Bertrand Russell On Deterrence By Making ‘Freedom More Pleasant’

In ‘What I Believe,’ an essay whose content–selectively quoted–was instrumental in him having his appointment at the City College of New York revoked¹, Bertrand Russell wrote:

One other respect in which our society suffers from the theological conception of ‘sin’ is the treatment of criminals. The view that criminals are ‘wicked’ and ‘deserve’ punishment is not one which a rational morality can support….The vindictive feeling called ‘moral indignation’ is merely a form of cruelty. Suffering to the criminal can never be justified by the notion of vindictive punishment. If education combined with kindness is equally effective, it is to be preferred; still more is it to be preferred if it is more effective….the prevention of crime and the punishment of crime are two different questions; the object of causing pain to the criminal is presumably deterrent. If prisons were so humanized that a prisoner got a good education for nothing, people might commit crimes in order to qualify for entrance. No doubt prison must be less pleasant than freedom; but the best way to secure this result is to make freedom more pleasant than it sometimes is at present.

Russell was a logician, so he cannot resist making a simple logical point here: if you want prison to represent an uncomfortable alternative to ‘the world outside’ that constitutes an effective deterrent to crime, you have two choices: make prison conditions much worse, or make the state of ‘the world outside’ much better. Our reactions to the world we encounter rely on contrasts and conditioning; it took a princess used to the utter luxury of royal palaces to find the pea under the pile of mattresses unbearable; the parched wanderer in the desert finds the brackish water of a dusty oasis the sweetest nectar of all. It is not inconceivable that many who are used to endemic and grinding poverty, hunger, and violence might find prison not such a bad alternative, and find that its supposed terrors, when viewed from afar, are entirely lacking in deterrent effect. (That sad old saw about criminals committing crimes in order to get three square meals and a roof over their heads perhaps bears repeating here.)

Unsurprisingly, the vindictive and retributive mentality of societies informed at heart by the “theological conception of ‘sin’,” entirely unconcerned with the actual and effective amelioration of social ills, chooses the former of the options listed above. Moreover, the emphasis on retribution acts as a powerful distraction from clear thinking on what might have made criminals act the way they did–perhaps if ‘the world outside’ were improved, some of the causal chains leading to the commission of crime could be disrupted.

Note 1: The details of this shameful scandal and its gross violation of academic freedom  are still worth reading after all these years (especially because, as the Steven Salaita affair reminds us, academic freedom remains under assault.) Paul Edwards‘ ‘Appendix’ in Why I Am Not A Christian (Allen and Unwin, New York, 1957) contains the sordid and infuriating details. Edwards’ essay is in turn based on The Bertrand Russell Case (eds. Horace Kallen and John Dewey, Viking Press, 1941).

Straight Trippin’: Sartre, Mescaline, Nausea, Crabs

In a previous post, I had wondered whether Jean-Paul Sartre‘s description of Roquentin’s ‘vision in the park’ in Nausea was an indication of psychedelic experiences in Sartre’s past: Continue reading

John Dewey On The ‘Wonder’ Of Communication

In Experience and Nature (Chapter Five, ‘Nature, Communication and Meaning’) John Dewey writes:

Of all affairs, communication is the most wonderful….[its] fruit…participation, sharing, is a wonder by the side of which transubstantiation pales. When communication occurs, all natural events are subject to reconsideration and revision; they are re-adapted to meet the requirements of conversation, whether it be public discourse or that preliminary discourse termed thinking. Events turn into objects, things with a meaning. They may be referred to when they do not exist, and thus be operative among things distant in space and time….Events when once they are named lead an independent and double life. In addition to their original existence, they are subject to ideal experimentation: their meanings may be infinitely combined and re-arranged in imagination, and the outcome of this inner experimentation which is thought may issue forth in interaction with crude or raw events….Where communication exists,  things in acquiring meaning, thereby acquire representatives, surrogates, signs and implicates, which are infinitely more amenable to management, more permanent and more accommodating, than events in their first estate.

This morning, as I worked through this passage with my students, I tried my best to convey what Dewey was getting at in his quite-accurate judgment of communication being a ‘wonder,’ a secular miracle. And that is because communication is something quite fundamental, an almost constitutive part of ourselves. Transubstantiation merely transforms one substance into another; communication makes us who we are. If it is through civilization and society and politics we become ourselves, it is because all of those ‘joint activities’ rest on, and are made possible by, communication. (Language is not mentioned in the passage above, and yet it is present.)

For theorizing about the world is communication with others; thinking is communication with ourselves. (Recall that Dewey said elsewhere that ‘thought is intrinsic to experience,’ which suggests that communicating might be intrinsic to experience too.)  Through it–and its linguistic medium–we make a subjective world objective and receive confirmation we are not mired in a solipsistic maze. (As one of my students noted, the distinction between the ‘inside’ and the ‘outside’ is one established by dint of communication.)  The world acquires meaning through our theorizing; through communication with ourselves and others, we are able to make ourselves into creatures of temporality, possessing both a remembered past–memory is a kind of communication with an older self, where we receive sensations and images as signals and messages of times gone by–and an anticipated future. We are no longer mired only in the present even as it is all we have at any given instant. The matters we communicate about, by virtue of being public and shared, acquire new meanings and shadings; they can be subject to different uses and experimentations to solve this world’s challenges as and when they arise to pose barriers for our intended projects.

The theorized world is really the world tout court, and it is so because we have communicated about it with ourselves and others.

‘Nausea’ And Psychedelia: Was Antoine Roquentin Tripping?

My re-reading of Nausea, Jean-Paul Sartre‘s existentialist classic, for this semester’s independent study on existentialism has now prompted me to blog on it two days in a row.

Today, I find myself returning to a question which I had first considered a couple of decades ago during my first reading of Nausea: Was Antoine Roquentin tripping? Alternatively, did Sartre ever do psychedelics and incorporate some of those visions and experiences into his writing of Nausea?

This question should seem eminently reasonable to anyone who has either experienced psychedelics himself or read about the visions and experiences of those who have ingested psychedelics. For it is all here in Roquentin’s reports: the sheer, stark, apparently unmediated access to reality and being and existence, the sheer particularity and uniqueness of things, and yet at the same time, the dawning realization that reality and appearance are woven together, that–to use Dewey‘s words, “thought is intrinsic to experience,” that consciousness is constructive and constitutive. Like those who set out on psychedelic trips, Roquentin is overpowered and awed by his noticing, as if for the first time, his and the world’s being and existence.

This psychedelic aspect of Roquentin’s visions is most manifest in his famous “vision” in the park, the most philosophically rich section of Nausea. (I do not think it is a coincidence that Sartre uses “vision” here to describe Roquentin’s experiences here.) Here the “individuality” of things melts away, leaving them “naked.” Objects begin to exist so “strongly” that their very existence is almost painful to experience–just as in psychedelic visions, trippers report the almost painfully sharp clarity they now suddenly possess of the world around them. The black roots of the chestnut tree present themselves to Roquentin in all their sensuality, an overwhelming and overpowering one.

Like those who trip, Roquentin comes to realize the world is simultaneously absurd and yet potentially filling to the brim with meaning. Like them, he realizes the interplay of word and world, even as he realizes “the crumbling of the human world, measures, quantities, and directions.” The tripper comes to realize his sight is not innocent, providing unmediated access to reality; instead, it itself is conditioned by a particular state of consciousness so that “sight is an abstract invention, a simplified idea, one of man’s ideas.” He realizes that he cannot stop thinking, that “my thought is me; that’s why I can’t stop. I exist because I think…and I can’t stop myself from thinking.” Those who have tripped are very often amenable to the idea that through meditative experiences, through flirtations with the no-thought experience that might be possible therein, they will experience the no-self the Buddha spoke about.

Huxley spoke of the psychedelic vision providing access to Heaven and Hell. Roquentin speaks of the “horrible ecstasy” he experiences in the park; it is frightening and exhilarating in equal measure. It leaves him “breathless” and makes him realize that up until that moment, he had not “understood the meaning of ‘existence.'” (Unlike trippers, of course, Roquentin does not feel the urge to have the entire mass of humanity share the experience with him.)

The thoughts I offer here, and the parallels I note, are merely suggestive, but I find them intriguing enough to make them explicit. A much closer read of Nausea accompanied by a comparison with classics of psychedelic literature–like Huxley’s The Doors of Perception–should be very rewarding. More on that anon.

Contra Damon Linker, ‘Leftist Intellectuals’ Are Not ‘Disconnected From Reality’

Over at The Week, Damon Linker accuses ‘the Left’ of being disconnected from reality, basing this charge on his reading of two recent pieces by Corey Robin and Jedediah Purdy. (It begins with a charge that is all too frequently leveled at the Bernie Sanders campaign: that its political plans are political fantasies.) What gets Linker really offended is that ‘left-wing intellectuals’–who presumably should know better–are trafficking in the same ‘disconnected from reality’ ramblings.

I don’t think they are. Rather, they are doing the exact opposite of what Linker claims, and in this spectacular misreading of them, Linker only indicts his own disconnect from the actual historical realities of how ideas and actions–especially political ones–interact.

First, Linker suggests that Robin thinks that indifference to political reality is a virtue. As he notes:

In a provocative essay for The Chronicle of Higher Education, “How Intellectuals Create a Public,” Robin argues that “the problem with our public intellectuals today is that they are writing for readers who already exist, as they exist,” as opposed to “summoning” a new world, a new public, a new reality, into being.

In his essay, Robin offered a critique of Cass Sunstein‘s libertarian paternalism, suggesting that it merely further reifies an existing political reality, leaving everything as it was before; later Robin goes on to suggest that Ta-Nehisi Coates is afflicted by a kind of ‘impossibilism’ about the possibility of the “politics of a mass mobilization.” (Robin’s take on Coates deserves far more considered analysis than I can provide here. More on that anon.) Linker then, by linking to Marx’s famous quote in the Theses on Fuerbach about the need for philosophers to change the world and not just interpret it, insinuates that Robin is just being an impractical Marxist in accusing Sunstein and Coates of producing “an all too accurate reflection of the world we live in.” (Incidentally, this trope “You sound like Marx; you’re impractical!” is profoundly unimaginative. I’m surprised it still does work for people.) The production of this facsimile for Linker is a virtue; for Robin, in the case of Sunstein, it speaks of a limited imagination (in the case of Coates, I think, again, that matters are very different.)

What makes Linker’s critique of Robin especially bizarre is that from the very outset of his essay, Robin is talking about action, activity, making and remaking, interacting with this world, reshaping and reconfiguring it–through ideas and beliefs, expressed through writing, sent out into this world in an effort to change people’s minds, to make them see the world differently. This is about as far as being disconnected from reality as you can imagine; Robin is not advocating a retreat to the ivory tower, to write complacently for a pre-existent audience that will force the author into the templates of its demands; rather he is suggesting that the author, the intellectual, by the form and content of his ideas–as expressed in his writings–can change and alter those templates and bid his readers follow different trajectories of both thought and action.

As Robin says:

[The public intellectual] is…the literary equivalent of the epic political actor, who sees her writing as a transformative mode of action, a thought-deed in the world.

This is as ‘reality-based’ as you can get, and you only get to doubt that if you, perhaps like Linker, seemingly doubt the power of ideas and beliefs; you know, those things the American pragmatists called ‘rules for action.’ Let’s forget about religion for a second, and simply consider a couple of examples Robin provides: Rachel Carson‘s Silent Spring and Michelle Alexander‘s The New Jim Crow. The former produced an environmental movement; the latter has galvanized a nation-wide movement against mass incarceration.

As Robin goes on to note:

By virtue of the demands they make upon the reader, they force a reckoning. They summon a public into being — if nothing else a public conjured out of opposition to their writing. Democratic publics are always formed in opposition and conflict: “to form itself,” wrote Dewey, “the public has to break existing political forms.

The role for the public intellectual that Robin envisages is the breaking of existing political forms–philosophers of culture like Nietzsche suggested doing this with a hammer; we’ll have to settle for our word processors. Far from being disconnected with reality, Robin is suggesting an active engagement with the world; these engagements, Linker might be surprised to know, take many forms, ranging from the grubby and sordid to the elevated and sublime. Sometimes those forms of engagement are literary, sometimes physical, sometimes performative, sometimes emotional.

The problem is that Linker’s imagination is limited; he is himself cut off from the very reality he claims to be in touch with. Robin’s vision, by extending further than Linker’s, might be informing him that there are more things in this world than he might have allowed for.

Linker then moves on Purdy, summarizing his claims as follows:

[P]olitics and economics have been “denaturalized” in our time, and that even nature itself is undergoing the same process….all appeals to permanent, intrinsic truths or standards by parties involved in political, economic, or environmental debates have become unconvincing. Nothing is natural in the normative sense — no political or economic arrangement, and not even any specific construal of the natural world and its meanings.

All such appeals to nature are in fact conventional, artificial constructs of the human mind imposed upon the world.

Linker suggests that Purdy draws a ‘radical’ conclusion from this:

a wonderful opportunity [which] holds out the possibility of a collective “world-shaping project” that would bring about a radical democratization of politics and economics, and of the relation of both to the natural world.

Linker now fulminates:

The problem with this way of describing the world is not merely that it’s wrong. (As long as human beings have physical bodies that can thrive, be injured, and die, and as long as they live out their lives in a physical world that obeys natural laws disclosed by science, politics and economics will be hemmed in by constraints and obstacles that stand in the way of any number of potential “world-shaping projects.”)

Purdy’s claims are not particularly ‘radical’; instead they build on a rich tradition of deflationary claims about the pretensions of absolutist theorizing about metaphysics, ethics, and politics. Linker should know–if he’s read any philosophy of science or history of science–that science richly interacts with politics and economics and law. Thus the very science that Linker so valorizes is in fact something co-constructed with the society in which its practices are embedded. The politics and economics of this world impinge on the science it practices; a radical remaking of our politics and economics will also remake the science we practice. Not the truths it discovers but what it thinks it is important to research, investigate, and pursue as an object of knowledge.  Science is “hemmed in by constraints and obstacles that stand in the way of any number of potential “world-shaping projects.” Want to build that accelerator? Sorry; we don’t have the funds. Want to go to Mars? Same problem. Want to do stem-cell research? Sorry, no can do. The religious folk won’t stand for it.

If Linker simply wishes to say that our physical bodies and the world limits our physical actions, then he’s stating the obvious. What he missed out on, like he did with Robin above, is that Purdy is speaking of an untrammeled imagination, which hitherto has been restricted and confined to pre-existing categories of thought and possibilities. It is the ‘construals’ of the world that have been limited; change those and you change your sense of what is possible for your interactions with this world. We’ll always bump up against the hard, unforgiving edge of something or the other; but we don’t even know, so long as we are confined by existing construals, what and where those edges are.

And then, Linker levels that old canard:

The even bigger problem with Purdy’s account of things is that it renders political evaluation and judgment impossible. As Will Wilkinson writes in a brilliant critique of the essay, “Appeals to value only make sense…against a background of belief about how things really are. If our best ideas about the way the world works can’t put a boundary around political contestation, then leaving the lead in Flint’s drinking water makes as much sense as taking it out.”

The kind of anti-metaphysical claims that Nietzsche made, the kind of radical undermining he conducted of morality, did not render moral evaluation impossible. Au contraire, it bid us examine the foundations of our moralities to see whose interests were represented therein. We, moral subjects, could radically reconfigure those values by dint of our actions. By, you know, our politics, our imaginations, our actions, our writings.

Accusing of intellectuals of being disconnected from reality is a tired, old, reactionary political trick. It is a ideological maneuver, one that merely indicts the one making the charge of preferring their own fantastic vision of the world.

The Renewability of Cricket

My latest post at The Cordon at ESPN-Cricinfo is titled ‘The Renewability of Cricket‘.

Here is an excerpt:

I want to suggest here that “we, as players and spectators” have a great deal to do with the perceived complexity of cricket. Quite simply, this is because we change over time; we do not bring, to our encounters with the game in the middle, a stable, enduring entity, but one subject constantly to a variety of physical, emotional, psychological, and of course, political variations. This perennially in flux object brings to its viewings of cricket a variety of lenses; and we do not merely perceive, we interpret and contextualise, we filter and sift. (As John Dewey, the great American pragmatist philosopher noted, “Thought is intrinsic to experience.”) These interpretations and contextualisations change over time.

The 45-year-old man, the professor, the older version of the once-15-year-old schoolboy, sees a very different game of cricket from his younger counterpart. And as he continues to “grow” and change, he will continue to “see” a different game played out in front of him. He will renew cricket, make it extensible and renewable. The seemingly infinite variations possible in a 30-hour, 450-over encounter between 22 other humans, each playing cricket ever so differently from those that have preceded him, will provide ample fodder for this extensibility and renewability.

A game of cricket exists within a larger symbolic order of meaning. When a young spectator sees men in white pick up bat and ball, he understands their activities within a perceptual framework in which active fantasy and wishful longing play an active part. As he grows, matures, acquires a political and aesthetic sense, and hopefully expands his intellectual, emotional and romantic horizons he will revise this, and come to understand the game differently. He may go on to watch umpteen variations on the fourth-innings chase theme, and each one will be uniquely located within this under-construction framework.

The Fallacious Knowing-How, Knowing-That Distinction

Over at the Stone, Jason Stanley offers some thoughtful remarks on the fallacious distinction between the practical and the theoretical, or rather, between practical and theoretical knowledge. Stanley examines the case to be made for the dichotomy between reflection–‘guided by our knowledge of truths about the world’–and action–‘guided by our knowledge of how to perform various actions’:

If these are distinct cognitive capacities, then knowing how to do something is not knowledge of a fact — that is, there is a distinction between practical and theoretical knowledge.

Stanley dismisses this distinction by way of considering and rejecting different ways in which a ‘bright line’ could be drawn between practical and theoretical knowledge (for instance ‘talking’) and concludes with:

The plumber’s or electrician’s activities are a manifestation of the same kind of intelligence as the scientist’s or historian’s latest articles — knowledge of truths….The distinction between the practical and the theoretical is used to warehouse society into groups. It alienates and divides. It is fortunate, then, that it is nothing more than a fiction.

I find Stanley’s analysis congenial, though I would collapse the distinction from the other direction. That is, I consider ascriptions of knowledge to be recognitions of practical abilities: to know a ‘truth’ is to bear a particular practical relation to the world, of being capable of interacting with the world in particular ways; of making some kinds of judgments and not others; knowing-that is a species of knowing-how.  To ascribe knowledge is not to recognize a special mental state, distinguished by some peculiar, yet-to-be-specified relationship with a proposition. Knowers are doers first and foremost. To know something is to be either doing or to be capable of doing (like making certain utterances and not others, for instance). A knower is distinguished from a non-knower by his actions, by his placement within a nexus of active relationships.

There are some advantages to thinking of knowledge in these terms. It makes more continuous the relationship between humans, animals, and other entities in the world such as sophisticated machines; animals can ‘know’ too, even if they cannot be understood as knowing propositions. To confine ourselves to propositional accounts of knowledge is to make human knowledge a singularity in the natural world; it means we cannot meaningfully make claims like ‘My cat knows the mouse is behind the door’ (or at least when we do it is by making a distinction between ‘animal’ and ‘reflective’ knowledge); it fails to acknowledge the cat’s particular interactions with its environment. It prompts meaningless questions like  ‘Who does the knowing?’ when it comes to ascribing knowledge to sophisticated systems such as robotic currency traders.

The long, protracted disputes in epistemology bear adequate testimony to the futility of trying to think of knowledge in excessively mentalistic and semantic terms. Thinking of knowledge as a species of interaction, a description of an agent enmeshed in his world and distinguished from others that don’t know what it does by its actions, clears up many of the puzzles created by traditional epistemology. This understanding of knowledge has its own distinguished pedigree in the history of philosophy, of course, most notably in Wittgenstein, Dewey and Nietzsche. Hopefully, I’ll be able to spin those views out a bit more here in future posts.