History of Philosophy: Making the Weaker Argument the Stronger: the Sophists

In this episode, Peter Adamson discusses the sophists, teachers of rhetoric in ancient Athens, looking especially at the contributions of Protagoras and Gorgias.

Plato was the diametrical opposition of the Sophists.

Climate Change Denial as the Historical Consciousness of Trumpism: Lessons from Carl Schmitt

Of all the errors made today by liberals—I use the term broadly—our most fundamental has been our underestimation of Trumpism as a philosophical movement.

We have no trouble loathing Donald Trump the man. His temperament and political impulses are self-evidently those of an authoritarian, straight from the pages of Adorno or Hayek. Likewise, our criticism of his administration’s misguided policies has been ever at the ready.

.. Trumpism is well on the road to becoming a systematic program of ideas that will carefully refine its views through praxis and—allied with anti-liberal movements elsewhere in the world, especially in Russia—articulate a new, fundamental challenge to liberal thought for the twenty-first century.

.. History as

  • heritage and nostalgia—#MAGA. History as
  • reverence and fidelity—Straussianism and constitutional originalism. History as a
  • philosophy of action—embodied in the novels of Trump’s intellectual precursor, Newt Gingrich. History as
  • racial melancholy—Charlottesville. History as a resource of trans-historical Germanic mythology—the masculinist branches of the alt-right. History as
  • conspiracy—Infowars, #fakenews, and the “rigged” political system. History as
  • providence and decay—the implicit revival of Jacksonian-era romantic nationalism, with its narrative scaffolding of dwindling popular sovereignty.

.. Stephen Bannon’s philosophy of generational change, about which I’ve written elsewhere,

  • a toxic blend of Toynbee and Jung—history as
  • a cycle of apocalypse and renewal.

.. climate change denial grows logically from the core metaphysical commitments of contemporary populist nationalism in its confrontation with trans-Atlantic, cosmopolitan, individualist liberalism.

.. one might thus regard it as the distinctive form of anti-liberal historical thinking of our era.

.. it’s helpful to turn to the work of a thinker whose writings, it’s been suggested (and here), underwrite the movement’s “intellectual source code”: the German constitutional theorist Carl Schmitt (1888-1985).

.. On Schmitt’s view, liberal states are weak and vulnerable, subject to corrosion from within—through capture by private interest groups—and conquest from abroad.

.. a political community arises when its members coalesce around some aspect of their common existence. On this basis, they distinguish between their “friends” and “enemies,” the latter of whom they are ultimately prepared to fight and kill to defend their way of life.

.. A political community, that is, is created through an animating sense of common identity and existential threat

.. Schmitt believes that this pugilistic view of politics rings true as a conceptual matter, but he also regards drawing the friend-enemy distinction as a quasi-theological duty and part of what it means to be fully human.

.. Without the friend-enemy distinction, he argues, political life would vanish, and without it something essential to humanity would vanish

.. This gives Schmittianism, like the Bannon-affiliated elements of Trumpism, a family affinity to traditionalism in Russia

.. Enemies are regularly portrayed as ugly, for instance—a practice at which Trump personally excels.

.. But the object of a community’s political dissociation is made on the basis of criteria independent from judgments about good and evil, beauty and ugliness, or profit and loss.

.. the liberal effort to circumscribe national sovereignty within universalist legal and moral criteria increases the possibility of total war.

.. Trump acts in full accord with Schmitt in this respect by praising Vladimir Putin and embracing autocratic Russia as a potential friend while snubbing liberal nations of the trans-Atlantic alliance.

.. at the heart of Trump’s campaign was the promise to territorialize the friend-enemy distinction, namely to build a “great wall” along the border between the United States and Mexico

.. That spirit is one not simply of xenophobia or ethnocentrism, but also, and perhaps most of all, of shared laughter and good humor—a spirit, it’s essential for liberals to acknowledge, of warm community.

.. As Stephen Miller bracingly put the matter, in a statement nearly incomprehensible on liberal terms, “We’re going to build that wall, and we’re going to build it out of love.”

.. on Schmitt’s view, those nations that are strong enough to impose their own internal political homogeneity ought to ally with each other against nations and groups that undermine the territorialization of the friend-enemy distinction.

By this logic, it’s not Russia so much as violent Islamic extremism and cosmopolitan trans-Atlanticism that represent America’s true enemies—and, in fact, Russia can be an important ally against both.

.. Much like extreme conservative positions on gun control, climate change denial is based above all in anti-liberal metaphysical and identity commitments.

.. Although scientists have a forty-year track record of accurately predicting rising global temperatures, climate change deniers insist that such findings are the product of self-serving business elites and cunning foreign economic competitors who stand to gain if America reduces carbon emissions.

This sociological critique of scientific knowledge is a position not of evidentiary skepticism but rather of radical epistemological relativism. Deniers essentially challenge the Enlightenment position that the past is subject to objective understanding and that the world is amenable to rational human control.

This lends the popular culture of climate change denial a palpable spirit of historical fatalism.

..  climate change denial is animated by a vision of the future that, at bottom, is that of neo-tribalism.

.. It is destabilizing the territorial boundaries of the world through rising sea levels, altering the very land from which, in Schmitt’s view, the nomos of a people originally grows

.. it is undermining the spatial boundaries that Schmitt deems essential to sovereignty by putting the export of negative externalities at the center of global concern

.. Deniers interpret climate history in a way that obscures the existence of a global political community

.. In doing so, they not only embrace what I’ve called “the rule of the clan” at the level of the modern state, they also reject sotto voce the liberal ideals of universalism and individualism.

.. Trumpism draws together for our own time the core ideals of politics and the state that Carl Schmitt placed at the center of his philosophical vision. These include

  1. an animating community spirit that combines pugilism with love,
  2. an existential embrace of the friend-enemy distinction,
  3. a conception of state sovereignty as inviolable,
  4. the need to territorialize and homogenize the political community, and the rejection of the liberalist international order

—all in the service of a unified, common people.


The Philosophical Assault on Trumpism

Establishment Republicans have tried five ways to defeat or control Donald Trump, and they have all failed. Jeb Bush tried to outlast Trump, and let him destroy himself. That failed. Marco Rubio and others tried to denounceTrump by attacking his character. That failed. Reince Priebus tried to co-opt Trump to make him a more normal Republican. That failed.

Paul Ryan tried to use Trump; Congress would pass Republican legislation and Trump would just sign it. That failed. Mitch McConnell tried to outmaneuver Trump and Trumpism by containing his power and reach. In the Senate race in Alabama last week and everywhere else, that has failed.

.. The Bob Corkers of the party are leaving while the Roy Moores are ascending.

.. The only way to beat Trump is to beat him philosophically. Right now the populists have a story to tell the country about what’s gone wrong. It’s a coherent story, which they tell with great conviction. The regular Republicans have no story, no conviction and no argument.

.. The Trump story is that good honest Americans are being screwed by aliens. Regular Americans are being oppressed by a snobbish elite that rigs the game in its favor. White Americans are being invaded by immigrants who take their wealth and divide their culture. Normal Americans are threatened by an Islamic radicalism that murders their children.

This is a tribal story. The tribe needs a strong warrior in a hostile world. We need to build walls to keep out illegals, erect barriers to hold off foreign threats, wage endless war on the globalist elites.

.. Somebody is going to have to arise to point out that this is a deeply wrong and un-American story. The whole point of America is that we are not a tribe. We are a universal nation, founded on universal principles

.. The core American idea is not the fortress, it’s the frontier. First, we thrived by exploring a physical frontier during the migration west, and now we explore technological, scientific, social and human frontiers.

.. From Jonathan Edwards to Benjamin Franklin, Abraham Lincoln to Frederick Douglass, Americans have always admired those who made themselves anew. They have generally welcomed immigrants who live this script and fortify this dynamism.

.. The original Republicans were not for or against government, they were for government that sparked mobility; they were against government that enervated ambition.

.. Today, the main enemy is not aliens; it’s division — between rich and poor, white and black, educated and less educated, right and left.

.. Trumpist populists want to widen the divisions and rearrange the fences. They want to turn us into an old, settled and fearful nation.

.. with entitlement reform that spends less on the affluent elderly and more on the enterprising young families

.. this striving American dream is still lurking in every heart. It’s waiting for somebody who has the guts to say

  • no to tribe, yes to universal nation,
  • no to fences, yes to the frontier,
  • no to closed, and yes to the open future,
  • no to the fear-driven homogeneity of the old continent and yes to the diverse hopefulness of the new one.

Excerpts from Philosophers’ Breakup Letters Throughout History

I will proceed to break down our relationship into three stages. Our first stage is defined by aesthetics. I walked down one of my favorite crooked streets in Copenhagen, watched you step out of a carriage, and knew I must have you. The second stage of our existence is an ethical one. While I desired to lay my eyes on your hidden flesh, I recognized that you had recently revealed your body and soul to my good friend Hans, and knew he would be pissed if I tried anything. Our third and final stage is religious. I did not care much for Hans, and so I seduced you. However, we have both committed a tremendous sin, and thus we must end this immoral though titillating tryst immediately. God bless_.—Søren Kierkegaard_

Is philosophy simply harder than science?

According to the “spin-off” theory of philosophical progress, all new sciences start as branches of philosophy, and only become established as separate disciplines once philosophy has bequeathed them the intellectual wherewithal to survive on their own.

There is certainly something to this story. Physics as we know it was grounded in the seventeenth-century “mechanical philosophy” of Descartes and others. Similarly, much psychology hinges on associationist principles first laid down by David Hume, and economics grew out doctrines first developed by thinkers who called themselves philosophers. The process continues into the contemporary world. During the twentieth century, both linguistics and computer science broke free of their philosophical moorings to establish themselves as independent disciplines.

According to the spin-off theory, then, the supposed lack of progress in philosophy is an illusion. Whenever philosophy does make progress, it spawns a new subject, which then no longer counts as part of philosophy. In reality, philosophy is full of progress, but this is obscured by the constant renaming of its intellectual progeny.

.. When it comes to topics like morality, knowledge, free will, consciousness and so on, the lecturers still debate a range of options that have been around for a long time.

.. Where philosophy hinges on analysis and argument, science is devoted to data. When scientists are invited to give research talks, they aren’t allowed simply to stand up and theorize, however interesting that would be. It is a professional requirement that they must present observational findings. If you don’t have any PowerPoint slides displaying your latest experimental results, then you don’t have a talk.

.. Plenty of experimentally intractable problems arise right within science. Take the interpretation of quantum mechanics, or the evolution of altruistic instincts. These are scientific questions all right, but they admit no simple experimental resolution. The problem is that, even though we have all the experimental results we could want, we can’t figure out a coherent theory to accommodate them. Philosophical problems arise within science as well as outside it.

The real difference between philosophy and science is not subject area, but the kind of problem at issue. Philosophical issues typically have the form of a paradox.

.. It should be said that scientists aren’t very good at this kind of thing. They are much happier with what Thomas Kuhn called “normal science”, working within “paradigms” of settled assumptions and techniques that allow them to focus on issues that can be settled experimentally. When they are faced with a real theoretical puzzle, most scientists close their eyes and hope it will go away.

.. One of the great scandals of modern intellectual life is the way that physicists brushed the problems of quantum mechanics under the carpet throughout the twentieth century. Led by Niels Bohr and his obscurantist “Copenhagen interpretation” of quantum mechanics, they told generations of students that the glaring inconsistencies apparent in the theory were none of their business. “Shut up and calculate” was the typical response to any undergraduate who had the temerity to query the cogency of the theory. (This slogan has been variously attributed to Paul Dirac, Richard Feynman and others. The indeterminacy of the attribution is itself a testimony to the prevalence of the attitude.)

.. The “boo-hurrah” account of moral judgements was all the rage in the middle of the last century, but no-one any longer defends this simple-minded emotivism.

How Robert Nozick put a purple prose bomb under analytical philosophy

Nozick opened a new line of attack. Philosophers, he posited, would be better off if they stopped trying to prove things like scientists, an impulse he believed led thinkers to overlook how philosophy might stimulate the ‘mind’s excitement and sensuality’. Rather, they ought to limit themselves to explaining how a system of thought is possible. This would allow a ‘basketful’ of approaches to exist within philosophy, transforming it into an art form

.. ‘Those philosophers who are willing to derive moral directives from their philosophies can only offer you a sham proof.’ Proof, in this rigorous, new philosophy, was everything.

.. Nozick largely won praise from his colleagues. He had appeared, as one reviewer wrote, like a ‘knight in shining armour’, rescuing his peers from doing obscurantist philosophy. Thanks to his willingness to quit arguing and start explaining.

.. ‘The libertarian position I once propounded now seems to me seriously inadequate,’ he announced in The Examined Life. From here on out, he would apply his libertarianism inwardly, focusing on the cultivation of his self rather than the destruction of the state.

.. After all, this was the man who had declared that attempting to convince others of your views – the modus operandi of politics – was a ‘philosophically pointless task’.