Telling the Chinese what to do – with Dewey

Lectures in China, 1919-1920
John Dewey
, The University Press of Hawaii, 1973

I am quite certain that if John Dewey was alive right now, he would be severely disappointed. Why? Well, he is a man of progress and while it is clear that we have made a great deal of technological progress since his Lectures in China 1919-1920, the social and political problems that he points out are still highly present. Our self-understanding of the social life is probably not beyond what it was back then and when Dewey wants progress, it is exactly the progress of associated life or our social self-understanding what he is looking for.

The book is divided into two parts, Social and Political Philosophy and A Philosophy of Education. Both consist of series of lectures that were given in English in China, printed in Chinese, and finally translated back to English. Thus it is not completely certain that the exact formulations are exactly as Dewey originally intended them to be. The again, as this is a collection of lectures that were intended for a wider public audience, the level of detail is never close to that of the so-called ‘deeper philosophical works’. And that, by the way, is completely fine.

Dewey starts by pretty much stating that the social reality precedes any theorization of it and that only when things go wrong we start to think about them. “It is always the social institution which precedes the theory; not the theory which precedes the institution” (p. 45). Social and political philosophy is seen as an attempt to understand the misgivings and dysfunctions of the institutional world – in an analogous manner to how the problems of the human body are analyzed in medical sciences. Dewey states that social theory has been done in two ways: radical and conservative. Both are dissatisfied with the current institutional reality but their responses are different. Radicals aim to replace the existing social institutions with utopian ones while the conservatives aim to reinstate the original purpose of the current institutions. Dewey, of course, sees that these responses are not satisfactory – we cannot merely disregard institutions nor blindly (and abstractly) hold that in their core they are sound. Instead, we should choose the third way which focuses on guiding human behaviour through knowledge and intelligence. In Dewey’s own words:

We must deal with concrete problems by concrete methods when and as these problems present themselves in our experience. This is the gist of what we call the third philosophy. (p. 53)

One interesting point in here is that whatever way one chooses to do social theory, it is never merely descriptive but rather gets its motivation from dysfunctional institutions and it also aims to correct or cure them. Political philosophy is always truly political. This is an idea that becomes central later Horkheimer’s and Adorno’s Critical Theory. Another obvious overlap is the inclusion of empirical science into social theory. Dewey is very much in favour of using the scientific method and focusing on individual cases. Those philosophers who make sweeping generalizations are said to be behind their times.

With my general interest in social ontology, I was interested to see how Dewey defines groups: “A collection of people who are united by common interests” (p. 65). This in itself is not that special but he also adds that society is constituted of groups and that social conflicts are conflicts between groups and not between an individual and the society. In short, the basic ‘ontological unit’ seems to be a group instead of an individual. The groups’ struggle for recognition is at the core of the social conflicts. Status quo is challenged as new information and new needs emerge and the struggles go on until the society is reformed in a manner that fruitfully meets the demands of the social movement.

This view is close to Honneth’s more recent idea according to which social struggles are motivated by lack of recognition. Although Dewey is quite quick in making his statements, some interesting differences between him and Honneth emerge. Firstly, as mentioned above, for Dewey groups and common interests are at the fore while Honneth starts from the individual recognition. Secondly, Dewey’s model of recognition draws more from historical institutions and our understanding of them than from anthropological human needs. Progress makes those institutions that might have filled the recognition needs in the past seem like repressive and old-fashioned. “‘Facts of nature’ turn out not to be immutable after all, and presumed ‘universal truths’ begin to totter” (p. 77).

Anyway, what Dewey in general seems to be after is a society where we can freely live in association with others. He uses the Hegelian master-slave terminology to describe any relationships in which someone rules and the others are ruled. Dewey states that this is harmful for the personal development of both parties and causes conflicts. Any social arrangement that requires use of force to work is bound to collapse. Interestingly he seems to argue for democratization of work and economy partly on the basis that this would in fact cause workers to be even more productive. In any case, economy has a special place for Dewey. In a proper Marxist/materialistic fashion he gives it primacy over other social issues:

I take it as axiomatic that the ways in which people meet their economic problems determine in a large degree what they do about their other social problems. (p. 100)

For those who want to know, free trade is clearly not the best option for organizing the economic realm. Dewey in fact blames the domination and exploitation that result from selfish competition for causing the First World War. Too much liberty leads into inequality and thus one of the main social problems is to find ways to limit liberty in a way that maximises the combination of equality and liberty. The answer? Socialism – understood as a developed governmental regulation of liberty with the welfare of the total society at its heart. And what comes to the international politics, Dewey suggests that democratic world government and transnational shared projects would lessen the likelihood of war. Nobody really wants war and democracy enables self-determination and thus global democracy means no wars.

At the end of the Social and Political Philosophy section Dewey introduces an interesting concept: socialism of knowledge. This is could be taken as a plea for open access publishing or demolition of intellectual property rights in the name of overall progress. The idea is that the more people share knowledge, the more knowledge grows and the more the ideas are improved and refined – and this is “acceptable to all of us” (p. 179). Or so Dewey thinks. A more sceptical mind could say that as long as there is money to be made with ideas, ‘acceptable to all’ is not that self-evident.

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A proof that I started reading this a long time ago.

A Philosophy of Education section offers comprehensive suggestions for reforming the Chinese education system. Most of Dewey’s points are in no fashion revolutionary by today’s standards but neither are they completely outdated. He puts a great emphasis on that the educational institutions should be public and that they should always take into account three key elements: the child, the society, and the subject matter.

This section includes a number of somewhat dubious claims. The casual sexism of the early 20th century is present in the statements about how women are better suited for care work. Ironically, Dewey also warns against talking too much while teaching. “Teachers talk too much! I can’t count the class-rooms in which I’ve seen the teacher talk, and talk, and talk, without giving the poor pupils a chance to say a word” (p. 221). All the while his own lectures seem somewhat long self-standing and non-discursive talks in themselves.

Anyway, what comes to the subject matter, Dewey emphasizes learning the scientific method. Science trumps art and literature, which are “for the most part a prerogative of the aristocracy” (p. 255). Science is even connected to one’s interest in his own work: if a farmer (scientifically) understands what he is doing, work will not be mere drudgery but instead meaningful. In any case, schooling should not be too closely connected to particular professions. Dewey makes an observation that is still as relevant as it was back then: society changes quickly and we want to avoid educating people to jobs that might not even exist when they finish school.

Nevertheless, everyone must work. This is an interesting point as in the age of rapid robotization it seems less and less likely that there will be possibilities for everyone to work. However, what Dewey means by work is a contribution to a society. He takes a dim view of free-riders “who reap the advantage of others’ work” (p. 284). Although it is ultimately left in the open what kind of actions are counted as contributions to society, it seems like Dewey has manual labour in mind. This is clearly something that should be updated if one wants to follow Dewey now.

In the end the aim is the well-being of the individuals and the society. The key objective of education is not only science and scientific skills but moral education. Education is necessary for democracy and democracy is continuous education. School life does not prepare one for social life but it is already social life and part of a broader society.

I have to say that I very much liked reading this book – even though it took ages to finish. (That’s just because of me, not because of the book.) Dewey is obviously in many senses a product of his times and one could surely doubt the idea that individual well-being goes hand in hand with common good. Despite all this, Dewey manages to paint an optimistic picture of the possibilities of human life and that’s always something.

Recognition and personhood

Workshop @ University of Jyväskylä, 5.12.2016

This workshop focused on the themes that have been an integral part of Jyväskylä’s research profile since the two Academy of Finland projects in the early 2000s. Recognition, its connection to personhood, and the political consequences of this all are probably topics that will follow me to my death and I was extremely happy to be able to organize this meeting, which was actually the very first workshop by our own Philosophy and Politics of Recognition reasearch group. Well, and it is always nice to get together to do something when Heikki is in town.

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Orange apparently goes well with Hegel.

Heikki Ikäheimo – Intersubjective Recognition and Personhood as Membership in the Life-form of Persons

Heikki’s talk was a draft of a book chapter that is going to be published at some point in the future. One could also say that it was largely based on the first chapters of his book Anerkennung (2014) where he analyzes the different roles and meanings of recognition. The talk also expanded on this by mapping out the “essential features of human lifeform”. However, from an evolutionary perspective, these “essential features” are by no means anthropological constants. In short, Heikki offers a multi-dimensional view of personhood (yay!) with different kinds of person-making capacities, which come in degrees, and matching statuses that can be taken as threshold concepts. These were related to deontological, axiological and cooperative aspects of personhood – close to Honneth’s three dimensions of recognition.

One extremely interesting concept was that of a ‘norm-circles’ or ‘value-circles’. These seemed to relate groups of those whose “judgment counts”, so to speak. One can have conditional and unconditional memberships in these. It seemed extremely important to have a membership in value-circle or -circles but what was left in the open was how unified these need to be and is it possible to have shared value-circles in larger populations or within, for example, nation states. Especially so if we accept the so-called fact of pluralism and connect it to this age of mass immigration. In short, one could use Heikki’s analysis to say that there will be no shortage of potential for de-personalization or de-humanization in the close future – and that should call for inclusive politics.

Arto Laitinen – Actualizing Personhood in Human Beings and in the Social World: The Role of Institutional Recognition

Arto’s title was actually something else but equally long and impossible to remember. The first part of the talk dealt with sorting out the aspects of personhood while the latter concentrated on actualizing it. The aspects include capacities, statuses, and relations and they pretty much come in that order too. Capacities seemed to be fundamental for having a status of a person and also for the recognition of that status. Arto pointed out that this leaves one into a tricky situation where we, on the one hand, want to avoid too strong dependency of capacities that would leave, for example, disabled people or children outside of the set of agents that can be persons/personified. On the other hand, we also want to avoid speciesism. Although there might not be fully satisfactory middle-ground solutions to this issue, Arto suggested something called a species-norm as an answer. That is, if a ‘normal’ member of that species has person-making capacities, we ought to grant the status of a person to all members of that species – or something like that. I was not completely sure how this account avoids speciesism as such: It is clear that it refers to certain properties of a normal member of a species (and not to species as such) but one could perhaps still claim that we have a biased way of choosing the relevant species.

Arto seemed to hold a moral realist position where status of a moral person is not dependent on (mere) recognition. However, a key part of actualization of personhood is that we make the social and institutional world such that it recognizes those who ought to be recognized. Perhaps it is indeed the non-recognized personhood that offers us leverage to claim that there is something wrong with the current institutional world.

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The audience was thrilled – as usual.

Heidi Elmgren – Exclusion and Non-recognition in Finnish Music Schools

Heidi’s presentation included something that one does not always hear in philosophical talks. Namely, an empirical element. She is currently doing an interesting study that looks at how, for example, ranking mechanisms in Finnish music schools affect the self-understanding and the motivational states of the students. It was clear that when recognition is based on merit, merit also functions as a principle of exclusion. Thus, meritocratic institutions always include the potentially troublesome feature that people are left outside or altogether without recognition.

One interesting point was that in the case of music schools it is sometimes unclear what exactly is being recognized. Is it talent, hard work, playing well or something else? If it is indeed talent and if talent is seen as a genetic or some sort of natural thing, this has clear motivation-worsening implications for those who are not seen as talented. In the discussion Heikki made a curious observation that even with all the unclarities, the standards of – at least classical – music are relatively clear in comparison to those of humanistic sciences or philosophy. As universities are institutions that are supposedly based on merit, this opens up a whole lot of venues for politics of what counts as merit in academic circles.

Jarno Hietalahti – Erich Fromm and Social Character: The Humanistic Synthesis of Marx and Freud

Jarno had just made his comeback to Finland from a two-year post doc position at The Erich Fromm Institute Tübingen and this presentation could be taken as an introduction to the Frommian thought and to Fromm’s idea of a social character. Fromm’s thought, in general, is a combination of Freudian psychoanalysis, Marxist social criticism, and positive humanistic thinking. I cannot claim that I would have completely understood what social character is – for that one probably needs years of study in Tübingen – but it seemed to denote characteristics that are common in a society and that motivate individuals to reproduce their society. Social character functions as a mediator between the material basis of the society and its ideological superstructure. It is not fixed but instead dynamic.

One interesting and related concept that was introduced was the social unconscious. This means the repression of the features (perhaps characteristics?) that are common to a group. It seemed that for Fromm social criticism is psychoanalysis for societies where the unconscious is revealed in a way that changes the whole culture (or social character) and further enables the realization of human possibilities. Perhaps one could claim that in claiming this Fromm is in fact defending (social) freedom.

Onni Hirvonen – Collective Agents and the Multiple Dimensions of Personhood

In my own talk I aimed to clarify some of the background assumptions behind an article that is coming out soon in The Journal of Social Ontology. My claims were roughly that we are better off in the group person discussions if we a) separate agency and personhood and b) allow for multiple dimensions of personhood. That is to say that personhood does not automatically flow from agency and that it is not just personhood as such but moral personhood, legal personhood, loved personhood, esteemed personhood, and so forth.

My position was roughly that there are three aspects of personhood: psychological (agential, intrinsic), social (relational, performative), and political (historical). One needs to have certain agential capacities or at least potentialities to be practically recognized as a some kind of person. The capacities and the forms of recognition may be contested and differ historically. With this sort of multi-dimensional concept of personhood one could perhaps point out the relevant differences between corporate persons, social robots, human persons, aliens, and whatever. Anyway, for a clearer explanation, read the paper when it comes out. 😉

 

[Edit 1.2.2017: Changed the first paragraph to match the ‘communication strategy’ of the research group. 😉 ]

A closure

Slayer
David Guymer
, Black Library, 2015

Kinslayer
David Guymer
, Black Library, 2014

In case you did not know, I used to be an unashamed nerd when I was somewhat younger. This is not to say that I am old now or that fantasy and science fiction have lost their meaning for me. Not at all. It is just to say that I am not spending five days a week to play Warhammer anymore. Even the board game nights that I love have become few and far between.

While Tolkien introduced me to fantasy, it was Warhammer in its fantasy and futuristic WH40k incarnations that really gripped me. Now who would not like dystopian imaginary worlds with a ‘realistic’ hands dirty – or grim and dark as they call it nowadays – attitude? I still like the way they had built their settings, drawing a great deal from actual history and borrowing from other competing settings or even from underground metal culture. Anyway, despite the somewhat waning interest in the actual gaming, I have been keeping up with some of the lore.

Within that lore there is (or was) one particular series that I had followed pretty much from the beginning – the Slayer saga. For the uninitiated, this is the story of the adventures of Felix Jaeger and Gotrek Gurnisson. Felix is an aspiring poet from the human empire and Gotrek is a dwarf who had made a slayer oath to seek a worthy doom to make amends for the wrongs that he had done in his past life. That also seems to require running around with no shirt while sporting a red mohawk that would be worthy of any punk rocker

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Doom! Not too sure if I dare to show these on my bookshelf. Well, if nothing else, at least the cover of the Book II goes well with the colour of the table.

This summer (i.e. the summer that is long gone now) I managed to read the last two books that conclude the series. The Hegelian in me was puzzled at this. Why not a trilogy? Everyone knows that a fitting number of fantasy books is three. Or, as I thought after reading the books, maybe even one would have been enough?

That being said, did I think that the books were bad or that the ending itself was bad? Not necessarily. These are meant to be quick entertainment and not world class literature. In any case, there are some things that make these somewhat worse entertainment than the classic Slayer books by the original author, Bill King.

Firstly, there is no character development at all. That all has been done in the previous books and it is pretty much assumed that the reader knows who the characters are and what their relationships with each other are. That in itself is fine but I would like to see Gotrek change his mindset even a little when he actually hears how his family died. Even Felix seems to be the same old. The fact that their world is literally ending does not seem to make that much of a difference.

While the main characters do not offer anything new, this arguably leaves room to make stories interesting through the villains. In these books they seem somehow unmotivated but I still liked the tragic character of Troll King in Kinslayer. He is a cultured beast with a twisted sense of humour, and who ultimately just wants intelligent friends. Sadly for him, all the other trolls are pretty much idiots.

Another thing that bugged me was the sense of distance – or the lack of it. It seems to me that travelling is a key ingredient in almost all of the fantasy adventure books. The Lord of the Rings is a prime example of this but I suppose that it is even more generally true that adventure requires moving from one place to another – perhaps as a means of encountering new things that make that particular part of life to feel like an adventure. Connected to this is the slightly gloomy real life observation that there is not much of an adventure in the everyday circle of home, work, pub, home, work, pub, and so on ad infinitum. Back to the books themselves, to me the episodes in them were disjointed and it was really hard to ‘stay on the map’ so to speak. I did not get that sense of movement or distance that is present in some better fantasy adventure books. There was no feeling of effort that the protagonists need to undertake to get to their goals and, following this, the sense of progression was lacking. I guess the writer should have really remembered the classic saying: it’s not the end but the journey that matters.

Overall, both books had quite lame beginnings but they also included lovable endings that in fact brought a lump to my throat and (almost) tears to my eyes. A fitting closure for a fantasy saga that had been a part of my life for over 15 years.

To hell and beyond

Jumalainen Näytelmä [Divina Commedia]
Dante, WSOY, 1963

This book was an impulse buy. Perhaps my subconscious was telling me that I should read more classics. Perhaps, as a semi-heavy-metal-dude, I was intrigued by Dante’s description of hell.

In any case, speaking of classics, the first thing that came to my mind while reading this was that is this really all that it takes to write a revered piece of world literature? I’m not trying to say that Dante has done bad job but somehow the contents of the book felt much lighter than I expected. One possible reason for this is the translation. I read Elina Vaara’s later translation that emphasizes readability instead of rhyming and it might well be the case that most of the poetic genius is just lost somewhere in translation. On the other hand, I am a big friend of readability so I should not really complain here.

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The devil has managed to sneak into to the paradise in the form of a page number.

The book is divided in three parts where Dante travels through hell (or inferno), purgatory, and paradise. All of these include multiple different ‘levels’ or ‘circles’ with various punishments and pleasures for different deeds and thoughts. The basic structure of the book is quite repetitive and goes roughly like this: Dante and his guide enter a level, dead souls are surprised because Dante has a shadow (the dead have no real bodies and thus no shadows either), Dante explains how he is actually still alive and continues by asking if the dead know anyone who is of Latin origin, and, finally, the dead name some famous historical characters as well as a few contemporaries too.

The hell section is through and through political with a massive amount of references to the 14th century Italian politics. My copy had a nice introduction and commentary parts that explained what is actually going on and I admit that otherwise it would have been impossible to know who is who and why Dante wishes the worst for them. The punishments are fairly imaginative, although some of the real-life torture methods seem even crueler than Dante’s imagined ones. For those who wait for the hell to freeze over, that has already happened. According to Dante, Satan (or Dis) resides in the middle of a frozen lake. He is a three-headed monster that eternally chews on Judas – for obvious reasons – and Brutus and Cassius for taking part in Caesar’s assassination. There are couple of interesting points that can be gleaned from this. Firstly, the lowest low of hell is already full as Satan has only three mouths and they were already filled with the aforementioned traitors. In other words, the greatest sins have already been done. Secondly, one does not need to be a Christian to be punished. Brutus and Cassius lived before Christ or Christianity, with no knowledge of the hell, and they still end up into the mouth of the devil himself. On the other hand, and quite unfairly, one does need to be a Christian to be saved. If you lived a virtuous life – like certain Creek philosophers did – the highest state you can reach without faith is a quiet limbo. Purgatory and paradise are open only to the faithful.

The purgatory section is more psychological. It is here that vices are whet from the souls through almost endless repetition of hard and arduous tasks. Souls are in some sense refined to be ready for the paradise. Personal and selfish wants and wishes are eroded away and the souls are made to understand the will of God. Those who had been virtuous enough in their lives or who have gone through the purgatory find their place in paradise where they circle and praise God, again on different levels. In a less spiritual reading, if hell was highly political, purgatory and paradise offer something more akin to Dante’s praise for his beloved Beatrice who had died before Divine Comedy was written. In fact, to me the whole book felt less like an actual description of Christian cosmology – although Dante surely offers an interesting glimpse to the world view of his time – but rather like a poet’s witty attempt to address his political enemies and honour his lover without being too direct or making himself open for direct criticism.

What I found extremely interesting was Dante’s struggle to try to fit free will together with God’s will. Philosophically speaking, he does not offer any good answers – an angel said it, it must be true – but the questions he poses are interesting and they certainly trouble him a lot. For Dante it is unquestionable that humans have a free will. However, this needs to be somehow fitted together with God’s omnipotence. Perhaps this is the reason why the paradise ends up being a highly impersonal place. Although the lack of personality might seem disturbing, this is solved by positing God’s all-encompassing love as something that is more desirable and enjoyable than anything else, the highest good. In the end, we just need to (freely) understand what is actually good for us.

Overall, I quite enjoyed Dante’s adventures. He does not try to hide his weaknesses before all the horrors and he does not claim to fully understand what he experiences. I liked the way he occasionally speaks directly to the reader, mostly sayingemphasizing that the things he has seen have to be seen to be believed. As all sections end with the word ‘stars’, I would give this book three stars.

Dewey’s Hegel’s spirit

Hegel’s Philosophy of Spirit
John Dewey, University of Chicago, 1897
(in Shook & Good, John Dewey’s Philosophy of Spirit, 2010)

Dewey is one of those authors that I have meant to read for quite a while but somehow never really got into it. Finally, in avoidance of other work, I procrasti-read his lecture on Hegel’s philosophy of spirit and wasn’t disappointed.

The lecture starts with a short biographical note where Dewey emphasises the unremarkable youth of Hegel. No one would have guessed that he is a genius. Dewey repeats the often quoted remark how Hegel had no interest whatsoever in philosophy. This is, however, a mistake a copyist’s error changed “philosophiae multam [a lot, many] operam impendit” into “philosophiae nullam [none] operam impendit” in Hegel’s graduation certificate.

That aside, it is clear that Dewey thinks that Hegel is a genius. In a manner that would warm any pragmatist’s heart, Dewey sees that Hegel’s philosophy stems from life – not from academic and technical meddling like tha of Kant’s. Although Hegel is an idealist, he “is never more hard in his speech, hard as steel is hard, than when dealing with mere ideals, vain opinions and sentiments which have not succeeded in connecting themselves with this actual world” (p.97). This foreshadows what is to come. In other words, what Dewey offers is a so-called materialist (left-Hegelian) reading of Hegel – a line of interpretation that is probably the most prominent right now. It is clear though that in Dewey religion is much more present than in the contemporary interpretations.

For Dewey the Hegelian spirit is active, free, and wants to manifest/reveal itself. The faculties of mind are researched in connection to and as parts of a living organistic whole. The philosophy of spirit “is not the process by which the individual mind knows a reality over against itself, it is the process by which this reality comes to a consciousness of its own basis, meaning and bearings” (p. 117). Dewey gives in his lectures a close reading of the various phases of spirit’s development towards this consciousness.

I will not offer such a close reading of a close reading. Instead, I shall limit myself to a few remarks on the themes that stood out as interesting for me. The first is Hegel’s casual racism. Soul divides itself into race souls and these, in turn, divide into different nationalities. This certainly sounds bad by today’s standards but the interesting point here is that if the soul is “sleeping spirit” (p. 123) that is clinging to nature and determined by it, then the fully developed sprit would probably overcome the racial divides and narrow nationalism that are present in the soul.

Secondly, Dewey sees Hegel as committing to something that could be called an image theory of memory (and language). Memories are images that have the same content as perception. Involuntary memory becomes imagination when we manage to voluntarily bring up the ideas as a matter of will. Imagination forms trains of images and through relating and associating these images with each other, we reach generic ideas. When an image becomes to symbolize a generic idea, we have a sign or a token. Dewey goes on to emphasise the role of speech at this stage. If the next quote does not make you think of Wittgenstein, then nothing will.

We only know of our thoughts when we give to them an objective form, when we get them, as it were, outside our own inner being and get them out into spoken sounds or written words; thus they no longer belong simply to us as individuals, but get a certain universality of their own. The fact, then, that thought is so bound up with the word is not to be regarded as a lack in thought and as something unfortunate for thought; it is not true that the inexpressible is the most valuable thing. The inexpressible thing is only something confused, it is an empty void which gets clearness and content only when it goes over into words. (p. 144-145)

Reading these sections made me really want to research the connections and differences between Hegel, Dewey and Wittgenstein. Then again, I don’t really have time for it and someone has probably done it already. Nevertheless, this all is interesting as the image theory of concepts and imagination makes intelligence in some sense an individualistic property (or at least a property that has ‘atomistic’ origin). This seems to go somewhat against the more or less common interpretation that Hegel’s philosophy is holistic all the way through.

One more thing that struck me was the lack of criticism. In fact, it is really hard to tell whether Dewey is trying to depict and explain Hegel the best he can or if he also agrees with what Hegel is saying. The first – and only? – critical tones come closer to the end where Dewey mentions that Hegel’s discussion on the internal organization of the state is artificial and unsatisfactory.  To me it was a little bit unclear why this is so but one can assume that Dewey is not as big fan of monarchy as Hegel was.

Ultimately, this over hundred-year-old lecture on Hegel is one of the most enjoyable ones I have ever read. I would have loved to see how Dewey actually gave these lectures. I do not like the ‘reading aloud’-method of presentation at all but then again, it is clear that if someone would collect my ramblings and PowerPoints on recognition from this spring, it would not make even nearly as good reading as this. I’ll leave you with the last lines of the lecture that are certainly more grandiose than my own “thanks for attending and remember to give feedback”.

Philosophy is nothing but a full realization of what has been thought and discussed previously. It is simply closing the work with which we have been previously occupied. It is getting that point of view whence we see nature, life and experience as elements in the active process of the self-revelation of spirit to spirit. It is the work of philosophy as such simply to place the dot which ends the sentence, thus for the first time getting the full meaning of that sentence. (p. 174)

Simple oeconomics

And the Weak Suffer What They Must?
Yanis
Varoufakis, The Bodley Head, 2016

Viis Taloudesta! [Never Mind Economics!]
Christer Lindholm, Vastapaino, 2016 

I am not completely sure why I picked up these two popular science books on economics but I am certainly happy that I read them. Well, that’s not completely true. I have my reasons. Lindholm’s book I bought because I heard his interview on the radio. What comes to Varoufakis, thus far I have liked his public appearances and I wanted to know what he is really about.

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Ah, a picture of an evil banker!
Lindholm writes about five interlinked myths that rule the public discussion on economics but have no good grounding in economic science. He presents nice and quick arguments why it is not the case that a) markets will solve everything, b) public sector is a problem, c) taxes are harmful, d) supply will create its own demand, and e) globalization is here to stay. Lindholm’s bold claim is that all these are neoliberal myths, with no solid basis in economic theory, that are built to dismantle democracy by moving political decisions out of the public sphere. Putting investors’ and corporations’ interests in the driver’s seat, in turn, erodes the viability of a welfare state and, ultimately, makes life worse for the most individuals.

Varoufakis restricts himself on a slightly more specific topic – the European economic crisis. I do not have the knowledge to really say how valid his claims are, but he does present a historically detailed and compelling story of how the Eurozone was born and how it includes fundamental structural problems. And the biggest of these is the lack of democracy.

There was nothing wrong with the idea of a single market from the Atlantic to the Ukraine and from the Shetlands to Crete. Borders are scars on the planet and the sooner we dispose of them the better, as the recent Syrian refugee crisis confirms. And there is nothing wrong with a single currency either. What was dangerously wrong-headed was the idea that we could create a single market and a common currency without a powerful Demos to counterbalance, to stabilize, to civilize them. (p.193-194)

It’s not all about the lack of democracy though. Varoufakis argues that the actual policies that the Troika (the European Central Bank, the European Commission, and the International Monetary Fund) entertains are disastrous. Austerity does not help economy but rather provides fertile ground for extreme nationalist movements and growing disillusionment on the whole European community.

In short, both authors argue that the current economic reasoning is fundamentally flawed – on many fronts and for various reasons – and this, in turn, causes immense suffering and can ultimately even lead to new wars. Here is a philosophically interesting point too. That is, the economic reasons/causes are taken to be the most fundamental reasons/causes. Although it is not state explicitly, it is easy enough to read between the lines that, for example, forms of identity politics are subordinate to whatever the current economic situation is. Then again, this might well be the case and it should not be surprise to anyone that left-leaning writers will take this line. Marx anyone?

Another interesting point is that both authors see increased democracy as a (partial) solution to the (economic) problems. I certainly agree that democracy is worth defending but I also think that democracy alone does not guarantee stable and civilized markets. For that we would need civilized voters too. Democracy itself as a decision-making mechanism cannot guarantee that the decisions themselves are any good.

In any case, I would certainly recommend both of these books. For someone like me, who has not read that much economics, they were extremely informative. Recommendable is also the theoretical route that both authors take: for the most of the time Lindholm and Varoufakis are doing what is called ‘intrinsic’ critique. They are arguing from within the economic sphere by using their terms and their laws and by showing how those who claim that there is no alternative are not basing their arguments on science – and this is so even before questioning how scientific economics is – but rather on ideology. Not that there is anything wrong with ideologies in politics. However, dressing them on the guise of facts and necessities is misleading at best and extremely destructive at worst.

Populism everywhere

On Populist Reason
Ernesto Laclau
, Verso, 2005

At some point I thought that it is a good idea to write a paper on populism and recognition with a couple of other philosophers. Now I’m not that sure anymore. Nevertheless, my co-writer Joonas insisted that I really should read this book by Laclau as a) it’s great and b) it’s about populism. As these both are seemingly good reasons, I spent the better part of the last three days to read (somewhat quickly and superficially) through it.

Laclau starts by showing how the previous analyses of populism are ambiguous and in general inconsistent. He is quite blunt here and that makes some entertaining reading. What’s interesting is that Laclau seems to want to get away from the distinction between normal and pathological (i.e. populist) forms of politics and understand populism rather as a dimension of political culture or result of a discursive labeling of certain political movements. This, in turn, goes partly against what we want to claim about populism as a pathological form of identity politics. In any case, Laclau traces the history of group/crowd/public analysis and aims to show that is indeed a trend towards dismantling any easy dichotomies (like normal-pathological).

After the more historical part he gets to the main point – defining populism in his own terms. And here are those terms:

“Here our exploration comes to an end. The emergence of the ‘people’ depends on three variables I have isolated: equivalential relations hegemonically represented through empty signifiers; displacement of internal frontiers through the production of floating signifiers; and a constitutive heterogeneity which makes dialectical retrievals impossible and gives its true centrality to political articulation. We have now reached a fully developed notion of populism.” (p.156)

One could note that Laclau isn’t overly clear with his own distinctions either. Especially the key section on the concepts of discourse, empty signifiers, hegemony and rhetoric (p.68-72) is quite quick and requires a much broader understanding of theoretical background assumptions of this particular discussion than I, for example, have.

Nevertheless, there are some observations that should be central for any theorist of populism. Firstly, populism is about ‘people’ and about “a partiality which wants to function as the totality of the community” (p.81). This is exactly what The Finns Party (formerly known as True Finns) has been doing all along: they represent themselves as ‘the people’ or claim to represent ‘the people’ that is set against the corrupt elite or, in the more nationalist circles, any non-Finn outsiders.

Secondly, populist movements are motivated by an experience of a lack. By constructing the ‘people’, populists aim to give name to the “absent fullness” (p.85). However, it seems that this lack cannot fully be sated. In fact, it wasn’t completely clear to me where this lack even comes from. I presume that there is a psychoanalytical story to tell as what Laclau mostly does is to weave together psychoanalysis and linguistic analysis.

By naming the ‘people’ (and other things) we make them to be. As Laclau puts it: “rhetorical mechanisms […] constitute the anatomy of the social world” (p. 110). Populism is thus linked with social ontology. The point Laclau makes is actually even more general as all the struggles (to get rid of the lack and various demands) are political and all politics is more or less populism. In short, we constitute or institute the social world through politics. The similarity with psychoanalysis is present also in here as Laclau understands psychoanalysis as something that has less to do with psychology and more to do with constitution and ontology. This is probably something that some more developmentally inclined psychonanalysts would not completely agree with.

For me, one of Lacklau’s main omissions is the analysis of how the social world itself affects the naming processes. (Hegelian mutual constitution, anyone?) Similarly, how the power relations function in the context of naming is left underanalyzed. Power is surely mentioned but that’s roughly it.

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Returning the book after scanning those pages that were missing from the more or less legal pdf.

Another thing is that Laclau seem to discuss only nation states’ internal populist movements. Does populism become possible only in a nation state? This does not sound believable. Smaller (communal) and larger (EU) democratic units can also suffer from it. And when I say suffer, I mean it. However, here Laclau does not help at all. When is populism (or naming and social creation) bad, wrong, or pathological? There are times when Laclau uses terms like ‘imaginary’ in pejorative sense (p.187) but ‘the people’ is always imaginary and that does not seem to be a problem. This book does not give normative tools to separate populism from other political movements or, if all politics is populism, it does not give tools to normatively evaluate different political movements. Laclau’s own position seems to be that we’d just better realize that we live with a multiplicity of identities as this opens a way to understand and live with others. In the end, this all just left me with a stronger conviction that there is still plenty of room for the (semi-Hegelian) talk about constitution of demands and realization of freedom in the institutional world.