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Saturday, April 25, 2015

ICELAND, TRANSPARENCY, AND LANGUAGE [reposted from June 9, 2007]

Last Sunday, Susie and I arrived in Iceland, en route to Paris, for a three day visit with Pall Skulason and Ardur Birgitsdottir. Pall is a philosopher, and the former Rector of the University of Iceland. He and I met through a common interest in the philosophy of education, and Susie and I have spent time with Pall and Ardur in Paris and in Metz. The stopover in Iceland was arranged so that I could give a talk at the University on "The Completion of Kant's Ethical Theory in the Tenets of the Rechtslehre." [don't ask.]

Tuesday was devoted to a sightseeing ride across the Icelandic countryside -- very bleak, very beautiful, enlivened by a visit t0 an extraordinary waterfall. It rained on and off, and the wind was at gale force, so we spent a good deal of time in the car rather than wandering about on foot.

During one drive, Pall said a series of things about the difficulty but also the virtue of trying to write philosophy in Icelandic -- things that connected up with remarks he had made about the history of Iceland and his experience of it. These remarks triggered in me a series of thoughts related to the [as yet unwritten] third volume of the trilogy I planned long ago on the thought of Karl Marx. The first two volumes have been published -- Understanding Marx, an exposition of the mathematical foundations of Marx's economic theories, and Moneybags Must Be So Lucky, a reflection on the literary and philosophical significance of the first ten chapters of Das Kapital. The third volume, tentatively titled The Mystification of the Capitalist World, is intended to unite the mathematical economics and the literary analysis of the first two volumes with a socological and philosophical explication of capitalism, in order to illuminate the way in which capitalism's mystifications defeat our efforts to create a more humane and just society.

The purpose of this post is to try to put down in coherent form the thoughts triggered by Pall's extrordinarily interesting observations about Icelandic history, the Icelandic language, and the unique experience of trying to do philosophy in Icelandic. Whatever there is of interest in these remarks is owed directly to him.

All of this began the day before, during a visit to Iceland's national museum. Pall observed that Icelandic is a very ancient language pretty much unchanged by time -- a fact that he demonstrated by reading without difficulty a 9th or 10th century text exhibited at the museum. He observed that Iceland's history is transparent [his term]. Its founding can be traced to a known date in the 10th century [I may have some of this wrong, for which I ask Pall's forgiveness, but the details are not important], and since the population is very homogeneous, most Icelanders can trace their lineage back many centuries. The origins of the country do not recede into the mists of legend, as do those of France, England, or Germany. I remarked that Americans make the same claim, but that their inability to confront the fact of slavery makes their story of origins mythical and mystified. [I have explored all of this at length in Autobiography of an Ex-White Man, the book I published several years ago about my experiences as a White man in an Afro-American Studies department.]

The next day, as we drove, Pall talked about the challenges posed by his attempt to write philosophy in Icelandic. The problem is that Icelandic lacks the words for many of the key philosophical terms that play so large a role in European philosophy, especially of the past two centuries. One solution to this, which he rejects, even though most of his colleagues adopt it, is simply to bring a number of loan words into Icelandic, taking them for the most part from the German, but also from the French. Now, Icelandic, as Pall explained, is a transparent language. Because it is pure, exhibiting very little in the way of influences from other langages, and really tracing itself back to a proto-Indo-European, when a native Icelandic speaker uses an Icelandic word, he or she can see immediately and without any obscurity exactly what its roots are, and what their original meanings are [since they continue to have those meanings in modern Icelandic.]

This is, when you think about it, an extraordinary fact. If a word used for philosopical purposes is derived via a metaphor from some common root, then the Icelandic ear hears that fact immediately. Since I am the world's worst linguist, I cannot give very good examples of this, but here is one. The German word for "object" is "gegenstand." Now, gegenstand literally means "standing [over] against," which, if I am not totally mistaken, is not far from the root meanings of the Latin words from which "object" is derived.

Imagine, if you will, trying to write philosophy using only words that carry their metaphorical origins, as it were, on their sleeves. I observed that the effort, which was essentially what Pall was attempting by writing philosophy using only Icelandic words, would force you to think through exactly what you were trying to say, and it would stop you from writing something that realy was meaningless but sounded good, because it was expressed in words whose origins were obscured both from the writer and from the reader. [Something like "In the Post-Modern world, the de-centered self interogates meaning by (dis)joining ego and other."]

What does all this have to do with capitalism, exploitation, and the price of gas? Well, if Marx is right [see Moneybags], the exploitative nature of capitalist economic relations is concealed from us, for the most part, by the opacity of the wage-labor relationship and the misrepresentation of commodities as quanta of objective value. Seeing through that mystification to what is really going on, Marx thought, requires not only a critique of economic theory and an unillusioned description of the sphere of production [pace Capital chapter 10] but also a clear-eyed examination of the language with which we talk about our work, commodities, profit, and a society that rests on them.

Perhaps it requires that we try to talk about our own world, as Pall is trying to do philosophy in Icelandic, in a way that makes all the metaphors manifest, all the dissimulations apparent, and all the ideological rationalizations so transparent that they immediately lose their force. The central task, for a radical critic like me, is to speak as much as possible in that fashion, as a way of combating the dominant mystifications of the public discourse of our society.

Just a thought.


I received word this morning that an old friend, Páll Skúlason, passed away last Wednesday.  I met Páll through our shared interest in the philosophy of education.  He was an Icelandic philosopher who served for eight years as the Rector of the University of Iceland.  Susie and I first met Páll and his wife, Auður Birgisdóttir in Paris, and later traveled to Metz to visit them at the home in which they spent a good deal of time.  Later still, we visited them Iceland, and on one occasion Páll arranged for me to give a talk to the Philosophy Department at the University of Iceland [I spoke about Kant's ethical theory.]

Páll was a tall, open, extremely friendly man with a deep interest in the developments taking place in European higher education.  He and I shared our distress at the corporatization of modern universities, and at one point, before Iceland's economic meltdown, even talked about forming a Center for the study of higher education.  He and his wife were unfailing gracious, warm, and welcoming to Susie and me, and I looked forward with great  anticipation to our meetings.

I have formed very few friendships in the larger academic world outside the university in which I happened to be teaching, and my friendship with Páll was very dear to me.  He was only sixty -nine when he passed away.  I shall miss him.

On June 9, 2007, I posted a meditation on some things Páll told me about trying to do philosophy in Icelandic.  As a tribute to him, and because I believe it is of great and lasting importance for how we do philosophy, I shall repost it today following this memorial note.

Friday, April 24, 2015


For as long as I can remember [which is to say, as far back as September, 1950, when I began my undergraduate career], The COOP -- the Harvard Cooperative Society -- has dominated Harvard Square.  I never actually spent much money at the COOP even when I was in residence in Cambridge, Mass, but each year I pay the three dollars [it used to be one] for a little black date book -- my COOP book -- in which I keep track of classes, dinners, doctors' appointments and the like.  Each page covers seven days, and when I turn the page for a new Sunday, I carefully fold down the upper right corner, so that the book always opens to the current week.

Because the COOP is a college store, the COOP book starts with late August, which is roughly the beginning of the academic year, and ends somewhat more than twelve months later so that one has a little overlap.  I never throw old COOP books away, and I have a total of forty-three including the one that is now in operation. 

This is something of a family tradition.  Among the thousands of papers I inherited when my father died, including letters between my grandparents, letters between my parents, and every letter my sister and I ever wrote home, were several dozen of these little date books in my father's or mother's hand [not COOP books, of course.]  They were invaluable when I wrote books about my grandparents and my parents, just as my COOP books were a resource for me as I composed my Autobiography. 

Taking several books at random from the box in which I keep them, I find that on Tuesday, January 17, 1978 there was a Northampton Cub Scout pack meeting at which the boys would race their little homemade cars down a long track.  I was the Cub Master, and hence the Master of Ceremonies.  On Friday, May 24, 1997, I was in Durban, South Africa, where I had gone for my semi-annual visit to the students my little scholarship organization was funding.  From 1-2 p.m. in the Music Building there were auditions, and it was then that I first hear the booming bass-baritone voice of a young man from a Black township, Thamsanqa Zungu.  Thami sang "The Trumpet Shall Sound" from  the Messiah, and I almost fell off my chair when I heard him.  Although he lacked the academic credentials [a "matric," as it is called in South Africa] to enroll at the University of Durban-Westville, I was able to fund his studies as a special student until he won a scholarship at Juilliard.  He is now on the faculty of a South African university.

Turning the little pages of each book, one by one, I am reminded of how long I have lived, and how many people I have known.  Sam Bowles, Milton Cantor, Ann Ferguson, Bob Ackerman, my sons, my first wife, Susie -- there they all are, their lives intersecting with mine.

If you are young and are not completely in thrall to electronic devices, I recommend that you keep your daily planners.  I guarantee that a time will come when you are glad you did.


Two scams have popped up in my In-Box, and I thought I would pass along a warning.  The first is from someone who claims to be on the "ITS Help desk."  There is a problem with my email account, and they just need some information from me so that they can correct it.  The second purports to be from Federal Express, which says it was unable to deliver a package and needs some information about me in order to deliver it.  I actually called Federal Express and they assured me that they never contact recipients by e-mail.  [How would they know your address?]

Just thought you should know.

Thursday, April 23, 2015


My last lecture in my course on Marx took place yesterday.  I have been totally absorbed in Capital for months, and the time has come to find something else to blog about.  Tomorrow evening Susan and I shall attend a baroque music concert at Duke, and then I shall return to brooding about how I am going to occupy my time.

 Critique of Pure Reason, anyone?  [Just kidding.]

Tuesday, April 21, 2015


Matt is of course quite correct.  In my little Bible lesson I switched the places of Noah and Abraham.  Noah shows up in Chapter 5 of Genesis [and hangs around for a while.]  Abraham, or Abram, does not pop up until the end of Chapter 11.  Maybe I should stick to Star Trek.

Monday, April 20, 2015


One of the students in my Marx course, Jack Denton, put me onto a very interesting review essay by Bruce Robbins in a journal called N+1 [although the original reference may have come from Chris, since I put Mr. Denton in touch with Chris for reading suggestions for the final paper in the course.]  I read the essay, which ranges widely over French Marxism of the last thirty years or more, in the course of reviewing a book by Etienne Balibar.  The essay prodded me to say a few things that have emerged from my close reexamination of Capital this semester.

You will have to forgive me if I say some things that I have said before.  I only know three chords on this guitar, so all my songs sound alike.

Bruce Robbins begins his review essay thus:  At a debate in southern California in 2007, the French philosopher Alain Badiou informed the French philosopher Étienne Balibar that he, Balibar, was a reformist. “And you, monsieur,” Balibar replied, “are a theologian.”

This theme, of reformism versus theology in the ranks of Marxists, runs through the entire essay.  In this dispute, I am clearly and unapologetically on the side of reformism, not theology, and I am quite convinced that Marx was as well.  Let me explain, at some length.  Since this is a song about the inadequacies of theology, let me begin with the Bible.

As told in the Old and New Testaments, human history is a story that unfolds according to God's plan in five metaphysical stages:  The Creation, The Fall, The Law, the Incarnation, and The Last Trump.  Man's ontological condition, his relationship to the Almighty, is completely transformed as each stage succeeds the preceding one.  In the first stage, man is without sin.  He walks and talks easily with God.  This stage, Eden, ends with the Fall, the violation of God's commandment not to eat of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge.  After the Fall and the expulsion from Eden, man lives in sin.  Some time later, God makes a covenant with Abraham, which He renews with Noah.  He then gives to Moses his Law in the form of written Commandments.  The entire period of the Old Testament after the Fall, however long it lasts, and whatever secular events take place during it, is the time when Man lives in sin under The Law.  This stage in history comes to an abrupt end with the Incarnation, through which miraculous event God gives His only begotten Son to save man from the damnation that must otherwise be visited upon him for failing to obey the Law.  With the Passion of Christ, there begins a new stage, the one in which we now live.  In this stage, man is offered the miracle of undeserved salvation, through faith in the promise of Jesus Christ.  ["Belief in God" does not mean "Belief that God exists."  That is taken for granted.  It means belief that God will keep his promise of salvation to all those who trust unreservedly in that promise.]  History ends with the Last Trump, when the graves give up their dead and those who are saved sit at the footstool of the Lord forever in eternal bliss, while those who are damned are denied forever the presence of the Lord.

O.K.  That was fun.  The crucial thing to notice here is that the passage from one stage to the next, according to the Christian story, is abrupt, total, and irreversible.  Nothing of any importance remains the same.  Before the Fall, man is free of sin.  After the Fall, he bears the mark of Original Sin in his soul.  Before the Incarnation, man lives under the Law.  After the Incarnation, the Word is made Flesh, and salvation is by faith [since I am, in my heart of hearts, a Lutheran, I will say by faith alone, as Luther wrote in the margin of his copy of Paul's Epistles.]

Hegel immanentized the transcendent Christian story, and Marx secularized Hegel's version.  So the Creation, the Fall, the Law, and the Incarnation became Primitive Communism, Slavery, Feudalism, and Capitalism, with Socialism playing the role of the Last Trump.  BUT:  along the way, Marx had the genius to understand that the passage from one stage to the next is NOT abrupt, total, and irreversible.  In human history, the transition from one stage to the next is lengthy, complex, and ambiguous -- the product of the decisions, actions, and reactions of countless men and women over centuries.  Marx's work, so completely grounded in his archival historical research, was almost completely focused on the transition that had taken place within the memory of those then living, and indeed was only commencing in many parts of the world:  the transition from feudalism to capitalism.

As a young man, Marx, like all of his contemporaries, was mesmerized by the world-historical upheaval of the French Revolution, and although he understood even in his twenties that that event was the culmination, not the inauguration, of the centuries long transition from feudalism to capitalism, he allowed himself to hope that the next transition, from capitalism to socialism, would come abruptly, violently, and virtually immediately, even in lands like Prussia in which the first tender shoots of capitalist social relations were only beginning to thrust their heads above the soil.  Eventually, Marx knew better.  In 1859, he published the Introduction to the Critique of Political Economy, in the Preface to which he wrote these famous and very profound words:

" In the social production of their life, men enter into definite relations that are indispensable and independent of their will, relations of production which correspond to a definite stage of development of their material productive forces. The sum total of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which rises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness.

The mode of production of material life conditions the social, political and intellectual life process in general. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness.

At a certain stage of their development, the material productive forces of society come in conflict with the existing relations of production, or — what is but a legal expression for the same thing — with the property relations within which they have been at work hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters.

Then begins an epoch of social revolution. With the change of the economic foundation the entire immense superstructure is more or less rapidly transformed. In considering such transformations a distinction should always be made between the material transformation of the economic conditions of production, which can be determined with the precision of natural science, and the legal, political, religious, aesthetic or philosophic — in short, ideological forms in which men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out. Just as our opinion of an individual is not based on what he thinks of himself, so can we not judge of such a period of transformation by its own consciousness; on the contrary, this consciousness must be explained rather from the contradictions of material life, from the existing conflict between the social productive forces and the relations of production.

No social order ever perishes before all the productive forces for which there is room in it have developed; and new, higher relations of production never appear before the material conditions of their existence have matured in the womb of the old society itself. Therefore mankind always sets itself only such tasks as it can solve; since, looking at the matter more closely, it will always be found that the task itself arises only when the material conditions of its solution already exist or are at least in the process of formation."

The implication is clear, and thoroughly anti-theological:   The transition from capitalism to socialism [deo volente] must come about through the development within capitalism of the elements of what will eventually become socialist social relations of production.  In the absence of such developments, no movement, however orthodox, however courageous, however true to the ipsissima verba of Marx's writings, can accomplish a transition to socialism. 

Since in this neck of the ideological woods, as in the land of theological disputes, proof texts are much prized, I offer in closing this quotation from that most canonical of all texts, Capital Volume I.  In the long Chapter 10, "The Working Day," Marx details the devices by which factory owners seek to wring a bit more surplus labor time from their workers.  Here is the concluding paragraph:

"It must be acknowledged that our labourer comes out of the process of production other than he entered. In the market he stood as owner of the commodity “labour-power” face to face with other owners of commodities, dealer against dealer. The contract by which he sold to the capitalist his labour-power proved, so to say, in black and white that he disposed of himself freely. The bargain concluded, it is discovered that he was no “free agent,” that the time for which he is free to sell his labour-power is the time for which he is forced to sell it, [163] that in fact the vampire will not lose its hold on him “so long as there is a muscle, a nerve, a drop of blood to be exploited.” [164] For “protection” against “the serpent of their agonies,” the labourers must put their heads together, and, as a class, compel the passing of a law, an all-powerful social barrier that shall prevent the very workers from selling. by voluntary contract with capital, themselves and their families into slavery and death. [165] In place of the pompous catalogue of the “inalienable rights of man” comes the modest Magna Charta of a legally limited working-day, which shall make clear “when the time which the worker sells is ended, and when his own begins.” Quantum mutatus ab illo!"

Take note, all you secular theologians, for whom concern about minimum wage laws or occupational safety and health regulations are a cop-out, a gradualist sell-out.  Karl Marx himself calls for the workers to organize and struggle for passage in England of a bill limiting the working day to ten hours.

Balibar is right.  Badiou is wrong.