Archive | January, 2008

The Justice League

Two days ago was Spooner’s birthday, and today – by convention – is King’s (though his actual birthday was six days ago).

Spooner and King would have disagreed on a number of issues (most notably the legitimacy of the state), but these two opponents of racial oppression would also have had some important points in common. In particular, both were eloquent defenders of the idea that state decrees in violation of natural justice have no legal authority – that unjust decrees have no claim on our obedience, while just decrees have such a claim only because they are just and not because they are decrees.

In honour of the season, why not read, or reread, Spooner’s Natural Law, or the Science of Justice and King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail?

I See What You Mean

In a passage that ended up being cut from Galt’s speech, Rand writes:

Man is an entity of mind and body, an indivisible union of two elements: of consciousness and matter. Matter is that which one perceives, consciousness is that which perceives it; your fundamental act of perception is an indivisible whole consisting of both ….Your consciousness is that which you know – and are alone to know – by direct perception. It is that indivisible unit where knowledge and being are one, it is your “I,” it is the self which distinguishes you from all else in the universe. No consciousness can perceive another consciousness, only the results of its actions on material forms, since only matter is an object of perception, and consciousness is the subject, perceivable by its nature only to itself. To perceive the consciousness, the “I,” of another would mean to become that other “I” – a contradiction in terms; to speak of souls perceiving one another is a denial of your “I,” of perception, of consciousness, of matter. (Journals of Ayn Rand, p. 663)

I think this is partly right and partly wrong. It’s wrong, I claim, to say that we can’t perceive other people’s consciousness directly. I’m not talking about telepathy, just the ordinary way that we perceive that someone is angry or bored or scared.

Your mind to my mind ... your thoughts to my thoughts ... Captain, I'm not getting anything. When I say that our awareness of other people’s states of mind is (often) direct, I mean, of course, epistemically direct – that is, not inferred from some other known fact. I don’t mean to deny that causally the chain between your anger and my awareness of it is indirect and quite complex; nor do I mean to deny that this awareness is made possible by additional background information I have accumulated. All I deny is that my awareness is inferred from any of these background factors. In short, what I claim about our direct perception of other people’s minds is very similar to what Rand claims about our direct perception of other people’s bodies.

Rand might object that awareness of other people’s mental states is fallible while awareness of physical objects isn’t. But Rand doesn’t deny the existence of what would ordinarily be called perceptual illusions; she simply holds that in such cases what has occurred is either the mistaking of a perception of one thing for the perception of another, or else the mistaking of a perception for a nonperception. Now if Rand wants to use the term “perception” as a factive, that’s fine by me, but then I get to do the same thing; in that sense, perception of others’ consciousness is infallible too.

But the genuine truth that Rand is reaching for is that no one can be aware of my consciousness the way I am; I think she’s just confusing having a different mode of consciousness with having a different object of consciousness. There’s a way of being aware of X by being X, and no one but X can possess that form of awareness; here indeed “knowledge and being are one.” But what’s impossible is not perceiving the “I” of another, but perceiving it as one’s own “I.”

These issues are on my mind because in the department we’ve started a reading group on what looks so far to be an excellent book, Sebastian Rödl’s Self-Consciousness, which is trying to elucidate exactly what is involved in being aware of X by being X.

Online: Molinari on Religion!

[cross-posted at Liberty & Power]

Only two of Molinari’s books have been translated into English – The Society of Tomorrow (badly – the translation is quite incompetent) and Religion (incompletely – the editor explains that “it was found necessary to omit the recapitulatory chapter which commences M. de Molinari’s additional matter, and to indicate in footnotes the sources, rather than to quote at length the long catena of authorities published in the appendix to the French edition”). Both translations also mysteriously feature introductions (and in the case of Religion, intrusive footnotes) by authors fundamentally out of sympathy with Molinari’s viewpoint, who mostly take the opportunity to ride their own hobby horses. Still, these translations are far better than nothing.

Gustave de Molinari The Society of Tomorrow has been available online for a while. I’m pleased to see that the English version of Religion is now available as well, via Google Books.

Religion represents an interpretation of the history of religion from the point of view of libertarian economics and evolutionary social theory; the chief political moral that Molinari draws from his analysis is that attempts either to impose or to suppress religion by force of law are harmful to society (as are all interferences with free competition), and he accordingly calls for a complete exclusion of the state from matters involving religion.

Molinari is coy as to whether he himself accepts any religious belief. He defends religion to the extent of arguing, first, that its central claims (which he takes to be the existence of God and the immortality of the soul) are not contrary to science, and second, that religion is beneficial for society (this latter on the grounds that a belief in divine reward and punishment is necessary for ordinary people, though perhaps not for the wise few, to feel sufficient motivation to behave rightly). Yet his explanations of the historical development of religion and the triumph of one faith over another are purely economic and never make any reference to the truth or falsity of religious claims. (For example, he maintains that Christianity displaced paganism because it was cheaper.) Hence both believers and unbelievers will probably find themselves occasionally annoyed while reading it; still, it’s a fascinating book, whatever one may think of the details.

Northwest Passages

[cross-posted at Liberty & Power]

One of Isabel Paterson’s earliest novels (indeed her first published, though not her first written), The Shadow Riders, has turned up on Google Books.

Isabel Paterson While it’s not the literary tour de force that many of her later novels would be, it is nevertheless, like all her novels, damn good.

Although several westerns have since used the title The Shadow Riders, Paterson’s 1916 novel is not a western; its setting is western Canada, but in an era when the frontier is well on the wane. The milieu reflects (as usual) Paterson’s own background, and the heroine is (again as usual) a thinly disguised version of Paterson herself; the book’s subject matter is the interrelated realms of business, politics, journalism, and social mores.

But that synopsis sounds rather dull, and the book is no such thing, so let me simply quote a few passages, picked nearly at random – some witty, some serious – to give you a sense of the book’s style:

He was quite a young man to write a diplomatic communication. He thought, if a thing was to be made understandable, it should be said plainly.

The Shadow Riders Lesley felt symptoms of imminent suffocation. She wished benevolently that she could share them with Mrs. Cranston – in short, that she might choke that injudicious lady.

There is an old proverb which says that one can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. It is doubtless a true saying; I only wonder what one does with the flies after having caught them.

And his patriotism – it burned, oh, indeed, it went up in fireworks that left trails of glory down the lowering sky! One could see him repelling an imaginary enemy at the point of a lance – well, no, hardly that, but one could see a band of gallant youths doing the repelling, while Folsom waited with decorations and wreaths in the rear.

He envied Ross, who had somehow gone past these things, got beyond good and evil to necessary and unnecessary, inexpedient and expedient, pleasant and disagreeable. Had he known through what bitter waters Ross had reached his Fortunate Isle, he might not have envied.

Eileen’s face betrayed no consciousness of victory. It expressed neither triumph nor disdain, but a peculiar innocence and unawareness, which innocence itself cannot achieve. It is a look only possible to a woman who has suffered, and deliberately forgotten; it can outface innocence itself because it has no mingling of curiosity; it is invulnerable – from the outside.

The sole impress of a too fortunate youth was discoverable in some quality of his manner which made plain that he was no longer interested in himself. Life had been too kind to him in every material way; he was politely perplexed with a profusion so great, and ambition lay dead of satiety.

Her senses rebelled against her will, and though she retained command, for a sweet and terrible moment she could feel her inner self bend and sway toward him like a reed in the wind. It cost her a sharp, sickening pang to rise and move away from him a step. … For a long, long time afterward she could feel that pain again when she remembered, for it seemed as if she had then lost something out of her life that would never come again with quite the same power, the same promise of completeness and delight. All that he saw was that her mouth set hard for a moment, the short pink upper lip losing its laughing tilt; and her hands, so lax and helpless in her lap, shut determinedly.

[I]n all passionate love there’s a hard, insatiable core, that nothing could fully satisfy, so it always burns beneath the ash of fulfilled desire. No man or woman is quite absolutely enough for any other woman or man. Neither would a world of them be.

(On Paterson’s novels generally see here, here, here, here, here, and here.)

Government versus the Poor

[cross-posted at Liberty & Power]

First Kevin Carson makes it into the pages of The Freeman with his article “Economic Calculation in the Corporate Commonwealth.” And now Charles Johnson follows with a “Scratching By: How Government Creates Poverty as We Know It.”

Wake up, Nancy!  Don't you want to help me smash plutocracy, patriarchy, and the state? Congratulations to Charles! And I bet that’s the first time that that Marilyn Frye quote has appeared in The Freeman! The left-libertarian quest for global domination continues apace.

Incidentally, Charles is a, and probably the only, third-generation Freeman author.

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