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Friday, October 19, 2018


As I am sure you all know, there was at one time a lively debate in the field of Biology about what was called the inheritance of acquired characteristics.  If a proto-giraffe stretched its neck to reach succulent leaves high on trees, would its offspring inherit that slightly elongated neck, until after many generations the modern giraffe had evolved.  And so forth.  Not so intensively studied is a phenomenon that I have observed in my own life, namely, parents acquiring the characteristics of their children.  I mention this because from time to time I am surprised and rather moved by the wisdom of my children, which I am quite sure they did not get from me.  Quite to the contrary, I seem to acquire some of their wisdom by a sort of reverse genetic mutation.

The most recent example of this curious phenomenon is a thoughtful and very moving email from my older son, Patrick, in response to my cry of despair in the post entitled Night Thoughts.  With his permission, I reproduce it here.

“Your Monday post, “Night Thoughts,” touched me, and I wanted to share three thoughts with you about it.

  1. As you well know, there is no such thing as the inherently legitimate state. The state can do the right thing, it can act for the greatest good, or it can behave in any other way as assessed by autonomous moral agents. But there is no form of state action or decision-making that arrogates to it the authoritative right to do X simply by nature of its being. Nor is there even any way for the state to channel the “will of the people,” since there is no such thing. (See Condorcet, Arrow, etc.) And to make things even worse, given the fundamental difference between judging “ought” versus “is” in the world, it is inevitable that reasonable, informed people (put aside for now all the unreasonable, uninformed people) can and will disagree all the time about what ought to be done. Yet, we all have to find a way to live together. Anarchism may be a useful intellectual endeavor, but anarchy is no way to live! The political life is therefore both absolutely necessary and inherently frustrating. There is not and never will be such a thing as a utopia. We will always have profound, difficult disagreements: that is the tragic fact about politics.

  1. There is a saying that “democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others.” I think this misses the point. Over short periods of time (where “short” can be an entire adult lifetime) various kinds of enlightened tyrannies can be significantly better in the outcomes it produces for the people. But eventually, power passes to the fool, the knave, or worse. When that happens, we must have strong institutions, protected rights and freedoms, and limitations on power. The strength of democracy is not that it produces the best outcomes for the people: rather, its strength is that it allows the people to survive the worst outcomes. Donald J. Trump is the poster child. I’m sure we could imagine a worse leader – although I hope we don’t ever test this hypothesis during my children’s lifetime! – but he is plenty bad. In Russia he might be Putin; in Argentina he might be Peron; in China he might be Mao. But in America we still have free elections, he is highly unpopular even during the height of the current economic cycle, and already the political tide appears to be turning. I say this not to be complacent in any way, but to reassure you that while our current president is certainly doing plenty of damage, our country’s guardrails are holding up.

  1. If you “have been sustained all these years by the belief that if only the people could be brought to see the truth, they would throw off their chains and seize liberation,” then you have been guided by too narrow a view of history. There is no single moment where the arc of human progress reaches its conclusion. The road bends and winds forever and ever, and even a single, long lifetime is not enough to know where it leads. Consider if you had been born in 1776. You would have grown up hearing stories of the Revolution. You would have come of age during the Constitutional Convention, and the first President you would have known would have been George Washington. Then, your adult lifetime would have seen both the rapid expansion of the American promise, and the systematic betrayal of its ideals. You would have railed against slavery and the annihilation of the Native Americans – both to no avail. You would have seen the degradation of American politics, to the point that the abolitionist Senator Charles Sumner was beaten nearly to the point of murder by the slave-owning Representative Preston Brooks. At the age of 84, you would be rightfully bemoaning the unraveling of the Union and the imminent Civil War, which would turn out to be far worse than you could have imagined. And yet, the road continued past that dark time and reached new heights that could not have been imagined at the time. We do not choose the age in which we live, and we do not know how our history will eventually be written. All we can do is continue to live it.

Do not despair. It was never that good, and it will be eventually be much better. And then it will be worse again, and then it will be better, and on and on.” 


David Palmeter said...

This is a wonderful piece reasoning. Please thank your son for giving me (and I suspect others) some needed perspective.

MS said...

Your son’s words are wise, insightful and eloquently written.

It is difficult to imagine being a thoughtful, rational and compassionate person and living through the many historical horrors that other thoughtful, rational and compassionate people have had to endure. It is one thing to read dispassionately, amidst the comforts of one’s home, next to a fireplace, a glass of sherry or bottle of beer in hand, about the injustices and atrocities of the Roman empire, the civil war between the Roundheads and the Royalists, the French revolution and the Reign of Terror, the American civil war, etc., etc. It is another thing to actually live amidst the turmoil of one’s own historical age. And yet, as your son notes, current times in the U.S. are not as harrowing as what others have had to experience in other times and other places. Descartes served in the Dutch States army. Hobbes and Locke witnessed their share of inhumanity, and it informed their philosophies. Oliver Wendell Holmes fought for the North in the Civil War, and the experience seared him and helped formulate his judicial philosophy. And Wittgenstein was a soldier in WWI. They survived their ordeals, and we will ours – hopefully. And perhaps things are getting better. Despite the physical harm that professional football causes its participants, is it not an improvement, both in terms of its effects on the players and the psychological effect on the spectators, over watching, and cheering on, the participants in gladiatorial combat as they hack each to death? A small improvement, perhaps, but an improvement nonetheless.

s. wallerstein said...

Here is short (15 minutes) podcast with Philosopher Michael Lynch (University of Connecticut) about intellectual arrogance, a defect almost all of us, including myself, suffer from at times.

However, when I compare the regular commenters here with those in another more leftwing site I frequent, the people here are Zen Buddhist monks.

Jason said...

I'm a sucker for movie and book quotes, and I was reminded of the Lord of the Rings while reading this post by your son.

‘I wish it need not have happened in my time,’ said Frodo.

‘So do I,’ said Gandalf, ‘and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.’

Anonymous said...

Prof. Wolff,

I've been an intermittent reader of your blog ever since your wonderful lectures on Kant's First Critique appeared on YouTube. I'd just like to recommend two books, which may be of interest to you.

First, related to your son's last point (i.e., "There is no single moment where the arc of human progress reaches its conclusion. The road bends and winds forever and ever"), I would like to recommend the psychiatrist, Iain McGilchrist's "The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World". That is not only because it demonstrates your son's insight, but because (I think) it is important for those concerned about Trumpism to recognize it as precisely an extreme form of one of these long-term bends in the road, the ascent of which McGilchrist had recognized a decade ago and explained from his and his colleagues' psychiatric experience, coupled with a more general awareness of the history of Western thought and its art.

Second, related to Kant, there is quantum physicist Bernard d'Espagnat's "On Physics and Philosophy" (also his "Veiled Reality", though it requires more specialist knowledge), in which it is demonstrated that Kant's worldview (albeit not his way of arriving at it) is, to a large extent, vindicated by contemporary physics.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Thank you. I will hunt them down.