The phenomenology of whose mind? vier (eins)

Notes on reading Hegel: the impossibility of reading Hegel (1):

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.

1. The Phenomenology is narratively structured and is not reducible to arguments. In his recent Hegel and the Phenomenology of Spirit, Robert Stern has made one of the most strenuous efforts to read the text as a construction of a series of arguments in support of a central thesis. His text is strong, it will help to deepen understanding of Hegel in certain circles. It is not, in the last analysis very convincing to anyone who has spent any great length of time with the Phenomenology. One reads Stern, remarking, ‘yes, this is right,’ or ‘that would be the case,’ and yet comes away from Stern with the deep sense that something vital has been missed, something remains unaccounted for.

What Stern does not account for is Hegel’s deployment of narratively ordered rhetoric, such as the terms for “struggle,” “torture,” “triumph;” references to the Mind “going” on a journey from theory to theory as though from one place on a map to another; the remarks concerning the Mind’s pride, its disappointments, its suspicions and anxieties.

Finally, Stern does not account for the seemingly imperious tone of much of the text. Referring to two opposite moments of the Spirit (and when is he not writing of two opposite moments of the Spirit? – except on the last page), Hegel writes: “Both have to be united” (p. 707). Were he simply constructing arguments, Hegel would proceed to explain the necessity for this union; but he doesn’t. That’s because he isn’t remarking an objectively shared requirement of reason, but an “inner necessity” of the Spirit, a felt need to do this. Hegel is remarking the Mind’s demand upon itself to develop a uniform knowledge of the world, as the only possible explanation for intellectual inquiry, which, after all, the Mind would not need to perform, were it not driven to know, and to do so with absolute certainty. This is the motivation of an agent engaged in an action – say, the hero in an adventure story, like a detective in a mystery, determined to solve the crime at all costs. The Phenomenology of Mind is a philosophical epic; its precursor to be found among the ancient Greeks was no text written by Aristotle or Plato – but Homer’s Odyssey.

2. The Phenomenology‘s dialectical structure accounts for all possible objections to its project within its project. This means at least the following:

A. It is inevitable that a reader will mistake a remark in the Phenomenology for a positive statement of affairs from Hegel, when in fact all he is doing is elucidating a moment to be later negated. “For the virtuous consciousness law is the essential element, and individuality the one to be superseded and canceled both in the case of its own conscious life, as well as in that of the course of the world” (p.402). Here do we have Hegel coming out as a vigorous opponent of individualism, declaring a necessity for submission to law in an ethical society? No, we do not. Since Hegel will ultimately hold that a proper ethic derives from the universality of the individual qua ethical consciousness (of which law is an expression), this submission to law by a “virtuous consciousness” of an individual not yet realizing its universality, will itself have to be negated. Unfortunately, at this point in the text, we don’t know this, thus we may be tempted to read Hegel’s sentence as a proposition (it certainly reads like one), rather than as the description of particular moment in the development of ethical consciousness. In order to recognize this, the reader needs to suspend judgment and read on, allowing Hegel to present all manner of propositions – and their negations – until one finally gets the hang of the process, rather than taking a position on any particular argument.

But this leaves a critical reader in an unhappy place: criticize Hegel for a position he is not really taking, which is surely unfair to Hegel; or suspend the critical faculties all together, until the text is completed – which hardly seems fair to the reader. Yet there it is – the Phenomenology must be swallowed whole, to understand any of it at all – sampling ‘selected passages’ will not do.

B. Taking a position in opposition to the negative/ positive movements of the dialectic merely reverses its polarities, producing a mirror image of the process. The most notorious example of this is in Marx, who once claimed to have stood Hegel on his head. Well, this is not really possible. If the Absolute Knowledge of the Spirit, which Hegel tells us is the ultimate goal of his project, is thoroughly materialized in the way Marx claimed it ought to be – that is, Consciousness finds itself finally within an external environment entirely of its own production – this does not change the validity of the Phenomenology‘s structure or of its intended achievement one iota. Following the withering away of the state into the communal society of fully realized subjects in Marx’s projected future completion of the historical dialectic, would only mean that Hegel had been right, that Consciousness could not realize itself without realizing its unity with all that could be known, as universal subject; we simply discover, in Marx, that the way to accomplish this is to produce all that could be known as an expression of that consciousness. “The real is the rational,” Hegel famously claims. To which Marx replies, ‘the real is the material.’ Except that this cannot be fully realized until the material is made rational; at which point, of course, the real will have been made the rational, just as Hegel says.

C. Once having engaged Hegel, simply shutting the book and declaring Hegel wrong or misguided, and arguing that the Phenomenology ought to be set aside all together, puts us immediately into the text as one stage of the dialectic itself. The problem here is that Hegel has asked us to look at the entire nature of rational thought just as such. If, once encountering this request, we turn our backs on it of choice, we will then find ourselves impelled to continue the project of rational thought but without examining its inherit structure and teleology. Not all rational thought moves in the direction Hegel claims for it; but its ground remains unexamined, a single unplanned step in the process of rational thought will send us straight into the process described in the Phenomenology, and Hegel will be found to have described our thinking before we ever thought it. Because it is the unexpected that generates the energy that drives the dialectic – the disappointments, the anxiety, the occasional sense of despair; the sense of emptiness when we realize that our beliefs are somehow lacking in what we expected from their full realization.

Consider charity; we want to appeal to others, to act more charitably, on the basis of a belief that everyone shares some instinct for charity, some necessary sentiment of sympathy for others. But if the others we address reject this appeal, deny any such feeling, then the discussion would appear to be over – so much for any ‘charitable instinct.’ In response to this, we are almost certainly going to mount rational argumentation, persuading others to see charity as some objective necessity of social life. It is no longer the feeling, but the idea of charity that commands our behavior.

Once we make such a move, we might just as well pick up the Phenomenology again, and let Hegel describe how it is we are going to accomplish this, because that’s precisely one of his intentions in writing the text.

D. Undoubtedly, one of the most frequent oppositional attitudes adopted towards Hegel’s text is that of irony. But Hegel himself recurrently as much as warns of this, and just as frequently explains why it proves ineffective. Irony is in fact an embedded function of the dialectic, driving recognition of its negative moments. Eventually, it opens the way to a positive understanding, which, unfortunately, the ironist is not prepared to provide; but Hegel is.


Phenomenology of Mind, GWF Hegel, trans. JB Baillie, Harper & Row, 1967.

Hegel and the Phenomenology of Spirit, Robert Stern, Routledge, 2002.


Our potential for violence: same as it ever was.

It’s a profound mistake to think that human nature has undergone gross improvement over the centuries. Biological evolution doesn’t work that way – why should we think social evolution (whatever that might be) does?

No one denies that progress occurs – in some fields within certain cultures, in given historical periods; but not without continuing potential for regress. When I was young, capital punishment seemed on its way to becoming a thing of the past; now the arguments against it are barely heard in public. Sometimes it is 2 steps forward, 1 step back; unfortunately, it can just as well prove the other way around.

I want to discuss an article by experimental psychologist Steven Pinker, which I found alternately amusing and irritating:

Pinker’s claim is that statistical evidence of declining incidence of wars and violent crimes, indicates that human nature has been changing for the better, that we are becoming more tolerant, and less likely to resort to violence in our relationships, both personal and political. “As modernity widens our circle of cooperation, we come to recognise the futility of violence and apply our collective ingenuity to reducing it.”

Pinker’s article is the most ridiculously skewed, narrowly focused argument I’ve read in a long time. But it’s quite in keeping with the painfully artificial optimism of academic progressivists – from Marxists still prophesying a global revolution to robotics experts promising ever greater ‘leisure’ for humanity (read: unemployment and poverty). Undoubtedly, the worst delusion fostered by Modernity is that social evolution (technological, cultural, psychological) can somehow hasten biological evolution – if we can’t somehow realize the full potential of our species, why, transhumanists will create another species that will inherit that potential and improve upon it.

Pinker only picks the ripest cherries for his argument. No talk at all about state surveillance and other oppressive measures used to keep the masses in line in many countries. No discussion of the exigencies of global capitalism, which has produced some pressure to avoid military confrontation, but which has also generated cultures of vicious competition and inhumane disinterest in the spread of poverty. Further, Pinker is pretending to offer an argument concerning statistics over history – but surely this is a profoundly truncated history we are given!

“From a high in the second world war of almost 300 battle deaths per 100,000 people per year, the rate rollercoasted downward, cresting at 22 during the Korean war, nine during Vietnam and five during the Iran-Iraq war before bobbing along the floor at fewer than 0.5 between 2001 and 2011.”

The Second World War was only 70 years ago; the potential for another such war remains problematic. One dirty bomb in the wrong city would shift these numbers somewhat, I should think.

But this is an odd way to count the dead, anyway. We’re not looking at some bugs under a microscope. The victims of ISIS would hardly breathe relief reading this article, ‘ah, well, but over all the species is doing better!’ Nor can this reckoning account for how WWII happened to begin with. The 19th century had its fair share of pacifist savants and progressivists promising the dawn of new eras of enlightenment and camaraderie. Yet WWII saw the violent death of more than 100 million globally in less than 10 years (if we see Spain, Manchuria, and Ethiopia as part of that war, as i think we should). What happened to all that pacifism, how did the new era of enlightenment meet such a bloody finale?

Pinker can’t even consider such a question, yet it’s the question that can’t be avoided when trying to make sense of his argument. The fact remains that neither political movements nor statistical trends can fully explain, or prophecy, what current social configurations will produce tomorrow or exactly how. How could the tragedy of 9/11 really lead to America launching an aggressive war of conquest against an uninvolved nation, leading to the chaos in the mid-east with which we deal today? Pinker reads this as just a spike on a graph – how impoverished an ‘explanation’ is that?

Do we really want to suppose that human nature leaves us less prone to violence now because the Soviet Union lost 10% in WWII but the US only lost less than .2% of its population in Vietnam – and even a smaller percentage in the current Mid-East entanglements? Outside of the weird statistical parameters needed to make that suggestion, the kind of argument going on, if we carry that suggestion to term, not only begs the question of what ‘more or less violence’ would actually mean (supposedly indicative of evolving empathy, charity, and tolerance, as we might define ‘niceness), but would actually beggar it by reducing it to a matter of the most obvious instances of egregious transgression.

Now, I don’t question the statistics Pinker is using, but the narrow selection of categories measured, and the kind of argument Pinker seems to be making, which, IMO, is facile and specious.

I’m reminded of the efficiency expert who needed to account for the contentment of the workers in a given factory, and whose sole criteria for this were the number of complaints workers made (in a company where any complaint would lead to immediate termination). Statistic: 0 complaints; conclusion: happy workers.

The measure is true; but there is something wrong with the choice of what’s to be measured. And the structure and style of the argument seems divorced from actual experience, because lacking any depth or breadth of consideration of context.

One long standing argument for capital punishment has been that it cannot be inhumane (which would violate the Constitutional interdict against inhumane punishment), because there are humane means of killing the sentenced person. So presumably, if one kills another ‘humanely,’ with legal authority, then no violence is involved, and everyone remains ‘nice’ and innocent? There is a line of reasoning that goes down that path, and it shows up whenever the SCOTUS has to decide cases involving methodology of execution. But the stronger, more basic argument for capital punishment is that the state reserves the right to violence against individuals and groups that threaten the interests of government or of the people as a whole.

That reservation (and I know of no national government that has foresworn it) tells us that, although global capitalism has for now largely re-channeled violence into forms of financial competition, the future of warfare has not been settled.

And that is what rebels, terrorists, fanatics and the occasional war-mongering dictator (and police and military responses to these) remind us – not that we are more violent than we have been in the past, but that potential for great violence remains within us pretty much the same as it ever was.



From comments made at the Electric Agora.

Justice in the court of rhetoric

The court of rhetoric has two jurisdictions. The first is that of public discourse, and anyone is invited to the jury. The other is that of those trained to rhetorical analysis. That sounds as if the trained critic of rhetoric ought to be considered the ‘Supreme Court” of the whole domain, or at least, one might say, ‘the final court of appeal’. But in fact the matter is the other way around; the public decides what rhetoric is persuasive by their active responses to it – by being persuaded by it. The critic has largely an advisory role. The critic clarifies the claims, discovers the fallacies, weighs the epistemic ground of the rhetoric – the unstated assumptions, the evidence provided for the claims, the implications of tropes and innuendos and their possible consequences.

A number of problems recur in the court of rhetoric, which explains why many people, from fascistic censors to philosophers, mistrust or even hate it. The principle of these, as I have discussed before, is that rhetoric, to be properly judged as successful, is not to be judged on whether its claims are right or wrong; in order to understand rhetoric as rhetoric, the principle determination of successful rhetoric is whether it works or not – whether it persuades its intended audience. So rhetoric arguing for ethically repugnant positions may be considered successful, if in fact it wins over its audience. Nobody’s really happy with that (except the successful rhetorician), but it is true nonetheless – how could it be otherwise? Rhetoric is a tool, not a strict form of communication; its whole reason for existence is getting others to do what one wants – whether voting a certain way, buying a certain product, or simply experiencing certain feelings leading to certain acts or behavioral responses. There is no logic to the statement “I love you,” but its rhetorical value is clear; and lovers have been relying on it for many centuries. What does the statement communicate? Maybe that the utterer loves the audience; but maybe not. That judgment awaits on consequences.

That is another problem for the court of rhetoric: Rhetorical analysis and criticism, like any analysis, is directed towards the past – towards what has been said and what has unfolded as consequence to the success or failure of this. But rhetoric in practice is always directed towards the future – to hoped for events, behaviors, and consequences. That makes it difficult to adjudge a rhetorical usage successful or not until it has actually proved successful (or not). What a critic of rhetoric can achieve, concerning a current rhetoric practice, is determine the strength of its claims, the assumptions it depends on, the nature of its tropes and implications, the possible consequences of accepting these.

Yet this leads to another problem. The court of rhetoric does not have the same standard of judgment as that of logic. Logic judges much like a criminal court – the judgment is supposedly decided as absolute – “beyond a reasonable doubt.” The court of rhetoric, like civil procedure courts, decides on the standard of, “the weight of the evidence.” This is actually a just premise, because claimants before the court of rhetoric have opposing beliefs, not simply opposing interests. It would be unjust to one who actually believes in a position morally repugnant to others to assert that ‘no reasonable person would believe that, therefore they are lying.’ Of course they believe it – humans believe in a lot of objectionable, even repugnant things. They aren’t lying; they believe in what they are saying; the question then is whether their claims are weaker or stronger than counter-claims by those who believe otherwise.

To an absolutist mode of thought, trained in logic, that is really hard to comprehend. Yet the court of rhetoric can not function otherwise without itself committing injustice – otherwise it becomes mere tool to a censor’s agenda.

Yet a strong and well-informed critic of rhetoric ought to be able to demonstrate when ethically questionable rhetorical claims are also weak rhetorical claims, because what is ethically questionable often relies on prior claims that are inadequately supported. Donald Trump’s claim that most Mexican immigrants are involved in criminal behavior, or that American Muslims celebrated the 9/11 attacks, can be easily undercut through reference to statistics in the first instance, or reliable reports by those on scene in the second. So these are weak claims before the court of rhetoric. Yet Trump’s rhetoric resonates with a small percentage of the population riddled with fears of differing ethnic groups and differing religions. This must not only be acknowledged, but addressed. Simply saying that what Trump says is ‘untrue’ or ‘unjust’ misses the complexity of what is going on (and frankly does injustice to his presumed audience). Also, it sets up opponents of Trump with a blind side: First, we lose sight of the appeal he has for his audience, and thus will find it more difficult to understand that audience and find some way to appeal them with a countering rhetoric.  Then, if we think the issue is Trump’s being ‘wrong,’ or simply lying, this may lull us into believing that all we need do is dismiss what he says. But in the public arena, this amounts to ignoring what he says. That means that his potential audience have only what he says to rely on, to feel some comfort in their already held fears and beliefs. That means that Trump’s essentially weak claims will appear stronger to his audience than they actually are. The danger is if Trump’s rhetoric begins persuading a potential audience without adequate response. Then, as has happened all too often in the past, weak rhetorical claims could prove successful.

Which should remind us that the judgments made in the court of rhetoric actually have profound practical consequences. The chief of these is that its determinations contribute to a stronger rhetoric in response to ethically questionable claims. It’s not enough to say that Trump is ‘wrong;’ one has to win over his audience, or at least his potential audience. And that requires a stronger rhetoric than Trump himself deploys, supplementary to any logical or other reasonable arguments we make against what he has to say. (Clinton’s suggestion, that Trump’s remarks on Muslims would be used for recruitment to ISIS, while not strictly true when made, was actually a clever rhetorical move – which since has been somewhat validated.)

As with courts of civil law, and unlike criminal courts or that of logic (which chop between the black-and-white of true-or-false), the court of rhetoric must adjudicate cases on a grey scale. That is because opposing interests are rarely easy to decide between, especially if grounded in beliefs truly held by the opponents; and because rhetoric triggers a host of responses – emotional, social, cultural – that are not reducible to ‘reasonably held’ positions.*

The art of persuasion – its theory, its practice, its criticism – is not about what is wrong or right or true or false, and never about some ‘view from nowhere’ or what some god might want us to be – and certainly not about what world we might prefer to live in. It is about the world as it is, and about people as they are. That understandably frustrates us; but the world is by nature a disappointment.


*Part of the reason for having a careful study of rhetoric is that it clears some of the ground for further study of human psychology and of social and cultural relationships.

The failure of analysis in aesthetic experience

Aestheticians (or some of them) have long sought to find grounds for claiming, “there must be reasons we say ‘X’ is an aesthetic object;’ but they come across reading as if saying, ‘there must be some reasoning a critic can use to convince us that “X” is an aesthetic object,’ which is a different question; in either case they have failed. (Logically, but not necessarily rhetorically; indeed the art of aesthetic criticism lies in marshaling a certain kind of objective language to both justify subjective aesthetic judgment, and persuade the audience to the correctness of that judgment – the success of this in effect objectifying the judgment for the audience community.)

This is really not about whether there are such things as ‘aesthetic objects’ exist independent of our judgment of such (what could that even mean?), but about how we talk about them, and whether there is any logical necessity in talking about them in a given way. Anyone who loves the arts wants to say ‘yes,’ but the harsh reality is that language is a social phenomenon; it doesn’t float above us waiting to validate our experiences; and aesthetics is the field that makes this most obvious.

Taste is a matter of inculcation, training, and experience. And not even everyone sharing the same inculcation, training, and experience, will entirely agree on selected objects.

Consequently, although there was some efforts in the 19th and 20th centuries, to find a way to transform aesthetics into a science, these failed miserably. They dominated the teaching of art and literature for a time; but eventually most people interested in art and literature simply stopped bothering with them. (‘Monroe Beardsley – who cares?’ The co-author, with W.K. Wimsatt, of “The Affective Fallacy” – arguing, in part, that the value of a poem should not depend on the emotions we read into it – was simply wrong-headed. The affective is not a fallacy, it is the very reason we come to literature in the first place.)

The notion that art is a cultural monument that we must all bow down to, in fact triggered an aggressively negative response in the ’60s, part of the “Cultural Revolution” that tossed all such notions – even some good ones – into the trash can. We largely recovered by tacit agreement that differing aesthetic values would obtain in different social factions – effectively different cultures (or ‘sub-cultures,’ although this term is illegitimate, since it presumes a mainstream culture that, in America, is really an illusion). So now, no one tries to impose the aesthetics of the museum on the those who prefer illustrated novels.

There is no ground for saying of a poem, or painting, or song, that it is ‘lovely.’ We call it such because we have been raised in a certain way, have had certain experiences (shared with others), and so attune ourselves to certain other experiences. The objectivity of art is not a matter of what’s in the object, but in the shared values of a given community.

Recently, The Electric Agora ( – where these thoughts originated as commentary), I had cause to read Frank Sibley’s criticism of what might be called ‘logical aestheticism’ – – which includes several critical responses to Sibley’s article. I won’t go far into Sibley’s argument; basically, his thesis is that the language we use to discuss aesthetic experiences is neither quantifiable nor conditional, in a manner that we can justify them analytically. They are, instead, results of education and experienced taste. The expert in an art is not the one who has thought rationally about it, but the one who has been immersed in it.

In Peter Kivy’s response to Sibley, attempting to redefine the problem in terms of aspect perspective, (which, if successful, would provide a means of including both rational analysis and Sibley’s theory of taste), I noted this passage:

“We are asked to perceive the melodic line of “Der greise Kopf” (“The Grey Head”) as a line drawing – the silhouette of a man’s head encrusted with snow and ice. How might I bring someone to hear the song as the outline of a face? As in the case of the duck-rabbit, my strategy would be to pick out some crucial feature or features that can be perceived in an appropriate way. I might say, for example: “Notice how the melodic line of the piano introduction climbs, pauses, as if to demarcate the nose and mouth, climbs again, to the brow as it were, and then descends in one long unbroken gesture that outlines the back of the head.” We do not stand mute before an instance of aesthetic aspect-perceiving; we are prepared to point out the features that are involved in perceiving one aspect or another.”

I was going to critique Kivy here; but on re-reading, I realized he was not writing as assertorically as I first read him. Nonetheless, the quoted passage will do to surface the problem here.

This is exactly the sort of thing an academic critic would say. The problem is, one has to already have a sense that “Der greise Kopf” is music worthy of listening to, to be persuaded by the argument. What could such a critic say to someone who simply tossed it off as ‘just so much noise to me’? Worse yet, what could be said to someone with an education similar to the critic who shrugged and said, ‘well, I really don’t like that piece, my taste leans towards jazz’? That’s worse, because the boundaries of the debate remain aesthetic, but there are no grounds by which the debate can be adjudicated. One says ‘potAYto,’ one says ‘poAHto’ – let’s call the whole thing off.

And, of course, then there’s the educated and experienced listener who simply accepts a different culture, with different cultural norms.

So I also want to quote two of my favorite musicologists * here, in order to indicate how important cultural context and experience really are to this issue, which classical aestheticians tend to miss (or, revealing a class bias, dismiss):

“Just let me hear some of that
Rock And Roll Music,
Any old way you choose it;
It’s got a back beat, you can’t lose it,
Any old time you use it.
It’s gotta be Rock And Roll Music,
If you want to dance with me.”
– Chuck Berry, Rock and Roll Music

“One good thing about music, when it hits you feel no pain.”
Bob Marley, Trenchtown Rock

We can certainly raise ethical objections to the lyrics of certain songs (those that advocate rape or violence, for instance), but I don’t see how we can raise any objections to the music one is culturally prepared to listen to. What would we say – ‘this is not beautiful’? ‘this is not music’? We have heard such arguments in public discourse – and we have seen that they fall on deaf ears. The aesthetic begins in the social modification of primal desires and visceral responses; articulate judgment follows as explanation. But this is not the ‘thing in itself.’ This ‘thing’ is a feeling, not a ‘thought.’

* Every successful musician (barring clever advertising hype) is a intuitive ‘musicologist’ – one expert in musical expression and its social reception – almost by definition; they would not be successful otherwise. The point hereis, in what culture will they’re expertise apply? The aesthetic is always culturally bound. No ‘logical analysis’ or neuroscience will ever effectively get around that.

Psychotherapy, science (and the real importance of Freud)

Is ‘Freudianism science? Probably not. But does that matter?

Is psychoanalysis a science based therapy? Probably not. But does that matter?

Was Sigmund Freud a ‘scientist. as we now understand the term? Probably not. But does that matter?

What I refer to as here as ‘language based, context-dependent’ psychotherapy, runs the gamut from psychoanalysis, through Rogerian talk-therapy, to behavior modification, as well as the common 12-Step program – basically any therapy primarily reliant on discussion with a therapist (or quasi therapeutic other) in a ‘safe’ environment, where the client’s historical behavior is addressed in terms of the context in which the client lives, usually in the form of re-interpretation of those behaviors in a manner that the client finds more satisfying, and which produces less tension in the given context.

Different people with differing complaints – and sometimes even different people with the same complaint – will respond well to different therapies. They all work, but none of them work for everybody.

In the early ’90s, I had cause to research studies on the effectiveness of various language based, context-dependent therapies, and found that – at that time – the recidivism rate for unwanted behaviors or experiences was roughly 60% across the board. That is, for any such therapy one chose to pursue – from behavior modification to group therapy – one had about 30%-40% chance of a lasting successful outcome. (Purely medical treatment, i.e., e.g., psychotropic medication, seemed to fare a little better; but the research on these was generally conducted under more stringently controlled clinical environments. *)

This doesn’t make any of these therapies poor choices. Regardless of scientific foundations, even language based, context dependent therapies have proven beneficial to somebody. I think it a mistake to say to someone who has claimed to have been helped by such a therapy that the weakness of the therapy’s scientific foundation means that it doesn’t work. It does work; it has worked. The only danger here is the occasional charlatan, who does more harm than good; but we have quite a number of watchdog agencies, both private and public, that can be engaged to address these.

My research was nearly twenty years ago, so matters may be different now; but I suspect not much. Most therapies are justified with case-study anecdotes or short range statistical studies. At the time I read up on this there were only a handful of long-term follow-up studies. Again, this may have changed; but I doubt it because 1) the kinds of complaints that bring people into therapy are wide-ranging, highly variable, and enormously complex; and 2) the bias in research in psychology tends toward short-range studies on limited populations, often in highly controlled situations.

This means that the science that would utterly invalidate an established therapy has be fairly strong to be convincing, and it’s unclear to me that such science has been fully grounded as yet.

My own opinion – unless shown the science just mentioned – is that whatever works for a large enough clientele without complaint, is worth pursuing.

The theoretical claims used to ground such therapies, on the other hand, lie within the domain of theoretical or philosophical psychology, and therefore open to criticism, both theoretical and scientifically measurable. (it should be remarked that many elements of such theories of psychology are sometimes simply outside of what can be properly measured – how does one measure an ‘archetype?’ And sometimes even theories with considerable clinical measurement as resource, fail to hold up under scrutiny over time, as happened with the pure form of Skinner’s behaviorism.)

Freud understood ‘science’ in a manner peculiar to German culture in the 19th century: a mixture of theoretical rigor and completeness, clinical repeatability, and casework compiling and analysis – a rough form of statistics. This ‘rough’ quality of the inductive portion of his method, combined with the speculative inventiveness needed to make his theories complete, undoes his work from the view of our contemporary scientific community. But I think this judgment, while well-grounded, risks ignoring what Freud actually did accomplish.

Regardless of the scientific validity of his methodology, Freud was, in his prime, an insightful and even courageous thinker, willing to challenge social shibboleths of his day in order to offer positive redress to chronic disorders, while developing a larger and more grounded theory of the mind of a particular animal, rather than of some embodied soul. The notoriety and controversy that surrounded these efforts had the effect of disseminating his work throughout the culture of the educated middle and upper lasses.

This dissemination has had some unhappy effects – for instance, a language of esoteric interpretation that can be used manipulatively rather than helping to improve and clarify communications. On the other hand, he developed interpretative strategies that have been found useful, especially in the arts.

More importantly, though, we must remember that Freud helped shape our understanding of the human animal as an animal. We now admit that this animal is driven by desires, anxieties, grudges; some inarticulate, often the result of memories, some of which we only half-remember.

Darwin’s human animal was a product of Victorian faith in progress – ever developing toward greater reasoning, deeper sympathies, more reasonable means of assuring an improved future for progeny. Freud’s animal is horny, angry, selfish, and scared – with tendencies towards sadism and masochism that, if uncontested and unconstrained, could well destroy us. It is with no irony of history that it was Freud, not Darwin, who would need to confront the irrationality, cruelty, and mob-mentality in the rise of Nazism.

I’m certainly not justifying continued adherence to Freudianism in the present day (although I still think some of its interpretative strategies useful). My purpose here is simply to remind us that, whatever flaws in Freud’s character, theories, or methodology, and whatever flaws that developed in the practice and theories of his heirs and professional descendents, Freud contributed a good deal to the culture in which we live, some of which has proven beneficial, none of which we can rid ourselves of, without some loss in our continuing efforts to understand ourselves.

* As someone who has suffered from chronic, sometimes disabling, depression all my life, I guarantee that depression (the primary reason people enter therapy in the US, according to statistics) is not anything like clearly neurophysiological conditions like, say, epilepsy or autism.

I will also admit that, in therapy, I have tried anti-depressant medications of every type and stripe, without success. Indeed. sometimes the trials were disastrous.

It should be noted that, despite the public branding of such medications, there is no such thing as an “anti-depressant.” There are drugs that suppress certain neuro-chemicals, and there are drugs that enhance certain other such. The term “anti-depressant” refers, not to the direct effect of these drugs, but to the indirect behavioral expressions of individual responses to their effect. Grasping this changes one’s perception of the whole medical-psychiatric enterprise. (I have given up on chemistry; I am content now to find my solace in Buddhism and philosophy.)

Personally, I don’t think there’s going to be any science of psychotherapy at all. I think its entirely a social phenomenon, and can only be properly discussed sociologically. And sociology offers no certainties, only statistical probabilities.

Rhetorical analysis: claims of illegitimacy against Obama

In comment to a discussion ( ) on the philosophy of rhetoric as developed independently by Stephen Toulmin and Chaim Perelman, a reader expressed confusion, wondering why we simply don’t leave argument analysis to professional logicians, thus demonstrating a misunderstanding of what philosophy of rhetoric actually considers as its domain. It’s not about the logic that professional philosophers work with, but about the kinds of reasoning anybody has to work with in daily life. And no, formal logic cannot encompass that. (Of course Toulmin and Perelman appear to have grasped that even different scholarly fields engage different argumentation styles and differing rhetorics, but my own concern is how we take this out into the fields beyond the Academy.)

Even before Toulmin and Perelman, this was demonstrated by Wittgenstein and Austin. Please show me the logical calculus for ‘Hey, how ya doin’!’ But I could give you a rhetorical explanation of the social codes necessitating greetings such as these.

In response to the commentator mentioned, I’ve written the following demonstration of rhetorical criticism (in non-technical language).

Let us consider a speech promoting the assertion that “Obama is not really the President of the United States.” “Therefore” (actionable conclusion), “he should be removed from office.”

This is derived from two basic assumptions.

1. Obama cannot prove he was born in the US; legally this disqualifies him from office.
2. Obama is a black Muslim, and America is a predominantly white Christian nation.

If the first clause of the first assumption is correct, then the assertion of the second clause happens to be correct, according to the Constitution.

The second assumption is more complex, because it derives from a heavily shaded reading of American history, that basically denies that the Constitution has authority over the ‘will of the Founders’ expressed through historical development. In other words, while the Constitution is effectively invalidated by this assumption, it is also assumed that the Founders simply could not have imagined a black Muslim president, and would have written a different Constitution otherwise. (It also assumes facts not in evidence, derived from Obama’s family background and name.)

The claim is not unreasonable, even though some of the claim’s justification lacks warrant. And it grounds the rhetoric of the current front-runner of the Republican candidates for the presidency, Donald Trump.

The strict birther argument is fairly easy to deal with. It is not good enough, to understand what is going on here, to simply call Trump and his followers irrationally ‘crazy;’ as already noted, there is a certain chain of reasoning in their thinking. Beyond the infamous birth certificate nonsense (which even production of the certificate could not squelch), one really has to argue that defacto legitimacy re-enforces known dejure legitimacy, thus cancelling out this argument altogether: Obama has fulfilled the responsibilities of the office of president for now 7 years, and the only body that could delegitimate him, the US Supreme Court, has found no cause for doing so. Everything that could be done to establish the legal illegitimacy of Obama’s presidency has been done, and the efforts have failed. Thus, while he may not be the president some people would like, he is, ipso facto, the legitimate President of the United States.

The claim about the Founders’ intent and Obama’s suspected cultural background is a bit more complex. Let’s deal with that.

– The office of the presidency is constructed by the Constitution.
– The Constitution was composed by white men, who had unchallenged hegemony over the States at that time.
– Given this, it is unlikely that they could imagine that there would ever be a black president.
– Further, the Founders’ explicitly stated, in the Constitution, that a black person was not to be considered a full citizen.
– Further, The Founders’ identified themselves culturally as Christians, and so the intent of the Constitution’s “no religious test for office” clause conceivably only applied to differing sects of Christianity – Baptist, Presbyterian, etc., and was never intended to allow non-Christians into office.
– Obama is a black person, the kind of person the Founder’s would never have imagined as president.

– Obama is probably a Muslim, given that his father was, and he was raised in the Muslim nation of Indonesia. Therefore the “no religious test for office” clause cannot include him.

Already, we should be able to see that we are dealing with emotionally charged expressions both driving and driven by shared beliefs and values among those who would find these claims reasonable; and emotions (and emotionally invested values) rarely respond well to logic. (This is about what people feel, intuit, begrudge, hope; not about what they think. Thinking, for most people, is just another action to take in response to what they feel.)

Interwoven with the basic claims presented, are implications we ignore at cost: 1) Emotional content: the speaker is unhappy with the situation; s/he is probably unhappy that white people have not ‘stuck together’ to oppose black political participation, and is therefore distrustful of whites who voted for Obama; s/he is also unhappy that the laws of this nation are determined on the basis of secular, rather than religious, interests, and suspects opponents on moral grounds. 2) Unstated assumptions: that the intent of the Founders has primacy over the actual text of the Constitution; that the cultural status of the Founders effectively determined the kind of nation they envisioned for America; that America having a majority-white population, it’s political leadership should also be white-majority (and since only one person can be president s/he should be white); that America having a majority-Christian population, its political leadership should be Christian and act on Christian principles. 3) Implications of claims and unstated assumptions: black people are inferior to white people (why else would they have less than full citizenship in the Constitution?); this being a Christian nation, no non-Christian could lead it politically without subverting Christian interests, and thereby subverting American interests; the Founders would never have imagined an inferior with subversive intent as president of the US.

So far this is just expression, but delivered in a political speech, elements of this reasoning form an effort to shape listener attitudes. So what does the speaker want the audience to do? First, assuming the audience to be white Christian, they are being asked to identify with white Christian interests presumed by the speaker. Second, they should feel suspicious of any who would vote for Obama. Third, they should feel concern, even outraged, that Obama is president. Fourth, they should not trust a governmental system or a political history that has allowed Obama to become president.

This last note is crucial; it allows the omission of the historical facts that effectively mitigate many of the claims – the Civil War, the Amendments to the Constitution, the Civil Rights struggle and its success, etc. According to our speaker, if the political history of the US has allowed Obama into office, there is something wrong with that history. This opens the door to grand conspiracy theories, which is just what our politician hopes, since these aggravate and re-enforce the emotional content of the speech as heard by a receptive audience.

And of course, and especially, what the speaker hopes the audience will do will be support causes s/he endorses, and vote for politicians s/he prefers.

Now, I would be remiss if I did not offer strategies of rebuttal here. First, of course, the history that has been so elided by our hypothetical politician, must be re-enforced at every turn – the Civil War, Civil Rights, Amendments, the lot. The claim must be (as it has been) that the Constitution is a “living document,” amenable to change, and that the Founders foresaw cultural and polityical change as fundamentally a good and useful, else there would be no allowance for Amendment in the Constitution. The debates concerning slavery, which began before there was ink on the Constitutional text, may also be emphasized, as may the pluralistic understanding of religious freedom among the founder, especially the deism of several important figures, like Jefferson. It should be made clear that the demand for religious freedom embedded in the Constitution encompasses far more than differing Christian sects.

Second, the implications of the unstated assumptions must be exposed and ridiculed, especially the notion of racial inferiority; after all, the reason this assumption lies buried is because it is widely considered socially unacceptable in the US, and every effort should be made to keep it so.

Finally (for now), but perhaps most importantly, the emotional content of the claims must be addressed. The presumed receptive audience of our hypothetical politician must be re-assured that their interests – while no longer dominating the American scene – are not threatened by the changes occurring. Let them find their own white Christian communities, the government does not threaten them there. (On this matter, BTW, Obama has been a brilliant politician; he never won such audiences over to his cause, but he has successfully squelched any claim that he threatens them. These continue on the margins, but have largely disappeared from even Fox Noise.)

Ideally, the audience being considered should actually feel greater comfort levels with the changes occurring, including having a black president. And there may be ways to achieve that; but such is a long and difficult process, requiring many forms of art, politics, and economics.

As we see, the matter is complex, multifaceted, and emotionally charged. But there is a reasoning here, covering quite a bit of history and future argumentation.. I don’t see anywhere an opportunity for formal logic analysis. Such would not convince the audience of our hypothetical speaker to question his motivations, claims, or insinuations. Only a critical-rhetorical approach can do that. That’s what critical thinking should be all about: how to read and respond to rhetoric.

Collective fiction-making as reality

“All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players”
– Shakespeare

What we call ‘reality’ is largely a function of collective fiction-making – communal story-telling that functions as explanation of experience, re-assuring us that our responses to events are appropriate and shared among those within our culture. Consider:

General scenario: A car passes another car at a much faster speed, and swerves close to the second car, which has two people in it, persons M and N.

Possible responses:

Variant 1:
Ma: “That drunk driver nearly hit us! Gosh, what a fright!”
Na: “It was terrifying! I’ll call the police!”

Variant 2:
Mb: “Ah, a drunk driver! I’ve a good mind to step on the gas and give chase! what fun that would be!”
Nb: “It was thrilling! I was so afraid this ride would be dull!”

Variant 3:
Mc: “You’re being here makes me nervous1 We almost got hit back there!”
Nc: “I hate riding with you! One drunk driver, and you nearly lose control!”

Fortunately for us, each couple is made up of two people who are on the same wavelength as to how they perceive the experience *. As we can see, the persons in each couple are participating in the construction of the narrative of the event, the story they will tell of it to others following the event. All three versions will have a dose of the truth in them; yet all three versions will effectively be fiction.

One reason for this should be obvious. Each story will be colored by the emotional responses of the participants to the even. ‘Objectively,’ as seen by, say, a falcon gliding overhead (who doesn’t give a damn), the event is not ‘frightening;’ it is not ‘thrilling;’ and it certainly indicates nothing about the couple in second car. The event as a fact is simply that one car drove close to the second car, at a speed exceeding that of the second car.

Now, by this time, my reader may be lulled into believing that the driver of the first car was drunk. This assumption was made by all three variant couples. This is completely consistent with what the couples know of expected behavior on the road – seen in experience with previous drivers, but also seen in films and television.

Indeed, couple Ma and Na discover the identity of the driver of the first car and lodge suit against him.

Unfortunately for them, the police did catch up to the first car’s driver at the local hospital emergency room. Police are trained to write their reports as ‘objectively’ (lacking opinion) as much as possible. And the police report shows that the driver in question a) passed a breathalyzer test with exactly zero alcohol content; b) was a professional race-course driver who knew exactly how safely he could pass beside the second car; c) was transporting his pregnant wife to the hospital to give birth.

It should be noted that ‘drunk,’ before the law, is a legal term with a measured definition. If the driver of the first car had blown a breathalyzer test of 0.7, he would still not be legally ‘drunk’ in most states.

Yet if the cops had asked him to “walk a straight line” and he had failed to do so, he would still have been considered ‘drunk’ according to common usage, in most states, and this would have been prosecutable.

Are we getting a sense of what’s going on here? The story is never the case of ‘what actually happened.’ It is always an amalgam of emotional responses, assumed interpretation of behavior, common cultural assumptions, and legal definition.

We don’t know what this ‘reality’ is. In order to act, we must assume a construct that is primarily fictitious, but we must assume it to be real, in order to act. It is a ‘Catch 22’ that we are always confronted with, and must live through – and assume the cost and consequences.

* Imagine how much more difficult this discussion would be, if the participants were not on the same ‘wave-length’:

M: “Ah, a drunk driver! I’ve a good mind to step on the gas and give chase! what fun that would be!”
N: “It was terrifying! I’ll call the police!”
M: “It was thrilling! I was so afraid this ride would be dull!”
N: “I hate riding with you! One drunk driver, and you nearly lose control!”

– Now, there’s an unhappy family!

Ethics, theory, and intuition

Are thoughts good or bad? Do they necessitate ethical (or unethical) behaviors and practices?

Both as a Buddhist and a Pragmatist, I don’t believe we ‘own’ our thoughts at all. Thoughts are generated by electrochemical activity in the brain, responding to previous experiences. There is no reason to claim them as ‘mine,’ any more than I can claim that what I see is somehow generated by my eyes. The sun rises, the sun sets – have I control over seeing this? Thoughts about neighbors, or employment, or politics – is any of this ‘me’?

“Me’ is just an existential convenience; thus any thought ‘me’ entertains is simply that fiction re-investing itself in its own existence.

Problems arise when people think they own their thoughts, and that such ownership requires action. What a waste of time!

There are no ‘good’ thoughts, and none ‘bad.’ There are physiological responses that demand ‘I’ respond to ‘my’ thoughts, and there is recognition that all thought is, on one level or other, simply what passes through a brain too enamored of itself and needing practice to learn otherwise.

(Also, as someone who has written a bit of fiction as a hobby, I should note that good fiction writers need to think unthinkable thoughts, if they are to get to the truth of their characters. Dostoyevsky wrote brilliantly – from the inside – of murders, as did Poe. Neither committed murder, as far as I know. They didn’t have to – they knew their fictions were just that. All our thoughts are fictions, sometimes useful to act upon, sometimes not. It is misguided to believe otherwise.)

Most of our ethical responses do not derive from well-thought out ethical theories, direct reasoning of right and wrong. This might be an ideal, but it is not the human animal as we have known it through history. One can imagine an Aquinas, or a Kant, or a Confucius pondering an ethical choice carefully before deciding on the proper action to take; but most of us rely on what we often call ‘gut-feelings’ – or, more reflectively, our intuitions.

There is a mainstream theory in contemporary philosophy that intuitions just are beliefs – thoughts occurring as linguistic units that we hold to be justified. It should be noted that if this is so, then intuitions can be stated as propositions for analysis; and that as statements they can be used for theory construction; thus intuition and theory would be co-dependent. But this is actually an over-sophistication of common experience.

Most people do not experience intuitions as thoughts, but as feelings. Often these feelings are quite vague and difficult to articulate. I walk into a room filled with strangers, and feel uncomfortable, leaving as quickly and as gracefully as I may. Why? ‘I don’t know, those people were just not my type.’ Can this be stated as a belief? possibly, but how meaningfully? to what end? Can background beliefs be uncovered? Also possibly; but those beliefs are not the intuition, they merely condition it as response.

The conditioning of our intuition by belief, by converse with others, by reading or other interaction with cultural experience (art, the sciences, media), is by no means a trivial matter that we can leisurely cast aside. Our intuitions are not “instincts,” as they are sometimes called, arising from biological necessity. They develop as responses during maturation among elders and peers. They keep us aligned with, connected with, the unstated (but viscerally experienced) feelings of others.

But this conditioning raises important questions; after all, how do we wrestle with ethical responses guided by conditioned intuitions that may be misguided? And what can we do when the conditioning fails, for whatever reason, and we cannot respond properly by intuition?

So I do think there’s a place for ethical theory. Having experienced a highly dysfunctional upbringing, I’m not so keen on trusting to sympathy for assuring ethical responses. There is certainly a pathology to be found among those who do not feel the sympathies that drive much ethical behavior. Unfortunately, in a society as diverse and fragmented as our own, such pathologies are quite wide-spread, even among the brightest. Some suffering this, recognizing their deficiency, may develop or learn appropriate responses through theory, which thus provides a kind of therapy. And there is some value in it as propadeutic, helping condition the feelings that we rely on in our actual behavior. And without a healthy public discussion on ethics, some would be left dependent on indoctrination – or on blind obedience to law. Theory of ethics may have limited value, but thinking about ethics is generally a useful endeavor, as long as one doesn’t obsess on it. And any ethical behavior ought to be reasonably explained, if only post-hoc, in order to provide guidance for future behavior, by further conditioning the intuitions – the feelings – that finally drive all our behaviors.

Nonetheless: I remember I had read about Maimonides as a great ethical thinker; so I was surprised to discover, on reading the passages on ethics in Guide of the Perplexed, fairly common sense instruction to ‘be good,’ ‘act charitably,’ ‘don’t envy others,’ and like calls to heed the instructions of one’s elders. At first I was disappointed; but on reflection I realized that the richest wisdom is often the simplest and most commonplace. Much sound ethical instruction, however phrased, amounts to ‘be good;’ and that’s probably as it should be. Ethics is about what we do together, not esoteric schema that we talk about.


Now, for future discussion, I note that I’ve surfaced a problem without providing resolution, and it’s important, so I’ll repeat it: “how do we wrestle with ethical responses guided by conditioned intuitions that may be misguided?” In other words, what do we do when the society around us – that raises us and guides us, and gives us the bearings by which we navigate our lives – just happens to be wrong?  And how do we do this, how do we change our minds?  It’s a difficult question for any theorist of a social-determinist bent. I have suggested possible answers before (it’s one of the reason I’m a ‘compatibilist’ on the ‘free will/determinist’ debate). But the various conflicts involved – between socialization and individuation, between necessary acceptance of communal norms and equally necessary transgressions, between collective interests, humanistic interests, and social justice – are extraordinarily complex, and attempts to articulate them sometimes feel like trying to catch the wind….

In the chilly hours and minutes of uncertainty
I want to be in the warm hold of your loving mind

To feel you all around me
And to take your hand along the sand
Ah, but I may as well try and catch the wind

When sundown pales the sky
I want to hide a while behind your smile
And everywhere I’d look your eyes I’d find

For me to love you now
Would be the sweetest thing, it’s what’d make me sing
Ah, but I may as well try and catch the wind

When rain has hung the leaves with tears
I want you near to kill my fears
To help me to leave all my blues behind

For standing in your heart
Is where I want to be and long to be
Ah, but I may as well try and catch the wind

– Donovan Leitch

The problem of ‘the Problem of Evil’

“The problem of evil, in the sense in which I am using this phrase, is essentially a logical problem: it sets the theist the task of clarifying and if possible reconciling the several beliefs which he holds. It is not a scientific problem that might be solved by further discoveries…” -J. L. Mackie, Evil and Omnipotence.”

J. L. Mackie was a professional philosopher and committed atheist who spent some of his career working arguments out of what is known as the Problem of Evil *. Theologians oft wring their hands over it, and that some atheists (especially so-called New Atheists) use it to confront theists with a challenge not easily or comfortably resolvable in the Christian tradition, from whence it originates. The Problem arises out of a conflict of two Christian beliefs: that god is all-powerful and all-good, and that the material universe (supposedly of god’s creation) is filled with evil – filled with sufferings and temptations, hardships, pain. This is an ancient Christian understanding of evil in the material universe following the Fall from Eden. It is unfortunately completely devoid of identifiable significance; or rather, as floating signifier **, it can be made to have any significance rhetorically useful in a given context. For instance, religious teleology: “You are here to confront the evils of your nature;” “you are here to confront the evils of the threatening natural world;” “the internet could be invented to challenge you with the evils of temptation” – etc., etc.

The trouble is, this is a universe that I don’t see myself living in. There is nothing evil about anybody’s getting cancer, or a sudden down-pour washing away this season’s crops, or a meteor falling on some city. These events are results of natural processes, and we deal with them as best we may, because survival – not ‘salvation’ – requires we must. Asserting there is evil in such events, certainly may rhetorically ramp up religious paranoia among some more superstitious Christians, requiring rhetorical re-assurance of divine mercy from wiser, more liberally minded theologians, priests, etc. The work of logical analysis would be to reveal the incoherence and paradoxes involved such an understanding of evil – and this seems to have been Mackie’s intent.

There’s nothing wrong in that – if one doesn’t mind spending a great deal of effort on a non-existent Problem in order to challenge those who won’t learn from the effort anyway. But is there another way to deal with the issue?  But why deal with it at all.  Why not just say, ‘this makes no sense,’ and be done with it?

I started blogging in an effort to find a place for my own secular Buddhism in the New Atheism movement, but eventually lost interest in New Atheism, although I remain sympathetic to the more thoughtful participants. The benefit of my year as a secular Buddhist New Atheist was that I was able to clarify my own beliefs, with which I am now quite comfortable – but being comfortable, I find the ‘god debate’ somewhat tiresome now.

Philosophically, as to the logic of the god debate, the point of origin for me was George H. Smith’s Atheism: the Case against God, presenting the strictly logical arguments against belief; the end point was Kai Nielsen’s Atheism and Philosophy, which presents the case that the very idea of god is simply incoherent, and cannot survive sustained argumentation. Notably, neither of these texts invoke science or scientific methodology (although Smith does make the demand for some evidence to support beliefs that are historically – and quite obviously – only assertions). The rational basis of theistic belief is fundamentally flawed, much of it spurious, regardless of empirical research or evidence.

But the problem is, none of this matters to ‘true believers’ (so we should hardly be surprised when they discard any empirical evidence to their beliefs). As I discovered reading theist responses to atheist arguments, religious belief is not really a matter of reasoning. Its foundations are first, foremost, and overwhelmingly emotional. It may be a simple, vague, intuition of ‘something out there;’ an undeniable pathology of needing paternal guidance; a profound sense that some spiritual ‘other’ lovingly follows one around, invested in one’s success in life, forgiving any perceived transgression. But whatever it else is, it is emotional yearning, emotional fulfillment, emotional satisfaction, that rational argument can never reach. It is love; and one can no more argue against it than persuade a teen-ager that her idealized first relationship is a tissue of rhetoric and fantasized future happiness (conditioned on her willing loss of virginity, of course).

I confess I tried feeling such love for a long time – but I never did. The year before I adopted what I would call the truth of the non-theistic tradition of Buddhism, I went to a priest for confession (having a history as a Catholic). I spoke admiringly of Thomas Aquinas – upon which the priest shook his head sadly, saying “you love wisdom more than god.” He gave me absolution, but warned that I perilously close to unbelief. He was right, on both counts: I love wisdom; I never really believed in god.

To return to our starting point: My problem here is that I no longer recognize the Christian universe Mackie is attempting to confront; I don’t live there. The ‘radical evil’ that Kant and other philosophers write about is comprehensible once one recognizes that it arises out of unbridled desire – this is completely in keeping with the Buddhist understanding of suffering arising from the ‘self.’ But the Christian notion that ‘evil’ is signifier for horrendous experiences of every kind – human, natural, real, imagined – requires some basis in an amorphic metaphysics is entirely alien to me. While I sympathize Mackie’s project, it really seems to miss the point. The Christians’ worry over the Problem of Evil arises from fear, and their commitment to god arises from loneliness, longing, and hope. This makes the question a matter for psychology, not logic. Fearing the ‘evil’ all around us, or trusting in a loving god’s mercy to save us from this, are clearly drawn from deeper feelings than logic can reach.

For me, the universe is simply what is, just as it is. There is no inherent good or evil to it; there is no ‘wrongness’ or misfortune. The only meaningful sense of ‘evil’ for me lies in the harm we do to ourselves or others. Such is properly addressed by either ethics, psychology, or collectively in politics.

It’s not a matter of choice, but of epistemic conditioning. I try not to let my emotions govern my beliefs – and I don’t believe that they should. We should always try to look at the universe just as it presents itself, and learn to live with that.


*See the Stanford Encyclopedia discussion,

** I should remark, for readers unfamiliar with the term, that ‘floating signifier’ is a term of art in semiotics for “a signifier with a vague, highly variable, unspecifiable or non-existent signified” (David Chandler, Semiotics: the Basics, Routledge, 2002 ).

Mackie, J. L. “Evil and Omnipotence,” in Mind, New Series, Vol. 64, No. 254. (Apr., 1955).

Smith, George H. Atheism: The Case Against God. Nash, 1974.

Nielsen, Kai. Atheism & Philosophy. Prometheus Books, 2005.


Sex, gender, politics – a brief inquiry (note 3)

What could it possibly mean to for someone, born with a penis, to claim, ‘I feel I should have a vagina’? Because that’s the bottom line; in order to convince me that a male ‘should have’ been born female (or vice-verse), I need to be persuaded that the person, having a penis, knows what it feels like to have a vagina (or, again, vice-verse), without having one, and this now appears to be beyond comprehension.

I am not a backward thinker; I have long supported gay/lesbian rights, and advocated justice for those who feel the need to adopt differing gender signifiers in their behaviors. But justice does not demand that I dumb myself down and put my brain on hold. The only thing we know of the opposite sex is gender – and gender is a social construct. Otherwise, we need to assume that physical sensations of the opposite sex can be experienced so directly and concretely – without actually living in such a body – that a person could recognize the comfort level of so living in that body as to be able to claim the need to live in it.

As I write that, I’m aware that the articulation verges on the incoherent. This is all nonsense; this was precisely the wrong turn for the transgender community to make. They are rhetorically relying on American embarrassment over discussing any sexual issue in depth, to put forward a claim with no recognizable ontological, epistemological, biological, or even psychological foundation. This is fantasy. This is, profoundly, exactly the wrong direction for the transgender community to take, in defining the real rights that justice demands for them.

(As to the recent issue concerning restrooms in Texas – if we, as some other countries do, had unisex public toilets, this wouldn’t be an issue. “What fools these mortals be!”)

The question is whether trans-gender identification (a social-psychological phenomenon) translates easily into trans-sexual identification (which would be a physiological-neurological phenomenon), and without better evidence and argument than we have had so far, I don’t see how this is possible. I emphasize the genitalia, because a truly trans-sexual identification would seem to hinge on the ability of a person to know, or at least have a very good idea, what it would actually be like to have the genitalia of the opposite sex.

There are important historical issues to keep in mind here. First, trans-gender identification has been around as long as cultural records can reach – in every culture that has kept records on such matters. So there is no arguing a real phenomenon there, and so arguing for the rights of the trans-gender identifiers is no great leap of conscience.

However, the move towards trans-sexual identification is a most recent phenomenon, and hinges on the odd conjunction of three apposite trends in the 20th century – the inherited legacy of equating gender and sex, which was widely distributed through common culture, making the distinction between the two a point of argument; the development of medical technology that allowed genital reconstruction and hormonal realignment; and certain theories in genetics that seemed to promise that not only sex but gender identification could be found to be genetically pre-determined. (Again, an important backdrop to all of this has been the long-standing American embarrassment over public discussion of sexual matters at all.) The efforts to derive sound argument and a coherent understanding of trans-sexualism from these intersections have largely failed, I think, and so the demand for its legitimation largely reduces to clamor about feelings and social conflicts that are more easily resolved when redirected back toward the rights of trans-gender individuals. In other words, the trans-sexual arguments actually over-complicate the discussion, and not, I suggest, to the benefit of the individuals involved – except of course when they can gather enough social pressure on certain institutions and persons of influence to make themselves annoying. But while that may win some small gains, I suggest it does them no good in the long run, since it only means that the real issues involved remain unspoken.

Let me clarify the point as simply as possible: I can well imagine arguing, politically or before the law, for the right of self-determination for those who feel, however impelled, a need to adopt the accoutrements and behavior of the opposite gender. I can’t quite imagine arguing on behalf of someone who, say, born with a penis, claims that he ought to have a vagina (or vice-versa), since there is no way for that person to know what that be like without actually having said genitals.

(Hermaphrodites are actually beside the point; they are the result of genetic or physiological dysfunction during maturation, and so have their own unique experiences.)


But let’s consider this in relation to a similar, possibly related, phenomenon:

“Body integrity identity disorder (BIID, also referred to as amputee identity disorder) is a psychological disorder in which an otherwise healthy individual feels that they are meant to be disabled. (….) BIID is typically accompanied by the desire to amputate one or more healthy limbs. It also includes the desire for other forms of disability, as in the case of a woman who intentionally blinded herself. BIID can be associated with apotemnophilia, sexual arousal based on the image of one’s self as an amputee. The cause of BIID is unknown. One hypothesis states that it results from a neurological failing of the brain’s inner body mapping function (located in the right parietal lobe) to incorporate the affected limb in its understanding of the body’s physical form.” *

1. BIID is recognized as a disorder because it generates unhappiness and may lead to self-mutilation. It also appears to involve a neurological dysfunction, although the research is incomplete. AS a disorder, it is one surgeons appear unwilling to cater to; it is a historical problem why it is surgeons became willing to cater to trans-sexualism, assuming that it also may be a similar disorder. (But of course, trans-sexuals are making the further claim that it isn’t a disorder at all.)

2. Let us imagine a case of BIID, wherein the afflicted person claims, not only that, say, his right leg is not his own, but that the right leg of a certain woman actually belongs to him. Should we try to convince her to surrender her leg via transplant? (Well, obviously that’s not what trans-sexuals are arguing – or are they? Not claiming a specific person’s genitalia, but certainly claiming right to possession of similar genitalia to those already existent for others.) Less extremely, should we allow cosmetic surgery to the man’s leg so that it appears in every way similar to the leg of the woman in question? That may be worth doing to resolve the man’s unhappiness; but it doesn’t mean that his BIID is not still a serious disorder.

3. But trans-sexuals are not simply expressing the sensation that their genitals-of-birth are ‘inappropriate.’ They are claiming that the genitals of the opposite sex are appropriate to them. This is where coherency falls apart. How could they possibly know that? Genitals are not just attractive things dangling in theoretical space; they are rich with a whole host of sensations and physiological responses. These sensations and responses one must know – not simply imagine – in order to claim the right of possession. A woman claims she should have a penis instead of her vagina. Which penis? the blood-engorged erect in copulation? the shriveled in the chill wind? The irritated with pressure from the bladder needing to urinate? The one accidentally caught in a hastily closed zipper?

4. We don’t know if there might be some genetic causality to BIID. But let’s allow the claim that there is some for gender identification. That only means that gender identity is a predisposition towards adopting certain socially constructed behaviors. It is not a determination of sexual being – that determination is given over to the XX and XY chromosomes. And the genetics of that are quite clear.

5. The medical technology of cosmetic surgery is a luxury. It can be used to alleviate psychic pain in certain cases, yes; but it neither arises from, nor generates, any rights.

* See also Gordon Cornwall’s fascinating discussion at:


After composing the above, it occurred to me that the most important film on this subject happens to be one of the worst films ever made – “Glen or Glenda,” written and directed by the master of bad cinema, Ed Wood. Promising to be an exploitation film about the then new trans-sexual surgery conducted in Sweden, it is really a boldly auto-biographical revelation of Wood’s own trans-gender transvestism – despite being a heterosexual who had served in the Marines during WWII.

Important, because it makes concrete this distinction between the trans-sexual and the trans-gender – and also because, in its own (frankly hilarious) inept way, reveals the real pain that people suffering such identity confusion have long experienced in this culture. (Wood, alas, eventually drank himself to death.)

How can a film so amusingly bad nonetheless score such crucial points? That’s an aesthetic issue. For now, let us give Wood his due, and admit that he put his finger directly on the real problem here: Trans-gender identification and trans-sexualism are not equatable. The suffering of each is no doubt real; but they are not the same, and confusing the two may do more harm than good, politically (and possibly psychologically as well).