The importance of rhetoric in politics

There is an intricate and intractable relationship between the three foremost modes of discourse – grammar, logic, rhetoric – which comprised the teaching of language in the Middle Ages – taught for a thousand years as the “Trivium.” Grammar, logic, and rhetoric have all changed over the years – as they must – but I think the Medieval teachers better understood what we need to learn about language practices than we do today. At any rate, a good theorist or critic of rhetoric, to be such, must be well schooled in the Trivium – must be aware of logic and grammar, to recognize how these are used rhetorically. It should also be noted that in evolutionary terms, grammar is probably primary, since without order language cannot be understood, rhetoric is secondary, since the principle function of language is agreement on action between people, and logic tertiary, as a clarification of rhetorical and grammatical protocols. But I admit I am now wandering into speculations on the origins of language, which can only be the subject of speculation, since we have little evidence on the matter.

The following develops from responses to an article by Dwayne Holmes, “No Contest,” which attempted to refute understanding of rhetoric as a proper heuristic for deployment in either understanding or enacting political discourse. [1] It deployed two primary arguments: The first is that rhetoric, as the art of persuasion as such, is too dangerous to be allowed unconstrained in public argumentation, which ought to proceed to judgments derived logically. The second is that rhetorical criticism is useless for understanding the public presentations of the current President, Trump, since he makes no argument and is no master of rhetoric; intead, it is asserted, he is merely a dishonest entertainer, and only has followers seeking to be entertained rather than deal with issues of policy.

What we’re supposed to see from the conjunction of these arguments is how powerless an understanding of rhetoric is in dealing with political discourse, since the real tension there is not between rhetoric and logic, but between ‘serious’ political engagement (necessitating logic) and political ignorance.

However, this doesn’t make any sense, because it leaves us with a lack of explanation of the Trump phenomenon such that we can develop strategies of persuasion for those who follow him. This would necessitate a broader, deeper appreciation of how people make political judgments based on emotionally informed motivations and not simply rational self-interest, which thus also necessitates a broader, deeper understanding of the art of persuasion that must address these motivations. So what we really find is that failure to understand the full dimensions of rhetorical practice leaves one powerless before phenomena that seem to involve irrational judgments based on criteria other than the logically feasible.

The two arguments do not hold together in such a way that a conclusion follows logically from their premises; and the premises lack properly convincing definitions their of terms. It is not surprising then, that the essay ends, not with a summary restatement of the argument(s) and their logically derived conclusion, but with the rhetoric of an emotionally charged promise that the future will somehow make all such matters clear.

Let’s consider Holmes’ issues from a different perspective.

Journalist Anthony Zurcher, remarking Donald Trump’s rhetoric: “He pulled back the curtain on the show and laughed along with his supporters at the spectacle. He encouraged his crowds to cheer the hero (him) and berate the villains (everyone else).” That’s an appeal to an audience. It is persuading that audience to respond in a certain way. That is what rhetoric is supposed to do. [2]

‘Vote for me because…’ is quite obviously the initiation of an argument during an electoral process. One may say, the election is over; however, Trump is already currently engaged in a campaign for re-election in 2020. Therefore, he is still making that argument. (There are several other more discrete arguments he is making, concerning the nature of the media, the right of a president to do as he pleases – thus the very structure of American government, the nature of American society, and the nature of foreign affairs. But his argument for re-election is the most obvious. [3])

Some would deny that Trump is making any arguments or using any rhetoric, insisting that Trump is involved in distractions rather than persuasions; but as I showed with the Zurcher quote, this won’t do. It is true that Trump is not reaching out beyond his base, but his rhetoric is quite successful in keeping his base committed to him.

While I personally think the Electoral College is an outdated institution, it remains a hard fact of American politics, and needs to be addressed in political strategy and should help guide the rhetoric of a national campaign. Clinton didn’t plan on this, relying on a “Blue Wall” of reliable states that didn’t really exist. The Republicans understood this full well, and reaped the rewards of their strategy and the rhetoric used, including that by Trump.

One might wish politics would be entirely reasonable and orderly. So did Socrates – that ended in his drinking hemlock. As I’ve remarked elsewhere, politics is war by another means, not the other way around. It’s a dirty business, and those who don’t like the dirt should not play. If Democrats keep insisting that ‘the other side’ play fair, instead of coming up with a more persuasive politics, they will keep losing elections.

I suppose one might look forward to things getting worse to the point that everyone awakens to realize the rightness of the liberal point of view (and act accordingly). There are two things wrong with this: 1, no matter how bad things get, they can *always* get worse; and humans simply learn to adapt. Because of this, 2, such a hope is doomed to disappointment – Marxists believing this have been disappointed time and again; social critics in ancient Rome were disappointed to the point of the collapse of the Western Empire, after which there was nothing left to hope for.

There certainly is an ethics of the practice of rhetoric, and this is discussed within rhetorical theory; but ultimately this depends on a more general ethics per se. The fundamental criteria of a successful rhetoric is that it works. When to use it, whether or not to use it, how best to maneuver between different modes of discourse and in the service of what causes, is entirely a matter of practical ethics and (in the present context) practical politics.

I’m not a cynic, but I am a pessimist. That’s because I accept people pretty much as they are, rather than how I think they should be. Most people – yes, even most Trump voters – hold themselves up to pretty high standards – they may not be my standards, and I understand frustration with that – but they are standards, nonetheless, and people try to live up to them. When they fail to do so, it’s not because they’ve been manipulated by swindlers, but because uncertainty leads them to misjudgments – they are trying to do their best, but are unsure of what the best might be in a situation of insecurity. Some want them to adopt other standards, and, further, to discuss those standards only in reasonable argument, and, finally, only act according to a reasonable conviction reached through those arguments. This is not addressing human beings.

In real politics, there is a necessity for addressing all the perceived needs of the electorate, and not just their ‘best interest’ as decided by experts.

That politics is war by other means – this derived from Hobbes, not Machiavelli – is certainly pessimistic, but it stands on solid ground: History demonstrates time and again that when politics breaks down, war results. Perhaps it is this inevitable trajectory that politics is intended to stave off.

I said that the Western Empire collapsed, and it was the Western Empire that social critics in the Late Empire were concerned with preserving. Eventually the City was abandoned, and civilization moved elsewhere. In the West, by the way, this meant the conquering of hearts by way of an utterly irrational promise that the life after death would resolve all the dilemmas of the earthly struggle to survive, delivered through a militant organization drenched in mystery and armed with paradoxical faith in what could not be ‘proven’ but only believed. – exactly because it could not be ‘proven,’ and thus ‘must’ be believed.



[2] – Or consider the analysis of Trump’s use of hyperbole by Joseph Romm. Also not a professionally trained rhetorician, yet Romm has earned ‘street cred’ in the field after years of experience negotiation public policy and authoring a book advocating the use of rhetoric.

[3] And given this, by the end of this year, there should be at least two Democratic candidates running for the 2020 nomination. However, this is unlikely, because the DNC, which should be fostering new talent in such efforts, remains convinced that their glory days were the Clinton Administration, and that people will just get so appalled by Trumps antics… like hoping that the Republican Congress, knowing that Trump will sign any bill they can get onto his desk, would consider impeaching him.


A note on rhetoric

(This includes revised material from previous posts.)

“Words are instructions or directions for behavior, and they may be responded to either appropriately or inappropriately, but the appropriateness or inappropriateness depends upon the judgment of someone.” – Morse Peckham [1].

Dialogue: A rhetorician and a logician:
‘Let’s say we have one audience that sets stock in logic based discourse; another prefers appeal to emotions. The problematic is not how each target audience has its base preferences triggered rhetorically, but why it is they wish their preferences appealed to. The one identifies with their intellect, the other with their ”gut feelings….”’
‘This sounds like you’re saying that both audiences are being manipulated.‘
‘I wouldn’t say manipulated; I suggest their responses are directed toward a preferred end.’
‘But surely an appeal to reasoning is simply part of a dialogue in the effort to find a common truth.’
‘Are you not listening to yourself? “An appeal to our reasoning”? what could be more rhetorically directive?’
‘But if I am faced with a choice reasonably presented, allowing me to judge on logical grounds -‘
‘And how does that make you feel? Isn’t that the person you always wanted to be? and would you submit if you did not feel this?’
‘But I am trying to convince you -’
‘You want my assent; and how shall this be evidenced?’
‘If my logic is sound, you will agree.’
‘You want me to engage a speech act, “yes;” and further, don’t you also want me to go about “convincing” others on your behalf?’
‘On behalf of the truth!’
‘It may be; but that’s beside the point. Therein lies your dilemma: Everything you want me to say may be true; everything you want me to do based on that, may be based on true beliefs. But first, you must have me acquiesce. You must persuade me to your cause. You can appeal to my previous experience and education; you may appeal to my inculcated beliefs; you may appeal to my sense of self, to the values with which I identify. But you will never get my assent with pure logic. “If” covers a lot of ‘maybes,’ and “then” only necessarily follows in a truth table.’

Rhetoric: the practical value:
There is not a single thing we say lacking rhetorical value. The art of rhetoric – and critical response to it – begins with admitting that. Rhetoric is the verbalization of our desires and our fears – our lust, our wish for power, our frustrations and anxieties, our self-identifications, i.e., our images of ourselves: it defines our selves socially, and how we interact with others (the others we always want something from, whether good or ill; or even if it is perceived as benefiting the other somehow [2]). We use it on others, there is no socialization otherwise; and others use it on us.

The art becomes, how to navigate in its stream, not whether we wish to stand apart from it (which is impossible) or what we can know independent of it (which is nothing). We might want to be intellect separable from material reality; but that is not as nature made us. We are as we are; my dog will use every sign she can present to get me to pet her, to feed her, to let her out at night. Our signs are far more complicated; but do they not originate in similar needs for recognition and social ‘stroking’? What a wonderful thing it would be, if we were ‘spirits in a material form’! Unfortunately, we are merely animals, trying to get the world around us to do our bidding.
“The goal of all argumentation (…) is to create or increase the adherence of minds to the theses presented for their assent. An efficacious argument is one which succeeds in increasing this intensity of adherence among those who hear it in such a way as to set in motion the intended action (a positive action or an abstention from action) or at least in creating in the hearers a willingness to act, which will appear at the right moment.” – Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca, The New Rhetoric [3].

We have developed a great many technologies with which to do this; but the first and foremost available, and indeed inevitable, to all – is rhetoric. Who cares if you can upload consciousness into a computer? The important question is whether you can persuade a plumber to clean your pipes on Saturday! (Extra points if you get him/her on weekday rates!)

[1] Explanation and Power: The Control of Human Behavior, U Minnesota, 1979.
[2] “Eat your spinach and you’ll grow up healthy as Popeye.”
[3] Chaim Perelman and Lucie Olbrechts-Tyteca, The New Rhetoric: A treatise on argumentation (J. Wilkinson and P. Weaver, Trans. ), University of Notre Dame Press, 1969.
This is probably the most comprehensive text on rhetoric in the modern era, and links well with classical rhetoric without simply re-iterating it, since the authors were well aware that they were writing in the post-propaganda era following WWII. It had considerable influence on Continental philosophers, but is written in the straight-forward academic prose preferred in the Analytic tradition.

Simulation argument as gambling logic

I have submitted an essay to the Electric Agora, in which I critique the infamous Simulation Argument – that we are actually simulations running in a program designed by post-humans in the future – , made in its strictest form by Nick Bostrom of Oxford University. Since Bostrom’s argument deploys probability logic, and my argument rests on traditional logic, I admitted to the editors that I could be on shaky ground. However, I point out in the essay that if we adopt the probability logic of the claims Bostrom makes, we are left with certain absurdities; therefore, Bostrom’s argument collapses into universal claims that can be criticized in traditional logic. At any rate, if the Electric Agora doesn’t post the essay, I’ll put it up here; if they do, I’ll try to reblog it (although reblogging has been a chancey effort ever since WordPress updated its systems last year).


Towards the end of that essay, I considered how the Simulation Argument is used rhetorically to advocate for continuing advanced research in computer technology in hope that we will someday achieve a post-human evolution. The choice with which we are presented is pretty strict, and a little threatening – either we continue such research, advancing toward post-humanity – or we are doomed. This sounded to me an awful lot like Pascal’s Gambit – believe in god and live a good life, even if there is no god, or do otherwise and live miserably and burn in hell if there is a god. After submitting the essay I continued to think on that resemblance and concluded that the Simulation Argument is very much like Pascal’s Gambit and its rhetorical use in support of advancing computer research, much like Pascal’s use of his Gambit to persuade non-believers to religion, was actually functioning as a kind of gambling. This is actually more true of the Simulation Argument, since continued research into computer technology involves considerable expenditure of monies in both the private and the public sector, with post-human evolution being the offered pay-off to be won.


I then realized that there is a kind of reasoning that has not been fully described with any precision (although there have been efforts of a kind moving in this direction) which we will here call Gambling Logic. (There is such a field as Gambling Mathematics, but this is simply a mathematical niche in game theory.)


Gambling Logic can be found in the intersection of probability theory, game theory, decision theory and psychology. The psychology component is the most problematic, and perhaps the reason why Gambling Logic has not received proper study. While psychology as a field has developed certain statistical models to predict how what percentages of a given population will make certain decisions given certain choices (say, in marketing research), the full import of psychology in the practice of gambling is difficult to measure accurately, since it is multifaceted. Psychology in Gambling Logic not only must account for the psychology of the other players in the game besides the target subject, but the psychology of the target subject him/herself, and for the way the target subject reads the psychology of the other players and responds to her/his own responses in order to adapt to winning or losing. That’s because a gamble is not simply an investment risked on a possible/probable outcome, but the outcome either rewards the investment with additional wealth, or punishes it by taking it away without reward. But we are not merely accountants; the profit or loss in a true gamble is responded to emotionally, not mathematically. Further, knowing this ahead of the gamble, the hopeful expectation of reward, and anxiety over the possibility of loss, colors our choices. In a game with more than one player, the successful gambler knows this about the other players, and knows how to play on their emotions; and knows it about him/her self, and knows when to quit.


Pascal’s Gambit is considered an important moment in the development of Decision Theory. But Pascal understood that he wasn’t simply addressing our understanding of the probability of success or failure in making the decision between the two offered choices. He well understood that in the post-Reformation era in which he (a Catholic) was writing, seeing as it did the rise of personality-less Deism, and some suggestion of atheism as well, many in his audience could be torn with anxiety over the possibility that Christianity was groundless, over the possibility that there was no ground for any belief or for any moral behavior. He is thus reducing the possible choices his audience confronted to the two, and suggesting one choice as providing a less anxious life, even should it prove there were no god (but, hey, if there is and you believe you get to Paradise!).


In other words, any argument like Pascal’s Gambit functions rhetorically as Gambling Logic, because it operates on the psychology of its audience, promising them a stress-free future with one choice (reward), or fearful doom with the other (punishment).


So recognizing the Simulation Argument as a gamble, let’s look at the Gambling Logic at work in it.


Bostrom himself introduces it as resolving the following proposed trilemma:


1. “The fraction of human-level civilizations that reach a post-human stage (that is, one capable of running high-fidelity ancestor simulations) is very close to zero”, or

2. “The fraction of post-human civilizations that are interested in running ancestor-simulations is very close to zero”, or

3. “The fraction of all people with our kind of experiences that are living in a simulation is very close to one.”


According to Bostrom himself, at least one of these claims must be true.

It should be noted that this trilemma actually collapses into a simple dilemma, since the second proposition is so obviously untrue: in order to reach post-human status, our descendents will have to engage in such simulations even to accomplish such simulation capacity.


Further, the first proposition is actually considered so unlikely, it converts to its opposite in this manner (from my essay): “However, given the rapid advances in computer technology continuing unabated in the future, the probability of ‘the probability of humans surviving to evolve into a post-human civilization with world-simulating capabilities is quite low’ is itself low. The probability of humans evolving into a post-human civilization with world-simulating capabilities is thus high.”


Now at this point, we merely have the probabilistic argument that we are currently living as simulations. However, once the argument gets deployed rhetorically, what really happens to the first proposition is this:


If you bet on the first proposition (presumably by diverting funds from computer research into other causes with little hope of post-human evolution), your only pay-off will be extinction.


If you bet against the first proposition (convert it to its opposite and bet on that), you may or may not be betting on the third proposition, but the pay-off will be the same whether we are simulations or not, namely evolution into post-humanity.


If you bet on the third proposition, then you stand at least a 50% chance of earning that same pay-off, but only by placing your bet by financing further computer research that could lead to evolution into post-humanity.


So even though the argument seems to be using the conversion of the first proposition in support of a gamble on the third proposition, in fact the third proposition supports betting against the first proposition (and on its conversion instead).


What is the psychology this gamble plays on? I’ll just mention the two most obvious sources of anxiety and hope. The anxiety of course concerns the possibility of human extinction: most people who have children would certainly be persuaded that their anxiety concerning the possible future they leave their children to can be allayed somewhat by betting on computer research and evolution to post-humanity. And all who share a faith in a possible technological utopia in the future will be readily persuaded by to take the same gamble.


There is a more popular recent variation on the Simulation Gamble we should note – namely that the programmers of the simulation we are living are not our future post-human descendents, but super-intelligent aliens living on another world, possibly in another universe. But while this is rhetorically deployed for the same purpose as the original argument, to further funding (and faith) in technological research, it should be noted that the gamble is actually rather weaker. The ultimate pay-off is not the same, but rather appears to be communion with our programmers. Well, not so enticing as a post-human utopia, surely! Further, that there may be such super-intelligent aliens in our universe is not much of a probability; that they exist in a separate universe is not even a probability, it is mere possibility, suggested by certain mathematical modellings. The reason for the popularity of this gamble seems to arise from an ancient desire to believe in gods or angels, or just some Higher Intelligence capable of ordering our own existence (and redeeming all of our mistakes).


It might sound as if, in critiquing the Simulation Gamble, I am attacking research into advances in computer and related technology. Not only is that not the case, but it would be irrelevant. In the current economic situation, we are certainly going to continue such research, regardless of any possible post-human evolution or super-aliens. Indeed, we will continue such research even if it never contributes to post-human evolution, and post-human evolution never happens. Which means of course that the Simulation Gamble is itself utterly irrelevant to the choice of whether to finance such research or not. I’m sure that some, perhaps many, engaged in such research see themselves as contributing to post-human evolution, but that certainly isn’t what wins grants for research. People want new toys; that is a stronger motivation than any hope for utopia.


So the real function of the Simulation Gamble appears to be ideological: it’s but one more reason to have faith in a technological utopia in the future; one more reason to believe that science is about ‘changing our lives’ (indeed, changing ourselves) for the better. It is a kind of pep-talk for the true believers in a certain perspective on the sciences. But perhaps not a healthy perspective; after all, it includes a fear that, should science or technology cease to advance, the world crumbles and extinction waits.


I believe in science and technology pragmatically – when it works it works, when it doesn’t, it don’t. It’s not simply that I don’t buy the possibility of a post-human evolution (evolution takes millions of years, remember), but I don’t buy our imminent extinction either. The human species will continue to bumble along as it has for the past million years. If things get worse – and I do believe they will – this won’t end the species, but only set to rest certain claims for a right to arrogantly proclaim itself master of the world. We’re just another animal species after all. Perhaps the cleverest of the lot, but also frequently the most foolish. We are likely to cut off our nose to spite our face – but the odd thing is our resilience in the face of our own mistakes. Noseless, we will still continue breathing, for better or worse.



Bostrom’s original argument:

The election’s over; what now?

Among the many gaffes, groundless accusations, false flags, insults and general whining these past couple weeks, Donald Trump assured his followers that he couldn’t possibly lose in Pennsylvania unless the election were rigged.   Let’s stop and consider the logic of that.  Trump was not relying on any polls (indeed he has taken to deny they matter).  He was not referring to a tsunami of letters to the editor of various news organizations, or some set of petitions.  His reference point seems to be entirely his own ‘gut,’ his confidence that everyone recognizes him as the ‘smartest guy in the room,’ who so many people love and admire.

Actually, my suspicion is that his true reference point is simply and only the applause he hears from fans at rallies.  If true, that tells us a lot about the man, first of all that he really doesn’t get the difference between fans applauding and an electorate voting.  But I think it is becoming more and more obvious that this is exactly the case.

But the logic of his assertion that he can only lose if the election’s rigged, extends beyond the rallies.  Basically, what he’s saying is, that since it s so obvious that he’s so smart, and would do such wonderful things, and is so beloved for this – the election is now immaterial.  Indeed, if Trump’s gut were a true measure of reality, then we shouldn’t hold the election at all.  Hillary should simply throw in the towel, and the House of Representatives appoint him to office.

The irony is that Trump is making his gut known on this matter at exactly the moment when it is now possible to admit that the next President of the United States will be Hillary Clinton.

Hillary Clinton is some not so nice things for a progressive – or even a liberal.  She does lie, she is dishonest, she is conniving and manipulative.  She’s also a neocon on foreign policy, and a neo-liberal on economics.  The judge she appoints to the Supreme Court will steadfast moderates – meaning that while the train-wreck that was the Roberts court is now over, it’s legacy will not be undone by any major reversals.  On top of that, she has now a small constituency of anti-Trump Republicans that she will have to accommodate after election.  In short, Clinton’s offers to become the most conservative Democratic administration since Woodrow Wilson.

However there is one thing Clinton is not, that Trump now obviously is – She is not mentally ill.

Call it sociopathy, or narcissism or delusions of grandeur or some other out-of-touch egomania, what you will.  Donald Trump has not the slightest clue as to the nature of the political process, the nature of government, what it means to be a political leader of the most powerful nation in a very complicated world order that is untethering at the seams in response to years of finance-capital-elite driven globalization.  (In fact, by some reports, he wouldn’t even know what to do in day to day administrative tasks, and is not entirely enthusiastic about becoming President for that reason.)

However – the good news is, that the election is all but over.  Whatever the final numbers prove, this is why Donald Trump has lost the election:

Demographics:  Besides loyal Democrats, Trump has alienated the majority of each of the following voting blocks:

African Americans, Asian Americans, Hispanic Americans, Muslim Americans, non-Muslim Americans from pre-dominantly Muslim nations, Mormons, Jews, Americans with disabilities, LGBT Americans, atheist Americans, scientists, veterans, parents of veterans, attractive women, not so attractive women, mothers, women who menstruate (I think that’s quite a number), Republican women, Republican moderates, Republican politicians struggling to retain their seats in the next congress, Republicans concerned for national security, Republican business people, the college educated (left and right), Americans who don’t like Putin, Americans who like babies – and the list goes on.  Trump has failed to alienate angry uneducated white men, but recent polls indicate that he’s no longer doing so well among them.  (And yes, he has alienated the Christian Right, but then hired Mike Pence for VP to make amends.)

But, that’s not all.  Trump has utterly failed to understand the post-nomination campaign process.  He has no ground game, few storefronts with door-to-door campaigners, few liasons with local Republican politicians.  (It’s not even clear he understands why that’s needed.)  He expected the RNC to fund his campaign, when part of the responsibility of the Presidential nominee is to raise funds for the Party.  He has isolated himself from the national press, failing to realize that he is expected, in part, to speak through them, especially were he to become the President.

It clear now that Trump has no strategy.  His pet boy Manafort may be able to guide him to battleground states, but in as lop-sided an election as this, he can’t just ignore previously safe ‘Red’ states – even Arizona, probably the most right-wing Republican state in the West, and one suffering severe tensions between dominant Anglos and a Mexican American underclass, is now in play.

But Trump’s biggest problem, of course, is his own mouth.  He can’t stop it.  That’s why he is clearly pathological.  He sounds like a robot when he reads a written speech, but when he goes off-text, he’s an uncontrollable, foam-at-the-mouth ranter, and self-promoter.  Even if his people could get him to reign it in, it’s probably too late.

The next big moment of the campaign season is the arrival of the Presidential debates.  My guess right now is that Trump will probably make it through one or two before he blows up.  After which he will ‘double-down’ on the narrative that the ‘system is so rigged against me, they won’t let me win,’ because by that time it will be obvious even to him that he has already effectively lost the election.

So the discussion progressives and liberals now need to begin is, what are we do during the Clinton administration – how do we further progressive causes and somehow begin winning seats in Congress and in State capitols?    That’s a long game to play; but otherwise we may have more nightmares like 2016 further down the road.

The phenomenology of whose mind? vier (zwei)

Notes on reading Hegel: the impossibility of reading Hegel (2):

(In the years since writing my dissertation on Paul DeMan, which required a reading of Hegel, I have tried a number of times to write a critical reading of The Phenomenology of Mind, but have always run into a number of obstacles, which I thought I should share, just writing them out as they occur to me.)

3. Every element of the dialectic in the Phenomenology eventually will be discovered to engage every other element of the dialectic.

Consider this in terms of Kojeve’s Introduction to Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit. The main charge that is most frequently placed against this reading of Hegel’s text is that Kojeve makes the mistake of reading the entire Phenomenology as a meditation on the “Master/Slave” dialectic which appears about mid-way of Hegel’s text. This has Kojeve’s problem precisely backward. What I believe really happened was that the Marxist-influenced Kojeve was attempting to guide his student’s reading of the Phenomenology to begin with the “Master/Slave” dialectic, to persuade them to read the Phenomenology with social issues arising from the problems of material productivity foremost in their minds.

Unfortunately, in order to read the “Master/Slave” dialectic in any depth, Kojeve found it necessary to give a reading of the entire Phenomenology, in order to make sense of the implications of the “Master/Slave” dialectic. That would be because the issue comes down to a problem of subjectivity both per se and inter alia. That means there is no point in clarifying the nature of the subjectivity of the “Slave,” the important realization of this particular moment of that particular dialectic, unless one has an adequate conception of what Hegel means by subjectivity itself – and this is not revealed until the final page of the Phenomenology, it is the subjectivity of absolute knowledge, wherein the subject discovers itself in – and only truly in – all that it knows. (The subjectivity of the “Slave” is important moving towards this, because the “Slave” comes to know the necessity of productivity, the value of service to others, and the social positions these necessitate; but the “Master” doesn’t even really know the “Slave.”) So there is no effective way of giving a close reading of Hegel’s text on the “Master/Slave” dialectic, without first, and again at last, reading the whole of the Phenomenology.

4. In order to fully understand the Phenomenology, one has to have a pretty good working knowledge of virtually the history of Western philosophy up until Hegel’s time, at least as well as Hegel himself knew it. (Knowledge of the history of Western literature and rhetoric up to Hegel’s time helps as well.)

Consider the following sentences:

“Thus we say of a thing,’it is white, and also cubical, and also tart,’ and so on. But so far as it is white it is not cubical, and so far as it is cubical and also white it is not tart, and so on.”

This is Hegel; but although there is no reference to Aristotle, it is actually clearly lifted from Aristotle’s writing on the differences between properties of an entity essential to it and those accidental. And so we should really expect these sentences to appear in a discussion of the nature of the properties of an entity; but that’s not Hegel is discussing here at all. Here is the larger context from Hegel’s text:

“Now, on this mode of perception arising, consciousness is at the same time aware that it reflects itself also into itself, and that, in perceiving, the opposite moment to the ‘also’ crops up. This moment, however, is the unity of the thing itself, a unity which excludes distinction from itself. It is consequently this unity which consciousness has to take upon itself; for the thing as such is the substance of many different and independent properties. Thus we say of a thing,’it is white, and also cubical, and also tart,’ and so on. But so far as it is white it is not cubical, and so far as it is cubical and also white it is not tart, and so on. Putt6ing these properties into a ‘one’ belongs solely to consciousness, which, therefore, has to avoid letting them coincide and be one (i.e. one and the same property) in the thing. For that purpose it introduces the idea of ‘in-so-far’ to meet this difficulty; and by this means it keeps the qualities apart, and preserves the thing in the sense of the ‘also.'”

What Hegel is doing here is taking Kant, applying him to Aristotle, and coming up with Locke. And since we know Hegel is no great fan of Locke, we know this is not the end of the process getting described here. But what Hegel has so far accomplished, is an account of Aristotelian metaphysics, Kantian epistemology, and Lockean grammar. But this would not be noticed by anyone who has not read Aristotle, Locke and Kant. In fact what Hegel is really thinking here is incomprehensible unless one admits that Hegel holds effectively (by going to the root of Locke’s theory of language), that Kant comes before Locke, who then initiates Aristotle’s metaphysics. This is, of course, an abuse of history; but it would make entire sense to someone disciplined in viewing history panoramically: in the interplay of the dialectic, old ideas become new again, and new ideas spring from ancient ground.

5. Finally, I need to remark the grammatical difficulty of the Phenomenology, by whioch I do not mean Hegel’s occasionally difficult German, but his grammar seen in the widest perspective, as a grammar unconstrained by any deference to audience expectations.

In the above example, concerning Hegel’s use of Kant, Aristotle, and Locke, it must be admitted that within Hegel’s discourse, there is absolutely no immediate indication that Kant, Aristotle, or Locke are the philosophers whose ideas Hegel is putting into play. A reader comfortably familiar with these philosophers, will recognize their ideas. But Hegel isn’t going to acknowledge this, and the reader lacking that familiarity will likely get completely lost in reading this.

But consider the matter in a less historical, more purely grammatical issue here. “Putting these properties into a ‘one’ belongs solely to consciousness, which therefore, has to avoid letting them coincide and be one (i.e. one and the same property) in the thing. This does not follow grammatically from the previous two sentences, which concerned an object (in the epistemological sense), to which the “properties” are said to belong as predication, which saying thus makes this epistemological object a logical subject. (‘I am thinking about X – thus my epistemological object – which is then the logical subject of the claim “X has property Y” as its predication.’) This should make the epistemological object a grammatical subject as well. Yet in the presently considered sentence, the grammatical subject is an act – “putting these properties”… no, wait, it is “consciousness,” “which therefore has to avoid” … well, could it be a collective formed by the properties to “be ‘one'”?.. no, it’s a single entity, “one and the same property” … well, in any event, it is certainly no longer the object.

Hegel knows what an epistemological object is; and certainly the author of The Science of Logic knows what a logical subject is. He just doesn’t seem so interested in what a grammatical subject might be.

Let us go back to the main concern of the passage under consideration. Hegel doesn’t mention Aristotle, Locke or Kant, because he doesn’t see any reason to. He is simply writing down his thinking on the matter as it presents itself to him, fully confident that, as he has grasp of the entire narrative, the discourse will thus set itself to paper, clear to any who understand what the discourse concerns.

Unfortunately, the only reader who could possibly know absolutely what this discourse concerns is Hegel himself. This is not the language of a discourse addressed to others, but only to one’s self. It is the language of thought, not public address. Hegel is thinking to himself, and he happens to be writing while he does.

As most theorists of composition now agree, every writer addresses an ideal audience, which audience determines the rhetorical strategies of the discourse. Hegel’s ideal audience – is Hegel.

Unfortunately, since his rhetorical strategies are directed at himself, and one’s self makes an audience very easy to please, a great many of the simple grammatical necessities that rhetoric demands sooner or later simply dissolve. Thought is then allowed to go its own course, free of social expectations or constraint. A reader either will find some way to think with such a writer, or will abandon the effort.

If one really does have a sense of what Hegel is thinking, and knows what Hegel knows, The Phenomenology of Mind is surprisingly easy to follow. If a reader is not anywhere near this fortunate, the text is impossible.



Alexandre Kojève, Introduction to the Reading of Hegel: Lectures on the Phenomenology of Spirit, edited by Allan Bloom, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1980.

Problems with public discourse again (and again, and again…)

Recently, people have been been wondering about the clamor for correct speech, from both the Left and the Right. There are just some things we’re not supposed to talk about in certain quarters – whether this is a discussion of a rape narrated in a work of literature in an English studies course, or about the non-Christian deism or skepticism among the writers of the US Constitution. People are just too damn sensitive these days. We forget that an honest public discussion on shared concerns should deal with the realities of life’s experience, and the disappointments of history, however harsh. This is a problem that bubbles up time and again in American public discourse. America has been a Puritan culture since… well, since the Puritans first landed here. (They were not escaping the religious intolerance of England, they were running from the religious toleration they found in the Netherlands.)

Puritanism, need not be claimed by only one ideology. It is a rigid attitude toward social behavior, demanding that what one person, or one group, sees as the right and the good ought to be accepted by everyone and abided by. So there are many forms of puritanism, across the cultural and political spectrum. Since it stems from a ‘will to be right,’ which is endemic among those belonging to cultures open enough to engender serious disagreements, it will keep rearing its ugly head again and again, causing pain to those successfully repressed, and push-back of various rebellious spirits – including competing forms of puritanism.

But while we should always increase our understanding of the problem, that doesn’t mean we will ever be able to rectify it. The variable factors are too many, too historically entrenched, and too many people are invested is the most troublesome of them.

Two things I’d like to note. First, of course, the obvious – all societies engage in discourse management and limitation. ‘We don’t talk about such things;’ ‘a proper lady/gentleman would never use such language;’ ‘say that again, child, and I’ll wash your mouth out with soap!’ Such cautions were common in my youth. The free speech movement of the ’60s led to their eventual disuse; but they’ve obviously been replaced by other cautions, motivated by different interests. Were these eventually discarded, they would simply be replaced. Social interactions, to proceed smoothly, must have some sense of direction, and of boundaries that cannot be crossed. Some of these boundaries are rather obvious in a given context: A white supremacist skinhead should probably not spew his racism when he’s in the midst of bloods in the hood. Knowing such boundaries and maneuvering through them is part of the skill of speaking with others. An individual is his/her first censor, and should be.

Second: America doesn’t have only one culture, and never has. The very hope for one was lost with the Louisiana Purchase. Throughout the 19th century, when people wrote of ‘American culture,’ they were actually talking about the culture of the Eastern seaboard. By the 1920s, this myth became harder to sustain, as emergent cities in the West began defining themselves, while regional politicians began stoking grudges born in the Civil War against Eastern intellectualism, big banks in NYC, and the ever out of touch Washington politician. Meanwhile new media were developing to record and preserve (and market) the culture of quite limited communities – think of the blues and early country recordings from various locales in the South. But also think of the Western films that memorialized the fundamental differences between the Eastern and Western historical experience. Finally (but only for now), think of how the influx of immigrants in the late 19th/early 20th centuries effectively redefined many of the cities of the Eastern seaboard (and, later, elsewhere as well). The 1926 might find one reading The New Yorker, but just as likely, given one’s heitage, Der Groyser Kundes.

In the ’60s, which saw television become our major media for information and politics, combined with the rapid increase in the number of colleges, all sharing a similar curriculum, and the ride of national political movements, Americans effectively deluded themselves into believing there was a national culture. That could not be sustained. The social consequences of the national political movements included much good, but also considerable fragmentation along regional, political, economic, ethnic lines, but also along lines of locally generated sub-cultures, some cultures of choice. Now when people refer to an ‘American culture,’ they are really only talking about the culture projected on television, since TV is the only source of information that most Americans share. Unfortunately, all TV seems to deliver is further delusion, much of its ‘information’ of questionable quality and uncertain factual basis.

The fragmentation is an on-going process – the tendency appears to be a function of Modernity, and we find it in play during the Reformation, as Protestant churches splintered off from each other due to (often violent) doctrinal disputes. This fragmentation is thus an on-going historical process; groups are formed in opposition to other groups, coming together over a perceived sharing of values, only for its members to discover that they do not share the same motivations, and are not unanimous in their interpretation of those values. The group’s discourse management strategies break down, boundaries get crossed, and group members break off to form new groups, and so on.

‘Well,’ the question may be asked, ‘why aren’t we simply a bunch of mutually suspicious, antagonistic tribes at this point?’ Well, maybe we are. However, we have, at crucial historical moments, developed bureaucratic institutions and organizations that suffer from considerable inertia; and these institutions and organizations are really what bind most of us together.

(For instance, I prefer Bernie, but I’ll probably have to vote for Hillary in November, because I share more values and interests with the Democratic organization than the Republican one, and the institution of the US government remains relatively stable, even though apparently incapable of needed reform. But hopefully it would prove resistant to Trumpian subversion as well, should the worst come to pass….)

I here think of the countless essays I have read over the past 45 years that have deployed phrases like ‘we need to,’ ‘we ought to,’ we really should,’ concerning hopes of political, social, or economic reform. Not a single one of those essays actually contributed to political, social, or economic change.

I think it was maybe the late ’90s, when I was reading an essay insisting that ‘we need to do (x).’ when I suddenly realized: ‘no, we don’t need to do anything – it might be good to do (x); but since we don’t need to do it, and most people seem not inclined to do it, well, so it goes.’

Around that time I had another unhappy insight, into the nature of ‘the crisis of contemporary capitalism.’ There is no crisis of contemporary capitalism. Workers get screwed, lose their jobs, suffer in poverty – and that’s exactly what is needed to keep capitalism working. So was the recession of ’08, and the lame attempts at amelioration. Unemployment is built into the system; poverty is built into the system; uncertainty is built into the system. Social injustice is part of the American economy. Some use race to leverage this injustice, some gender, some age, some class, some education – but some prejudice must be formed and deployed to leverage injustice in the system, because the injustice is a necessary function of the system. One can no more imagine a capitalist economy without social injustice than one can imagine a species of tree without bark.

That means that social injustice cannot be corrected by sweeping movements without actual revolution; it has to be corrected incrementally, on a case by case basis, even where the case involves collectives. John L. Lewis, when asked why he was not a communist, replied (paraphrasing from memory), ‘Communists want utopia; I just want to make things better.’

It is a core problem with so-called Social Justice Warriors, or scientisimists, or religious zealots, or the Tea Partiers, etc. – that they honestly believe that if we all just get together and get our heads right, the world will spin in the desired direction.

That’s not true, and it’s not how history happens.

Read instead Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream.” King uses “we must” phraseology in only one paragraph, and it is not a call to social change, but a moral directive to those who already agree with his basic project.

There’s no point in asking people to change. They have to want to change. Americans are unhappy; but they do not want to change. That’s the real problem here.

I’m not simply trying to say something about our economic system (although economic considerations underlie many of the issues here discussed). My point is that ‘what ails our discourse?’ is a question for those of us who believe that public discourse ‘ails’ – that the shared interchange of information and persuasion has developed obstacles to communication and shared agreements leading toward collective action. But I suggest that most people do not perceive any ailment here at all, and are not only content with the current universe of discourse, but actually find it socially useful in a number of ways (including economically).

Any time we are considering a seeming problem in a given society, it helps to ask three questions: 1. Do the people involved perceive a problem? 2. If they do, what are they willing to do about it? 3. If they don’t, or are not willing to do anything about it, then could this ‘problem’ actually be built into the social processes that keep the society functioning? In other words, a) it may not be causing anyone discomfort despite its inefficacy as a process, and b) even should it in some ways cause discomfort or even harm, it may be satisfying in other ways that keeps the given society functioning.

In short: on disinterested observation, it may appear to be a problem; but once all interests are taken into account, it may not be a real problem at all, or at least one that people are quite willing to live with.

Finally, I referenced Dr. King’s “I have a dream,” because that was a public address that really did contribute to a moment of social change. But how? At the time, everyone knew that change was in the wind – it had already begun with Brown v. Board of Education, and the Alabama marches, and it was not to be stopped. All King did was to provide it with a focus, a lightning rod of imagery expressing the fundamental hope that his audience held dear, while reminding those on the fence of the issue of the justice embedded in that hope. He doesn’t talk about what we should do – his audience already knows what they should do; he is telling us ‘now is the time to do it,’ and reminding us of the future it can lead us to.

In the condition of increasing fragmentation in 2016, it’s not clear that an address like King’s is possible or would have anything like the same effect. We do not know that change in a given direction is possible; we do not share the same hopes or dream the same future anymore. There is really no ‘we’ here to share this knowledge or these hopes. or take action based on these. Just a whole bunch of differing ‘us’ against ‘them’ tribes.

Unfortunately – most people, though they complain, seem quite willing to live with that.

Hitler’s Mom

I’ve remarked in comments here and elsewhere, that I once wrote a critical-rhetorical analysis of Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf  (circa 1994). I would like to submit here a chapter of that analysis, so that if further reference to it becomes necessary, there is evidence of its existence.

This particular chapter, as essay, reveals the somewhat odd relationship Hitler had with his mother, at least as far as can be gleaned from Hitler’s text.

The argument:  Hitler uses rhetoric to redefine his early experiences in a way that tends to bury facts, suppress anxieties concerning women and sexuality, and shape those experiences as seeming necessities of fate. The principle revealing rhetorical moment is when, having effectively blamed his mother for the poverty he suffered in Vienna (eliding his own irresponsibility as something of a wastrel), he tropes a new mother for himself (‘Dame Care’), which thenceforth effaces memory of his actual mother altogether.

One reason for posting here is the recent legalized publication of Mein Kampf  in Germany for the first time since WWII. It is also always a good thing to remind ourselves, not only of what Hitler and his  followers did, but the kind of people they were – especially since there are many such people among us, unfortunately even in politics.

Finally, I hope the essay demonstrates the helpful interaction between rhetoric and history (and indirectly psychology). The understanding of history is not simply the recording of facts, but a greater understanding of the people who make history, and of their motivations.

(Another time, I will probably tell something of the story of why I did not follow the full study through to publication, which is not without its own interest…. )

Hitler’s Two Mothers, by E. John Winner:

My mother, to be sure, felt obliged to continue my education in accordance with my father’s wish; in other words, to have me study for the civil servant’s career.
Concerned over my illness, my mother finally consented to take me out of the Realschule and let me attend the Academy.
Two years later, the death of my mother put a sudden end to all my highflown plans.
It was the conclusion of a long and painful illness which from the beginning left little hope of recovery. Yet it was a dreadful blow, particularly for me. I had honored my father, but my mother I had loved.
What little my father had left had been largely exhausted by my mother’s grave illness(…). [1]
When my mother died, Fate, at least in one respect, had made its decisions. [2]
After the death of my mother I went to Vienna (…). [3]
I exalt it [poverty] for tearing me away from the hollowness of a comfortable life; for drawing the mother’s darling out of his soft downy bed and giving him ‘Dame Care’ for a new mother (…). [4]

In a book of some 300,000 words, much of it purporting to be autobiographical in nature, and from a man who had, at the time of writing, lived nearly half his life with his mother, the above handful of sentences and fragments comprise every last word Adolf Hitler chose to write about his mother in Mein Kampf.

Respect his father but love his mother? Considering her nearly complete absence from his autobiographical material here, one wonders if he thought much about her at all.

Historians tend to agree that Klara (Polzl) Hitler, the young wife of a middle-aged man (who, by some accounts, abused her), several of whose children died before the age of six, spoiled her only surviving son (excluding step-children), Adolf. One could expect that. And one could expect that the son would be devoted to his mother in return; or, if the relationship took a pathological turn, perhaps the son would respond to the fawning attentions of the mother with an equal pathology, in what might be termed a ‘love/hate’ relationship. It could take on even a sado-masochistic quality. Certainly Hitler’s character and reputation invite this interpretation. But, alas! why doesn’t it show up in what he writes of her?

To be sure, National Socialism’s brutally exclusionary ideology, and its dominating attitude toward women, are well known. The ideal ‘Aryan’ is a male; women, even in terms of their most admirable qualities, are little more than baby-making housekeepers. Their greatest virtue, accordingly, would be their ‘racial purity’ – bearers of good genes. Nothing else would be asked, or expected of them. Indeed, any more would be too much. (But see the discussions in When Biology Became Destiny. [5])

Hitler’s own attitudes were kinky enough, even as manifest and openly expressed, without (pace the once famous OSS psychoanalysis by Langer [6]) speculating on his behavior in the bedroom. Hitler was oft dependent on women, and yet uncomfortable around them. He idealized them, avoided them, talked down to them. He treated both of his known mistresses, Geli Raubal and Eva Braun, as sometimes amusing, sometimes annoying, children. The matter is made more pathetically complex when one remembers that Hitler surrounded himself with the promiscuously homosexual leadership of SA, as well as pathologically sado-masochistic anti-Semites like Jules Streicher. And Hitler’s rants in Mein Kampf – against syphilis, prostitution, and genetic contamination – are widely held as evidence of his own sexual pathology, although no one is quite sure anymore what that pathology might of been. Disgust? Suppressed desire? Certainly these rants are mad parodies of reformist rhetoric, and need closer reading. But when revivalist ministers begin foaming at the mouth about the terrors of Hell, are they expressing a personal fear? doing all they can to save the souls of their listeners? or simply selling a belief in exchange for filled coffers? (And who would want to believe in the terrors of hell, and to what purpose?)

At any rate, the point is, Hitler’s attitude towards women per se is enough of a question that anything he might say about the first woman he would know intimately, his own mother, would promise to reveal much about that more general attitude which so informed the ideology of a major political movement that would eventually dominate an entire nation.

But such is not the case. Hitler’s one great opportunity to wax sentimentally over the virtues of motherhood, in their embodiment in the form of his own mother, slips by with little remark.

In sum, the story Hitler tells is this: His mother (notice the absence of name) feels obliged to continue with his dead father’s plans for his son. Then her own illness brings about her death. This impoverishes the son. He leaves for Vienna, and further poverty. However, this turns out to be fortuitous – indeed, decided by Fate. The son learns more from the harshness of his poverty than he could have learned from his comforting mother and her comfortable lifestyle. So much so, that itself becomes his surrogate mother thenceforth, figuratively speaking.

But what is the nature of this figure of speech? The unnamed actual mother becomes displaced by the figural mother, ‘Dame Care’ – apparently a noblewoman, and a masterly one. The actual mother could teach Hitler nothing, but ‘Dame Care’ is insistent, unyielding. From her, he begins to learn his lessons about life. She is thus his real mother, since she fulfills the parenting function.; the actual is thus displaced by the real. The actual had obligations, but would not meet them; thus her position is surrendered to the real. Of course, the death of the actual was convenient; but perhaps more than that: Fate, again, takes a hand.
There is bitterness in this little fable, but there is more. Interestingly, no scholar I’ve read seems to pick up on it; but Hitler’s ambivalence towards his mother, and towards her death, are right there on the surface, nothing could be clearer. He “loved” her, but her death turns out to be a good thing. She loved him, but this was not such a good thing, he learned nothing thereby. Perhaps (could this thought have crossed his mind?) it would have been better for her to fulfill her obligations to the dead father and push Hitler to pursue a civil servant’s career? But he hated this idea. Nonetheless, he would not have suffered in poverty if she had done so. Yet if he hadn’t suffered in poverty, he would never at last have learned the world, would never become the leader of a historically important political movement. So it was good that she relented, and good also that she died, and good that her death forced him into a life of poverty, and good that she was revealed as not a very good mother (for loving too much) by a parenting figure, Dame Care, poverty, who proves a much better mother indeed – because she (poverty) does not love her son.

So the matter stands thus: Whatever he actually once felt for his mother, by the time of the writing of Mein Kampf, Hitler had condemned her for loving too much, and fulfilling her parental (rather than wifely) obligations. He turned instead to experience itself to be his guide, assuming it to have a will (and thus a personality), and an intention for the education it was giving him. His own experience thus becomes projected outside of himself, as a power greater than himself, directing him in his career. As much as to say: ‘This happens to me, but the “This” has its reason for happening; it wills me to move in a given direction. It is not me, yet it makes me who I am.’

On the surface this sounds terribly optimistic, a healthy means of learning from one’s mistakes, so to speak. But Hitler isn’t writing of mistakes – all this has been fated, there are no mistakes. Under this seeming surrender to experience lies a complete denial of the lessons that could be learned from experience. ‘This wills itself on me;’ i.e., ‘I am not doing this, it is doing itself.’

Perhaps a bit of factual detail helps clarify the matter.  In his subtle but unmistakable condemnation of his mother, Hitler effectively accuses her of impoverishing him by growing ill and dying, thus incurring costs for medical treatment and burial. But according to all his recent biographers, the evidence is clear that this is false. The family pension on which he lived at the time, continued after her death; he appears to have squandered it by acting as a kind of bargain-basement spend-thrift. To be sure, he had little; but what little he had he spent carelessly. Yet poverty, he claims, ‘happened’ to him, and he implies that this was his mother’s fault.

Well, if poverty is such a great teacher, perhaps Hitler owed his mother thanks, and this was his round-about way of expressing it. But the point is, Hitler, however he might be viewed objectively, presents himself as a kind of motherless child – the actual mother failed him; his ‘real’ mother, Dame Care, is simply a figure of speech. He is thus thrown into the arms of Fate, propelling him to his destiny….

And that is why Klara Polzl Hitler, to give her back the name he refuses her, so quickly disappears from view in the autobiographical passages of Mein Kampf. The love mother and son shared was but temporary weakness; its only contribution to his life was its closure. Any further memory of it – tracing possibilities to which he had turned his back – would merely prove annoying.


[1] Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf (hereafter MK), 1925; Trans. Ralph Manheim, Houghton Mifflin, 1943; p. 18.

[2] MK, p. 19.

[3] MK, p. 20.

[4] MK, p. 21.

[5] Renate Bridenthal, Atina Grossmann, Marion A. Kaplan, When Biology Became Destiny: Women in Weimar and Nazi Germany; Monthly Review Press, 1984.

[6] Walter C. Langer. The Mind of Adolf Hitler: The Secret Wartime Report; Basic Books, 1943.