Wednesday, March 25, 2009


Philosophers and communists are like lawyers: 99% of them give the other 1% a bad name.

Butterflies and Wheels mentions (presumably approvingly) Norman Geras' denunciation of postmodernism. On the one hand, having read a fair amount of postmodernist philosophy, I understand Geras' frustration: 99% of it really is complete bullshit (even granting that we should be taking epistemological advice from professors of English Literature in the first place). But Geras' denunciation of Niall Lucy & Steve Mickler's defense of postmodernism is intellectually dishonest, and I'm frankly disappointed that Ophelia Benson would even bother to mention it.

Geras' intellectual dishonesty is explicit, "This would-be defence is either postmodernism in retreat or a postmodernism that has forgotten the claims of some of its best-known protagonists." Geras is demanding that postmodernism be dogmatic. Geras could make precisely the same claim that current evolutionary biology or physics is in retreat from or has forgotten the claims of its best-known protagonists, such as Darwin or Newton. Geras simply dismisses the Lucy & Mickler's arguments because they contradict what he — as an outsider — privileges as objectionable postmodernist dogma.

Geras' problem, of course, is that there are only three choices:
  1. There is exactly one absolute truth (modernism)
  2. There is no truth at all (nihilism)
  3. Truth is more complicated than one or none (postmodernism)
Lucy & Mickler's defense argues the third case, but Geras simply dismisses that case out of hand, and essentially argues for modernism... but modernism fundamentally rests on privileged authority to establish the "one truth". (Any good scientist would laugh in the face of any philosopher who asserted that science gives us the one absolute truth.)

A serious intellectual faces Sturgeons Law in evaluating any school of thought, especially one without the rigorous internal controls of modern science: 90% of everything is crap. (90% of science is crap too, but scientists have become practiced in keeping the crap out of the public eye. Well, most of it.) If 90% of something is crap, why shouldn't that overwhelming majority define that something? Why should a minority viewpoint define a school of thought? On the other hand, if 90% of everything is crap, then everything becomes defined by its crap, and we end up with nihilism.

The problem is further complicated in that 100% of some things — e.g. religion, Scientology, Randianism, homeopathy, Nazism — are crap. H. Allen Orr criticizes The God Delusion for falling into what I call "Sturgeon's Trap": criticizing the worst of religion, not the best. Orr's criticism would be valid even if 99% of religion were crap: it's every intellectual's duty to criticize the best. Because Dawkins can refute the religious arguments he presents in The God Delusion Orr concludes on that basis that Dawkins has considered only the crap 90% of religion. But of course 100% of religion is crap; Dawkins really does criticize the best that religion has to offer. (Modern "sophisticated" apologetics are much much worse than Aquinas' classics.)

Percentages, however, are completely irrelevant to the seeker after the truth. Every good idea begins as the opinion of a minority of one. The search for truth is never a political struggle; when you let your politics take precedence over the truth, you have lost your way.

Of course, actual politics — the search for and implementation of good — is different. What a group of people actually do as a group is very dependent on the majority opinion. It's irrelevant, for example, that 1% of KKK members aren't racist; in a political sense, the KKK is definitely a racist organization, because 99% of their members are explicitly racist.

Hence my struggle with my self-identification as "communist". As far as the truth goes, I'm convinced that Marx et al. have profound insights into truths of economics, politics and psychology. On the political level, however, too many self-identified "communists" are dogmatists, Utopians, economic reductionists, opportunists, naive anarchists, or just plain ignorant fools*. (This is not a problem only among communists and socialists; the entire political left is infected with stupidity. Of course, the political right is infected with at least as much (if not more) stupidity and a lot more evil.)

*I'm pleased that although they have their own problems, the Revolutionary Communist Party exhibits none of these manifestations of egregious stupidity.

I'm beginning to feel some sympathy for the moderate, humanist Christian, surrounded by a sea of dogmatic fundamentalist assholes. Only some sympathy, though: the communist canon is a lot more sensible and humanistic than the Bible. But regardless of the quality of the canon, an argument about who is the "true" anything — communist, christian, atheist or Scotsman — is a pointless waste of time, a distraction from both the search for truth and the implementation of the good.

One of the reasons I've (mostly) closed the blog is that I'm getting more flak from fellow communists and socialists than I am from capitalists and bourgeois apologists. Not because my analyses and suggestions are wrong, but because they are not "true" socialism. It's one thing to have enemies; I've been an outspoken atheist long enough to be comfortable with the enmity of the religious. It's quite another thing — very discouraging — when your putative allies are against you.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Please pick a handle or moniker for your comment. It's much easier to address someone by a name or pseudonym than simply "hey you". I have the option of requiring a "hard" identity, but I don't want to turn that on... yet.

With few exceptions, I will not respond or reply to anonymous comments, and I may delete them. I keep a copy of all comments; if you want the text of your comment to repost with something vaguely resembling an identity, email me.

No spam, pr0n, commercial advertising, insanity, lies, repetition or off-topic comments. Creationists, Global Warming deniers, anti-vaxers, Randians, and Libertarians are automatically presumed to be idiots; Christians and Muslims might get the benefit of the doubt, if I'm in a good mood.

See the Debate Flowchart for some basic rules.

Sourced factual corrections are always published and acknowledged.

I will respond or not respond to comments as the mood takes me. See my latest comment policy for details. I am not a pseudonomous-American: my real name is Larry.

Comments may be moderated from time to time. When I do moderate comments, anonymous comments are far more likely to be rejected.

I've already answered some typical comments.

I have jqMath enabled for the blog. If you have a dollar sign (\$) in your comment, put a \\ in front of it: \\\$, unless you want to include a formula in your comment.