Waggish

David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Tag: philosophy (page 2 of 26)

Georg Simmel’s Philosophy of Money: An Introduction

  1. Georg Simmel’s Philosophy of Money: An Introduction
  2. Georg Simmel’s Philosophy of Money: 1. Value and Money
  3. Georg Simmel’s Philosophy of Money: 2. The Value of Money as a Substance
  4. Georg Simmel’s Philosophy of Money: 3. Money in the Sequence of Purposes
  5. Georg Simmel’s Philosophy of Money: 4. Individual Freedom
  6. Georg Simmel’s Philosophy of Money: 5. The Money Equivalent of Personal Values
  7. Georg Simmel’s Philosophy of Money: 6. The Style of Life

Sociologist Georg Simmel published his magnum opus, The Philosophy of Money, in 1900 in Germany. Drawing on Kant, Marx, and Weber among many, many others, the book has Simmel’s singular style that separates him from pretty much every other sociologist that has ever lived. The closest analogue I know might be C. Wright Mills in his more poetic moods, but where Mills is fiery and desperate, Simmel is far more reflective. In looking at money as a ground and metaphor for modern human social existence, Simmel often seems awestruck and overwhelmed by the sheer power and meaning of money in our society. Just as often he expresses reserved horror at the injustice and inhumanity that is lubricated by monetary commensurability.

The Philosophy of Money is a hybrid work of philosophy and sociology, perhaps a “philosophical anthropology” similar to that which Ernst Cassirer and Hans Blumenberg would later engage in. It is only loosely an economic work, because Simmel never gets to the point where he can generalize over the behavior of economic populations. Rather, he focuses on the psychological and sociological effects of money as a cultural determinant. And it’s very much the idea of money rather than capital or work. He is fascinated by the implications of the introduction of a universally commensurable measure of value that has no intrinsic value of its own. Rather than focusing on how people argue over the allocations of values, he looks at how the prior requirement, the nature of valuation itself, influences those discussions.

The main themes, as I read them, are the following:

  1. Money as a structural metaphor for human existence (almost every aspect of it)
  2. The dual nature of the word “value,” moral and monetary
  3. The physicalization, universalization, and commodification of value (through money or otherwise)
  4. The effects of valuation and commensurability on human relations

The final theme ultimately becomes most important, but Simmel spends time laying the groundwork for it by examining the nature of value and how it is assigned and fixed, before he then moves on to how value is standardized and made portable and universal by money. Simmel’s treatment of “value” is heavily influenced by Kant’s first and third critique, which isn’t too surprising given that Simmel came out of the 19th century neo-Kantian movement which wanted to reclaim Kant’s worth after Hegelianism had petered out. Value, being something not assigned by nature but by creatures, becomes a crucial cognitive category in life, despite being something that each of us has comparatively little control over. (Language is also a category of this sort, though at least in 1900 “value”‘s constructed nature was a bit more clear than that of language.)

Simmel makes clear just how philosophical it is by declaring in the introduction that money has attracted his attention because it is the purest and most ubiquitous manifestation of the perennial problem that has vexed philosophers, the relation between the universal and the particular:

Money is simply a means, a material or an example for the presentation of relations that exist between the most superficial, ‘realistic’ and fortuitous phenomena and the most idealized powers of existence, the most profound currents of individual life and history. The significance and purpose of the whole undertaking is simply to derive from the surface level of economic affairs a guideline that leads to the ultimate values and things of importance in all that is human.

In the tradition of early modern philosophers, Simmel writes with no notes, footnotes, or references, and mentions of other authors are sparing. In a dense, 500-page work, this is quite foreboding, and Simmel seems to have been one of the last to get away with it to this extent. In compensation, though, he adopts what I can only call a sonata-like stye. Unlike James Joyce in the “Sirens” chapter of Ulysses, Simmel isn’t consciously trying to fit a musical form onto his writing. It’s just that because he is writing in a semi-casual yet resolutely abstract manner, he develops a very particular technique for keeping readers (and himself) located in the flow of the work. He repeats his major themes quite often, rephrasing them but leaving the underlying points unmistakable. (In fact, by rephrasing the points over and over, he makes it easier to grasp what is essential among those points.) So where Joyce’s chapter is one of the less successful conceits of Ulysses, because the form and content do not reach enough of a unity (similar to “Oxen of the Sun”) to give the feel of an organic whole, The Philosophy of Money feels very organic, through-composed, and linear. This, as well as Simmel’s comparatively plain German style, are helpful features, because Simmel is doing deep conceptual work rather than case studies or data analysis.

Alternatively, you can think of The Philosophy of Money as following a tree structure, points and subpoints emerging from a common root and diverging, except where most philosophers simply present their overarching root theses and then cover the tree branch by branch assuming the root theses have been fully assimilated, Simmel repeats some of the root and main branch material every time he finishes one subbranch or leaf and goes to another. This makes the book redundant at times, but also makes it far easier to absorb.

Simmel was aware that he was going against the current of both anthropological and philosophical investigations. His book is closer to Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities than it is to Durkheim or even Weber, except Musil manifested his archetypes as “characters” and developed his themes through the stretched conceits of fiction. (Musil attended Simmel’s classes around this time.) Simmel just thinks and thinks and thinks, touching on specifics only as the urge strikes him. He is aware of the dangers of this approach, yet he finds his anchor in the concrete existence of money, the substance which we see and feel and count, something that is right before us and lacks the abstruse invisibility of “cognition” or “being.”

The unity of these investigations does not lie, therefore, in an assertion about a particular content of knowledge and its gradually accumulating proofs but rather in the possibility which must be demonstrated—of finding in each of life’s details the totality of its meaning. The great advantage of art over philosophy is that it sets itself a single, narrowly defined problem every time: a person, a landscape, a mood. Every extension of one of these to the general, every addition of bold touches of feeling for the world is made to appear as an enrichment, a gift, an undeserved benefit. On the other hand, philosophy, whose problem is nothing less than the totality of being, tends to reduce the magnitude of the latter when compared with itself and offers less than it seems obliged to offer. Here, conversely, the attempt is made to regard the problem as restricted and small in order to do justice to it by extending it to the totality and the highest level of generality.

Philosophy has become too windy, he says, and no longer touches down on anything that most people can recognize. Money is something that we all know.

Robert Sheckley’s “Warm” and P. F. Strawson’s Objective Attitude

Sci-fi great Robert Sheckley‘s “Warm” is one of his more flat-out horror stories, comparatively free of the sardonic cynicism that usually marks his fiction. It’s even got a bit in common with the Lovecraft formula of the man exposed to unfortunate knowledge that drives him mad. The gnosis here, though, isn’t any sort of secret otherness that controls our world, just the standard scientific, materialist worldview–the “scientific image of man” in Wilfrid Sellars’ terminology.

Driven by an especially unhelpful voice in his head, protagonist Anders starts seeing other people not as people but as aggregates of “thoughts, expressions, movements” and raw material stuff. This happens just as he is trying to confess his love to the lovely Judy, who rather likes him as well. Judy is wholly generic, but given the story, that more or less fits. Here’s Anders talking to Judy, the voice chiming in:

“Yes … I wondered what you were doing at noon,” the reactive machine opposite him on the couch said, expanding its shapely chest slightly.

“Good,” the voice said, commending him for his perception.

“Dreaming of you, of course,” he said to the flesh-clad skeleton behind the total gestalt Judy. The flesh machine rearranged its limbs, widened its mouth to denote pleasure. The mechanism searched through a complex of fears, hopes, worries, through half-remembrances of analogous situations, analogous solutions.

Love quickly fades from Anders’ mind, since it’s very hard for him to feel love for a flesh machine or a reaction machine. (Vladimir Sorokin would use this sort of dehumanizing language to great effect in The Ice Trilogy; see my essay Meat and Clones)

“Can I get you a drink?” the reaction machine asked.

At that moment Anders was as thoroughly out of love as a man could be. Viewing one’s intended as a depersonalized, sexless piece of machinery is not especially conducive to love. But it is quite stimulating, intellectually.

Sheckley uses the terminology of gestalt psychology, though it was only one contemporary explanation of the psychological struggle between scientific and humanistic worldviews. The story endures because Sheckley transcends the particular argot of gestalt psychology by portraying the schizophrenic-like collapse in prosaic terms.

They were one with the lights, which lent their tiny vision. They were joined to the sounds they made, a few feeble tones out of the great possibility of sound. They blended into the walls.

The kaleidoscopic view came so fast that Anders had trouble sorting his new impressions. He knew now that these people existed only as patterns, on the same basis as the sounds they made and the things they thought they saw. Gestalts, sifted out of the vast, unbearable real world.

“Where’s Judy?” a discontinuous lump of flesh asked him. This particular lump possessed enough nervous mannerisms to convince the other lumps of his reality. He wore a loud tie as further evidence.

“She’s sick,” Anders said. The flesh quivered into an instant sympathy. Lines of formal mirth shifted to formal woe.

“Hope it isn’t anything serious,” the vocal flesh remarked.

This sort of psychic dissolution is a major theme in 20th century fiction. It’s there in Beckett, obviously, but also across the board in new wave science fiction, like J. G. Ballard’s “Manhole 69.” I see it as the successor theme to the mechanistic clockwork universe theme that you read about in everything from Dangerous Liaisons to Nietzsche. There determinism was just the problem, but now the social conventions of the self are collapsing due to the popularization of the ideas of Darwin, Freud, Watson and Crick, and pick-your-favorite-scientist.

And that brings up P. F. Strawson’s famous essay on determinism, “Freedom and Resentment.” Strawson draws a contrast between the “participant attitude,” which is the everyday attitude with which we treat people as autonomous agents with moral responsibility and freedom of choice; and the “objective attitude,” which is the scientific attitude that sees people as “reaction machines.” Though Sheckley uses the vocabulary of gestalt psychology, the story works just as well in showing a man moving entirely into the domain of the “objective attitude” and being driven insane by the ensuing alienation. Here is how Strawson describes the objective attitude:

To adopt the objective attitude to another human being is to see him, perhaps, as an object of social policy; as a subject for what, in a wide range of sense, might be called treatment; as something certainly to be taken account, perhaps precautionary account, of; to be managed or handled or cured or trained; perhaps simply to be avoided, though this gerundive is not peculiar to cases of objectivity of attitude… If your attitude towards someone is wholly objective, then though you may light him, you cannot quarrel with him, and though you may talk to him, even negotiate with him, you cannot reason with him. You can at most pretend to quarrel, or to reason, with him.

Strawson points out that there are groups of people whom society habitually sees only through the eye of the objective attitude, but that these people are inevitably treated as not fully human: children, schizophrenics, hopeless irrationals, etc. That is, as creatures that are either not human yet or are abnormal and perhaps in need of correction. To be human, it seems, requires that one fall under the gaze of the participant attitude. Being human requires that one be seen as beyond the domain of the mechanically/biologically natural and brought out as some kind of special agent.

Strawson ultimately appeals to “natural human reactions” as defining the participant attitude, with some degree of optimism, believing that we have a tendency to treat each other as such. But those natural human reactions are taking an awful beating. One of the reasons why Sheckley’s story evokes very real horror is that the gnosis to which it appeals is, on some level, knowledge that many of us come to gain as we grow up and are educated and learn more about people, social sciences, and statistics and probability. Lovecraft is a lot scarier if there’s a possibility that the secret knowledge might actually be true, and not so secret after all.

Robespierre the Incorruptible, Robespierre the Daemonic

Robespierre in better times (1791)

Robespierre in better times (1791)

I remember many years ago being very surprised to find out that there were people who esteemed Robespierre. Not only esteemed him but idealized him. I’d been raised on the standard account by which Robespierre was a bad guy, not on the order of Stalin or Mao, but indisputably an unsympathetic villain. Seeing him defended was about as surprising as if I’d found out there were fans of Louis XVI or Richard Nixon (little did I know…).

I think Alexander Cockburn’s memoirs were the first place I encountered a positive mention of Robespierre. Eric Hobsbawm’s histories are sympathetic but far more tentative on the matter. But Cockburn had busts of Robespierre and Robespierre’s younger-and-badder lieutenant Saint-Just in his house, and proudly identified with the man who, at least in his mind, was an absolute patriot of the French Revolution and its ideals, executions and all.

I was later surprised again when I discovered that Robespierre-fandom had once been mainstream in the fairly Marxist French historical school in the first half of the 20th century, particularly the giants Albert Mathiez and George Lefebvre. Mathiez especially saluted Robespierre as an unalloyed hero.

The wheel has turned quite a bit since that time, since a lot more people today have read Simon Schama arguing that the whole revolution was rotten from the start (in his bestselling Citizens) than have even heard of Mathiez. Schama will never convince me, since I see very little to his argument that the Old Regime was coming around and would have treated the 99% better had they just been a little bit more patient, but the horrible bloody Revolution was doomed to violence from the start. Schama is tendentious and, more or less, wrong. And if you’re going to be biased, shouldn’t you at least be biased on the side of those who had it rotten, rather than those who lived in luxury while 99.9% of the country worked under them?

Georges Danton

Georges Danton on a good day.

But on the other hand, I remain pretty unsympathetic to Robespierre, even though I find him fascinating as a human being. People tend to oppose the gregarious Danton and the hyperserious Robespierre, but I never much cared for Danton either, who comes off as a charismatic, though well-meaning, buffoon. I suspect I would have found Danton more annoying (and more corruptible) than Robespierre, but Robespierre was far more dangerous. I agree that “Robespierre the Incorruptible” was indeed incorruptible…but I also think that incorruptible people can be pretty scary. Robespierre had some glaring but not appalling personality flaws, like a puritanical obsession with purgative morality and a total lack of humor and self-awareness. These personality flaws were only going to become a problem if circumstances brought out the worst in him. Boy, did circumstances bring out the worst in him.

R. R. Palmer’s Twelve Who Ruled is an extremely well-written chronicle of the dictatorship of the Committee of Public Safety in 1793-94, as they tried to keep post-Revolutionary France from disintegrating through increasingly draconian methods, eventually resulting in the Terror. Eventually the twelve of the committee succumbed to infighting and. In Palmer’s account, Robespierre and his two closest allies Saint-Just and Couthon were squeezed on both sides when the more moderate technocrats (Carnot, Lindet, Prieur) and the revolutionary ultra-radicals (Billaud, Collot, and Bertrand Barere) abandoned them, which is how Robespierre and Saint-Just got the guillotine while the bloodthirsty Billaud and Collot survived. Unlike the high-minded Robespierre, Billaud and Collot come off as brutally proto-Leninist, while Barere’s mixture of idealism and opportunism defies easy explanation.

Cockburn endorsed Palmer’s book, which is somewhat surprising as Robespierre comes off rather badly. While Robespierre never appears as a murderous maniac, it’s actually more disturbing that a fundamentally nonviolent person would end up consenting to an regime of oppression, censorship, persecution, and executions. The source of Robespierre’s problems wasn’t paranoia either. Paranoia was in the air at the time, with very good reason. I don’t know that Robespierre was any more paranoid than anyone else in his circle, but the collective fear that everything was going to hell exacerbated Robespierre’s pre-existing tendencies to go overboard in his Manicheistic assessments of others. The originating flaw, as Palmer puts it:

Robespierre had the fault of a self-righteous and introverted man. Disagreement with himself he regarded simply as error, and in the face of it he would either withdraw into his own thoughts, or cast doubt on the motives behind the other man’s opinion. He was quick to charge others with the selfish interests of which he felt himself to be free. A concerted action in which he did not share seemed to him to be an intrigue. He had the virtues and the faults of an inquisitor. A lover of mankind, he could not enter with sympathy into the minds of his own neighbors.

Drawing on the equally unyielding Rousseau, who has since served as the founding text for much anti-liberal thought on both left and right, Robespierre smashed the public and private spheres together with a firm equation of Law = Morality = Justice = Goodness, seeing himself as the best arbiter of what fell inside their lines and what most certainly didn’t. The homogeneous totality of Rousseau’s General Will combined very badly the paranoia of the times, since opposing factions could not be loyal but had to be virulent and disagreement quickly turned into treason. Conciliation was therefore defeat. Again, Rousseau’s absolutist philosophy, unlike the far more practical, non-absolutist mainstream of the French Enlightenment, is distinctly unhelpful in such a situation:

Nor were the ideas to be gleaned from Rousseau more suited to encourage conciliation. In the philosophy of the Social Contract the “people” or “nation” is a moral abstraction. It is by nature good; its will is law. It is a solid indivisible thing. That the people might differ among themselves was a thought that Rousseau passed over rather hurriedly. Believers in the Social Contract thus viewed political circumstances in a highly simplified way. All struggles were between the people and something not the people, between the nation and something anti-national and alien. On the one hand was the public interest, self-evident, beyond questioning by an upright man; on the other hand were private interests, selfish, sinister and illegitimate. The followers of Rousseau were in no doubt which side they were on. It is not surprising that they would not only not compromise with conservative interests, but would not even tolerate free discussion among themselves, or have any confidence, when they disagreed, in each others’ motives. Robespierre in the first weeks of the Revolution was already, in his own words, “unmasking the enemies of the country.”

Robespierre stoked such fanaticism in others, which created a nasty feedback loop of encouraging further paranoia and purity, in a story that’s repeated itself many times before and since. (Look at how the Tea Party treats anyone with anything good to say about the Affordable Care Act or Obama, for example.) Character counted more for results, particularly when the judge was Robespierre’s de facto protege Saint-Just:

Saint-Just was a political puritan. He could not willingly work with men of whom he morally disapproved. He judged men more by their motives than by the contributions they might make to a common achievement. He feared that the good cause would be tarnished if dubious characters were allowed to promote it. This was not practical politics.

Saint-Just’s ideas were Robespierre’s ideas sharpened, simplified, exaggerated, schematized and turned into aphorisms. Robespierre had in him a broad streak of average human befuddlement, even mediocrity; Saint-Just was a specialized machine of revolutionary precision. Robespierre denied that Sparta was his model; Saint-Just harped continually on the ancients. Robespierre was self-righteous, Saint-Just more so: “God, protector of innocence and virtue, since you have led me among evil men it is surely to unmask them!” To Robespierre the straight and narrow way was plain enough; to Saint-Just it was terrifyingly obvious: “I think I may say that most political errors come from regarding legislation as a difficult science.” Or more laconically: “Long laws are public calamities.”

Demonizing opposing factions is one thing, but demonizing the People is a real problem, since Robespierre depended on the identity of his will with that of the People. This leaves open the question of what to do when The People do not agree with what you have decided. Robespierre was a great student of the idea of false consciousness before the term had even been coined. Ordinary people, alas, were suckers:

It is reassuring to be told that public opinion was the sole judge of what was in conformity with the law, but Robespierre claimed in the case of Avignon that, since all peoples aspired to be free, any Avignonnais who had not voted for incorporation into France ‘must be deemed oppressed’. Avignon was a local example of a more general problem. The goodness, patience and generosity of the mass of ordinary people meant that they were an easy prey to self-serving hypocrites. It was therefore the duty of the Assembly to ‘raise our fellow citizens’ souls . . . to the level of ideas and feelings required by this great and superb revolution’, Robespierre maintained in an undelivered speech of September 1789.

Robespierre’s problems were the product of what he believed to be his unique grasp of the political situation. The mass of the population meant well but, ‘aussi leger que genereux’, it was continually misled by ‘cowardly libellers’. On 3 March, he suggested sending the latter before the Revolutionary Tribunal, but that was merely striking at the symptoms. ‘Public feeling has lagged behind the Revolution . . . the people still lacks political sense.’ ‘Our enemies have public opinion in their hands.’ There had been sound political reasons for not submitting the fate of the king to a referendum, which would have made the division within the country explosively obvious, but that was not why Robespierre had opposed it. He asserted that ‘simple folk’ would be misled by ‘intriguers’ and that working people would not spare the time to attend the meetings of the primary assemblies. This was an argument, of course, that applied to all forms of democratic election. When, on 13 April, Gensonne’ proposed referring the Girondin-Montagnard quarrel to the electorate, Robespierre denounced such proposals as ‘blasphemies against liberty’.

Norman Hampson, “Robespierre and the Terror”

So Robespierre, unsurprisingly, had much less sympathy for trade unionism and civil protest once he had assumed dictatorial powers. While Hampson sees this as an outgrowth of his purism, Palmer sees it as an inevitable consequence of being in power:

The Committee, in short, was on the side of production, as most effective governments of whatever social philosophy apparently are. The labor policies of the revolutionary Republic and of the early industrial capitalists had much in common. The Committee punished strikes severely, and regarded agitators among the workmen as criminals at common law.

Nonetheless, Robespierre did want to bring the people along with him, and his rhetoric–and the rhetoric of the revolutionary government which he controlled–became focused on communal unity.

Privation can be met either by acceptance, which leads to Spartanism, or by discontent, which, when exploited for political aims, may lead to revolt. The Committee of Public Safety became increasingly Spartan, lauding the virtues of discipline and sacrifice. The reason was not simply that it was the government in office. “Virtue” was a favorite idea among the more honest Revolutionists; it meant a patriotism blended with a good deal of the old-fashioned morality of unselfishness. Of this quality Robespierre was the almost official spokesman; it was he who had put Virtue in the Revolutionary Calendar.

In the absence of 20th century mechanisms of control, central planning simply came off as inept. Again, much of the failings originated from Robespierre projecting on to The People an idealized vision out of touch with reality.

Saint-Just, like most other middle-class leaders of the Revolution, had almost no real knowledge of the problems of working-class people. He saw an undifferentiated mass of indigent patriots to whom it would be both humane and expedient to give land. He failed to distinguish between those who could use land and those who could not, between able-bodied landless agricultural laborers and the rest of the needy, the small artisans and city wage-earners, the not-quite-landless peasants, the old, the widowed, the orphaned, the crippled.

Increasingly frustrated and impatient, Robespierre charted out a plan to bring the entire populace into the realm of the True and the Good. This is his speech of February 5, 1794, which Palmer calls a milestone. It is pretty damn scary reading, from a man who was evidently unfamiliar with the maxim of “Underpromise and overdeliver.”

Too long, Robespierre began, have we acted in difficult circumstances only from a general concern for public good. We need “an exact theory and precise rules of conduct.”

“It is time to mark clearly the aim of the Revolution.

“We wish an order of things where all low and cruel passions are enchained by the laws, all beneficent and generous feelings awakened; where ambition is the desire to deserve glory and to be useful to one’s country; where distinctions arise only from equality itself; where the citizen is subject to the magistrate, the magistrate to the people, the people to justice; where the country secures the welfare of each individual, and each individual proudly enjoys the prosperity and glory of his country; where all minds are enlarged by the constant interchange of republican sentiments and by the need of earning the respect of a great people; where industry is an adornment to the liberty that ennobles it, and commerce the source of public wealth, not simply of monstrous riches for a few families.

“We wish to substitute in our country morality for egotism, probity for a mere sense of honor, principle for habit, duty for etiquette, the empire of reason for the tyranny of custom, contempt for vice for contempt for misfortune, pride for insolence, large-mindedness for vanity, the love of glory for the love of money, good men for good company, merit for intrigue, talent for conceit, truth for show, the charm of happiness for the tedium of pleasure, the grandeur of man for the triviality of grand society, a people magnanimous, powerful and happy for a people lovable, frivolous and wretched—that is to say, all the virtues and miracles of the Republic for all the vices and puerilities of the monarchy.

“We wish in a word to fulfil the course of nature, to accomplish the destiny of mankind, to make good the promises of philosophy, to absolve Providence from the long reign of tyranny and crime. May France, illustrious formerly among peoples of slaves, eclipse the glory of all free peoples that have existed, become the model to the nations, the terror of oppressors, the consolation of the oppressed, the ornament of the universe; and in sealing our work with our blood may we ourselves see at least the dawn of universal felicity gleam before us! That is our ambition. That is our aim.”

Maximilien could hardly have made it more clear. Nor could he have shown himself better as a child of the Enlightenment. He wanted a state founded upon morality, and by morality he meant not a sentimental goodheartedness, but the sum total of the qualities which he listed. His program was doubtless utopian; he expected a sudden regeneration of mankind, a complete transformation, seeing in the past no index, except negatively, to the future.”

Robespierre was eagerly coercive in bringing about this change. Again, his Incorruptibility went hand in hand with his self-determined Infallibility. These traits culminated in a very ham-fisted attempt at a deistic public religion, the Cult of the Supreme Being, described best by Norman Hampson:

Without consulting his colleagues on the  Committee,  Robespierre now persuaded the docile Assembly to adopt the cult of the Supreme Being, which marked a new stage in his identification of republicanism with morality. Since ‘the sole foundation of civil society is morality’, the prime objective of the enemy was ‘to corrupt public morals’. Crime was now equated with sin and vice versa, which meant that the scope for repression was virtually unlimited. Robespierre’s attempt to implement the penultimate chapter of the Social Contract was accompanied by a tribute to Rousseau whose ‘profound loathing of vice’ had earned him ‘hatred and persecution by his rivals and his false friends’. The parallel was too obvious to need elaborating.

Norman Hampson, “Robespierre and the Terror”

And with Robespierre being clearly out of touch at this point, trapped more between his ideals and reality than between the people and the government, it’s not surprising that he was unable to defend himself when the Committee broke ranks and turned against him. His defense of himself was a disaster, as Palmer recounts, ensuring that he would be scapegoated for all the Revolution’s excesses in the years immediately following and for many years beyond:

This address, the last Robespierre ever made, was eloquent, profoundly sincere, predominantly truthful. It painted a picture of dissension and intrigue that honeycombed the state. It described the means by which its author was made to seem individually responsible for the worst features of the Terror. It predicted that if the Revolutionary Government should fail a military dictatorship would follow, and France be plunged into a century of political unrest. But the speech was tactically a gigantic blunder. If it expressed Maximilien’s best qualities it unloosed all his worst; and it confirmed the most deadly fears of those who heard it.

Robespierre made his appeal supremely personal. Individualizing himself, he sounded like what the eighteenth century conceived a dictator to be. He gave the impression that no one was his friend, that no one could be trusted; that virtue, the people, the fatherland and the Convention, considered abstractly, were on his side, but that he obtained only calumny, persecution and martyrdom from the actual persons with whom he worked. He threatened right and left, indulgents and exaggerated terrorists, as in the past; but when asked point blank to name the men he accused, he evaded the question.

The immense irony was that Robespierre’s purism made it trivially easy to associate him with any ideological excesses. The ultra-revolutionary radicals who’d teamed up with the moderates to depose Robespierre soon realized that the word of the day was now pragmatism and compromise–and soon enough, weakness, paving the way for Napoleon. In death, Robespierre was now a pariah and dumping ground for all dissatisfactions, the convenient scapegoat for whatever had been going wrong that anyone didn’t like.

But in fact, to the consternation of extremists, 9 Thermidor fundamentally altered the Revolution. The extremists overthrew Robespierre by combining with moderates. They discredited Robespierre by blaming him for the violence of the Terror…To preach terrorism after Thermidor was to expose oneself to suspicions of Robespierrism, suspicions which above all others had to be avoided. Terrorists of the Year Two identified the Terror with one man, that they might themselves, by appearing peaceable and humane, win the confidence of the moderates. Barère revealed what was going on, writing in self-defense when he was himself accused: “Is his grave not wide enough for us to empty into it all our hatreds?” This was precisely what happened. The living sought a new harmony by agreeing to denounce the dead. And Maximilien Robespierre, who in life could not have stopped the Terror, contributed to its end in his death, by becoming a memory to be execrated and vilified, his grave a dumping ground for others’ hatreds.

Robespierre’s insistence on the incommensurability of virtue, the necessity of the Good in politics, his inability to compromise, his collapse of the personal and the political, his embrace of false consciousness as the condition of most of the public: these all extend the accusation of banausia as I described in Leftism and the Banausic Thinker. Not as ruthless or as cynical as Lenin, Robespierre depicts the revolutionary mindset in a purer form–one that some neo-Jacobins find very attractive. But I do think that like Robespierre and Saint-Just, you have to be drawn to integrity and idealism for its own sake, because it’s not clear from the facts themselves that Robespierre’s particular vision worked out any better than that of more practical politicians, particularly those of the early years of the Assembly, and they certainly resulted in more authorized bloodshed.

On the other hand, I notice a distinct retreat from Robespierre’s rhetoric in his supposed successors, less of a willingness to put forth the sheer gleaming vision that came to Robespierre so naturally. I can understand this retreat as the result of two factors:

  1. Historical lessons that have shown the gleaming vision to be further off than Robespierre believed.
  2. Reluctance to make sweeping accusations of false consciousness toward the populace, as Robespierre did.

Those positive visions can be a little scary. But The Gleaming Vision and False Consciousness are two of the most crucial tools in the Revolutionary’s toolbox. I think that the tepid nature of much current Leftist writing (when it isn’t just disappearing entirely into theory) owes to the lack of a forceful (coercively so) positive future vision, and the complementary near-myopic focus on critique. Radical critique has no fangs in the absence of a vividly better alternative. When Obama was putting forth fairly empty rhetoric of solidarity in 2008, most of what I heard as a concrete alternative, even from Leftist sources, was pretty straightforwardly Liberal/Progressive or Social Democratic. I didn’t really have a problem with that, but that is a problem for the radical left.

Without a Gleaming Vision, and the accusations of False Consciousness to level at those who reject the Gleaming Vision, critique only serves the purpose of establishing internal purity tests, one-upping dialogic opponents, and getting tenure or magazine posts. Allusions to Gleaming Visions remain steadfastly vague, whether you are reading Slavoj Zizek, Naomi Klein, Silvia Federici, or Antonio Negri. While they are hectoring in their criticism of capitalism’s blatant faults, they are fuzzy on the details of its successor–and thus the need for revolution rather than reform is not clear. Thomas Piketty’s surprisingly modest solutions in Capital in the 21st Centurya global wealth tax, but that’s about it–drastically separate him from the radical crowd. In The Nation, Timothy Shenk half-heartedly carps about Piketty’s incrementalism while making only the fuzziest motions at “a much richer set of possibilities” and “a more promising alternative” for the future. He doesn’t bother to say what they might be. That won’t cut it.

Besides, Shenk, I mention Negri in particular because the books he wrote with Michael Hardt (Empire, Multitude, Commonwealth) seem to have faded so quickly, the last one published to pretty much no notice. I believe this is precisely because of the limp, vague visions put forward in those books. Wide-ranging in their criticisms but terminally hazy in their jargon-laden biopolitical solutions, Hardt and Negri simply didn’t offer anything for movement members or the public to latch on to. If you are going to lay a claim to daemonic (non-banausic) thought, you have to do better than that. You need to offer a glimpse at Truth. Plato knew that, at least.

Leftism and the Banausic Thinker: From Plato to Verso

This is an essay about defining one’s self as better than the world, as purer than the world. The urge to take your marbles and go home is a very old one, yet its role in art and politics is paradoxical, since taking your marbles and going home would seem to suggest that you will be ineffectual and unremembered. In fact, I think that is what happens most of the time. But the purist’s ability to survive latently in society owes to a peculiar form of elitism. Sometimes the elitism is obvious; other times it hides under a mask of ideology.

Plato and Banausia

In her excellent study Genres in Dialogue: Plato and the Construct of Philosophy (1995), Andrea Wilson Nightingale delves into the various strategies Plato uses to distinguish his fresh new domain, philosophy, from whatever it is that everyone else is doing, which is most certainly not philosophy. Plato is not just talking about poets and sophists here, though they’re definitely on the list of pretenders to the throne, but also others who might claim to be doing philosophy, like Isocrates. Isocrates, either had a very fortunate or unfortunate name, was one of the best-paid philosophers of his time, and the dialogues seem to direct a fair number of barbs his way. Plato makes him the target of a seeming bit of nasty dramatic irony at the end of the Phaedrus, when Socrates predicts great, great things for the young Isocrates.

In particular, Plato uses a particular word when Socrates attacks these non-philosophers. They are banausic.

Plato exploits and redirects the rhetoric of banausia–rhetoric which was traditionally used by aristocrats to express their contempt for manual and/or servile labor. Take, for example, the claim found at Symposium 203a, where Socrates says:

“God does not mix with man, but it is through this [daemon] that all intercourse and conversation takes place between the gods and men, whether they are awake or sleeping. And the person who is wise in this regard is a daemonic man, but the person who is wise in any other regard, whether in the realm of arts and sciences or manual labor, is banausic.

The dichotomy drawn here between the “daemonic man” (who is, of course, the philosopher) and the “banausic” individual recurs at Theaetetus 176b-d, where Socrates says:

“God is in no way unjust, but is as just as it is possible to be, and there is nothing more similar to god than the man who becomes as just as possible. It is concerning this activity that a man is revealed as truly clever or else worthless and cowardly. For the knowledge of this is wisdom and virtue in the true sense, and the ignorance of it is manifest folly and viciousness. All other things that appear to be cleverness and wisdom–whether their sphere is politics or the other arts–are vulgar or banausic.

It’s generally held that Greek culture disparaged merchants and laborers in favor of the aristocratic warrior class (see M. I. Finley’s The World of Odysseus, for example). The humiliation, feebleness, and ugliness of cuckolded craftsgod Hephaestus is another indication, in contrast to Athena, who may patronize the crafts but is just as much the patron of warriors. Nightingale claims Plato to have taken that distinction even further: now even true knowledge is no longer the province of the banausic, but only accessible to a very specific elite.

Nightingale summarizes the history of the usage of the term banausic, finding it to be “highly derogatory” in usage by Plato, Xenophon, and Aristotle. But what exactly is it to be banausic? The most common translation is “mechanical” (Levett’s Theaetetus, Allen’s and Nehamas/Woodruff’s Symposium, McDowell’s Theaeteus), though there is also “materialistic” (Howatson’s Symposium). That captures the English sense of the word “banausic” (it is an English word, meaning mundane, rote, or mechanical), but the usages of it in Greek philosophy are specific enough to mean far more than just that. (And arguably, “mechanical” is anachronistic relative to what it suggests to us.)

The associations suggest a few possibilities, in ascending order of extremity:

  1. Banausic thought has to do with automated, rote “know-how” type thought processes, distinct from the refined thought of a philosopher.
  2. Banausic thought is that which is commodified, exchanged, bought and sold, and no better than any other good for sale.
  3. Banausic thought is any thought directed toward a particular practical outcome, any thought that isn’t wholly disinterested and detached from the mortal world, period.

Nightingale quotes Aristotle to the effect that even the crafts aren’t inherently banausic, only if they are done for the sake of trade, and suggests that Plato agreed. Thus her position is that Plato means something more extreme than (1): somewhere between (2) and (3):

Plato, in sum, suggests that the philosopher occupies a disinterested position, since his wisdom is by definition incommensurable with all other “goods”… The philosopher, as it seems, is a mercenary who is no mercenary: an outsider who serves the city free of charge.

Some (like F.M. Cornford and Gilbert Ryle) imply that Plato’s position is almost completely that of (3): that in the face of practical political failure (first in Athens, then in Syracuse), an embittered Plato concluded that any civic engagement by a philosopher, no matter how disinterested, is partly corrupt and banausic. Plato doesn’t explicitly require the philosopher to be a recluse, but the demand not to engage in commerce certainly seems to extend to not working, laboring, or otherwise participating in an economy:

Plato denies that there is any human virtue in work and that certain aspects of it even appear to him to be the antithesis of what is essential in man.

Jean-Pierre Vernant, Myth and Thought in the Ancient Greeks

Nice work if you can get it, then.

The restriction on the commodification of philosophy would seem to restrict philosophy to those who can do without money, either by being rich aristocrats like Plato and Aristotle, or living in poverty like Diogenes and the Cynics. The ten years of mathematics Plato wants for the rulers of his ideal city are perfect training in this light, since mathematics was of little occupational value in classical Greece, having never been linked to practical applications. For Plato, mathematics has an appealing character, being full of (seemingly) indisputable truths with (apparently) no practical or commercial value, rendering it immune to the charge of being banausic. Presumably, after you’ve spent ten years doing something of no commercial value, you are sufficiently insulated from commerce to enter into the more marketable realm of philosophy.

Yes, philosophy was more profitable than mathematics in ancient Greece. The sophists were charging huge amounts for their services in how to persuade people, and Isocrates made quite a mint as well. But to clear the bar against banausia, wisdom doesn’t just have to be non-commercial, but also incommensurable, incapable of being perverted or corrupted through political or civic ambitions. (Presumably acceptable goals would be deployment of such wisdom to serve the Good and the True, though exactly what would qualify is hard to specify. By the Laws, at least, Plato was willing to get quite mundane in his prescriptions.) According to Nightingale, Plato’s philosopher must embrace an “outsider” position; he must break free of any contingent social fabric, similar to how Nietzsche sees his ideal man emancipating himself from his surrounding stupidity. It’s not that the philosopher rejects creating all practical results, but that most participation of the world is so toxic as to make philosophical thought impossible.

In Plato’s domain, being an outsider was not a position sought by much of anyone. The polis was so tightly-knit and bereft of privacy that most modern people would find it suffocating. But sometime late in the 18th century,  it became quite popular indeed to declare oneself an outsider, and especially in the United States, this became a tradition and a marker of authenticity. So this produced a new problem, which is how to tell the daemonic outsiders from the banausic outsiders.

Daemonic Art

Plato’s classification prefigures that of the Romantic position of the artist in touch with fundamental Ideas of Beauty and Truth. Thus, Plato wants the artists out because they and their “complicated mimesis” are too much in competition for the title of “Non-Banausic Thinkers,” as one common interpretation goes.

What separates the atemporal pleiad of creators of texts from the general run of writers acclaimed by critics and applauded by the public at large, is the fact they perceive what the latter reckon buzzes with life to be either worked out or dead. The innovative author, insensitive to the applause and reproaches of his contemporaries, knows he is surrounded by colleagues who are dead–whatever fuss these people make accumulating honours and prizes and aspiring, in the manner of some second-rate academics, to the glory of immortality…The history of literature, of each literature, is the history of these unmistakable voices which through the centuries speak to each other and captivate us with the magic of their singularity.

Juan Goytisolo, “To Read or to Re-Read”

Well, it’s one thing to think these things about yourself, and quite another to be right about them. And the problem of self-classification has never really gone away. I can tell you who I’d put in that skein of real creators, but there is quite literally no way for me to convince you I’m right (except through rhetorical force and force of personality, but I’m talking about actual proof here). This problem of being unable to establish a final authority for what art is truly daemonic and which is merely banausic, apart from mere estimations based on the durability of various works, is a practical marker for separating art from politics and science. Science and politics depend on at least the possibility of final agreement, the sense that there’s some negotiation that will win at least grudging acceptance from almost everybody.

In other words, science and politics are banausic because they depend on the commensuration of different schemata, and the results revise past, supposed solutions into ones that are generally accepted (often grudgingly) to be a bit better. Such negotiation over aesthetic value opens the trap door that causes art to drop into the realm of the banausic. If I permit your criticism to change my opinion of some novel, I’m doing so on my own terms, not for the sake of some practical nicety or some new superior synthesis. If I hold on to the value of one book which the aesthetic synthesis rejects as worthless, that is an acceptable and sensible position in art, rather than a dead-end or a reactionary position as a similar position would be in politics or science (not that it couldn’t be right, potentially–just that the terms of the debate are different). When the zeitgeist dredges up Stefan Zweig and declares that we should all be reading his books, and Michael Hofmann goes on the attack against him and says no, he’s still worthless, it’s a very firm either/or distinction: either Zweig is daemonic or he is banausic, and there’s nothing in between.

Now, it’s exactly such commensuration that makes relative assessment possible. Plato doesn’t think that argument between philosophers and non-philosophers is of much value. The only people who are fit to argue are those who have already secluded themselves from society. So Plato does seem to be making a generalized ad hominem: unless you have taken yourself out of society, you are a banausic thinker, regardless of what you say.

Banausic Politics, False Consciousness

Plato effectively makes a sweeping accusation of false consciousness across all of society. Far more comprehensive than anything Marx put across, Plato says that merely engaging in craft, trade, rhetoric, or politics is sufficient to cut one off from access to truth and justice. He does not say that he is the only person qualified to make such an accusation, but the standards he sets are quite high: you must have no stake in society, you must not trade in society, you must not negotiate with society’s members.

More recent accusations of false consciousness lower the bar a fair bit, but less than it seems. The bogeyman of anti-liberal leftist thought is that which is defined as “neoliberalism”; the term has been so sweepingly used across different political and economic systems that I think it’s pointless to try to define it. Like “(late) capitalism” itself, “neoliberalism” has become, in Hans Blumenberg’s memorable words, “a causal formula of maximum generality to account for people’s discontent with the state of the world.” As “socialism” has served for the right, “neoliberalism” is now simply the term applied to all that is bad in the world, whether it is laissez-faire libertarianism, corporate welfare, gentrification, or drone warfare. “Neoliberalism” becomes a single, overarching system uniting and enveloping any and all power structures. This goes alongside calls to exempt one’s self from the system altogether, with declarations that democracy offers a false choice, the illusion of freedom, the right to be a slave, and so on and so forth. (Zizek is probably the most famous promulgator of these homilies, but they are quite common.)

With this comes the statement that work in a neoliberal society is demeaning, draining, and corrupting. Indeed it often is, but the Leftist critique is totalizing: the terms of work are such that one cannot escape such degradation even in a relatively comfortable job–that is, unless one ascends to the somewhat amorphous realm of the upper classes, at which point you become a tacit oppressor. Either way, your existence is inauthentic. Neoliberal existence is inauthentic, something from which you must be emancipated. Alternately, if you work a day job and suffer from what used to be called liberal guilt, it is something which mandates self-flagellation.

Those who are making the critique are thus placing themselves in a position similar to Plato’s. Their thought is not up for grabs (except by Verso and Zero, I guess), and they declare themselves immune to charges of collaboration with the ubiquitous neoliberal regime. Ergo, academic positions are very important, for they are some of the very few sanctioned jobs that don’t open one’s self up to charges of banausic thinking, labor organizing being another, more time-consuming one. (Plato would never accept this, of course, as the pursuit of an academic career and salary would already be sufficiently corrupting to make philosophical thought impossible.) The purgative power of “critiques” becomes a self-protecting scheme to ensure that the power of the truth is not diluted. Those who disagree with the critiques are seen to have a vested interest in the system–that is, they are banausic.

Leftism becomes, in this case, one of Mancur Olson’s “latent groups,” which exist only in opposition to a dominant group and do not seek to grow, lest they lose their sense of definition. In How Institutions Think, Mary Douglas elaborated on Olson’s latent groups by functionally describing how such a latent, idealist group survives based on three defining factors, which should all sound very familiar to those who’ve traveled in leftist circles:

  1. Weak leadership, owing to the tendency of members to leave or schism over even a minimal ideological or practical disagreement
  2. A strong boundary between members and non-members, maintained through group policing of purity, commitment, and in-group equality
  3. A tacit, shared belief in an evil conspiracy (e.g., neoliberalism) outside the group

The strong boundary is another way of declaring the incommensurability of the group’s values with the values of those outside the group. The group is pure; everyone else is a willing or unwilling victim of the conspiracy. Such a purist community endures (tenuously) via the persistent, though unconscious, reification of the wider conspiracy:

1. C, the belief in conspiracy, is an effect of weak leadership, and strong boundary.
2. C is beneficial in keeping the community, Z, in being.
3. C is unintended by Z so no insulting charge of duplicity stands against the believers.
4. Because of weak leadership, no consensus can be mustered for formulating or applying laws or for punishing deviants. The threat to secede can be indirectly controlled by the strong boundary, which automatically insures that exit will be costly. So only oblique political action is possible; hence, there is the tendency to check exploitative behavior by accusing incipient faction leaders of principled immorality. The activity of accusing, X, reinforces the belief, C, in outside conspiracy, but C maintains X. These causal links are not perceived.
5. C maintains weak leadership and strong boundary by actually splitting the community or expelling when treachery is suspected, producing a history to make every would-be leader nervous.

Banausia, then, is the conspiracy of society. The more maximally general it is, the better. “Neoliberalism” is one form of such a conspiracy; there is no shortage of others.

But for a self-proclaimed leftist, this latent group attitude is self-defeating: it is the elitism that dare not speak its name. If you are Plato and you are an aristocrat and an elitist, it is at least consistent to reserve the fruits of wisdom for a very select few while secluding yourself from society. If you are Lenin and you are an aristocrat and an elitist, you think you know better than everyone and have no trouble enforcing that belief by violence and dictatorship. If, however, your stated goal is enlightened liberation and growing awareness, the division of thought into one tiny wedge of Truth (accessible to you and your mates) and one gigantic wedge of Banausia (left for everyone else) makes you incapable of interfacing with the world on any terms outside your own narrow, pure argot. And indeed, many Leftist groups are wary of any growth that would threaten their strong boundaries.

The radical activist Saul Alinsky, who certainly got results, was notable for his sheer lack of purity, his indifference to ideological principles beyond some very rough anti-authoritarian and egalitarian ethics. That is politics. If, on the other hand, your believe your thought to be incommensurable, and believe the thought of all others to be banausic, then you will view engagement with the toxic heap of neoliberalism as an unalloyed evil–even as you engage with it–and you will sink into the dustbin of history on a mountain of critiques, tweets, tumblrs, and Verso Books.

When one reads philosophers such as Jean-Paul Sartre, Louis Althusser, and Alain Badiou on their Marxist and/or communist commitments, one sometimes has the impression that questions of capital and class inequality are of only moderate interest to them and serve mainly as a pretext for jousts of a different nature entirely.

Thomas Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-First Century

Quantum Interviews, Quantum Personalities

I don’t know much about quantum mechanics, other than not to trust what most people say about it–and to avoid using it as an analogy.

So while much of Elegance and Enigma: The Quantum Interviews is opaque to me, the sheer bizarreness of quantum physics and the informal presentation makes for some pretty interesting moments even for the neophyte.

I’ve spent enough time around scientists and engineers to be fascinated by certain personality and cognitive traits that are far more ubiquitous among them than in the general population. Analytic mindsets, obsessions with problem-solving, taxonomizing, and other traits fuel the work ethic of engineers.

How they apply it to more abstract and unsolvable questions, however, can vary quite a bit. And that shows in the book. Just contrast Caslav Brukner’s post-Cold War individualism–

BRUKNER: Totalitarianism was the biggest tragedy of the twentieth century. With lasting danger of an increase in the influence of collectivist ideologies, it is important for us to continue to study them so we can learn how to avoid them, or offer resistance to them when they are on the rise, or diminish their consequences when they get to power. Thus far, I’ve had the opportunity to be exposed to three ideologically different social structures: Tito’s socialism, with “workers’ self-management” as a propaganda façade for continuing a one-party political monopoly; Milosevic’s brutal and manipulative nationalism; and finally, Austria’s liberal democracy, with its everyday latent-but-pretty-obvious xenophobic political reality. In reaction to these experiences, I have developed a firm conviction about the importance of independence and self-reliance, and about the importance of opposing external interference with one’s own beliefs and desires and with the beliefs and desires of those we love and care about.

–with American Chris Fuchs’ golly-gee-whiz subjectivism–

FUCHS: One of my favorite movies of all time is Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life. If you ask me, the message of quantum theory’s necessary violations of the Bell inequalities is the same as the message of this movie—that our actions matter indelibly for the rest of the universe (pluriverse).

Quantum theory on the other hand, we Quantum Bayesians believe, carries the principle of independent existence to a much more satisfactory level. Wigner and his friend really do have separate worlds, modulo their acts of communication—and so of all physical systems one to another. It signals the world’s plasticity; it signals a “wonderful life.” With every quantum measurement set by an experimenter’s free will, the world is shaped just a little as it participates in a kind of moment of birth.

Quantum Bayesianism, as far as I can tell, is a blatantly idealistic metaphysics that, instead of removing the observer from the quantum picture, as de Broglie, Bohm, Everett, and many others have tried to do, shunts more of the world into the observer. I have to admire the audacity. Fuchs’ work has been influential in quantum computation as well, so the metaphysics aren’t a gating factor on its usefulness. But Fuchs’ tone grates on me, because it seems to minimize the sad truth that many people’s worlds are filled with frustration, sadness, and suffering–much of it not by their own doing. Even if Fuchs’ views turn out to be 100 percent right, I will remain more sympathetic to Brukner’s attitudes.

Brukner does, however, approve of the move to an information-theoretical approach, disagreeing with the more hard-headed contributors that acts of measurement can simply be factored out of quantum mechanics.

The most sarcastic phrasing of the hard-headed view was John Stewart Bell:

BELL: What exactly qualifies some physical systems to play the role of ‘measurer’? Was the wave function of the world waiting to jump for thousands of millions of years until a single-celled living creature appeared? Or did it have to wait a little longer, for some better qualified system … with a Ph.D.?

Unfortunately, I cannot judge how convincing Brukner’s rejoinder is:

BRUKNER: Once we accept that probabilities are irreducible, the role of the observer is explicitly introduced into the theory. This is for the simple reason that she, by choosing the measuring device, can decide on the basis of her free will which measurement context will be realized in the actual run of the experiment. But due to the randomness of the individual quantum outcome, she cannot influence which particular outcome will occur in the chosen context. Zeilinger put the point this way: “The observer has a qualitative but not a quantitative influence on reality.” Therefore, the observer in quantum mechanics has a participatory role in forming reality.

By contrast, in a theory describing observation-independent reality, like in classical physics, the observer has only a passive role, as her actions can always be interpreted as revealing the values of physical quantities that all coexist and are independent of which experiment is actually performed. The reader may object that my explanations are anthropocentric and that I overestimate the role of the observer. Let me be clear: I am not saying that quantum theory makes sense, or is valid, only if observers are there. The “measurement context” can be induced by the prevalent basis of the environment surrounding the quantum system, without invoking any observers. Yet the mere possibility that an observer can choose the measurement context, isolating the quantum system from environmental interactions that select a preferred basis, is exactly what gives her a fundamental role in the act of observation. This is a major intellectual step forward over naive classical realism.

So even though Brukner and Fuchs are broadly in sympathy, Brukner does not generalize from the theory to Frank Capra.

The sensible-sounding Jeffrey Bub says something similar:

BUB: This is, in broad outline, what I would call an information-theoretic interpretation of the nonclassical features of quantum probabilities, in the sense of Shannon’s notion of information, which abstracts from semantic features of information and concerns probabilistic correlations between the physical outputs of an information source and a receiver. On this view, what is fundamental in the transition from classical to quantum physics is the recognition that information in the physical sense has new structural features, just as the transition from classical to relativistic physics rests on the recognition that space-time is structurally different than we thought. This seems to me the interpretive program that makes the best sense of quantum mechanics.

And indeed, the more optimistic of the book’s contributors seem to see an information-theoretical perspective as one that helps make some metaphysical sense of quantum mechanics.

The more hard-headed sorts, whether physicists like GianCarlo Ghirardi, mathematicians like Shelly Goldstein or philosophers like Tim Maudlin and Guido Bacciagaluppi, want to get rid of the seemingly fuzzy concept of an observer/measurer/agent and be left with something closer to physics as it has been known, where the math is clearly a modeling tool used to explain things in the world. Even the Everett many-worlder David Wallace falls into this category. (At one point, I believe Wallace calls the Everett many-worlds interpretation the most conservative interpretation of quantum mechanics, which should give some idea of how big these problems are.)

Lee Smolin splits the difference by accepting the information-theoretical approach but then citing it as evidence that quantum mechanics isn’t fundamental anyway.

The peculiar thing is that the idealists seem to be at odds with the Platonists. That is, the ones who want a full-fledged, independent world of mathematico-physical Forms are the ones who do not want the observer to play any part in the construction of that world of Forms. The laws are there, we observe and see what happens, and from empirical reality and deep thinking we come up with a picture of the World of Forms. But material reality is still the interface, and our acts are fundamentally acts of observation. So Ghirardi, Goldstein, and Maudlin seem to adopt what is more or less a materialist-Platonist view in practice, if not in theory.

Whereas the subjectivists like Fuchs and Lucien Hardy and David Mermin believe that our minds play a part in forming the world prior to the set establishment of that apparent world-to-experience. Fuchs doesn’t present his philosophical views in enough detail for me to figure out exactly what constitutes “world-shaping” or “plasticity” (or else I don’t have enough of the context to infer it), but it seems fairly clear that he wants a world of constant becoming in which we actively play a part.

And yet this ironically restricts our ability to know the entire cosmos, because in Fuchs’ view the entire cosmos doesn’t “exist” in the conventional sense–it’s a “pluriverse.” It’s not just subjective idealism; it’s nearly myopic idealism–and perhaps not so optimistic after all? Fuchs identifies himself as an American pragmatist, but his pragmatists of choice are later William James and Richard Rorty, not Charles Sanders Peirce–in other words, pragmatism at its mushiest.

David Mermin, who is more cautious than Fuchs or Hardy, makes this cryptic statement:

MERMIN: In my two papers, I used the phrase “has physical reality” to mean “can be accounted for in a physical theory,” particularly when I insisted that conscious experience has reality, but not physical reality….

“Physical reality” is not, as I seem to have implicitly maintained fifteen years ago, just a subset of “reality.” Neither is contained in the other. Conscious awareness belongs to reality and not to physical reality, but correlation belongs to physical reality and not to reality.

Is this a variant of Donald Davidson’s anomalous monism, where consciousness lacks clear correlative properties?

And there are some cautious sorts like Wojciech Zurek and Anthony Leggett who both say that the story is simply too incoherent to take sides, even though their research approaches drastically differ. The endearing New Yorker Daniel Greenberger (he’s been at City College since 1963!) goes even further and says we most likely don’t know much of anything about anything. They lack the intuition and/or the desire to take one or more unpalatable metaphysical bullets over others:

  1. Nonlocality (“spooky action at a distance”)
  2. Tychic indeterminism/probabilism
  3. Advanced action (backwards causation)
  4. Arbitrary fine-tuned kludges (in de Broglie-Bohm and maybe GRW)
  5. Multiple worlds of one form or another
  6. Observer-dependence
  7. Anti-realism

I couldn’t precisely map which of these apply to which interpretations, but they are the intuitive concepts that one or more of the interviewees repeatedly appeal to as problematic, repellent, unacceptable, or incoherent. But not one is rejected by everyone and each is embraced by at least one. (I think only Leggett goes for advanced action, which Huw Price also has shown an interest in elsewhere.)

As far as I can tell, and here I am going out on a limb as far as the limits of my understanding, the information-theoretical approach is the most effective giant-killer, sweeping away a fair number of the above points while embracing and exacerbating the final two.

Well, information is a funny thing. I worked with it formally for years and still do, and it’s remarkable how much you can do with it without even being able to define what information is. Well, no, but the definition is pretty darn prosaic: information is bits arranged in sequences which can be analyzed and manipulated mathematically. The immediate question everyone has: “information to whom?” No one in particular. Or, rather, anyone who’s willing to call it information. And so the relation of “information” to “reality” is still pretty fuzzy, or at least as fuzzy as the relation of mathematics in general to reality. Is it just a new and improved modeling tool?

Wojciech Zurek, who has worked on the information-theoretic side but hesitates to make any metaphysical pronouncements, still makes a methodological prediction:

ZUREK: This separation of information from states was tenable in classical physics, but it breaks down in quantum theory—it breaks down in our universe. I think that by now many people recognize how central information is to quantum physics. On a technical level, this started with Heisenberg and his indeterminacy principle. But even with all that we know now about the interplay of quantum physics and information (including Bell’s theorem, the no-cloning theorem, quantum error correction, and so on), I sense that the real mystery is still barely touched.

But conventional Platonism doesn’t deal well with information as a fundamental ontological category, since information would have to instantiate Formal Reality, not constitute it. So my feeling is that as long as information is seen to be fundamental, the Platonists are going to lose and the subjective idealists will win–from an intuitive standpoint if nothing else.

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