The known unknown on the internet

This was written after reading an interesting article by Firmin deBrabander, “Shame on You,” at the Aeon website. *


deBrabander uses the perspective of French sociologist and philosopher Michel Foucault to discuss some current cultural formations arising in and because of the internet and its ‘social media.’


Foucault was concerned with the nature of power in modern capitalist society. But he held that power is diffuse and not centralized. We learn to regulate ourselves in a society in which our personalities are formed by society, a society in which even our darkest or most cherished secrets are actually available for view and review in particular circumstances.  This creates a web of relations throughout which power, as the effort to control behavior (of ourselves and others) is disseminated through language and shared interests.  One essential aspect of such power relationship has to do with how we seek to be seen, and how we seek to see others.


We may be watched by the state (probably are), but first we are watched by parents, peers, total strangers – your neighbors, the people you meet in a shop or on a bus, your congregation at church (if you attend), etc., etc. However, society has a hierarchical structure, so naturally those who benefit most from social strictures on behavior will be those with money, influence, or authority.


So what deBrabander is asking is how the internet has effected the diffusion of power, normalizing this interplay with what one might call socialized privacy, and how that generated echo chambers leading to a disunity of communication in society as a whole: “The result,” deBrabander remarks, “is a growing conformity within camps, as well as a narrowing of the shared space for understanding and dialogue between them.” And this seems clearly to benefit those with money, influence, or authority.


Self regulation is essential to any society; however in the current environment, you are almost guaranteed to reveal some, perhaps all, of these things to some one; if you do so on the internet – which is always a public forum, no matter how we pretend otherwise – that creates problems, some of which deBrabander discusses. (Although I think there are more as well.)


In some sense everything about us is ‘shameful,’ yet everything must be ‘confessed.’ And we seem to be constructing a culture around this double imperative.


Shame exists as a social function,helping to generate a sense of self with the agency to determine seemingly hidden values and revealed values. However the sense of shame is indoctrinated by parents and peers, and in differing social groups will determine the shamefulness of differing values. Thus anything about an individual may prove shameful in some circumstance. However, in the globalized social media, small groups appear to form around what the participants may think are private revelations that are in fact entirely public. If we take the presumed privacy as a means of protecting the hidden, then everything hidden in the many different groups becomes an object of potential shame. However, in order to participate in any group, one has to reveal what is hidden, even what the person feels ought to be hidden, and so confess. However since there is no real privacy on the internet, what is confessed is done so publicly. , This creates a web of what is hidden from some groups but revealed in others, but available to all in most circumstances,, and in other circumstances, available to those with the proper technology. This web supports the social status quo, and in a hierarchical society especially those at the top of the hierarchy with the wherewithal to leverage technological access to all information in the web.


It’s pointless to get paranoid in this situation; however it helps, in learning to live with it, to recognize that it is, and what it is.


To see this more concretely, imagine a professional football player; last year he signed a lucrative ten year contract, this despite his knowledge (known only to his family) that his mother died of Huntington’s chorea, which means that there is a 50% chance that he will likely not be able to fulfill that contract.


So, he doesn’t want to confess this to his team. But at some point, reluctantly, he confesses to a doctor, to receive proper diagnosis. It’s positive. So he secretly joins a support group with fellow sufferers, which is primarily concerned with confessing the kinds of physical and emotional suffering the condition causes.


Meanwhile, on his off-hours he pursues an interest in gardening, particularly flowers. But he doesn’t want his teammates to know this, because they all say such an interest is gay. That isn’t true, of course; but just as it happens, he is gay – and he doesn’t want his teammates to know this either. However, he certainly wants those who attend his favorite gay bar to know this, since that’s the only way he can make relationships at that bar, to which he goes after spending time at a local horticulture club. But he doesn’t mention this at the bar, because it’s a leather bar, and flowers are considered fey there.


Meanwhile, his alcoholic brother has sobered up thanks to the intervention of a fundamentalist church, and insists they attend some meetings there together, which he does to support his brother (who doesn’t know he’s gay), despite the fact that he’s an atheist, which only his gay friends and his fellow horticulturalists know about him.


Now it might be said to him, that these various social groups in which he participates put him in a tense and precarious situation, which can be ameliorated considerably if he would only confess all of his issues to everyone involved. But of course while his sense of shame in certain groups would be alleviated somewhat, he would be effectively making himself a focus of attention, some of which he would rather not have (especially if his team decides that his Huntington’s chorea invalidates his contract).


But here’s the problem. On the internet, under various pseudonyms, he begins participating on sports site; on sites for sufferers of Huntington’s chorea; on gay sites; on horticulture sites; on Christian sites for the support of families with someone suffering alcoholism; on atheist sites. On each site he confesses some aspect of himself and his situation he thinks he’s keeping hidden from others – from different others in the different groups in which he participates.


But he’s not. That myth is maintained by the acceptance of the pseudonyms he uses, and the fact that most of these sites do not communicate with each other. But in fact all his pseudonyms can be traced back to him; everything about him can be known.


The ease of access to the internet, the rapidity with which we can post on it, the ‘friending’ and ‘liking’ on many sites, the seemingly protective allowance for using pseudonyms, ‘handles’ and the like, have misled us into believing we have control over our presence on the web. That’s not true. To socialize at all we surrender something of ourselves to the groups we address. But on the internet, we may end up surrendering everything about ourselves to people we don’t know, and don’t even know exist. Remember, even without posting on the ‘net, our browsing is tracked to provide us with advertisement ‘recommendations.’ These are provided by programs; but the information can be accessed by the advertisers themselves. So there is no invisible presence on the ‘net. We enter it revealed, already ‘confessed’ by the websites we visit.


And as the construction of the surveillance state continues apace, there may be a time that everything we’ve revealed on the ‘net will be registered in a data-base in some government agencies main-frame.


Again, there’s no point in getting paranoid, because in contemporary society, there’s no way to avoid these interactions. But one should always post on the ‘net prepared for the consequences of public exposure.





I  noted this article through a posting at Plato’s Footnote.*  The above includes a comment made there: and since posting this, I’ve felt impelled to write another comment, which I expand on here,  discussing some of the possible motivations for this problem:


In a society with few naturally formed communities, such as one used to find in homogenous small towns, we are ever trying to find communities of interest to which to join.  These can be support groups, hobby-interest groups, religious groups, fan clubs, sports clubs, or just the neighborhood bar.  In the process of becoming a member of such a community, one chooses what to reveal and what to conceal about one’s life as a whole.  This will often take on something of the nature of a confession, while involving anxiety something in the nature of a sense of shame concerning what is not revealed, although this is always a matter of degrees.  An alcoholic in AA is certainly confessing, but in a presumably safe environment.  A recovering alcoholic attending a book club ‘confesses,’ even professes a love of books, but may feel too much anxiety about his/her alcoholism to reveal anything about that.  However, in the process of attending AA he or she might discover someone who likes books; attending the book club might lead to discovery of someone else with a similar issue, and friendships are formed; each community grows tighter together.

But on the internet, the communities we join, while still needing professions, confessions, and silence on secrets, social interactions necessarily change.  Our recovering alcoholic begins posting on an AA oriented website.  The conversations involved are for all those to see, not just recovering alcoholics.  The other participants to discussion are unknown to our poster.  Some of them may not even be recovering alcoholics, they may be trolls trying to attract attention to their own site to accumulate ‘clicks’ for sales to advertisers. Meanwhile, at the book-club site, where the participants are required to provide a list of their favorite books, our recovering alcoholic unthinkingly includes the Big Book as a favored text.  Soon, it goes the rounds ‘Are you an alcoholic?’  ‘I think Fakename21 is an alcoholic!’  ”My father was a drunk, I hated him!’  ‘Why don’t you show some will-power?’ etc. etc.  If our protagonist wishes to remain in the online book-club. suddenly we see a confession concerning his/her alcoholism.  It might be made angrily, or sorrowfully, or, if done with rhetorical finesse, will earn responses of approbation: ‘good thing you joined AA, keep it up!’

But the fact remains that what seemed to be a secret has now become a confession in an entirely different community than the one it was intended for.  And further both the AA site postings and the book club postings are now public property.

Such issues are magnified ten-fold on ‘social media’ sites like Facebook.  There, the communities are shallower, and less grounded in shared interests, and the public access more open, less controlled, yet frequently unnoticed by those posting to their page.  They think their sharing with family and ‘friend’ (whom they’ve never met or actually talked with).  But their audience may include trolls, their employers, sex predators, government agencies, and certainly includes advertisers tracking their browsers.

So I don’t think its largely fame or attention such people are looking for, although that may be part of it.  Frankly, I think loneliness is what drives most of them to the internet.  It is ever harder to find real communities to join in one’s vicinity, and of course joining those requires the effort to get out, drive the car or take a bus, get jostled in a crowd, etc. all the unpleasantness of real human content – the internet is so much more convenient.

That tells me that something has changed, is still changing here.  I can’t say that it’s a bad thing, I may be a grumpy old man concerning such matters.  But it doesn’t look like much of a good thing over all.

Simulation or Mere Semblance (of an Argument)?

The Electric Agora

E. John Winner

**In the following discussion, I am indebted to a paper written by Brian Eggleston, when he was an undergraduate systems analysis student at Stanford University. [1]

Much of the recent interest in the idea that we all might be living in a computer simulation, run by an advanced civilization, arises from an argument put forth by Nick Bostrom, philosopher at Oxford University. [2]  As long as we remain within the realm of higher order probabilistic logic, the argument seems persuasive. If we apply common sense, however, we can easily identify serious problems with it.

First, let us separate the general argument from its initial construction, and refer to it as “a bostrom argument for a simulated reality.” Confronting Nick Bostrom’s original version of the argument requires a facility with probabilistic logic, and he cleverly hedges his, suggesting that while the case he makes could be true, the…

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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:

Annual Christmas Message: It’s a Xmas terror thing!


I hate christmas. I have always hated christmas; yes always, since I can remember anything at all, I remember hating christmas.

My mother was a single parent (father having left when I was 2). She always worked christmas (she was a nurse), she usually worked double shifts on christmas – overtime at holiday pay rate. So she was never home for christmas. That left me to the tender care of my 2 older sisters – who basically hated me. (With one, the estrangement was never repaired.)

My mother would usually prepare christmas ahead of time – chicken sandwiches, canned ravioli or beans, canned string beans – sitting in pots on the stove waiting to be heated, yum yum. For dessert, those prepared sugary jelly pies one got at the corner-store. Of course, for the first few years, I got little of it – my sisters were voracious eaters and didn’t think of christmas as necessitating any more sharing behavior than they engaged in the rest of the year.

There was gift giving, of course. My oldest sister liked to give me torn socks. My second sister, fortunately would actually try to be generous, and usually bought me first comic books, and then later books.

My mother’s gift giving was a little erratic. I think she tried, she really did. But she was too busy with working and household chores to really put much thought into it. Usually she would ask us what we wanted, and then on Christmas morning we would unwrap these relatively cheap, easily broken plastic toys. Being kids, of course we reacted depressed and complaining. By the time I was a teen-ager, my mother had just given up – she just gave us money the week before Christmas and had us buy and wrap our own presents. Somehow, the experience unwrapping them was not the same.

We had a christmas tree – my aunt usually bought it. It was usually too big. Since we kids were doing the decorating, we always over-did it and the tree looked over-weighted and gaudy. It usually stood too long in the living-room, way past new years, so it was a brown shriveled, needle-shedding wreck by the time we got it out of there.

Holiday festivities revolved around the television set. I suppose I watched every christmas special produced during the late ’50s – early ’60s: tawdry re-narrations of the nativity story, cheap vaudeville acts pretending to be cheerful, sit-com families making vacuous jokes and grinning stupidly ear to ear. The only broadcasts worth remembering were old films. I still have fond memories of the Alistair Sims “Christmas Carol.” Otherwise, by the time I was 14, television as a whole was losing interest for me, and I had gotten the general idea that christamas was basically a marketing scam. (“Things go better with Coke – Ho ho ho!”)

For quite some time in my adult years, I tried and tried to ‘get the spirit’ of the holidays. A part of me wanted to believe that the religious magic could actually worked; a part merely wanted to belong to some community celebration.

But it was hopeless. The effort to feel happy only made things worse. Christmas after christmas collapsed in emotional ruin, occasionally spoiling romantic relationships. It was only in my late 30s that I began making friends who also found the christmas season emotionally tortuous, and for many of the same reasons. Families can be a curse, not a blessing, and we ought to allow those who experience that to live their lives without some sort of guilt trip about not observing holidays that they find hollow or painful.

The last christmas I tried to celebrate, in 1991, was with my mother and my second sister. By then I had abandoned christianity completely, so it was completely about family for me.

We ate chicken and potatoes (that I cooked), listened to an album of christmas songs, and sat through a viewing of one of my mother’s favorite films, “The Sound of Music.” We exchanged presents; my sister and I bought books, my mother (true to form) gave us plastic trinkets. We all agreed what a wonderful time of the year it was. We hugged and said good-night.

I never felt so hollow, and so hypocritical in my entire life. I gave up any attempt at celebrating christmas all together, and I have never regretted doing so.

Well, what about ‘the message,’ though? Peace and love and good will to all – and of course, if you buy that, we got a freshly born baby god to sell you too!

Well, I’m sorry – if peace and love and good will are dependent on some mythic infant from a tribal culture in some desert hinterland, than the human species is doomed – this only means we are incapable of generating an ethic that responds to the gross changes in culture that our history has brought about. The worship of an infant marks the infancy of our culture. Let us admit that there has been some progress since then.

Nostalgia for christmas is really nostalgia for small communities in rural cultures, when riding in a ‘one horse open sleigh’ was a necessity if one wanted to visit family. But we live in cities now, and many of us don’t want to visit our families. Many of us just wish the whole horror show were over, and we have every right not to participate.

And if you have children and they express unhappiness with christmas, don’t chastise them – they probably have very good reasons for it, and you should wonder hat these are.

So what to do this consumer glut ‘holiday’ season, if you’re not in a holiday mood?

well, if you can enjoy the sensual pleasures, the one good thing about christmas is that you get a good excuse for doing so – get drunk and have good sex is one possible experience of christmas cheer.

If you’re not so inclined, try reading a good book. I suggest George H. Smith’s “Atheism: the Case Against God” for its intellectual rigor. Or perhaps something more entertaining, a movie classic – Akira Kurosawa’s “Yojimbo” makes for jolly good holiday fare.

Certainly you can’t go wrong simply meditating on the absurdity of the human experience. 400 years of modernity and we’re still celebrating a Roman holiday!

Happy Saturnalia!

The legacy of Hegel

I found this essay on my computer, written some time ago, and decided – since I haven’t been posting here for a while – that I would go ahead and put it up, although it is not completely polished. Yes, it’s about Hegel again – don’t get too annoyed! – I hope not to write on this topic again for some time. But I do consider here some issues that extend beyond the immediate topic. So –


I like to describe Hegel as the cranky uncle one invites to Thanksgiving dinner, having to suffer his endless ramblings, because there is an inheretance worth suffering for.


Hegel’s language is well nigh impossible. He understands the way grammar shapes our thinking before any training in logic, and uses – often abuses – grammar, not only to persuade or convince, but to shape his readers’ responses, not only to his text, but to the world. After studying the Phenomenology of Mind, one can’t help but think dialectically for some time, whether one approves of Hegel or not. One actually has to find a way to ‘decompress’ and slowly withdraw, as from a drug. (Generally by reading completely dissimilar texts, like a good comic novel, or raunchy verses about sex.)


How did Hegel become so popular, given his difficulty? First of all, he answered certain problems raised in the wake of first Fichte’s near-solipsistic (but highly convincing) epistemology,and then in Schelling’s “philosophy of nature” (which had achieved considerable popularity among intellectuals by the time Hegel started getting noticed). But there was also the fact that he appears to have been an excellent and fascinating teacher at the University of Berlin. And we can see in his later lectures, which come to us largely through student notes, or student editing of Hegel’s notes, that, while the language remains difficult, there is an undeniable charm in his presentation. This raises questions, about how important teachers are in philosophy – do we forget that Plato was Socrates’ student, and what that must have meant to him?


Finally: Hegel is the first major philosopher who believed that knowledge, being partly the result of history and partly the result of social conditioning *, was in fact not dependent on individual will or insight, so much as being in the right place at the right time – the Idea, remember, is the protagonist of the Dialectic’s narrative. The importance of the individual, is that there is no narrative without the individual’s experience, no realization of the Idea without the individual’s achievement of knowledge.


However, despite this insistance on individual experience, Hegel is a recognizably ‘totalistic’ thinker: everything will be brought together eventually – our philosophy, our science, our religion, our politics, etc., will ultimately be found to be variant expressions of the same inner logic of human reasoning and human aspiration.


Even after Pragmatists abandoned Hegel – exactly because of this totalistic reading of history and experience – most of them recognized that Hegel had raised an important issue in this insistence – namely that there is a tendency for us to understand our cultures in a fashion that seemingly connects the various differences in experiences and ways of knowing so that we feel, to speak metaphorically, that we are swimming in the same stream as other members of our communities, largely in the same direction. Even the later John Dewey, who was perhaps the most directly critical of Hegel’s totalism, still strong believes that philosophy can tell the story of how culture comes together, why, eg., there can be a place for both science and the arts as variant explorations of the world around us. We see this culminate, somewhat, in Quine’s Web of Belief: different nodes in the web can change rapidly, others only gradually; but the web as a whole remains intact, so that what we believe not only has logical and evidentiary support, but also ‘hangs together’ – any one belief ‘makes sense’ in relation to our other beliefs.


(Notably, when British Idealism fell apart, its rebellious inheritors, eg., Russell and Ayers, went in the other direction, declaring that philosophy really had no need to explain anything in our culture other than itself and scientific theory.)


If we accept that knowledge forms a totalistic whole, we really are locked into Hegel’s dialectic, no matter how we argue otherwise.


Please note the opening clause “If we accept that knowledge forms a totalistic whole” – what follows here should be the question, is that what we are still doing, not only in philosophy but other fields of research? and I would suggest that while some of us have learned to do without, all too many are still trying to find the magic key that opens all doors; and when they attempt that, or argue for it, Hegel’s net closes over them – whether they’ve read Hegel or not. And that’s what makes him still worth engaging. Because while he’s largely forgotten – the mode of thought he recognizes and describes is still very much among us.


And this is precisely why I think writing about him and engaging his thought is so important. The hope that some philosophical system, or some science, or some political system will explain all and cure all is a failed hope, and there is no greater exposition of such hope than in the text of Hegel. The Dialectic is one of the great narrative structures of thought, and may indeed be a pretty good analog to the way in which we think our way through to knowledge, especially in the social sphere; it really is rather a persuasive reading of history, or at least the history of ideas. But it cannot accommodate differences that cannot be resolved if they do not share the same idea. For instance, the differing assumptions underlying physics as opposed to those of biology; or differing strategies in the writing of differing styles of novel or poetry; or consider the political problems of having quite different, even oppositional, cultures having to learn to live in the same space, even within the same city.


If Hegel is used to address possible futures, then of course such opposed cultures need to negate each other to find the appropriate resolution of their Dialectic. That seemed to work with the Civil War; but maybe not really. It certainly didn’t work in WWI – which is what led to Dewey finally rejecting Hegel, proposing instead that only a democratic society willing to engage in open-ended social experimentation and self-realization could really flourish, allowing difference itself to flourish.


Finally a totalistic narrative of one’s life will seem to make sense, and the Dialectic can be used to help it make sense. And when we tell our life-stories, whether aware of the Dialectic or no, this is to some extent what we are doing.


But the fact is, we must remember that – as Hume noted, and as re-enforced in the Eastern traditions – the ‘self’ is a convenient fiction; which means the story we tell about it is also fiction. On close examination, things don’t add up, they don’t hang together. One does everything one is supposed to do to get a professional degree, and then the economy takes a downturn, and there are no jobs. One does everything expected of a good son or daughter, and only to be abused. . One cares for one’s health and lives a good life – and some unpredictable illness strikes one down at an early age. I could go on – and not all of it is disappointment – but the point is that, while I know people who have exactly perfect stories to tell about successful lives, I also know others for whom living has proven so disjointed, it’s impossible to find the Idea that the Dialectic is supposed to reveal.


Yet the effort continues. We want to be whole as persons, we want to belong to a whole society. We want to know the story, of how we got here, why we belong here, and where all this is going to.


So in a previous essay **, I have given (I hope) a pretty accurate sketch of the Dialectic in outline – and why it might be useful, at least in the social sciences (it is really in Hegel that we first get a strong explication of the manner in which knowledge is socially conditioned). And the notion that stories have a logical structure – and thus effectively form arguments – I think intriguing and important. ***


But ultimately the Dialectic can not explain us. The mind is too full of jumble, and our lives too full of missteps on what might better be considered a ‘drunken walk’ than a march toward inevitable progress.


So why write about it? Because although in America, Hegel is now largely forgotten, but the Dialectic keeps coming back; all too many still want it – I don’t mean just the Continental tradition. I mean we are surrounded by those who wish for some Theory of Everything, not only in physics, but economics and politics, social theory, etc. And when we try to get that, we end up engaging the dialectical mode of thought,even if we have never read Hegel. He just happened to be able to see it in the thinkers of Modernity, beginning with Descartes and Luther. But we are still Moderns. And when we want to make the big break with the past and still read it as a story of progress leading to us; or when we think we’ve gotten ‘beyond’ the arguments of the day to achieve resolution of differences, and attain certain knowledge – Then we will inevitably engage the Dialectic. Because as soon as one wants to know everything, explain everything, finally succeed in the ‘quest for certainty’ (that Dewey finally dismissed as a pipe-dream), the Dialectic raises its enchanting head, replacing the Will of God that was lost with the arrival of Modernity.


That is why (regardless of his beliefs, which are by no means certain) Hegel’s having earned his doctorate in theology becomes important. Because as a prophet of Modernity, he recognized that the old religious narratives could only be preserved by way of sublation into a new narrative of the arrival of human mind replacing that divine will.


In a sense that is beautiful – the Phenomenology is in some way the story of human kind achieving divinity in and through itself. But in another way, it is fraught with dangers – have we Moderns freed ourselves from the tyranny of Heaven only to surrender ourselves to the tyranny of our own arrogance? Only time will tell.




* Much of what Hegel writes of social conditioning is actually implicit in Hume’s Conventionalism; Hegel systematizes it and makes it a cornerstone of his philosophy. (Kant, to the contrary, always assumes a purely rational individual ego; which is exactly the problem that Fichte had latched onto and reduced to ashes by trying to get to the root of human knowledge in desire.)



Full version:


*** I’ll emphasize this, because it is the single most important lesson I learned from Hegel – narrative is a logical structure, a story forms a logical argument, a kind of induction of particularities leading into thematic conclusions. I will hopefully return to this in a later essay.


Yet Some Men Say in Many Parts that Arthur is not Dead

I’ve embedded video from youtube, of performances of quoted material at my own web log, no sign of it, – I especially like the performance of selections of Morte d’Arthur in the original late Medieval dialect.

The Electric Agora

by E. John Winner

This essay is composed of informal reflections on the historical impact of the recent election; therefore, I hope the reader forgives the lack of endnotes and links supporting much of what I say here, since I am not making a case but offering a personal point of view.

From Le Morte D’Arthur by Thomas Malory, The Twenty-first Book, Chapter IV:

Then the king gat his spear in both his hands, and ran toward Sir Mordred, crying, Traitor, now is thy death day come. And when Sir Mordred heard Sir Arthur, he ran until him with his sword drawn in his hand. And then king Arthur smote Sir Mordred under the shield, with a foin of his spear throughout the body more than a fathom. And when Sir Mordred felt that he had his death’s wound, he thrust himself, with the might that he had, up to…

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Video links for literary essay

The editors at Electric Agora ( ) asked me to submit an essay reflecting on the recent presidential election, and I have.  If they like it, it will probably be posted in the next couple of days.

In preparation of that I thought I would here post videos (via youtube) to the material I quoted.  I quoted from two songs and two books.

The first song is Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs,” a heavy metal antiwar song, and condemnation of the Military Industrial Complex that seems to do well, no matter who’s elected president:

The second song is from the Dead Kennedys, from 1981.  This is a revised version of their earlier song “California Uber Alles,” but its actual title is “We’ve got a bigger problem now” (the bigger problem being the election of Ronald Reagan, a Donald Trump prototype):

The first book quoted from is Sir Thomas Malory’s La Morte d’Arther, the tragic tale of the rise and fall of the great Kind of England (actually, Wales), Arthur Pendragon, slain by his illegitimate son by an incestuous affair.  The video I’ve chosen to represent it is a performance of selections from the text, recited in the original late Medieval English dialect.  The introduction is brief, and includes insight into the life of the author, who was a wild but mysterious adventurer who ended up in prison (several times).

The selection I quote from is read at about 31 minutes into the video.  Pay attention to the ferocity of Mordred’s hatred for his father, as he forces himself down Arthur’s spear in order to strike Arthur with his sword:


I’m not going to provide a video performance from the second book I quote from, Adolf Hitler’s Second Book.  My use of it in my essay is to introduce the romantic notion of achieving greatness in history, which I argue is false and only leads to disappointment.  However, generally Hitler disgusts me.  So here I simply include brief quotes from reviews of the standard translation of the text:


As the reader may know, there has ben considerable controversy about how much like Hitler Donald Trump really is.  Personally, I think he’s more like Mussolini, and for a number of reasons that’s actually worse for America, because Mussolini lasted longer than Hitler, was more integrated culturally into Italy than Hitler was in Germany (thus requiring less violence to control dissent), and was primarily concerned with long-term economic changes, preferring to fight his wars overseas – something the US does very easily and its people have no difficulty living with.

Nonetheless, I include here a bit of satire from Bill Maher, comparing Trump and Hitler:

If the essay doesn’t appear at Electric Agora, I’ll put it up here.   It will be the last comment I have on this wretched election.  I’m not going to ignore politics; but the train wreck has already started in Washington, and there is no point in looking backward, unless we’re willing to learn from it.  My guess is that most of us won’t.  Already the media is normalizing Trump, and Congressional Democrats are talking about working with him.  Only on the margins do we hear people talk about correcting the mistakes made in this election campaign.  Whether their voices will be heard is worth waiting to see; but my guess is that they won’t.  America seems set on a course of permanent decline; and all our best efforts simply disappoint us.