Sunday, November 30, 2008

Not Consuming

About a week ago, a thought occurred to me - what does it mean to stop consuming?

We are asked, as citizens, to keep spending to keep everything afloat, even though we also know that it is this very drive, the drive to keep everything afloat, which is the cause of all pretty much all our problems.

So how do we get off this treadmill? I understand the Adbusters mentality of culture jamming, but I also understand that they are pretty much an established brand who would really like you to consume their magazine and t-shirts, and so on and so forth. In other words, they are not even hypocrites, but the G.E. Moore of the sustainability set, who think that by raising their hands in the air that they can prove they are more virtuous than bad producers.

But what is a more righteous path? What constitutes a reduction in consumption? Is it where every individual, er produces more than they take? But produces more what? If say, I wanted to try to stop consuming next year, what would that look like? How would that take shape?

I am not just talking about frugality here. And perhaps this is the stupidest blog post in the history of blogdom, but I am asking these questions in as naive a way as possible because I honestly have very little idea as to what being a non-consumer would look like.

Being a non-consumer. That's sounds really stupid, does it not? I have to eat, find shelter, but beyond that, what? What about consuming second hand things? Does that count?

In some strange way, I feel as though no one I know or have encountered has ever asked these questions. We all seem preoccupied with how corporations and governments ask us to consume, yet there's also lots of public pressure not to consume, but how does one actually not consume?

There doesn't seem to be much of a grey area here.

Because here's the thing, if I'm not consuming, I am still producing, right? And if people are taking my "produce", so to speak, am I not obliging someone to consume what it is that I produce?

It seems as though the only solution is to become a Buddhist subsistence farmer-hermit.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Economic Possibilities

There is a lot of talk about how the financial crisis is awakening the possibility of "alternative" modes of economic organization (look how timid that is when you write it out like that).

One of the easier points to score off Karl Marx is to note that his observation that capitalism carried within its bosom the seeds of its own destruction is flat-out wrong.

I mean, we still laugh at this conjecture, don't we? Even now, when the structure of capitalism appears to be collapsing as he predicted, ideology steps in and keeps it going until we've all forgotten that it had collapsed in the first place, and we can again point mockingly at the "socialists" whose experiments went disastrously wrong?

Could it be that what Marx failed to account for was the robustness of capitalist ideology? Its normative flavour?

Is this why even stauch, incessant critics of capital all over the media and the blogosphere can only muster "possibilities", because they too cannot really see the alternatives they themselves so deeply desire?

The current solution to the financial crisis does not point to 1917, or to the future, but 1944. We appear to be resetting the clock. Perhaps this is the true secret to capitalism's endurance - its timelessness.

and if many of us seem conceptually comfortable with abandonning even the idea of progress in order to save capitalism from its own destruction, what hope is there for any other "possibility"?

Just some thoughts.

Saturday, November 15, 2008


My son and I take the Dundas streetcar regularly.

We had grown accustomed to the construction site that was the Art Gallery of Ontario. The gallery closed late last year to finish the Frank Gehry designed renovations.

We would pass by it on the way in and out of town, watching them install the canopy at the front, watching the glass front get installed, watching the rain drench what is now the sculpture gallery. As we passed by, I told my son we would visit the gallery when it re-opened.

To be honest, I would have preferred check out the new space during the member preview earlier this week, but I couldn't, and as I told my son that the gallery was open, and he insisted we go this weekend.

This is where the lineup started.

The entrance is on Dundas street, right in the middle of the block. This is what the back of the lineup looked like:

Oh, also, it was raining, heavily. Like in Salzburg. It took us about 40 minutes to get inside.

The inside? It's really very beautiful, but it was waaaay too busy to look at much with a three year old, who, once inside, wanted to leave. I spent most of my time looking to see if the gallery had installed any Rodney Graham, to no avail...


The AGO refurbishment represents the ironic end of the Mike Harris legacy to Toronto's arts community - we now have all these great buildings, but guess what? No one in Canada appears to be interested in subsidizing these galleries and museums and opera companies so they can a) charge lower admission fees and b) ensure public institutions like the AGO and the ROM remain exactly that.

Instead we have these institutions which are elitist in part because there is no public will to fund them so they they aren't elitist. More on this later.


I did snap a few shots inside the AGO. I got a few of my son in the gallery, and only stopped because a guard, who was obviously talking to me but felt the need to extend his authority to the entire gallery, yelled, "there is no photography allowed in the AGO. No one is allowed to take photographs inside the AGO"

No one, that is, except every major and minor media organization in the city.
One thing I had forgotten about since the gallery closed last year was the militaristic security mindset at the AGO.

Thank you, faceless, angry security guard, for reminding me how the staff vibe at the AGO is closest to security at the Vienna State Opera (those who have been there know what I mean) than anything else.

And yes, AGO, this is a shout out to say that your no photographs policy has nothing to do with protecting the art and everything to do with protecting property, which is why your security is so dedicated to enforcing it.

The modern art gallery is a sacred secular space - you cannot touch anything, you must be reverent, and there are lots of people to police your behaviour while you are there.

It is a deeply paradoxical experience. On the fourth floor, I stumbled upon the AGO's (lone?) painting by Mark Rothko. It was a surprise I felt elated and suddenly the world slowed down and the work began to absorb me. Out of the corner of my eye, I see a security guard watching me, or more accurately, my son, for fear that he might stab at the Rothko - that was that. This was the only moment I actually had in the gallery - my only moment of Erfahrung and it dissolved into anger.

This one photo rather sums up today's experience. I look forward to going back when things die down a bit, and I can stand in front of that Rothko, and all the other works waiting to be rediscovered by my eyes.

Alas, there will be no pictures...well, we'll see, I mean, I've done it before....

Friday, November 14, 2008

First Lines - Der Rabbi von Bacherach by Heinrich Heine

In the Rhineland’s downstream, where the laughing face of the riverbank disappears, mountains and cliffs, with their adventuresome castle ruins, gaze defiantly and ascend with a grave and serious grandeur – there lies, like an eerie myth of antiquity, the gloomy, ancient city of Bacherach.

Unterhalb des Rheingaus, wo die Ufer des Stromes ihre lachende Miene verlieren, Berg und Felsen, mit ihren abenteuerlichen Burgruinen, sich trotziger gebärden, und eine wildere, ernstere Herrlichkeit emporsteigt, dort liegt, wie eine schaurige Sage der Vorzeit, die finstre, uralte Stadt Bacherach.

The translation is mine.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

TVO and Progressive Conservatism vs. the Market as Bildung

Watching CBC transform itself from a public broadcaster into just another platform devoted solely to mass entertainment (yes, I did just go there), one forgets just how lucky we are to have at least two other public broadcasters here in Ontario - PBS and TVO(actually, 3 if you count TFO, TVO's Gallic sister station) - that don't condescend "to give the people what they want", as in the worst of Hollywood, but with beavers.

Although PBS is American, they have an affiliate here in Toronto because Canadians are huge supporters. We canucks love to mock our hillbilly neighbours, but the reality is that you stand a far better chance of catching an opera on PBS than you do on CBC.

The great thing about American culture is its catholicity. Canadians still haven't really left the 1960's in this regard.

In fact, PBS would completely shame public broadcasting here in Canada if it weren't for TVO and TFO. What's even more fascinating is that TVO and TFO were created by a Conservative government. The minister at the time was Bill Davis, who went on to become Premier, and he was feted yesterday by TVO for his contribution. We who would never vote conservative should applaud him for his pragmatism and vision.

I suspect the only reason that they have survived all these years is that they have been framed as educational stations - they are, in some sense, useful. Putting an opera on TFO, or a lecture series on TVO has a pedagogical value, if not an economic one, and this somehow insulates TVO from the criticisms CBC receives about its value vs. the ever sacred "taxpayer dollar" (I am not being facetious, tax money in Canada is culturally sacred here).

Anyway, however it has worked out, I'm just glad they are there.

Honestly though, can anyone imagine Conservatives making a positive contribution like this to Canadian cultural life anymore? I can't, and to wit, the federal Conservative government's cancellation of the National Portrait Gallery yseterday.

But the establishment of TVO back in the 1960's does point to another way of looking at culture, education, and government, where governments of all stripes believed that they had a role in ensuring that everyone had access to all the meats of our cultural stew (pace Homer Simpson).

The government of the day saw where the market was lacking, and sought to fill it. We assume now that the market satisfies all our needs, and anything that gets government money isn't valuable.

We are almost 180 degrees from the 1960's. How things have changed...

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Brian Leiter on the US election

Brian Leiter has a really great analysis of the US election results over here. It was really this kind of stuff, and not his philosophy side, that kept me going back to his blog.

Not that I disagree with his philosophical's more that his willingness to go on the offensive, and to be offensive when it came to politics, was always a breath of fresh air. He hasn't been doing as much of that lately, and I suspect an Obama presidency will further reduce these kinds of posts from him.

I suppose the loss of cheeky blog posts is rather outweighed by the massive increase in sanity in US politics, however....ah well, the give and tike of life...

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Class Resentment is Alive and Well

The Toronto Star, which I pretty much despise now, has an article today on Toronto's Auditor General's report around civil servants and sick days.

As always, one is subjected to the predictable troll reaction to this - Outrage! Anger! Hatred for civil servants and their good working conditions and living wages! Curse those unions for delivering on their promise to improve the lives of workers!

By the way, who are these hard-working people who have nothing else to do but sit in their cubicle and post comments at the Star? Aren't they all being whipped by the man while the bureaucrat sips his latte on their dime?

It's strange that everyone is quick to talk of abuse, but no one appears to look at the actual data in the article, such as the "outrageous" difference between public and private sector workers being a mere 3 days.

The entire reaction is premised on the idea that private sector workers aren't allowed to abuse the system as much as their public sector counterparts. Bravo trolls for revealing your implicit assumptions.

But the strangest thing is that the article is premised on the idea of abuse, but the City's own statistics place absenteeism below the national average, and a 1/2 day above the morally pure "private sector worker".

So this is really a tempest in a teapot, premised on a false "public/private" dichotomy, which, if the fincianial crisis should have taught us anything, it's that governments and the private sphere are pretty tightly bound up.

The recipe for this brew is as follows - take an extreme example, find all the people who are outraged about it, and add the statistics at the bottom that invalidate the narrative just so when someone says "where's the balance" you can point out that all the facts are there, even though your aim has been to reinforce prejudice.

If only facts were all that ever mattered. There is so much resentment buried in here, and this is perhaps the most remarkable and depressing legacy of the right over the years - why is it that people with shitty jobs complain about and rail against those with less shitty jobs before they ask why they themselves can't have a less shitty job?

I really don't get it. But if workers ever want to get it, they might want to stop smacking around their fellow workers and realise that maybe organized labour could do the same for them, as in, ensure they can be sick 3 extra days a year.

Oh boy.

Aristotle wasn't an Aristotelean Essentialist

About three weeks ago, Brian Leiter linked to a tribute by Timothy Williamson for Ruth Barcan Marcus.

Anyone who has studied modal logic will be well appraised of her work, least of which the formula which bears her name. However, that's not why I'm linking to it. Rather, I have a bit of a bone to pick.

And it's not about Professor Leiter's beef with the entire notion of "analytic philosophy", my concern with Professor Williamson's talk centres around the fact that he, like many uh, analytic philosophers before him, propagate the myth of "aristotelean essentialism".

Williamson writes:

"Quine’s original criticisms were technically unsound, and he was forced over the years into a series of revisions that eventually reduced the charge to one of a commitment to Aristotelian essentialism. Even there, technical results vindicated Professor Marcus’s later reply that the commitment was to the intelligibility, not the truth, of essentialism, and that in any case there may well be a scientific basis for some form of essentialism. Philosophy has gone Marcus’s way, not Quine’s, but the vindication of her paper was a gradual process: it was years ahead of its time."

Do you see it? He doesn't even scare quote it! So what's up with it then? Why do these non-existent analytic philosophers constantly refer to essentialism as "aristotelean"?

To be sure, labeling one's opponent an “Aristotelean” has been a fairly common rhetorical move in philosophical circles since Descartes, but the recent instance was born with Quine, dean of those analytic philosophers.

In his essay Reference and Modality, he claimed that accepting modal quantified logic entailed “an invidious attitude towards certain ways of necessarily specifying x, and favoring other somehow revealing the “essence” of the object... evidently this reversion to Aristotelean essentialism is required if quantification into modal contexts is to be insisted on”. (Quine, Willard Van Orman “Reference and Modality”, From a Logical Point of View, p.155)

Given the history of the epithetical use of the “Aristotelean” adjective, it could be taken for granted that Quine's comment is there to sting rather than to bite. However, does Quine do Aristotle justice in associating him with the doctrine he describes? I would argue that he does not, and that Quine's notion of “Aristotelean” essentialism was not something Aristotle propounded.

In fact, the doctrine of "Aristotelean essentialism" Quine describes bears only a tangential relationship to Aristotle's own metaphysical views, although there is enough of a connection to guess at where Quine could have associated Aristotle with essentialism.

To be clear, I'm not defending nor rejecting the philosophical views presented by either Quine or Aristotle. Nor am I attempting to discuss Aristotle's views in the wider context of “modern” essentialism to be found in the views of philosophers such as Hilary Putnam. Rather, the narrow aim of this paper will be to see if what Quine describes as Aristotelean essentialism has a discernible analogue in Aristotle's writings.

(Part of the problem is that David Charles' 2002 book Aristotle on Meaning and Essence (Oxford University Press) deals with the contrast between modern and Aristotelean views on essence to an extent it would make my comments irrelevant save for the fact that there appears to be a more straightforward line of argument against Quine's Aristotelean essentialism)

In Reference and Modality there is a note at the mention of Aristotelean essentialism points to another essay in the same collection, Quine's very famous Two Dogmas of Empiricism, which, presumably, is meant to serve to elucidate Quine's views on Aristotle.

Quine writes:

The Aristotelian notion of essence was the forerunner, no doubt, of the modern notion of intension or meaning. For Aristotle it was essential in men to be rational, accidental to be two-legged. But there is an important difference between this attitude and the doctrine of meaning. From the latter point of view it may indeed be conceded (if only for the sake of argument) that rationality is involved in the meaning of the word 'man' while two-leggedness is not; but two-leggedness may at the same time be viewed as involved in the meaning of 'biped' while rationality is not. Thus from the point of view of the doctrine of meaning it makes no sense to say of the actual individual, who is at once a man and a biped, that his rationality is essential and his two-leggedness accidental or vice versa. Things had essences, for Aristotle, but only linguistic forms have meanings. Meaning is what essence becomes when it is divorced from the object of reference and wedded to the word.

(Quine, Willard Van Orman “Two Dogmas of Empiricism”, From a Logical Point of View, p.22)

Although the quote appears within the context of a discussion about meaning, the comments on meaning are not really relevant to the present discussion. What is clear is that Quine takes Aristotle's “notion” of essence to be a metaphysical view. However, this not much to go on.

Thankfully, Quine offers a clearer and fuller discussion of what he believes to be the erroneous metaphysical commitments of the modal logician on account of their “Aristoteleanism”.

In his book Word and Object, Quine writes:

Mathematicians may conceivably be said to be necessarily rational and not necessarily two-legged; and cyclists necessarily two-legged and not necessarily rational. But what of an individual who counts among his eccentricities both mathematics and cycling? Is this concrete individual necessarily rational and contingently two-legged or vice versa? Just insofar as we are talking referentially of the object, with no special bias toward a background grouping of mathematicians as against cyclists or vice versa, there is no semblance of sense in rating some of his attributes as necessary and others as contingent.

(Quine, Willard Van Orman, Word and object, p.199)

Quine then links this view to Aristotle, and although he concedes that this view isn't necessarily Aristotle's, he makes this concession in a backhanded way. He writes: “Curiously, a philosophical tradition does exist for just such a distinction between necessary and contingent attributes. It lives on in the terms 'essence' and 'accident', is a distinction that one attributes to Aristotle (subject to contradiction by scholars, such being the penalty for attributions to Aristotle).”

(Quine, Willard Van Orman, Word and object, p. 199)

Nonetheless, and despite Quine's penchant for humour, his views on what Aristotle held, or more charitably, what an Aristotelean would hold, are quite clear. For Quine, to be an Aristotelean essentialist is to propound a metaphysical doctrine which presumes a firm distinction between necessary and contingent attributes, that is, between attributes which are logically necessary and attributes which are not. The remainder of this essay will be devoted to arguing that this is not a view Aristotle actually held, although how Quine arrived at this view is not without cause.

So what is essence for Aristotle? (Although essence is the main term that gets used by Quine, it, like many philosophical words, has both a technical and vernacular use, and it should be noted that “essence” is the medieval term for Aristotle's more technical “what-it-was-to-be-that-thing”) Well, it was one of the four possible candidates for substancehood.

Aristotle equated essence with substance, and a good part of Aristotle's Metaphysics is given over to arguing this point, as well as showing that the other three possible candidates for substancehood, “the substrate, the universal under which the thing falls, and the genus or kind to which the thing belongs” (Penguin Classics Aristotle, Metaphysics, p. xxix), are not substances.

In Book Zeta of the Metaphysics, Aristotle, through his translator Hugh Lawson-Tancred, writes, “Well, the what-it-was-to-be-that-thing is, for each thing, what it is taken to be per se. For example, it is not the case that being for, say, you just is being for the musical man, since it is not per se that you are musical” (ibid p.178) Put more straightforwardly, Aristotle is arguing here that being musical is a quality, or in this case, an ability, one has, not something one is.

Anticipating Quine, Aristotle further refines this distinction. He writes,

Now an immediate objection would be that the mere assignation of a term does not make something one of the things that are taken to be per se...Suppose for example, that I had to define being white, and, to do so, I stated the account of a white man. The other case [the white man] involves rather the addition of something else to the thing to be accounted for [being white]. Staying with our [previous] use of anorak to be the term for a white man, one would illustrate the second case by just giving a definition of anorak as a white thing, but to be a white man is not just to be white.”

But then the question is whether being an anorak is a case of a what-it-was-to-be-that-thing at all. A reason for denying that it is is that a what-it-was-to-be-that-thing is the same sort of thing as a thing with thisness...So, for example, a white man is not something with thisness, assuming that thisness is a exclusive feature of substances.

Now this gives a nice clear conclusion: a what-it-was-to-be-that-thing only belongs to those things for whom an account just is a definition.
(ibid p.179)

Despite the length of the quote, what Aristotle is trying to argue in this passage is that a white man is not an essence. So then, what is an essence for Aristotle? He writes, “so the only things that will have a what-it-was-to-be-that thing will be the species of a genus, species and nothing else whatever.” (ibid p.180)

In other words, For Aristotle, only species turn out to be essences, or substances.

It will help at this point to take a slightly closer look at substances. What is substance? In the Metaphysics, Aristotle writes, “Also, some things are called things that are because they are substances other things are called things that are because they are affections of a substance” (ibid p.181)

This is not quite enough to tell one what substance is, but it is enough to indicate that Aristotle has an idea as to what it is not, which is an affection, or in more common terminology, a quality.

As Hugh Lawson-Tancred writes, “Aristotle holds that substances are things that have qualities or, conversely qualities are things that belong to substance” (ibid. p xxiv) Furthermore, “Aristotle's answer [to the difference between substances and qualities] is that the being of the quality depends on that of the substance but the being of the substance does not depend on that of the quality.” (ibid p. xxv) In other words, Aristotle holds that substances are the bearers of qualities.

Taking all this into account, a look back at Quine's story about the mathematical cyclist should help to understand Quine's error. On the issue “of an individual who counts among his eccentricities both mathematics and cycling”, it seems that Aristotle would point out to Quine that the enjoyment of mathematics and the pursuit of physical fitness through bicycling are both qualities, that is, both are dependent on there being a substance, in this case a human.

In Aristotle's view, both would be contingent to being a person, and that in specifying someone as a mathematician, the notion of necessity in not an issue, because being a mathematician would not qualify as a substance, the only place where the notion of necessity could plausibly be invoked with respect to modernizing Aristotle's philosophical position.

There is a further point which serves to demonstrate both Quine's error and also where perhaps why he described his essentialism as “Aristotelean”. With respect to substances, Aristotle argued that substances are ontologically prior to qualities. However, nothing Quine's writes about Aristotelean essentialism discusses necessary attributes as ontologically distinct from contingent attributes, something Aristotle would have insisted upon.

What Quine appears to have done in calling his essentialism “Aristotelean” is conflate substance/essence and quality with necessary and contingent attributes. Indeed, Quine's argument against “Aristotelean essentialism” relies on the fact that some supposedly necessary attributes of humans, such as two-leggedness and rationality, may also be necessary yet mutually exclusive attributes of properties contingent to humans, such as cycling and mathematics.

However, what this neglects is that even if Aristotle had said that people are essentially rational and two-legged, he would not be committed to the contradiction Quine notes, because cycling and doing math occupy different ontological positions from any essential properties. Again, describing math or cycling never invokes the concept of substance. Aristotle appears to be aiming towards something more subtle than the numerous different ways in which one can specify the attributes of an object, and there appears to be a fundamental, and perhaps incommensurable, difference between Quine's and Aristotle's ontologies.

So what, if anything, can one draw from this philosophically slight, quote laden essay? Perhaps just a cautionary note, that when one attributes a philosophical doctrine to a historical figure both loved and despised, it is best to be sure that the reference is accurate. In other words, it's not the essentialism that's important in this, it's the Aristotelean.

To that, perhaps Quine would have been more accurate calling modal logicians Lockean essentialists, but whether or not that is a fair summation of Locke's metaphysical views, a compliment or an epithet, will have to wait for another day.

I do however, think it's a bit funny that philosophers who pride themselves culturally on a particular kind of "clarity" and "rigour" would propagate this kind of canard. But I suppose making fun of people you don't agree with is just part of being human, if not the essence of being human.

Which reminds me - perhaps the only thing worse than aristotelean essentialism is the whole "for Aristotle, the essence of man is rationality" line, but let's save that for later.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Nous ne souvenons pas

Probably every blogger in Christendom is writing about the US election, and far be it from me to buck a trend.

As one of my recent posts indictates, I am ambivalent about the idea of the whole world celebrating the election of a president in a country where the vast majority of us have any standing. But it seems I am the only one. And here I was, not even trying to take an iconoclastic position.

So here in Toronto, there will be parties, lots of them, more than for our own recent election. It's as though the real government is being elected today, which I suppose is what bothers me about all this.

The Toronto Star, perhaps because the Conservatives won again, have pretty much given over their paper to Obamania, running headlines which, in the US, would have raised eyebrows, if not outrage. Over the past few weeks, we have seen headlines like "Black Canadians Cheer as Obama Edges Closer" and "Is this Canada's Obama?", the Star is seemingly desperate to capitalize on the Obama campaign and somehow make it relevant to us.

However, transposing American racial politics to Canada trivializes the enormity of Obama's election as US President, doesn't it? It also rather ignores Canada's own history and racial politics -where are the articles asking who a First Nations Prime Minister might be?

In fact, I believe the clearest analogy to Obama for Canadians is, no surprise, Trudeaumania. In 1968, Trudeau swept to power as a kind of messiah, and ran a policy wonkish government (I'm glossing over the FLQ crisis, I know) for 4 years which, according to Cabinet Ministers at the time, felt more like a grad seminar than a political environment. Trudeau almost lost the next election, and I would argue that, on some levels, he never fully recovered that potential.

So my concern is that around all this fervor, there will be disappointment. And I am almost certain that people will be deeply, deeply disappointed in Obama as President. Not because of his policies, or his actions, but because that's not what people are looking for. They are looking for the messiah.

All those atheists cheering for Obama are looking for the same thing as those who just come out and say he's the Messiah. And this isn't an epistemological point, it's a reflection of the fact that the impulse isn't theological, it's cultural.

Anyway, I'm out of steam here. Not sure if I have said anything interesting, but this is a blog, so in a week no one will ever read this again, until I embark on my political career or something like that!