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Wednesday, October 21, 2015


Having defiantly announced my decision to take a vacation from blogging, I was unable to resist one last post before wrapping things up and waiting for the taxi tomorrow.  For some days now, I have been brooding about the chaos in the Republican Party, trying to understand at some deeper level what is happening.  I have posted several analyses of the arithmetic of the primary and caucus nominating process.  Now I should like to step back and see whether I can make sense of the unlikely turns of events.

The American political system was designed by the Framers to accomplish two structural and procedural ends [I leave to one side the effort to protect the institution of slavery, an effort that succeeded for three quarters of a century.]  The first, very much in line with one important strain of 18th century political theorizing, was to make the pursuit of private interest subserve the public good.  This conception of democratic government was in stark contrast to Rousseau's assertion that true democracy requires that individuals set aside their private interests and choose instead to aim at the general good.  The second goal of the Framers was to craft a form of government that required an accommodation of, and a compromise among, sectional and other interests.

The institution of a Presidency elected by the voters as a whole, rather than a Prime Ministership selected by the majority party in Parliament, made coalition politics on the European model almost impossible.

Thus, we have had for most of American history a two party system, each party being a more or less uneasy coalition of economic, sectional, racial and other groupings that do not naturally belong together.

When I was a boy, the Democratic Party was a coalition of Southern white segregationists and Northeastern big-city unions, to mention only the two most prominent and easily identifiable groupings within the party.  The Republican Party was an equally uneasy coalition of Midwestern isolationist farmers and small businessmen and Northeastern internationalist big business [then only beginning to be transformed into true multinational corporations.]

The Civil Rights Movement destroyed the Democratic Party coalition.  Strom Thurmond led the segregationists out of the Democratic Party, and when Richard Nixon welcomed them into the Republican Party with the so-called "Southern Strategy," a fundamental realignment of the parties began.  The Solid South became solidly Republican, and the Republicans in effect gave up on the Northeast  and then on the West Coast.

Ronald Reagan completed the realignment by undermining the unions and peeling off white working class voters, hitherto reliably Democratic, by appealing to their fear of Negroes and their hostility to the scorn they felt directed at them by college educated liberals.

Meanwhile, fundamental demographic changes were taking place in the electorate that elevated the importance of both Black and Hispanic voters, to the advantage of the Democrats, who welcomed them into their now firmly anti-segregationist party.

For almost two generations, this realignment worked to the advantage of the Republicans, leading centrist Democrats like Bill Clinton to abandon the liberal policies of the Roosevelt-Johnson Democratic Party in a desperate, and successful, effort to win back the Presidency.

But the uneasy alliance between big business and financial capitalism with culturally alienated and frightened working class whites was never a natural fit, and with the end of the post-war boom and exponential rise in the inequality of income and wealth, the inner contradictions of the Republican Party, as great as the inner contradictions of the old Democratic Party, became too stark to paper over.

I believe that we are now seeing the break-up of the Nixon/Reagan coalition, both in the contest for the Republican Presidential nomination and in the internal disarray of the Republican caucus in the House of Representatives.

The immediate questions are, Who will become House Speaker and Who will win the Presidential nomination?  But a larger and more interesting question is, What new alignment of forces will emerge from this break-up? 

In thinking about this, I begin with a simple fact borne in upon me [in a different context] by my son, Tobias.  The white working class and lower middle class segment of the Republican coalition consist of a very large number of people, numbering perhaps in the scores of millions, that is not going to evaporate or cease to exist.  They are there, they are square, and they are not going away [to parody a famous Gay chant.]

If the Republican Party splits wide open, as it well may if Trump wins the nomination, they are certainly not going to seize control of the Republican Party.  There are not enough of them to do that, I believe [but of course I could be wrong.]  Nor are they going to join all those Black and Brown people in the Democratic Party.  They could attempt a third party, but American history suggests that that is a losing move.

I have puzzled about this for several days, and one answer comes to mind.  Remember that even in Presidential election years, only two-thirds of eligible voters actually go the polls.  There are scores of millions of people -- at least three score, by my quick estimate -- who do not vote.  One segment of the Republican Party faction I have been discussing is White Evangelical Protestants.  There have been times when Evangelical Protestants retreated from national politics, for religious and other reasons.  It seems to me possible [but only possible, let me emphasize] that if the forces of big business win the struggle for a splintering Republican Party, a sizeable segment of the losing faction might simply retreat from the political arena.

The remaining Republican forces would then, almost certainly, rid themselves of their anti-Black, anti-Hispanic stance, and move somewhat, but not too much, to the center, becoming, in effect, a modern twenty-first century arm of established capitalist interests.  The Democratic Party would respond by channeling its inner Bernie, and things would settle down somewhat, but not too much, to the left of where they are now.

That is the only resolution I can see that makes political sense within the traditions and structure of American party politics.


Tuesday, October 20, 2015


On Saturday, April 28, 2007, in anxious anticipation of a retirement planned for the following year, and casting about for something, anything, to fill the empty days and weeks after I became Professor Emeritus, I established The Philosopher's Stone, and put up my very first post.  The suggestion to run a blog had come from my son, Patrick, and though I scarcely knew what a blog was [a "web log," I deduced], I thought I had better give it a shot.

In the next few months, I posted another eighteen little comments and observations, but then I let the project lapse as I wrapped up a half-century of teaching and undertook the task of selling a house in the midst of a real estate crash and moving Susie and our two cats, Murray and Christmas Eve, to a condominium apartment in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

I did not return to blogging until June of 2009.  Since then, I have written almost two thousand four hundred additional posts, not counting a book length series of posts devoted to Formal Methods in Political Philosophy on a second, separate blog.  I have written, day by day, an eight hundred page three volume autobiography, an entire volume of multi-part tutorials, mini-tutorials, and appreciations, and observations on everything from the passing political scene to literary criticism.  All in all, in the past six years, I have written well over half a million words.

All of which I offer in explanation [and perhaps expiation] of the fact that I have decided to take a brief holiday from blogging.  This Thursday, Susie and shall once again fly off to Paris, returning on November 15th.  For more than three weeks, I shall not blog.  The universe will have to get along without me for twenty-five days.

Will any of you still be here when I return?  I most earnestly hope so.  It has been, these past six years, a great pleasure, indeed a delight, to read your responses to the notes I have sealed in bottles and cast into the digital sea.  I have no doubt that I shall return filled to the brim with observations, animadversions, interpretations, predictions, ruminations, and meditations.

In all probability, I shall post one last comment tomorrow, but then there will be what we called, when I was a boy, radio silence.

Behave yourselves while I am gone.


Paris is considerably farther north than Montreal, which explains why, at this time of year, the sun does not rise until 8:19 a.m.  Fortunately, in the City of Lights, it is never really dark.

Monday, October 19, 2015


Forgive me for going on about this -- I am, I confess, somewhat obsessed, lying awake at night running the numbers in my head.  I refer, of course, to the Republican contest for the Presidential nomination.

As all political junkies know [I really apologize to my overseas readers -- it was either this or some unseemly qvelling about yet another New England Patriots victory], this year on March 1st there will be a large number of Republican primaries and caucuses -- hence the label "Super Tuesday."  By the time March 1st has come and gone, more than 40% of the 1865 delegates to be chosen in primaries and caucuses will have been chosen -- 797, to be exact.  This is 37% of the votes needed to secure the nomination.

I think it is quite probable that Donald Trump will emerge from Super Tuesday with more delegates than any of the other candidates.  In my previous commentary, I focused on the possibility that one of the "Establishment" candidates -- Bush, Rubio, Kasich, Christie, Cruz [not quite Establishment, but at least  a sitting senator] -- would be in second place, leading the forces behind the scenes to try to herd everyone into supporting him ["him" because it won't be Fiorina.]

But I negelected to consider what may be the most likely outcome, namely that it is the appalling Dr. Ben Carson who has the second largest cache of delegates, while none of the Estblishment types has managed to accumulate many at all.  What then?

This is truly mysterious.  Can Trump, the self-described great deal-maker, cut a deal with Carson?  Would Carson deal?  Are Carson's supporters, almost as numerous at the moment as Trump's supporters, transferable to Trump?  It would not seem so.  I would have thought that Trump was not an Evangelical Christian's cup of tea.  But who knows?

If Carson does somehow acquire a bag full of delegates, they are going to have to do something at the Convention after the first round of voting, for which they are presumably committed to vote for Carson.

The more I turn this all over in my fevered brain, the more difficult it appears for Bush or Rubio or Kasich or Christie to amass enough delegates to make him the plausible alternative to Trump.

Poll numbers are not what matters, once February 1, 2016 arrives.  From then, it is delegates.

Sunday, October 18, 2015


On this lazy Sunday, with the Patriots not scheduled to play until this evening, I idle away the time by electoral weed-whacking.  I continue my struggle to gain some insight into whom the Republicans will nominate for President [the Democrats will nominate Clinton -- trust me.]

Let me begin with some facts:  There will be 2470 voting delegates at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio next July.  Of these, 1865 will be elected, 168 will be awarded, three to a state or territory, to "party leaders," and 438 will be "bonus delegates" or, as they are sometimes called, "super-delegates," these last chosen by the State party leadership.  1236 votes at the Convention will secure the nomination.   As I have remarked before on this blog, I assume that the Convention will nominate someone, and not simply take a pass on the 2016 election.

A little elementary arithmetic tells me that Donald Trump can win 66.2% of the delegates chosen in primaries and caucuses next year and still not have the 1236 necessary for nomination. 

Thus, I see three realistically possible scenarios.

1.  Trump actually wins 66.3% of the delegates chosen in primaries and caucuses and squeaks into the nomination with 1236 votes on the first ballot.  I have to confess that this strikes me as rather unlikely, considering the number of Republicans who say they will not vote for him.  Unlikely but possible.  It is also possible, of course, that some of the party leaders or super-delegates will vote for him, putting him over the top.

2.  Trump wins a clear majority of the delegates chosen in primaries and caucuses, but falls well short of the 1236 required for nomination.  He does not get the nomination because the remaining delegates line up behind one of the so-called "establishment" candidates, where they are joined by enough party leaders and super-delegates to push that candidate past Trump to the nomination.  It now looks as though Rubio is the likeliest  establishment candidate, but these are early days.  If this happens, my guess is that Trump will erupt, claim [plausibly] that he has been robbed, and bolt the party, either to declare a third party candidacy or to sit out the election or even [you never know] to endorse Clinton.

3.  Some establishment candidate actually accumulates a plurality of the delegates chosen in primaries and caucuses and is pushed over the top by the bonus and super delegates.  Since he [it will not be Fiorina] is the actual primary season winner, Trump will have no grounds for a cry of "foul," and despite his deal-making expertise, I do not see him wheeling and dealing his way to the nomination.

If either the first or the second possibility comes to pass, it will, I believe, be the end of the Republican Party as we have known it now for two generations.  Recall that forty-five years ago,

the long-established union of Southern segregationists and white racists with Northern liberals was broken by the Civil Rights Movement and Richard Nixon's welcome of Strom Thurmond into the Republican Party.  Over time, the Republican Party became a coalition of big business, Wall Street, foreign policy imperial hawks and Southern Whites, a coalition that elected Nixon twice, Reagan twice, George H. W. Bush once, and George Bush twice.

Like the earlier coalition within the Democratic Party, this Republican coalition was inherently unstable, and it now appears to have broken apart into open civil warfare within the Party.  The Trump candidacy and the threat of an actual Trump nomination have brought the Party to the brink of collapse.  A Clinton victory over Trump, or a Trump walk-out triggered by an anti-Trump coalition within the Party, would perhaps be enough to destroy the two-generation old arrangement that enabled the Republicans to win the presidency repeatedly.

These are interesting times.


Saturday, October 17, 2015


Google tells me that at the moment, far and away the largest  number of daily visits to my Formal Methods blog are coming from Russia.  Somewhere in the bowels of the former Soviet Union, someone must be teaching a course on Game Theory and such like things and using my blog as a teaching device.  I would really love to know who it is and where he or she is teaching.  Anyone out there know?


Ben Carson may just be the most thoroughly despicable person to make a run for the presidency in modern times.  So I take particular pleasure in the third quarter financial report that revealed that the good doctor spent 57% of the money he raised -- raising money.  I think while he has devoted himself to uttering ugly, contemptible things in his soft, soothing voice someone has been taking him for a ride.  I hope his deeply religious supporters appreciate the fact that their dollars are being spent searching for dollars [and running up impressive tabs at expensive eateries -- but that is another story.]  Actually, since his biggest fans are faithful attendees at Christian services, they are probably used to this.

Friday, October 16, 2015


Derek's comment is quite correct.  I would simply add a supplementary line of analysis [I trust everyone understands that since my heart and head are with Bernie, an argument designed to show that Clinton is going to win the nomination is not exactly parti pris.] 

At the Democratic National Convention in 2015, there will be 4483 delegate votes, which means that a candidate must get 2242 votes to be nominated.  Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina, the first four states to choose delegates, actually have among them only a tiny fraction of the 4483.  Bernie may in fact do well in at least three of those four states, and if he does, there will be a deafening roar from the Commentariat, but unless he can secure a significant share of the African-American and Hispanic vote in subsequent primaries and caucuses, he has no chance at all of coming close to 2242.  He may bring out new voters -- that is always the hope of insurgent candidates -- but in this election cycle, his support is coming very heavily from segments of the Democratic Party base that would be likely to come out to vote anyway. 

Clinton lost the nomination in 2008 because Obama understood these elementary facts and she and her campaign did not.  Say what you will about her, she does seem to have learned this lesson.  I see no chance that Bernie can pull on her the sort of sneak attack that gave Obama the nomination.

Whom will the Republicans nominate?  I am beginning to feel about that the way I am beginning to feel about the Speakership of the House of Representatives, namely that they will nominate no one.  But of course, I jest. 

Will it be Trump?  Be still, my heart.  I cannot believe the Republicans would be that stupid.  But I am having trouble figuring out who will be the last man standing to take out Trump [I say "man" because, as anticipated, Fiorina is fading badly after her fifteen minutes of fame.]  Will it be Rubio, now that he has become Sheldon Adelson's pet poodle?  Perhaps, perhaps. 

Bernie has been right from the start.  What is needed is not a candidate but a movement, and Bernie may be creating a movement even as he fails to win the nomination.  Could things take a turn for the better before I kick off on my hundredth birthday?  One can only hope and pray and work for that happy moment.


It was wrong when we invaded Afghanistan.  It was wrong when we invaded Iraq.  It was wrong when Obama approved increases in troop levels in Afghanistan and Iraq.  And it is wrong for him to now to approve a delay in the withdrawal of forces from Afghanistan.  None of these actions has served or will serve the national security interests of the United States;  all were and are doomed to failure.   As was said of the murder of the duc d'Enghien, these are worse than crimes, they are blunders.  As deliberate acts of an imperial power, they are self-defeating mistakes.  This last decision by Obama is an act of stupidity.

I leave entirely to one side the question of the morality of our national policy in the Middle East.

Thursday, October 15, 2015


The responses to my post about the Democratic Party candidates' debate make it clear that I should have explained myself more fully.  I don't in fact disagree at all with the comments.  So, herewith a more thoughtful response to the debate.

There are at least four different things we might mean when we say that a candidate won a debate [aside from formal debating, where winning means being awarded the win by the judges.]  First, we might mean that what the candidate said was closer to the truth or more profound or more important.  By that measure, Bernie won the debate hands down.  Indeed, so far as I am concerned, he won the debate in that sense before it ever started, simply by identifying himself as a Democratic Socialist.

Second, we might mean that the candidate handled himself or herself better, more self-assuredly, more deftly.  By that measure. Bernie and Hillary vastly outclassed the other three candidates, and Hillary, I would say, somewhat outclassed Bernie.  She is, in my judgment, simply a more accomplished debater than Bernie.  Let me give one example, about which much has been made.  At one point, Bernie said that America should try to be more like Denmark.  I know what he meant.  All of us on the left know what he meant.  But it was a tone-deaf thing to say, a real blunder [never  mind that it is true, that is a separate matter.]  How might he have said the same thing better?  Very simple:  cite a number of state health plans or minimum wage plans or family leave plans and say [this is just by way of illustration] "If Massachusetts can do it and California can do it and Washington State can do it, then America can do it."  Same point exactly, but in a politically acceptable form.  "Why should Bernie pander to idiots?" you might ask.  Because he is trying to get their votes, not teach them in a seminar, that's why.  If you don't want to try to find ways of telling people things they need to hear in words that they can hear and understand, then get out of politics.

Third, we might mean that the candidate gained the most in public support from the debate.  For that, we must await the polls.  I recall the very first televised presidential debate, between JFK and RMN [i.e., Kennedy and Nixon.]  It was early days in television, and most people heard the debate on radio.  Those who heard it on radio thought Nixon had won.  Those who saw it thought Kennedy had won.  Why?  The answer is delicious, and has been used by me for decades to illustrate Socrates' classification of true and false arts in the Gorgias.  Kennedy had a serious disorder for which he took medication, a side effect of which was to give him a healthy looking tan.  Nixon was thin-skinned -- not quick to anger or easily insulted, just literally with a very thin epidermis.  Even though he had shaved close just before the debate, under the harsh bright lights of early television he looked as though he had a five o'clock shadow [as it used to be called.]  What is more, he had banged his elbow getting out of his cab at the TV station and was in pain.  So Kennedy was sick, and looked well, and Nixon was well, and looked sick.

Fourth, we might mean that the candidate improved his or her chances of securing the nomination.  By this measure, my guess is that Clinton was the clear  winner.  She needed to do three things to shore up her front-runner status:  Convey a sense that she had turned a corner on the pseudo-scandal of the e-mails;  dissuade Biden from entering the race; and reassure her base that she was fully ready to take on whichever clown gets the Republican nomination.  She did the first, thanks to Bernie, who uttered perhaps the only honest words ever heard in an American presidential debate.  Her general success accomplished the second, I would bet.  And she demonstrated that she would at least be the equal of any Republican candidate.  Bernie clearly improved his standing by introducing himself to some many millions of Democratic voters who, until the debate, had been paying little attention.   But since he is at this point the also-ran, he needs Clinton to falter for him to take over the lead, and she did not.

Now let us step back a bit and take a longer look.  We are in an extraordinary moment in American politics, and as the resident Tigger of this blog, I am allowing myself to feel considerable hope.  The central domestic fact of American society, dominating everything else, is the obscene inequality of wealth and income that characterizes all capitalist economies but America's most strikingly.  As Piketty has shown those among us who were not paying attention, this inequality is centuries old, and after a post WWII shrinking, has been expanding again to a level of inequality not seen since before the Great Depression.  All of us Marxists have known this forever, fat lot of good it has done us.  Ten years ago, it was impossible to get anyone to talk about it save for those of us clustered in a corner whispering dangerous truths to each other.  Then came the Great Recession, and Occupy Wall Street, and now someone who calls himself a Socialist [even if his policies would fit very comfortably into an FDR New Deal position paper] is being taken seriously as a contender for the presidential nomination of a major political party.

Did Bernie win the debate?  Maybe yes, maybe no.  It depends on what you mean by "win."  Did the American people win the debate?   You betcha, as Sarah Palin would say.


My heroic run of one hundred ninety-two FreeCell wins has been followed by a series of very short spurts.  At one perilous moment, I even flirted with equaling my record for successive losses, which is two.  My first, quite natural reaction, was that the computer program was punishing me for my hubris by selecting particularly difficult puzzles for me to struggle with, but then I bethought myself, as you might expect of Stephen Jay Gould.

Gould, for those of you who do not know, was the paleontologist and evolutionary biologist who died, very much too early, thirteen years ago at the age of sixty.  Gould was one of three famous biologists who worked for years at Harvard -- Richard Lewontin and E. O. Wilson being the other two.  Lewontin is one year older than my sister, Barbara, and graduated from Forest  Hills High School the year before she did.  They were graduate students together [with Wilson] in the Harvard Biology Department.

Gould is known in the profession for the revision of evolutionary theory called "punctuated equilibrium," but he became famous as a regular contributor of charming, fascinating essays in Science magazine.  Several collections of those essays sit on my shelves, and were a source of enormous pleasure as well as fascinating information. 

Generally speaking, I was an enthusiastic fan, but on one crucial matter, closely related to my experiences with FreeCell, I concluded that Gould had gone astray.  In this post, I shall explain.  [I was convinced that I had already written a post about this matter, but a search of my blog for Gould's name produced only one post, about a different matter.]

We are all familiar, I trust, with the notion advanced both by sports greats and by sports fans alike that athletes on occasion "get hot" or are "in the zone."  When this happens to a Michael Jordan or a LeBron James, it is said, they  "can't miss the basket."  Batters in baseball are said to "get hot" and "go on streaks" when they  see the ball more clearly and get "seeing eye singles" between the shortstop and the second baseman.

Appealing to some elementary but surprising facts about statistics, Gould argued that this was all hooey.  A little mathematics, he pointed out, will tell us that four-hit games or triple doubles are more likely than one might expect from 320 hitters or basketball superstars.  If you have a 320 batting average, then it will indeed happen rather often that you go four for four, just as a fair coin tossed repeatedly will come up heads five times in a row a good deal more often than one might imagine.  Indeed, Gould said [he was, regrettably, a Yankee fan -- a deep character flaw, but even our heroes have clay feet], the one really statistically implausible record in all of baseball was Joe DiMaggio's never-equaled fifty -six game hitting streak.

I believe Gould to have been fundamentally wrong, for reasons I shall now explain.  I never met Gould, alas, though I saw him speak once late in his life, but I was standing at the very back of a packed auditorium and there was no chance for me to ask a question.  This post is meant to honor his memory, not to detract in any way from his legacy.

The central flaw in Gould's argument is the mistaken comparison between being a 300 hitter and picking marbles out of a mixed bag of red and black marbles three tenths of which are red.  Gould is quite right that if you pick marbles from a bag [and then return them, shaking the bag before the next pull], you will get runs of more than or fewer than three in ten rather more often than you might expect [unless you knew some elementary statistics.]  But being a 300 hitter is not at all like being a bag of marbles three tenths of which are red.  The marbles, we may suppose, have no say in whether they get selected.  Unlike M&Ms in TV commercials, they do not jostle for attention and crawl to the top of the heap in the bag to improve their chances of getting out of the bag.

But matters are rather more complicated with baseball players.  A scout sent out to round up prospects will report back to the General Manager that he has located, in a small town high school, a natural who is a "guaranteed 300 hitter."  The coach is no doubt focusing on the young man's observable athletic ability, his keen eyesight, his upper body strength, his ability to "hit a curve."  And these, let us grant, are indeed roughly akin to a marble simply being red rather than black.  But the scout's description of the prospect as a "300 hitter" is an educated guess as to how the young man will perform once he is wearing the team uniform.

Some baseball players ease up late in a game, when their team is way ahead and another hit will make no difference to the outcome. Others will bear down as the pitcher goes through his windup, no matter what the score, where the team is in the standings, or how he feels that day.  There are players who have the ability to concentrate their faculties and focus their minds, by acts of will, when they choose to do so.  They do not simply swing at the ball and wait to see what batting average their natural talent produces.

My favorite example is a perhaps apocryphal story about the legendary Ty Cobb, who was such a mean son of a bitch that even the dead players in Field of Dreams declined to invite him to Kevin Costner's Iowan farmland ball field.  The story goes that Cobb was invited to play in an Old Timer's Game.  When he stepped to the plate to bat, he turned solicitously to the catcher and said, "You might want to step back a pace.  I haven't swung a bat in a while and I don't want to risk hitting you."  The catcher obliged, and Cobb laid down a perfect bunt, beating the catcher's delayed throw to first base.

Actual players talk about getting hot and being in the zone.  I think Gould was just plain wrong to dismiss such talk, mistakenly construing their batting or scoring averages as facts about them, like being red marbles, rather than as summations of the intersection of their native abilities and their potentially variable effort.

All of which leads me to conclude that I am not a Ty Cobb.  When I have ripped off 192 wins, I relax, I get impatient, I figure a loss does not matter, and so I am prone to short streaks.

It is important to acknowledge your limitations.

But about punctuated equilibrium, I am quite prepared to accept Gould's word.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015


The complete lack of response to my meditation on the nature of moral and political philosophy suggests that you are all fixated on the riveting presidential campaign, so herewith my take on last night's Democratic Party candidates' debate.  I consider myself well-prepared to a offer substantive, thoughtful reaction because Susie and I turned off the TV and went to sleep after the opening statements by the candidates.  Some early-morning check of the TV talk shows and a bit of web-surfing filled me in.

The boffo line of the night clearly belonged to Bernie Sanders, though it inured to Clinton's benefit, as they say.  After the egregious Anderson Cooper got done pressing her on the matter of her e-mails, Sanders broke in and called for a discussion of important issues.  Then he turned to Clinton, standing next to him, and blurted out, "the American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn e-mails!"  Clinton, who had just been handed a gift of inestimable value, burst out in delighted laughter.  Bernie's campaign, by the way, received $1.3 million in small donations in the next few hours, triggered by the remark.  It was an entirely authentic, honest, generous, non-self-interested utterance, and Bernie is the only person in either party capable of having made it.

So where do things stand?  O'Malley, Chaffee, and Webb are toast.  Biden now has no good reason to enter the race, since his only hope was to step in and replace a faltering Clinton.  She is clearly not going to falter.  Clinton will be the nominee, and Sanders will remain the sentimental favorite of the party faithful.

As for the general election, the Republican Party Chairman, Reince Priebus, had better start negotiating with his Democratic Party counterpart, Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, for the fewest presidential debates possible, because Clinton will eat the Republican nominee for lunch, whomever  he or she may be.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015


The first part of my screed on analytic philosophy, journal articles, and books appeared five days ago.  Herewith the second half, originally promised for the very next day.  First, some words of clarification.  I shall be talking about moral and political philosophy, not about epistemology and metaphysics, or the philosophy of language, and most certainly not about logic.  I simply do not know enough about those fields to have opinions on which I would put any reliance.

Second, my thesis today really has very little to do with the difference between short and long pieces of philosophical writing.  My central concern is with the notion that moral and political philosophy are scientific [or wissenschaftlich, more accurately, in the German sense], that they are bodies of objective knowledge that accumulate incrementally through the work of generations of philosophers, some perhaps working even as teams, in somewhat the way that scientific knowledge progresses.  Once I have explained what I understand moral and political philosophy to be, it will be clear why I am inclined to expect that it is more likely to find expression in longer, even book-length, productions, rather than in essays appropriate for the standard professional journal, but that is a secondary matter.

One final note before I begin.  I shall here be summarizing ideas on which I have written and published for many years.  I shall try to make reference to some of those publications for anyone interested in pursuing the subject, but to keep this within manageable limits, I shall take a good deal as already explained.

I begin, as I so often do, with The Good Book.  The universe is called into existence by the Word of God:  "And God said, Let there be light, And there was light."  [Genesis, chapter 1, verse 3.]  Or, as John says, "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God."  [John, Chapter 1, verse 1.]  Or finally, as C. S. Lewis tells us in The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, Aslan roared the world into existence.

In the Judeo-Christian tradition, the universe is a story told by God, and, as literary critics teach us, the world of a story exists from a narrative point of view.  Although Judaism and Christianity are myths, they contain deep philosophical truths, for although the natural world is not a story told by a Creator God, society is indeed, in a manner of speaking, a story.  But it is a story told by all mankind, to itself, rather than a story told by a narrator to an audience.  [See my essay, "Narrative Time:  On the Inherently Perspectival Structure of the Social World."]

Although literary analysis has much to teach us about the nature of fictions, in at least one structurally fundamental way, society differs from a narrative:  each of us lives within the collective story we are telling as we live out our days.  Each of us is both teller of and listener to the story of society, and it therefore requires an effort of great complexity and subtlety to arrive at a perspective, or standpoint, from which we can talk about this story.

It might be supposed that there is a privileged standpoint outside society from which a philosopher, sufficiently gifted, might achieve objectivity in the telling of the story of society, rather like the point high on a hill overlooking a battle on the plain below that Lucretius imagines as the philosophical perspective in De Rerum Natura.  Or, to cite a much less exalted example, like the "Original Position under the veil of ignorance" of John Rawls.  But there is no such place.  That was Rousseau's error in Emile, who imagined that if one could clear away the corruptions and distortions of society in the rearing of a child, what would emerge was natural man.

The source of Rousseau's error was his failure to realize that human beings are radically underdetermined [the work of Erik Erikson, in Childhood and Society, is instructive here.]  Each of us grows to healthy normal maturity through the internalization of norms, roles, expectations, regulations of instinctual energies and bodily functions, in the course of which process we become identifiably members not of society tout court but of a particular society at a particular time.  Hence Erikson says, in a hauntingly beautiful passage, that "an individual life is the accidental coincidence of but one life cycle with but one segment of history."  [See my mahy-part blog post, "How to Study Society."

A great philosopher reflecting on his or her society struggles to achieve sufficient narrative distance to achieve some understanding of the society while never forgetting that he or she is both embedded in and is a product of it.  This effort requires such literary resources as irony, which allows for multiple voices in complex relation to one another.

A novelist learns from earlier novelists, but does not write sequels to their works, instead creating original works of his or her own.  The voice of the novelist is an essential component of the novel.  That is why the sequels to Pride and Prejudice, which apparently number in the hundreds, are utterly distinct from the original, which lives in Jane Austen's authorial voice.  

Great works of moral or political philosophy have more in common with great novels than with great pieces of scientific research.  They are powerful and provocative efforts by their authors to achieve a voice in which to speak about their societies and times in history.  The greatest of them, like Das Kapital or Leviathan, or The Republic, remain forever  as exempla of successful struggles with the task of achieving both distance from and engagement with society.  That is why we continue to read them -- in the original, if we can, in the best translation we can find otherwise.

It is easy now to see why no great moral or political philosophy is co-authored, in the manner familiar from scientific publications, by a group of researchers.  A fiction written by a committee is not a novel, it is a SitCom or a soap opera.

We can see, too, why journeyman moral or political philosophy has little or no value at all, whereas journeyman Biology or Chemistry or Entomology may have genuine value indeed.  Mediocre novels are amusing ways to make a long plane trip pass, but they offer no genuine ironic insight into the human condition.  And though Mill's Utilitarianism can help us to understand mid-nineteenth century upper middle-class English society, yet one more journal article on act- versus rule-utilitarianism tells us nothing at all of value.

To return to the question with which I began, five days ago, it may now be easy to understand why genuinely great moral or political philosophy is more likely to be written in book-length bites.  Achieving ironic distance from one's society, and then reflecting deeply on it, will probably require a little breathing space -- not four hundred densely packed pages, perhaps [or eight hundred, in the case of  volume one of Capital], but only rarely twenty pages.  It may also be clear why great moral or political philosophy does not really need many footnotes.


Alas, my run of FreeCell victories ended at 192.  But I shall persevere.  Victory is not for the faint of heart.

Monday, October 12, 2015


When Susie and I moved here to Chapel Hill, my first effort at daily exercise was a half hour on the treadmill at the nearby Wellness Center.  I used one of those machines that allows you to set the speed, in tenths of a mile per hour and the angle of incline in degrees.   Over a period of several months or more, I ramped the machine up to maybe 4.2 or 4.3 mph and an angle high enough so that I was in effect climbing a hill.   Meanwhile, right next to me, like as not, was some young thing running 7 miles an hour [I peeked] up a hill I could not have managed.  Very  discouraging.  When I mentioned this to my son, Tobias, he gave me some sage advice.  Tobias, by the way, at 45, is in way better shape than I have ever been at any time in my life, even when I was in the Army.  "Dad," he said, "you have to ignore the others at the gym, because there will always be someone running faster or lifting more weights than you.  You just have to focus on raising your personal best."

Which brings me to the computer game of FreeCell. 

I have on occasion mentioned that I play  a good many games of FreeCell [and other computer card games].  On my present computer, which I have had for maybe three or four years, I have played 14,560 games, according to the little statistics recorder.  It is not a difficult game, and my  win ratio [without using the undo or takeback facility !] is 97%.  I am currently working on an unusually good run of wins.  A few moments ago, I recorded my 187th win in a row.  The computer tells me that my personal best is 240, and I am holding my breath as I get within hailing distance of that score.

Now, a little Googling tells me that there are people who have actually played every FreeCell game contained in the program.  They have discovered that every one of them can be won except for a single game, for which no one has ever  found a solution.  For these FreeCell professionals, my 187 win run would be the equivalent of a slow walk on the treadmill with no angle at all.

But I must hold to my heart Tobias' advice, and concentrate on my personal best.

Saturday, October 10, 2015


After several months of severe and more or less unrelenting pain, I am now on a low dose of prednisone, and the pain has lifted.  It makes me feel a trifle giddy, as though I were on vacation.  I still owe you all the second part of my meditation on analytic philosophy, journal articles, dissertations, and such, and although I am not an expert on the grotesque in art, I ought to say something about the bizarre reality show being staged by the Republicans in the House of Representatives.  However, today I am just goofing off and enjoying the fact that I don 't hurt.

I shall attempt to return to my customary seriousness tomorrow.

Thursday, October 8, 2015


Mesnenor, Derek, and Charles Parsons have all responded to my call for comments on my lament about the decline of the book-length doctoral dissertation.  My old friend, colleague, and apartment mate Charles Parsons observes that the online Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews has, in several recent years, published reviews of as many as 400 philosophical books in a single year, which is surely more book-length philosophy than any rational person could want.  With characteristic modesty, Charles remarks that "I don't read enough of these books to make any judgment of overall quality."  Knowing him as I have for more than sixty years, I rather suspect that means he has only read one hundred and fifty of them!

Derek and mesnenor merge institutional considerations, job market pressures, and philosophical styles of work in a way that is surely correct but somewhat blurs the issue I was trying to raise.  The intense pressure to obtain an initial entry-level teaching position in the American academy is clearly driving the current emphasis on the writing and publication of journal articles, but unless my impressions are totally mistaken, the shift toward the article-length ideal of philosophical work precedes the current job frenzy. 

What interests me particularly is the notion, clearly expressed by mesnenor, that "one of the distinguishing features of the analytic tradition is the idea that you can do philosophy without paying much, if any, attention to the history of philosophy."  That does comport with the impression I have had of the attitude of those doing analytic philosophy around here ["here" being the UNC Philosophy Department.  I hope I am not doing my colleagues a disservice by saying this, and I welcome any of them who nod in at this blog to correct me.]

Why, aside from piety and an outdated notion of scholarship, should a modern twenty-first century philosopher pay attention to books written several hundred years ago, or indeed several thousand years ago?  I would hardly fault a brilliant young physicist who did not waste his time reading Newton's Principia, nor would I expect an aspiring anatomist to delve deeply into

William Harvey's classic work,  Exercitatio Anatomica de Motu Cordis et Sanguinis in Animalibus .   And yet, Harvey's work appeared only forty years or so before Leviathan, and I would absolutely insist that any serious student of political theory devote a great deal more than an idle afternoon to Hobbes' great work.

Since I am, for all my radical politics, deeply conservative in these educational matters, my instinctive revulsion at mesnenor's observation about the analytic tradition makes it difficult for me to bring to consciousness my reasons for asserting with such vehemence the importance of attention to the great works of the philosophical tradition.  My initial reaction does not rise much above the horror with which hostesses of an earlier era observed a nouveau riche tradesman eating soup with a dessert spoon.  But I think I owe my readers a bit more than an appalled gasp, so let me try to explain.

A great deal of progress in the natural sciences proceeds by meticulous, painstaking work that builds on an enormous amount of previous work by fellow researchers.  At least within the confines of what Thomas Kuhn called "normal science" in his classic work, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, this work is cumulative and progressive.  And it is valuable, even if it is not epoch-making or even Nobel Prize winning.  I have, in the past, written on this blog about some of what I have learned from the splendid books of Nick Lane about the extraordinary work now being done in molecular biology.  That work does not spring from the brow of an inspired genius.  It emerges from the often tedious, always careful laboratory research of quite literally thousands of scientists.  This cumulative, incremental, progressive character  of the science is evidenced by its complete internationalization.  It may be that philosophers in France do not [or at least did not] read what is published in America, any more than American philosophers read what is published in France.  But no such parochialism characterizes the work in the natural sciences. 

If you believe that  philosophers are engaged in an enterprise that is structurally similar to science, then it makes good sense for them to work in teams, for them to publish their results, as they get them, in journal articles, and for them to devote relatively little time to the history of their discipline, for whatever is of value in the earlier work is presumably carried forward in more recent work, in such a way that it is present in that work without allusion to earlier texts.  To be sure, someone might take a special interest in the history of the evolution of our understanding of knowledge of other minds, or our analysis of moral deliberation, just as someone might take an interest in the history of the development of molecular biology.  But no one would insist that attention to that history should be required of someone who seeks to contribute to the progress at the forefronts of molecular biology or of moral deliberation.

But I do not believe that philosophy is a science.  I do not believe that philosophical understanding proceeds piecemeal by the collaborative efforts of teams of researchers.  If I may choose an example that is uppermost in my mind, inasmuch as my Reading Group on Rawls' A Theory of Justice meets in an hour, I do not think that anything that might be of value in Rawls' work is advanced upon, or improved, or carried forward by individuals or teams of philosophers devoting their professional energies to deepening and making more precise Rawls' notion of "reflective equilibrium" or exploring, in a series of journal articles, alternatives to the gradual lifting of the veil of ignorance.

Perhaps this sounds facetious.  Indeed, I half intend it to.  But if philosophy really is a science;  if philosophy really does progress step by step through the research of individuals or teams of individuals;  then these examples are not at all facetious but perfectly sensible and plausible.

If philosophy is not science.  If even the notion of progress in philosophy is, at the very least, questionable, then what is it that philosophers are doing when they are successful?  If I can answer that question, then perhaps I can make clear why I think philosophy is better carried on in books than in journal articles.

But now I must leave for class.  My response will have to wait until tomorrow.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015


A warm thanks to Lounger, Jerry Fresia, and Thomas Decker for their kind words about my meditation and about Moneybags.  I must confess I was surprised that no one took the opportunity to say something substantive about [and perhaps in support of] the recent movement in Philosophy away from book-length dissertations and toward the journal article model.  To be sure, I have published more than forty articles, reviews, notes, and the like, but that is not really very many in a career spanning almost sixty years -- fewer than one a year.  Some years ago I had an exchange on this blog with a young Finnish philosopher [whose name, I am embarrassed to admit, I cannot call up] who assured me that philosophy is now a scientific discipline, done in articles, frequently jointly authored, and not in big bloated books, as of old.  I was suitably chastened but, I fear, not really convinced.

Perhaps the journal article was the genre of choice of the in crowd even when I was young, and I simply failed to notice.  Sigh.  All those books, when I could have been writing tweets.

Sunday, October 4, 2015


Immanuel Kant was, in my judgment, the greatest philosopher who has ever lived, but he is very far from being my favorite philosopher.  For sheer beauty, wit, depth, and ironic distance from the philosophical bog, as Emily Dickinson would have called it, I prefer Kierkegaard.  My text for today [it is, after all, Sunday] is this brief passage from the coruscatingly brilliant Preface to Kierkegaard's Philosophical Fragments:

"It is not given to everyone to have his private tasks of meditation and reflection so happily coincident with the public interest that it becomes difficult to judge how far he serves merely himself and how far the public good.  Consider the example of Archimedes, who sat unperturbed in the contemplation of his circles while Syracuse was being taken, and the beautiful words he spoke to the Roman soldier who slew him: nolite perturbare circulos meos.  [do not disturb my circles -- ed.]"

All but overwhelmed by persistent pain, I have decided to contemplate my circles and leave it to others to decide whether such meditation serves the public good.  My topic today, as it has been on many other days, is how one ought to study philosophy, how one ought to read philosophers, and -- by extension -- how one ought to write philosophy.

My answer to these questions places me in conflict with contemporary professional philosophers, at least in the American academic philosophical world.   To state my conclusion as simply as I am able, I believe that in studying philosophy, you would be well advised to devote your time to reading the writings of the great philosophers, and that it is imperative to read the entire books they have left for us, not merely those passages in which they appear to be addressing some problem that interests you.  When it comes time to put your own thoughts into written form, you should undertake a systematic book-length consideration of the problems or topics that seize you, rather than confining what you have to say to brief essays suitable for publication in the professional journals currently admired by the inhabitants of the bog.

This answer, as I say, puts me at odds with most professional philosophers in the American academy.  When I was young, an aspirant for admission to the guild was required to write a doctoral dissertation, which was understood conventionally to be the length of a short book -- perhaps 75,000 to 100,000 words.  It goes without saying that very few dissertations actually were short books, and fewer still found publishers.  Not every garage band becomes The Beatles, after all.  But the dissertation was understood to require a breadth of learning, a care in scholarship, and a quality of sustained argument that distinguished it from the seminar papers that by then one had cranked out in such proliferation.

At some point, when I was no longer paying close attention to the profession, the practice arose of substituting for the dissertation three "publishable" papers on related subjects.  These papers were to be modeled on the articles that were regularly published in professional journals, and as the competition for entry-level jobs intensified, students were encouraged actually to try to publish one or more of their "dissertation" essays, in hopes of improving their chances on the job market .

Seemingly as part of this fundamental change in the requirements for the degree [although there may be no connection here -- I simply do not know], professors stopped assigning entire books in their courses, and took to assigning selections -- a chapter here, a handful of pages there -- as though trying to communicate that Descartes or Kant or Hobbes really would have written journal articles, if only there had been journals in which to publish them.  Now that I have become somewhat more deeply embedded in the UNC Chapel Hill Philosophy Department [to use the term of art for reporters assigned to front-line fighting units], I have taken to asking the students I encounter what they are reading in their other courses and seminars.  For the most part, it seems, they read recent journal articles or selections from the classic canon of full-scale philosophical books.  There may not be a graduate student in the department who has been asked to read the entire Critique of Pure Reason, and I would bet that not one of them has plowed through all three books of A Treatise of Human Nature.

So what?  Let  me attempt a reply that rises above the level of a shocked "Well I never!"

Great philosophers, as I have often observed, see more deeply on occasion than they can say.  They grasp complex conceptual relationships that may actually exceed the capacity of their received philosophical language to articulate.  A fruitful engagement with the mind of a great philosopher is therefore not merely an effort to understand what the philosopher intended to say, but also a struggle to make connections among parts of his or her text that allow one to bring to the surface and clarify one of those deep insights.  The philosopher may actually believe that the several parts of his or her text cohere comfortably, but we, coming later and with the benefit of hindsight, may recognize things going on conceptually that the philosopher either did not fully see or could not clearly state.

Let me give just two examples, taken from my own encounters with great texts.  The first example comes from David Hume's A Treatise of Human Nature.  As even the most casual students of Hume know, far and away the most famous argument in the Treatise is Hume's sceptical critique of causal inference -- the critique that awoke Kant from his "dogmatic slumbers."  That argument is found in Book I, Part iii, Section iii of the Treatise, "Why a Cause is Always Necessary," and occupies a mere three pages of text. 

Having demonstrated that we have no rational ground for asserting the necessity of connection between an event and its supposed cause, Hume goes on later in Part iii to ask whence we derive this notion of necessary connexion.    Hume's answer occupies the eighteen pages of section xiv, although the heart of it can be found in the first few pages of the section.  The key, not to dive too deeply into the weeds, is a category of mental representations that Hume labels "impressions of reflexion."

A professor of philosopher these days would, I imagine, think it satisfactory merely to assign sections iii and xiv to the students in his or her class.  If the class were being taught at the graduate level, the professor might even go so far as to assign some additional sections from part iii, as background.

But in all likelihood, unless the professor had a better philosophical education than he or she was offering his or her own students, that professor would be blithely ignorant of the fact that the category of "impressions of reflexion" was actually invented by Hume to explain the passions of love and hatred, desire and aversion, subjects not mentioned until Book Two of the Treatise.   A student who does not read the entire Treatise will never really understand what Hume is talking about.

But why not therefore just beef up the assignment with a few selected pages from Book II, or even, if one really thinks it necessary, from Book III?

Because to do so would be to deny the student the opportunity to make his or her own connections and interpretations, drawling perhaps on part of the Treatise that I, or some other professor, did not consider provocative or suggestive or dispositive.  It would thus deny the student the opportunity to become -- a philosopher.

A second example, this one rather more serious [and also, I fear, a bit more complex to explain], comes from Kant's philosophy.  A central philosophical impulse driving Kant's philosophy was his desire to make the deterministic physics of his day compatible with the freedom underpinning our actions as moral agents.  His somewhat formulaic solution was to confine Newton's laws [and Euclid's] to the realm of things as they appear to us in space and time [phenomena, so called], reserving the realm of things as they are in themselves  [or noumena] for moral agency.  In organizing the extraordinary philosophical undertaking in which he would demonstrate all of this [while also making room for aesthetic judgments and heaven knows what else], Kant thought he had found a way to show that the concepts we employ in our scientific analysis of phenomena -- causation, substance, and the rest -- could have possible, consistent, meaningful application to the realm of noumena, so long as we did not make Leibniz's mistake of supposing that such application yields knowledge.

All was well, in the Kantian scheme of things, so long as one remained at a relatively superficial level [superficial for Kant, that is to say -- profound and deep for everyone else!]  But when Kant was in the depths of writing the Deduction of the Pure Concepts of Understanding, the most important passage in the Critique of Pure Reason [an effort that I have elsewhere on this blog compared to Gandalf the Grey's wrestling with the Balrog in the depths of the Cave of Moria, a struggle from which he emerged changed as Gandalf the White], Kant fundamentally changed his analysis of the nature of concepts.  One of the clear implications of that change was that concepts such as substance and causation do not have even possible application to the realm of noumena.

And that knocks Kant's "resolution of the conflict between free will and determinism" into a cocked hat.

This problem is so serious that it calls into question Kant's entire ethical theory.  Kant himself never realized it, and neither, so far as I can tell, have any serious Kant commentators save myself.  [This is my blog, damn it, and you are just going to have to allow me to channel Mr. Toad!]

You see, Kant is so hard that for a long time, until I came along, the only person writing in English who had ever attempted books on both the First Critique and Kant's ethical theory was the Scotsman H. J. Paton, who, unfortunately, never saw a sentence by Kant that he did not unthinkingly endorse.  So people have gone on writing about Kant's ethical theory without the slightest awareness that there might be a problem.

So not only is it a very bad idea to read snippets of Kant -- the Second Analogy from the First Critique or the famous four examples of the Categorical Imperative from the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals.  It is even a very bad idea to read just Kant's theoretical philosophy without his moral philosophy, or vice versa.

Enough said.