in good or in undesirable ways) and lead to the ongoing revision of the concepts and practices.  If this is a species of “knowing,” it is one that is tactile and dialectical, interactive.  The whale has something to say too.

I guess this means that I read Plato—and the medieval realists—as committed to the stability of the forms, or the concepts they deemed “real.”  I want the more dynamic inter-play between human concepts/practices and non-human things that I find in the pragmatists and in Wittgenstein.  Because the pragmatists (certainly) and Wittgenstein (in my reading of him, admittedly more controversial) emphasize our concept’s “usefulness” even while emphasizing their “fallibility,” James and Dewey shy away from any claims to “realism.”  We have practices and concepts that “work,” that do not run into deep resistance from things, but we are also very often meeting resistance where we didn’t expect to, and also often (to our delight or to our dismay according to the circumstances) discovering that there was “more” under heaven and earth than our prevailing notions and practices thought.  I will settle for “good enough” knowledge, being able in Wittgenstein’s phrase “to go on,” without insisting that (or even worrying my head over whether or not) I have some grasp of “the real.”  Especially if the real is to be understood as unchanging and as all there is to be said (or done) on the subject.

I know that this pragmatist quest for “what works,” what is adequate to the purposes at hand, as opposed to a search for the “real,” infuriates the philosophers.  The responses to James and Rorty make that abundantly clear.  At that point, I am inclined to accept James’s argument that it comes down to a matter of temperament.  Some people just have (apparently unquenchable) transcendental longings, the ability to be in touch with the “really real,” and others don’t feel the need or urge.

But it is worth ending where K and I join hands: the “modern” despair over an inability of humans to encounter the real is unjustified.  Empiricism, with its weird elevation of direct sensual experience as our only point of access to the real combined with its torturous wanderings into worries about mental images and the Lockean “way of ideas” (skewered so wonderfully in J. L. Austin’s Sense and Sensibilia), is a dead end, while Kant’s desperate effort to save freedom from materialistic determinism is a cure almost worse than the disease.



A Parable

In 1948, Congress was working on a bill to reinstate the draft.  At first, there was a proposal to introduce Universal Military Training.  New York pacifists, including A. J. Muste and Bayard Rustin (who had been raised a Quaker), mobilized to oppose mandatory military service.  They allied themselves with A. Philip Randolph, who had a different object in mind: the desegregation of the US military.  Randolph found a Republican ally, Grant Reynolds, an African-American who held office in Governor Thomas Dewey’s administration in New York.  During Congressional hearings on the proposed draft law, Randolph told members of Congress that there would be massive non-compliance among blacks if the military was not integrated.  Specifically, young black men would not register for the draft.

Randolph was no stranger to the power of threatened mass action.  In 1941, he told FDR there would be a march on Washington by blacks if the president did not issue an executive order against discrimination in federal hiring practices—and by contractors getting federal dollars.  At issue were the companies already producing war materials prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor.  Roosevelt took the threat seriously, issued the order, and Randolph called off the march.

In 1948, the draft bill passed in June, and–for interesting and complicated reasons I will perhaps try to outline in a future post—Harry Truman issued his famous executive order desegregating the military in July.

Randolph immediately cancelled his call for non-compliance with the new draft law.  Muste and Rustin, true to their pacifist principles, broke with Randolph at this point.  They wanted to go ahead with resistance to the draft.

I am going to ruin this parable by explaining in terms undoubtedly too stark the four lessons I derive from it.

  1. There is always someone to your left.  No matter what course of action one proposes or undertakes, there will always be some who claim it is not radical enough.  The same is probably true on the right as well.  One’s commitment, one’s toughness, one’s willingness to go the full nine yards will always be called into question by someone, playing a game of one-upmanship, claiming to be truer to the cause, more principled, and more morally pure.


  1. Those in power will often (maybe always) over-estimate the strength and (most crucially) the unity of those they oppress. In truth, Randolph’s threat of massive non-compliance was mostly a bluff.  He had neither the standing with blacks across America or the organizational and communications wherewithal to have actually delivered a very substantial boycott.  But to white Congressmen and Harry Truman, people with just about no knowledge of blacks or black America, Randolph’s threat was credible.  We just had the same exact thing happen at UNC.  The grad students threatened a grade strike. Realistically, about 200 grad students at most (out of over 3000), would have participated.  But the administration thought of the grad students as a unified bloc, wildly overestimating the threat the proposed grade strike posed.  It almost makes you think that, to the powerful, all underlings look alike—in the old clichéd way that whites can’t tell Asians apart, or blacks for that matter.


  1. But this overestimation of cohesion among one’s enemies can go the other way as well. Corey Robin has been banging away on this theme since Trump’s election: the left consistently stands in awe and terror at the right’s power and effectiveness.  My post on Silent Sam places some hope in a schism in the North Carolina state Republican Party.  I must admit that here I am wary.  We (the left) keep looking for signs of fracture on the right, with stories of voters who are going to abandon Bush or Trump or whomever when they stand for re-election.  Just as we keep pointing to lines that Trump will cross that will lead congressional Republicans to throw him under the bus.  Of course, the opposite has been the case.  It is Democrats who are the squabbling, disunified party, while Republicans demonstrate again and again that they put party loyalty (and its benefit of retaining power) above all else.  This unity of American overlords is very impressive indeed.  Think back to the 2008 recession when the business men of Main Street were royally screwed by the frauds of Wall Street.  But they closed ranks despite their being fleeced.  SO: I can hope for weakness in the right’s ranks, but I ain’t holding my breath.


  1. To use a dubious, even hateful, metaphor: a loaded gun pointed in the enemy’s direction is 50x more powerful than a fired gun. Once the gun is fired, the worst you can do is now known.  And when that worst is a lot less than it was estimated as, you (the holder of the gun) have basically lost.  Much better to take that gun which was pointing at your foe and slowly put it back in a holster where it remains visible.  Power hinted at but not deployed is often your best weapon.  Randolph knew that.  Of course, when you undoubtedly have the power to win, there does come a time to grab the spoils, to achieve your objectives.  Again, the Republicans of the past eighteen years have shown us how that works.  They have been grabbing and grabbing, while they defy anyone to stop them.  But until you have done the “precinct work,” the hard slog of organizing and of counting (whipping) votes and participation, so that you know that you have at least a reasonable chance of winning, best not to bring your forces onto the field.  Feeble gestures just reinforce the arrogance of the foe.  (There are exceptions to everything.  Politics is a messy business, with no “laws” that determine outcomes.  The Easter 1916 rebels knew they would lose; their gambit was that martyrdom would galvanize a future success.  And they were not wrong, even if they couldn’t have scripted or predicted the English ineptitude that led to independence a mere five years later.)



“On the first day for complying with the conscription law, Rustin and several placard-carrying pickets congregated outside a Harlem registration center shouting for men not to register.  Similar picket lines formed in Philadelphia, Boston, and a number of other cities.  Rustin wrote to Selma Platt in Kansas about ‘the terrific responses we got all over the East,’ with coverage by lots of radio stations and the daily press, and he was pleased that so far there was no evidence that the government was going to ‘crack down.’  But if federal district attorneys were laying low, the New York City police were not.  Rustin was arrested for disorderly conduct and spent fifteen days in jail.  By the time he was released in late September [1948], it was hard for him to deny the obvious: the combination of Truman’s executive order and Randolph’s public acceptance of it had taken out of Rustin’s resistance movement whatever small head of steam it had.

If the resistance movement was in reality dead, the harsh feelings were very much alive.  In mid-October, perturbed over some of the comments that Rustin and others had made about them, Randolph and Reynolds issued a stinging rebuttal accusing Rustin and Muste of using the military campaign as ‘a front for ulterior purposes’ and engaging in ‘unethical tactics.’  Rustin, they implied, was trying to snatch a defeat from victory.  The support for resistance was so weak, they claimed, that continuing the civil disobedience campaign would only have discredited the method.  ‘Gandhi in India and South Africa never engaged in mock heroics,’ they said.  Over the next several months, Muste [and others, but not Rustin] wrote back and forth with Randolph, trying to repair relationships and clarify their respective positions.  But there was no doubt that for a time, the ties between Randolph’s civil rights camp and the Gandhian pacifists were badly frayed.

As for Rustin, afterward he felt miserable about how he had behaved in the waning stages of the campaign.  ‘It was two years before I dared see Mr. Randolph again, after having done such a terrible thing,’ he recalled.  When he did finally visit Randolph to repair the breach, ‘I was so nervous I was shaking, waiting for his wrath to descend upon me.’ But Randolph had by then put the conflict behind him and was happy to have their working relationship restored.

Whatever the personal feelings it aroused, the campaign to desegregate the military raised a host of issues about strategy, tactics, and goals.  When was compromise a choice with integrity, and when did it represent a betrayal of principle?  When did one seize the victory at hand, and when did one opt to keep the troops roused for victories not yet imminent?  How did two sets of activists and two social movements with overlapping but distinct goals work together with integrity in a coalition? Which was more important: an institutional change that led to equal treatment of black and white or a movement that placed peace and nonviolence above other goals?  Was the objective to create widening circles of resistance or to achieve a concrete reform that pointed in the direction of justice?  The tensions embedded in these questions would confront Rusting and other American radicals with painful dilemmas again and again in the next two decades.”

From John D’Emilio’s Lost Prophet: The Life and Times of Bayard Rustin [NY: Free Press, 2003, 158-160.]

I highly recommend this superb biography of Rustin.  There is nothing even remotely as good written about Randolph, who remains a curiously unreachable subject, a very private man whom no writer, so far, seems to have gotten a handle on.  That he did not hold a grudge against Rustin is characteristic of Randolph, who seems to have been able to work with just about anyone he felt could advance the cause, and who showed an almost complete (and saintly in my opinion) indifference to his own standing in the movement.  He seems to have been just about as ego-less as it is possible for anyone to be—which may be why writing a biography of him has proved so difficult.