The American Pragmatists by Cheryl Misak

At least the internet doesn’t forget. I finished this book and had a question about the exact title. Right there on the first page of the search results appeared an entry from this very blog. It turns out I read this book in 2018. Who knew?

Let’s see if I agree with myself. (I see I left out a word. Now corrected.)

Well, I was concerned about trying to summarize this book today. I must have felt the same two years ago, since that earlier summary includes a lot of quotation. But I stand by every word (including the one I just added)!

I’ll simply add one thing.

Part of the author’s purpose was to counter the popular understanding among philosophers that pragmatism as a philosophical movement faded away in the 20th century under intense criticism, especially after the death of John Dewey in 1952. Misak shows it’s more accurate to say pragmatism was absorbed rather than replaced. Many of the leading philosophers in the last half of the 20th century (including former members of the Vienna Circle, as well as W. V. Quine, Wilfrid Sellars, Nelson Goodman, Hilary Putnam and Donald Davidson) argued for positions quite compatible with the early pragmatists, especially the views of Charles Sanders Pierce, even though these later philosophers rarely called themselves “pragmatists”. The same holds true for philosophers in this century. It’s the label that has mostly disappeared.

The American Pragmatists is worth reading, but repetitious at times. There are only so many points you can make about a concept like “truth”. But I want to learn more about two philosophers Misak thinks highly of: Clarence Irving Lewis and Hilary Putnam. I’ve got some of their books. I should open them — that’s what a pragmatist would do.

I Am Dynamite!: A Life of Friedrich Nietzsche by Sue Prideaux

I’m more interested in Nietzsche’s philosophy than his life, but I visited a famous bookstore this summer and wanted to buy a book. I’m glad I bought this one.

It’s an understatement to say that Nietzsche was quite a character. He was an accomplished scholar who left the academy when he was 35, citing his poor health. He had enough income (partly from his academic pension) to travel about Europe, develop various friendships, propose marriage a couple times, spend lots of time with Richard Wagner and his wife Cosima, do a great deal of hiking, compose music nobody cared for and write philosophy books hardly anyone bought when they were published. He suffered terribly from unspecified ailments and wrote short bursts of text in order to protect his eyesight.

Although Nietzsche was a fairly normal, although brilliant, young man, he became more eccentric as the years passed, until he totally lost his mind at the age of 55. He lived another eleven years, being watched over by his horrible sister, Elisabeth, one of the nastiest people I’ve ever read about. Being a great admirer of Hitler (who admired her in return), Elisabeth used her control of Nietzsche’s writings to give him a reputation as a proto-Nazi, when in fact he wasn’t a German nationalist or anti-Semitic at all. He was a cultured, mild-mannered European with interesting, vividly-expressed ideas about how to live in a world without using religion as a crutch. (This is the positive, revisionist view of Nietzsche that’s become widely accepted among scholars in the last 70 years.)

I Am Dynamite! won a prize in Britain as the best book of 2019. From the prize’s announcement:

… this magnificent biography of a very strange and difficult subject is wonderfully well-written, lucid and clear-headed. It is full of sharp and stylish turns of phrase, it gallops along at an energetic pace, and it is often extremely and surprisingly funny, with a great gift for characterisation….

Friedrich Nietzsche’s work rocked the foundation of Western thinking, and continues to permeate our culture, high and low – yet he is one of history’s most misunderstood philosophers. Sue Prideaux’s myth-shattering book brings readers into the world of a brilliant, eccentric and deeply troubled man, illuminating the events and people that shaped his life and work. I Am Dynamite! is the essential biography for anyone seeking to understand Nietzsche: the philosopher who foresaw – and sought solutions to – our own troubled times.

Not everyone has been so enthusiastic. Brian Leiter, a philosophy professor at the University of Chicago, wrote a review in the Times Literary Supplement (which is mostly behind a paywall):

Prideaux is an especially vivid and engaging writer, who covers the facts of Nietzsche’s life well, although sometimes in soap-operatic detail….If Hollywood were to produce a movie of Nietzsche’s life, this book could provide the blueprint. Hollywood ought, however, to consult some philosophers if the movie is to do better than the book in conveying Nietzsche’s ideas.

Leiter argues briefly that Nietzsche wasn’t skeptical about science — he merely doubted science could teach us how to live. He says Prideaux gives too much importance to Nietzsche’s concept of the Übermensch and too little to his opinion that “human excellence, and the aesthetic pleasure it provided (think Beethoven or Goethe), made life worth living”. Leiter criticizes Prideaux for implying Nietzsche believed the universe has purpose, when he clearly didn’t, and that he was in pursuit of a “universal morality”, which is more debatable. The professor concludes:

Prideaux has the correct sense that Nietzsche is profound; but it is not clear she has much idea why.

I very much enjoyed this biography, but it is not for those wanting to learn something about the philosophy. Prideaux’s discussions of his ideas are at best superficial, at worst wrong.

I think the professor is a bit harsh in his assessment (as professors often are when a non-specialist writes about one of their particular specialties). I Am Dynamite! explains what it was like to be Friedrich Nietzsche and provides an introduction to his distinctive philosophy. If you want to understand more of what he thought, there are plenty of other books and articles to read, many of which feature opinions from experts who don’t always agree with Professor Leiter. As Nietzsche himself would say, his philosophy, as with most everything else in the world, is open to interpretation.

Chaos: Charles Manson, the CIA, and the Secret History of the Sixties by Tom O’Neill

This book comes with a story. The author got an assignment from an entertainment magazine to write about the effect of the Manson Family murders on Hollywood. It was to be published in 1999, to mark the thirty-year anniversary of the horrible events of August 1969.  The magazine went out of business before he finished the article. In fact, he never finished the article. He finished this book instead. Chaos was published this year, in time to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the murders. He found the subject so complex and so mysterious, he did so much research, he conducted so many interviews, that it took him twenty years to finally publish something (with the help of another writer). The story of how the book got written is part of the book.

I bought Chaos after reading a brief interview with the author in the New York Times. Having grown up in Southern California and being old enough to remember 1969, I was  interested in the topic, not especially in Manson or his followers, but in the setting, the investigation and prosecution, and one of the people involved, Dennis Wilson.

The book’s subtitle refers to the “secret history” of the Sixties. Some of the history the author recounts isn’t that secret. It’s been known for years that police departments, the FBI and the CIA engaged in questionable, even illegal, practices in the Sixties, trying to fight or take advantage of the counterculture.

The real secrets the author uncovers pertain to relationships between Manson and various organs of the state, including the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, the Los Angeles Police Department, the office of the L.A. County District Attorney, Manson’s parole officers, scientists on the government payroll and shadowy figures apparently associated with the FBI or CIA. He doesn’t figure out that someone else committed the crimes, but he does cast a lot of doubt on the famous “Helter Skelter” explanation for what happened, i.e. that Manson wanted to start a race war and thought killing innocent people who lived in nice houses would do the trick.

O’Neill lists some of his accomplishments:

I’d discovered [what] no one else had, what I knew I had to share with the world. Like: Stephen Kay [a Manson prosecutor] telling me that my findings were important enough to overturn the verdicts. Lewis Watnick, the retired DA, saying that Manson had to be an informant. [Researcher] Jolly West writing to his CIA handlers to announce that he’d implanted a false memory in someone….The DA’s office conspiring with a judge to replace a defense attorney. Charlie Guenther fighting back tears to tell me about the wiretap he’d heard [which suggested the murders were committed to help jailed Family member Bobby Beausoleil look innocent]. [425-426]

But way too many mysteries remained:

The evidence I’d amassed against the official version of the Manson murders was so voluminous, from so many angles, that it was overdetermined. I could poke a thousand holes in the story, but I couldn’t say what really happened. In fact, the major arms of my research were often in contradiction with one another. It couldn’t be the case that the truth involved a drug burn gone wrong [revenge for being sold poor quality drugs], orgies with Hollywood elite, a counter-insurgency trained CIA infiltrator in the Family, a series of unusually lax sheriff’s deputies and district attorneys and judges and parole officers, an FBI plot to smear leftists and Black Panthers, an effort to see if research on drugged mice applied to hippies, and LSD mind-control experiments tested in the field … could it? There was no way. [394-395]

The two tantalizing theories I came away with were (1) that Manson was a government informant, which explains why he was able to get away with so much obvious criminal behavior without being tossed back in prison for violating his parole, and (2) that an uneducated ex-con like him was able to convince a group of hippies to commit terrible crimes because somebody who had researched the question taught him how to use acid and speed to screw with impressionable people’s minds. Whether either of those theories have any truth to them, you’ll come away from Chaos convinced that there is more to the story than what was reported over and over fifty years ago and has been repeated ever since.

The Book of General Ignorance by John Lloyd and John Mitchinson

Someone gave me this book, but I don’t remember when. It’s been sitting in the smallest room in the house for quite a while, because it’s the kind of book that’s best to dip into. It consists of more than 200 questions that you might think you know the answer to, but probably don’t.

So the first question is: “What’s the name of the tallest mountain in the world?” Mount Everest, you say? Well, actually, according to the current convention, the “tallest” mountain in the world is Hawaii’s Mauna Kea. It boasts the greatest distance between its top and bottom (33,465 feet). It just so happens that its bottom is in the ocean. Mount Everest, on the other hand, is the “highest” mountain, measured from sea level up to its summit (at 29,029 feet).

It’s that kind of book.

One more:

“What shape did medieval people think the earth was?” The authors don’t actually say. What they do say is that hardly anyone thought it was flat. The idea that Columbus was trying to prove the earth was round most likely originated in a book by Washington Irving written in 1828. Ten years later, an Englishman seriously tried to prove it was round. The subtitle of his book was “A Description of Several Experiments Which Prove That the Surface of the Sea is a Perfect Plane and That the Earth Is Not a Globe”. Columbus thought it was pear-shaped and about a quarter of its actual size. (Back around 200 B.C., a very smart man named Eratosthenes of Cyrene got within 10% of the actual circumference.)

Ok, just one more: “What is the loudest thing in the ocean?” This one I found hard to believe. The blue whale produces the loudest noise of any individual animal in the ocean or on land, but the loudest natural noise of all is made by shrimp. So-called “snapping shrimp” live in tropical and subtropical waters. Trillions of them will get together and snap their single over-sized claw all at once. The sound they make has been measured at 246 decibels (the equivalent of 160 decibels in the air, or louder than a jet plane taking off). The sound of this “shrimp layer” can damage a submarine’s sonar and make dents in a ship’s propeller. Really?

Yes, it’s that kind of book.

 

Adam Smith: Father of Economics by Jesse Norman

I’m very glad I read this. I mainly knew of Smith that he wrote The Wealth of Nations and a rarely read book called The Theory of Moral Sentiments; that he explained how productive a division of labor can be; that he was a very good friend of David Hume; and that he is viewed as a champion of “the free market”, especially by libertarians and so-called “conservatives” (who sometimes wear Adam Smith ties around their right-wing necks). The most important thing I learned about Smith was that he wasn’t a libertarian at all. He understood that a market economy cannot work properly without government regulation. He also knew that economic decisions cannot be divorced from politics or morality.

I’ll quote from the book’s last chapter, “Why It Matters”:

How can the benefits of markets be safeguarded and extended, and their ill-effects contained?… We need a new master-narrative for our times. We need better frameworks of public understanding, better explanations … through which we can come to terms with these issues. But to create them, we must return to the dawn of our economic modernity and to Adam Smith himself. Not to Smith the caricature one-note libertarian alternately celebrated by his partisans and denounced by his detractors, but to what Smith actually thought, across all his writings, from ethics to jurisprudence to political economy…

The real Smith was not an intellectual turncoat who switched from altruism in The Theory of Moral Sentiments to egoism in The Wealth of Nations. He was not a market fundamentalist, an economic libertarian, or in that strong sense a laissez-faire economist. He was not an advocate of selfishness, … the creator of homo economicus or the founder of predatory capitalism… He is rightly called the father of economics, conceptually because he was the first to put markets squarely at the center of economic thought, and practically because there are few if any economists … who do not stand in his intellectual debt….But his political economy ranges far wider that economics alone, and he could with equal justice be considered one of the founding father of sociology….

For many people, Smith’s political economy will always hold center stage; both as a model of economic analysis and for his specific insights into human behavior, markets, trade, specialization and the division of labor, taxation and the negative effect of subsidies, bounties and protection. Others will admire his moral egalitarianism, his feeling for the underdog, his belief in the importance of dignity and respectability to people’s status and sense of self, the way he minimizes inequality within his “natural system of liberty”, his devastating attack on crony capitalism, his … theory of human development, his historical analysis of the supersession of feudalism by commerce and his extremely subtle exploration and defense of commercial society… Still others will recognize the foundational importance of his theory of moral and social norms….

We have a president who ignores moral and social norms, whose greed is without limit and who fully embraces crony capitalism. But he’s a Republican, so most people would say he’s following in Adam Smith’s footsteps. That does Smith a disservice. The truth is that a progressive Democrat like Senator Elizabeth Warren is much closer to Smith. She believes in capitalism but understands that the government has a crucial role in making sure markets work for the benefit of society as a whole. That is pure Adam Smith.

Can Democracy Work?: A Short History of a Radical Idea, From Ancient Athens to Our World by James Miller

The question in the title implies that democracy hardly ever works as it’s supposed to. That is one of the author’s conclusions. Another is that, even though the trend toward more democracy in the world has reversed in recent years, “government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth”.

The book begins with chapters on the ups and downs of Athenian democracy, the French Revolution, and America between the revolution and the Civil War. Next there are two chapters that summarize developments in Europe, America and Russia, including the Chartist working class movement in Britain; the Paris Commune of 1871 and the Russian Revolution. Woodrow Wilson’s academic writings on government and his efforts to make the world “safe for democracy” receive special attention, as do public opinion polls and the practitioners of “public relations”. The final chapter deals with recent events, beginning with the election of our current president and the mass demonstrations that immediately followed his inauguration. It concludes with an examination of “the advance and retreat of democracy worldwide”.

Throughout the book, Miller analyzes the tension between democratic ideals and the reality of governing a population that couldn’t fit into a traditional New England meeting house. How should the “will of the people” be discovered? How much leeway should the people’s representatives and other government officials have, since the voters cannot and should not make every decision? Miller also points out that there is much more to democracy than simply counting votes. A free press is necessary, for example. So is the right to a decent education. Given the complexity of the modern world, the absurdly unequal distribution of wealth, the amount of secrecy governments practice, and the manipulation and disinformation we are all subjected to, nobody should be surprised that democracy often seems inadequate to the role it’s supposed to perform.

I’ll finish with two quotations from the book that are especially relevant to our current situation.

In 2004, the political scientist Samuel Huntington “analyzed what he took to be the long-term implications of demographic and cultural trends on America’s sense of national identity”. He argued that “one very plausible reaction” to the declining “hold of white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant men on the levers of political power” would be:

the emergence of exclusivist sociopolitical movements composed largely but not only of white males, protesting and attempting to stop or reverse these changes and what they believe, accurately or not, to be the diminution of their social and economic status, their loss of jobs to immigrants and foreign countries, the perversion of their culture, the displacement of their language, and the erosion or even evaporation of the historical identity of their country. Such movements would be both racially and culturally inspired and could be anti-Hispanic, anti-black and anti-immigration. They would be the heir to the many comparable exclusivist racial and anti-foreign movements that helped define American identity in the past [and] have enough in common to be brought together under the label “white nativism” [224-225].

The second quotation is from Václav Havel, the Czech dissident and eventual president of Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic, writing in 1991:

“I am convinced,” Havel remarked, “that we will never build a democratic state based on rule of law if we do not at the same time build a state that is … humane, moral, intellectual and spiritual, and cultural. The best laws and best-conceived democratic mechanisms will not in themselves guarantee legality or freedom or human rights — anything, in short, for which they were intended — if they are not underpinned by certain human and social values”. And here Havel is insistent: “I feel that the dormant goodwill in people needs to be stirred. People need to hear that it makes sense to behave decently or to help others, to place common interests above their own, to respect the elementary rules of human coexistence” [243].

Or a substantial minority of white nativists could use supposedly democratic procedures to elect a person who never places common interests above his own and is blatantly contemptuous of democracy and the rule of law.

How Democracies Die by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt

The authors are professors of government at Harvard. Their thesis is that democracies don’t usually die because of coups or violent revolutions. They usually die when leaders take advantage of their nation’s established procedures to give themselves more and more power. For example, a political party will pass laws that make it so easy for them to win elections that they no longer face meaningful competition, or a ruler will assume temporary emergency powers because of a crisis but never give up those powers.

How Democracies Die shows how easy it can be to make the transition from democracy to authoritarianism. All budding authoritarians need to do is break the unwritten rules, the norms of behavior, that make a democracy work. If enough unwritten rules are broken, a democratic government will no longer function. Anti-democratic laws will be passed, ideologues and cronies will be put in positions of power, opponents will be jailed or exiled. Democracies can disappear either gradually or quickly. The authors provide examples from around the world.

They also call special attention to the behavior of the Republican Party in the last twenty-five years. Leaders like Newt Gingrich, Tom DeLay, Mitch McConnell and our current president have all broken rules without necessarily doing anything illegal. The result has been an accumulation of power inconsistent with majority rule.

When American democracy has worked, it has relied upon two norms that we often take for granted — mutual tolerance and institutional forbearance. Treating rivals as legitimate contenders for power and underutilizing one’s institutional prerogatives in the spirit of fair play are not written in the American Constitution. Yet without them, our constitutional checks and balances will not operate as we expect them to [212].

The authors foresee three possible outcomes of our current political crisis. The most optimistic is that there will be a rebirth of democracy in reaction to the Trump presidency. The Democratic Party will be energized, the Republican Party will become less extreme, and “the Trump interlude [will] be taught in schools, recounted in films, and recited in historical works as an era of tragic mistakes where catastrophe was avoided and American democracy saved” [206].

The least optimistic is that America’s government will become increasingly authoritarian, possibly in response to a national security crisis. They believe this “nightmare scenario” isn’t likely, but it isn’t inconceivable either: “It is difficult to find examples of societies in which shrinking ethnic majorities [in our case, white Americans who call themselves Christians] gave up their dominant status without a fight” [208]. Resistance to creeping right-wing authoritarianism could lead to “escalating confrontation and even violent conflict”, which would bring more repression in the name of “law and order” [207-208].

They consider the third alternative the most likely:

… polarization, more departures from unwritten political conventions, and increasing institutional warfare — in other words, democracy without solid guardrails… When partisan rivals become enemies, political competition descends into warfare, and our institutions turn into weapons. The result is a system hovering constantly on the brink of crisis [208-212].

In order to avoid this outcome, the authors believe the Republican Party needs to be “reformed, if not refounded outright”. It must “marginalize extremist elements”; “build a more diverse electoral constituency”; “find ways to win elections without appealing to white nationalism”; and “free itself from the clutches of outside donors [like the Koch brothers] and right-wing media” [223]. They also believe that it would be counterproductive for Democrats to fight fire with fire, to behave as badly as Republicans have.

I think the only way the Republican Party will be reformed or replaced is if the rest of us become so fed up that the Republicans suffer devastating electoral losses, and that the Democrats use their improved position to address urgent issues, in particular, rising inequality. That might encourage “conservatives” to start behaving like conservatives again, instead of like radicals. America might then have a normal center-right political party again. Stranger things have happened.