Why is deconstruction so infuriating?

I was watching David Harvey’s excellent lecture series on reading Marx’s Das Kapital, and in the introduction, he talks about how he’s done this class for many many years now, and in all sorts of departments, even those you wouldn’t expect to see reading economic and social philosophy. And, he notes, each year he learns something from each class; each one has its own perspective. Even, he says, a literature class in the early 70s that was filled with folks from the comparative literature department at Johns Hopkins who loved Derrida.

They were fascinating, he goes on to say, because unlike with every other time he taught the course, they barely got through the first chapter. They analyzed every word for every possible meaning (“What does he actually mean by value? What does he actually mean by money commodity? What is fetish about?”). They seized on every analogy. They wanted to talk about his language choices. Harvey was really looking forward to talking about the working day and other interesting things, but they didn’t even reach chapter two before the semester was over.

And this struck me as one of the possible reasons why people find deconstruction and post-structuralism and postmodernism and such so infuriating — they won’t let you move on, they won’t let you just make statements and keep going, they won’t let you blithely get away with saying “you know what I mean” or “look, you’re missing the point”, because, well, they don’t, and they aren’t. For them, this is the point. Why did you say that that particular way?

Take, for example, Richard Taylor’s famous 1962 essay Fatalism (simply because it’s fresh in my memory right now). The argument in it is shit. Taylor himself has admitted such. It’s a Schrodinger’s Cat situation, where he wrote the paper to demonstrate the absurdity of it. The paper was written to be disproven, and the fact that people have taken Taylor to be some sort of anti-free will zealot is another absurdity (and demonstrating the truism that no one is really paying attention and no one understands irony, least of all the targets of ironic criticism).

But look at the examples he uses: you’re a ship commander, an admiral, someone with the power to determine whether a war happens or not. Then, you’re a passive observer, just someone who reads the paper. From someone who makes things happen, to someone things happen to. Lovely, but not enough.

One command from an admiral isn’t enough to start or stop a battle. Say that you give the order not to attack, and the enemy attacks anyways. What then? Or, say that the commander gives the order not to attack, and everything is peaceful in the Atlantic that day. But, over in the Gulf of Tonkin, a few submarines fire at a ship, and then there’s that headline, regardless of the individual commander’s actions. Do I or don’t I have free will if it’s multiple people acting on me?

But must Will be imposed by violent means? It’s always battles being ordered, gun barrels being warm after shots are fired.

I’m missing the point, of course. I’m not playing the game by the established rules. I’ve introduced other variables that confound the entire situation. I’m reading the essay like it were a short story. I’m fixating on what would be incidental details to other readers (make it a seamstress completing a dress if the order is given by the customer, or a Captain telling his divers to go searching the wreck they’re excavating that day, and the analogy still holds (headline: “Sunken Treasure Found Off Coast”)). It seems like I’m being an asshole or a pedant, but I’m focusing on what’s interesting and revealing about the paper to me, rather than the somewhat banal parts that can be summed up quickly (it is obvious that we have free will, just not absolutely (“I cannot determine what sort of pitch will be thrown, but I can attempt to hit it to the best of my ability, and even then, cannot determine what the players on the field will do as I run to first”) and the rest is just semantics).

Or is it?

We’ve got a paper loaded with violent imagery that sees the reader cast down from commander to paper reader, all as essentially a joke designed to get other philosophers to disprove fatalism. It intentionally associates the fatalistic viewpoint with militaristic order and control, and then depersonalization and passivity. Why those examples? Why that style of situation?

And I’m just doing this from memory, not even putting in the effort that is usually done by my colleagues.

But why should that scare or annoy you? What are you afraid we might find in your work? Why are you in such a hurry to move on?

What’s worse is that when you try to read anything they’ve done, they don’t even seem particularly interested in deconstruction. Derrida considered it a minor part of his portfolio, and often wondered why it became as big as it did. It was merely one tool in the box — like calling a general contractor a “hammerer” or a “nail gunner”. So after you bust you ass trying to figure out what, exactly, they’re doing and why, it turns out that the method isn’t really even of primary importance to them. They don’t even want to discuss it. It’s trite, passe, something settled long ago, something they’ve heard all before.

Which is what, I suspect, makes it so infuriating — we will seem to argue to the death about nothing at all, only to tell you that we don’t care very much about the argument in the end, while you’ve been pulling out the stops and convincing yourself that that this is a very important point that you must get across, when in truth we’re almost certainly speaking about two different topics entirely, and no one has bothered to slow down and say so.

“…on your knees in a field, under heavy rain, screaming for your dad to notice you.”

Jordan Bernt Peterson was born in 1962, holds a B.A. in political science, and a PhD in psychology. He teaches at the University of Toronto.

Like a lot of smart people, he was a very successful and interesting figure in his own field, who then decided to branch out and start bloviating about other fields he knew jack shit about, because he’s a smart guy, and therefore he must be able to understand everything effortlessly (see also Dawkins, Richard).

It’s easy to attract a crowd by doing two things: giving them an enemy, and giving them simple self-help advice. The latter is so formulaic that it barely is worth mentioning, but it is instructive to touch on briefly because it is done by just about every one of these types, from gurus like Peterson to the bigger groups like the Scientologists or the Objectivists. Basically, it involves two main things: one, focus on fixing your own problems by calming down, making a list of problems that you’d like to work on and a concrete plan for how to achieve them, and then only working on those problems to the exclusion of other things because your problems are self-caused, and two, the reason you’re not successful is because other people are holding you back and there’s a subtle and insidious conspiracy at work to keep down people like yourself, people who want to use hard working and responsible people who are in the know, to get ahead without doing the hard work that you’re doing.

Yes, they contradict one another. If you’re responsible for your own problems, then they are self-caused, and not the fault of the Enemy. But let’s not worry about that. The first part isn’t shitty advice at all, and it works — planning for the future and focusing on one problem at a time are excellent ways to eliminate problems from your life. And having a mantra to help you remember to do so, be it “Clean your room” or “Remember the present moment is all you have” or “Constant and Never Ending Self-Improvement” or “Know very clearly where you want to go,” well, that works too, as corny as it might sound. And because that works, it let’s the second part take hold, and can help foster a dependence on the person, the desire to spread the ideas that made you feel good, and, of course, spending money on the things they’re selling. And they’re always, always selling things you can buy, from books to tapes to online seminars to in-person courses…

Like a lot of gurus, Peterson thinks that his audience is stupid. Really stupid. It might not seem like it at first, because he comes out all pepped up and full of energy, like a gym school coach ready for the “big game”, but if you know anything about the subjects he’s talking about, he’s lying through his teeth most of the time to make himself look smart and his opponents look stupid. But there’s an understanding that you’ll get your information from him, and not from other sources. It’s not stated outright, but it’s understood that people criticizing him are either jealous of his success, or want to tear him down for some political agenda. So who would think to check his sources, or see if his statements are accurate?

A good example of this is the C-16 bill, which launched his career into public stardom. Now, Peterson wants you to believe that this bill makes it so that if you don’t call a hypothetical tumblr strawperson bunself, bun can call the cops and have you thrown in jail. What the bill actually did was just classify trans people in the same manner as, for example, black people or women when it came to being discriminated against for hiring and renting, when criminal actions taken against them, and such. So, basically, if you’re that sort of jerk, just make sure you can say the white guy you hired was at least as qualified or was a better fit for the company, or document them slacking off on the job and don’t say you’re firing them for being trans, and their case won’t go anywhere. The odds of a prosecuting lawyer accepting a case for someone using the wrong pronoun are about the same as the odds of hitting the lottery, and then convincing the judge and jury over the defense attorney… I don’t want to say never, but it isn’t going to happen.

This is not exactly dramatic stuff. Beating up a person for being trans should be treated as a human rights violation, same way it is for beating up someone for being a woman or a minority. It is a hate crime, full stop. But you wouldn’t know it from the way Peterson stomped his feet and threw an adult temper tantrum over how he could tell if someone was serious or not when they asked him to use different pronouns.

Because of course he can.

He also thinks that lobsters are just like humans, because both of them are effected by anti-depressants, according to a study he didn’t understand. Therefore, because lobsters have a dominance hierarchy, so should humans, and we should embrace our “inner lobster”. As you no doubt be shocked to learn, this isn’t the case:

From Psychologist Jordan Peterson says lobsters help to explain why human hierarchies exist – do they? Leonor Gonçalves, Phys.Org, Jan 25 2018

Peterson uses the example of lobsters, which humans share a common evolutionary ancestor with. Peterson argues that, like humans, lobsters exist in hierarchies and have a nervous system attuned to status which “runs on serotonin” (a brain chemical often associated with feelings of happiness).

The higher up a hierarchy a lobster climbs, this brain mechanism helps make more serotonin available. The more defeat it suffers, the more restricted the serotonin supply. Lower serotonin is in turn associated with more negative emotions – perhaps making it harder to climb back up the ladder. According to Peterson, hierarchies in humans work in a similar way – we are wired to live in them. But can a brain chemical really explain the organisation of a human society?

It is true that serotonin is present in crustaceans (like the lobster) and that it is highly connected to dominance and aggressive social behaviour. When free moving lobsters are given injections of serotonin they adopt aggressive postures similar to the ones displayed by dominant animals when they approach subordinates. However, the structures serotonin can act on are much more varied in vertebrates with highly complex and stratified brains like reptiles, birds and mammals – including humans.

If nervous systems were computer games, arthropods like lobsters would be “Snake” on a first-generation mobile phone and vertebrates would be an augmented reality (AR) game. What AR allows us to do and feel are incomparable to Snake, and the mechanisms behind it are a lot more complex. For example, one of the most relevant brain structures for dominant social behaviour is the amygdala, located in the temporal lobe of primates including humans. Arthropods don’t have an amygdala (lobsters don’t even have a brain, just an aglomerate of nerve endings called ganglia).

There are more than 50 molecules that function as neurotransmitters in the nervous system including dopamine, noradrenaline, adrenaline, serotonin and oxytocin. These molecules, however, exist all over nature. Plants have serotonin. In animals (including humans), most of the serotonin is produced and used in the intestine to help digestion. It’s the structure where it acts that determines its effect.

The same neurotransmitter can have contrasting effects in different organisms. While lower levels of serotonin are associated with decreased levels of aggression in vertebrates like the lobster, the opposite is true in humans. This happens because low levels of serotonin in the brain make communication between the amygdala and the frontal lobes weaker, making it more difficult to control emotional responses to anger.

As if that wasn’t enough, he has a great deal of trouble understanding children’s movies, and art in general:


Note that he lists Orwell’s 1984, Huxley’s Brave New World, Dostoevsky’s Demons and Crime and Punishment, and The Painted Bird by Jerzy Kosinski among his favorite books. By his definition, all propaganda, not art.

But then he starts in with this nonsense, and we hit part two of the cult recruitment pitch: The Enemy.

Don’t bother listening to the entire thing unless you really want to. It’s not really worth it. His his inability to stay on topic for more than a few moments gives me a headache:

As you may have gotten from other entries, this is my personal bailiwick: structuralism and post-structuralism, or, as he calls it, post-modernism.

His analysis is, of course, complete garbage. Early on, he mentions Derrida and phallogocentrism, and even tries to give a definition of it (a definition of the word, certainly, but not quite in the sense that Derrida used it), but then proceeds to just change the subject in favor of “Rah rah go western society!” rather than refute Derrida’s claim that history, as a whole, has favored men over women and privileged the spoken word over the written one, let alone attempting to disprove his much larger point that inside almost everything is an unconscious decision to favor one thing over another, an unconscious hierarchy at work, that we should be aware of and sometimes reconsider. (Not that Derrida thinks all hierarchies are bad (sports teams should have the best players, parents are correctly in power over their children, teachers over their students, etc.).)

But Peterson instead just goes off on how those lazy blacks in America have it better than the ones in Africa, so why are those ungrateful and resentful jerks so unappreciative of what they have? Why can’t they just stay in their place and quit complaining?

To paraphrase his argument: “I guess they have it better than the folks in war torn Libya or whatever, but they get shot by the cops regularly… Sure, relative wealth is a thing, but let’s look at absolute wealth too, like this nice building we’re all in, isn’t it a miracle that we can build something like this? Stupid angry black people…”

He’s blowing on the whistle so hard, but I can’t hear anything for some reason.

What, exactly, does this has to do with Derrida? Good old Jacques never said Logic doesn’t work or to hate people who have what you don’t.

But then we finally come to his actual gripe. He needs something to blame for why he and his friends keep getting booted from lucrative speaking engagements on campuses. The degree to which students should be forced to interact with ideas they don’t agree with vs. students understandably not wanting their tuition paying to bring people they hate to speak is one that’s worth having. But Peterson has already declared that postmodernists don’t do dialogue ever (which, again, is completely untrue. If you’ve ever met someone into post-structuralism, god, we talk constantly, and question everything, don’t we?), so don’t talk to them or listen to them, just stamp them out, like we did with the Reds back in the 50s… These people are the new communists, you see… (even if their work doesn’t have anything to do with communism, and many of them were actively un- or anti- communist… (Lyotard was disillusioned with communism after the Algerian Revolution failed to produce the promised outcome — literally the start of post-modernism was his break with the French communist party and his belief that master narratives are too simplistic to explain actually existing social reality, Foucault dropped communism after his first major book, and Derrida barely engaged with it at all in his work; more on those two below)).

And there they are: The Enemy. Hate them. Fear them. They are omnipotent and omnipresent, and yet, paradoxically, we can band together and defeat them if we just work hard and resist them.

If you take him at his word, Peterson lives in mortal terror that the Postmodernist Neo-Marxists are coming to get him (for someone who hates gulags and Stalinism so much, he’s certainly willing to compile lists of people he dislikes to target for abuse.) As he mentions early on, his understanding of the topic comes almost exclusively from the book Explaining Postmodernism by Stephen Hicks, and it’s a dumpsterfire of stupidity.

Hicks is a professor at Rockford University in Illinois, and is… well, basically unknown outside of objectivist circles. He loudly crows about how no one has dared to debate him over his book, thus proving him right, but the truth of the matter is that he just isn’t worth anyone’s time. He’s such small potatoes that any professor who deigned to do so would just be lowering their professional prestige. Thus, he gets to beat up on students, which is just bad form… Students are dumb. They’re enthusiastic, but they’re dumb. They’re still learning, that’s why they’re students. Even if you’re a AAA baseball player, you don’t go play in a high school JV game and then brag about how badly you beat the other team. He’s a friendly enough guy otherwise, but like a lot of objectivists, he’s got his agenda, and he’s going to stick to it, no matter what. Even if it means badly misreading other philosophers.

Now, one of the things you’re supposed to do in philosophy (and in most constructive arguments, really) is called “The Principle of Charity”. You’re supposed to give the person you’re writing in response to the benefit of the doubt, and argue against the strongest possible interpretation of their argument. You should try to fully understand their argument, present it in the strongest terms possible, and then dismantle it (what Daniel Dennett calls “steelmanning”, as opposed to “strawmanning”). This serves two purposes: one, it means that you’ve fully understood the topic you’re addressing and thus your response is all the stronger, and two, it makes you all the harder to argue against, because you’ve preempted many of the responses to you. Despite what some folks might think, Philosophy as a discipline is usually quite rigorous in its argumentation, and the people involved are deep readers and rhetoricians, so if you’re publishing stuff that’s weak, it will get dismantled fairly quick, if it is even published in the first place.

Explaining Postmodernism is like watching Braveheart, only less entertaining. It was initially published by a vanity press (Scholargy Publishing, Inc, also famous for such titles as Complete Guide for Horse Business Success and The Gekkleberry Tree) and then by Ockham’s Razor (which Hicks himself owns (I’ll leave the “self-owning” jokes for the reader to make)).

Hicks does a great job cherry picking to make people look bad. For example, in the very first quotation he chooses from Foucault in Explaining Postmodernism, he states: “Michel Foucault has identified the major targets: “All my analyses are against the idea of universal necessities in human existence.” Such necessities must be swept aside as baggage from the past: “It is meaningless to speak in the name of—or against—Reason, Truth, or Knowledge.”

He makes it out as if Foucault wants to destroy modern society and destroy Truth, Reason, and Knowledge.

But, when read in context, it is obvious that this is not what Foucault is saying at all. (Bolding added by me, to show where the quotations came from, and the ideas they are removed from)

From Truth, Power, Self. An Interview with Michel Foucault – Oct. 1982:

Q. But what about your interest in social outcasts?

A. I deal with obscure figures and processes for two reasons: The political and social processes by which the Western European societies were put in order are not very apparent, have been forgotten, or have become habitual. They are part of our most familiar landscape, and we don’t perceive them anymore. But most of them once scandalized people. It is one of my targets to show people that a lot of things that are part of their landscape — that people are universal — are the result of some very precise historical changes. All my analyses are against the idea of universal necessities in human existence. They show the arbitrariness of institutions and show which space of freedom we can still enjoy and how many changes can still be made.

The second quote isn’t even a direct quote from Foucault, it’s a paraphrase of him from Todd May’s Between Genealogy and Epistemology

From Between Genealogy and Epistemology — Todd May – 1993 p.2

For Foucault, the questions of what we hold to to be true, and how we came to do so, especially as regards ourselves, are of paramount importance especially in attempting to articulate an understanding of what our present is.

The significance of these questions is not confined to their relevance for comprehending our situation. In fact, what is at stake in in the questions of what we hold true and how we came to do so is the conduct of our lives. How we understand what we have come to accept about the world and about ourselves, the context in which we place our various knowledges of things, determines not only the theoretical underpinnings of our epistemology but also the political and ethical commitments of our practice. Both the knowledge that Foucault attempted to provide us and the knowledge of his analyses are inescapably political. Foucault was, above all else, a political writer about knowledge.

And yet, should we follow this line of inquiry too far–that is, should we try to answer the question of what, in their essence, Foucault’s writings _are_–we will only repeat the mistake against which his writings wage a ceaseless struggle. If Foucault was a political writer about our knowledge, it is not because he had anything to say about what our knowledge or reason was like. Indeed, to speak of our knowledge or our reason (or even, at times, our society) invites the kind of blindness that have allowed our knowledges and the strategies within which they are engaged to continue their hold upon us. There is no Knowledge; there are knowledges. There is no Reason; there are rationalities. And so, just as it is meaningless to speak in the name of–or against–Reason, Truth, or Knowledge, so it is meaningless to engage in Politics. The idea that there is one true politics that will lead us to our salvation is a dangerous lie, as the Soviet experience will attest.

So, we have two completely unconnected quotes, one of which Foucault didn’t even say, asking us to pay attention to the origins of our thoughts and ideas, to learn where reason and rationality come from, and to understand that our present sense of everything is contingent upon the knowledge of the past. “Quilt quotations” are just bad form. Hicks’ misinterpretation is garbage on par with Karl Popper’s attack on Hegel, which Walter Kaufmann famously eviscerated.  To quote from Kaufmann’s essay above:

From The Hegel Myth and Its Method — Walter Kaufmann, 1959

Here, for example, is a quilt quotation about war and arson: “Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword… . I came to cast fire upon the earth… . Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you… . Let him who has no sword sell his mantle and buy one.” This is scarcely the best way to establish Jesus’ views of war and arson.

What Foucault is saying is hardly controversial or difficult to understand. Our present physics is built upon the back of Newtonian physics, for example, which were groundbreaking for the time, but ultimately inadequate. Ptolemaic astronomy was superseded by the work of Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, Einstein, and many others. One uses a different sort of reasoning when arguing with a child than one does when programming a computer. While I would look dapper in a Beau Brummel suit in the 1800s, I would look like I was attending a costume party were I to wear such an outfit today. Is it so scary to consider that the world once wasn’t like the way it is today, and that perhaps in the future, it won’t be the way it is now? And is it shocking that studying the history of a country through a military lens would produce a different view than studying it through the history of its royal family? I shouldn’t think so.

There is nothing about how these are all equally “valid” or “good” or anything like that. Merely that to understand them, you need to understand them within the context within which they occurred. If I call Henry VIII handsome, one needs to understand that a very large man in tights and velvet was considered the peak of masculinity in his day, whereas we’d laugh him off the runway by today’s standards of beauty. There’s no judgement about “needing” to find him attractive.

Thus, when one can hardly reach the second page of Hicks’ work without seeing one of the central figures in the book completely mischaracterized, where is the sense in continuing? Given Hicks background in Rand, it isn’t surprising that he dislikes this idea (especially since Foucault explicitly identifies himself as a Kantian, and Rand despises her version of Kant, a version that scarcely resembles dear Immanuel at all), but then, given Rand’s reputation among philosophers of all backgrounds, it’s unsurprising that his thirteen year old self-published book hasn’t gotten any traction among them.

The refutation to his work is “No, they didn’t say that. Read the actual book by these authors and you’ll see that.”

There are plenty of reasons to dislike or criticise Foucault, but he never said “Reason is meaningless, destroy history, follow Marx!”

Oh yes, this is all tied into a grand Marxist conspiracy. Because of course it is.

The Marxist accusations are just as stupid, and seem to stem from a desire to just chain together words to call people you don’t like: the conspiracy theory version conservative of “Stupid cocksucing motherfucking son of a bitch!” becomes “Liberal Marxist postmodernist feminist relativist!”

Even a cursory glance at Foucault’s work would show that, not only isn’t he a Marxist, he’s actually quite specifically un-Marxist.

Foucualt dabbled in Marxism in his early years, but didn’t much care for it as he aged and matured as a philosopher. I’m just going to copy a section of the IEP here, because it’s not worth rephrasing what they already wrote:

The Order of Things charts several successive historical shifts of episteme in relation to the human sciences.

These claims led Foucault onto a collision with French Marxism. This could not have been entirely unintended by Foucault, in particular because in the book he specifically accuses Marxism of being a creature of the nineteenth century that was now obsolete. He also concluded the work by indicating his opposition to humanism, declaring that “man” (the gendered “man” here refers to a concept that in English we have come increasingly to call the “human”) as such was perhaps nearing obsolescence. Foucault here was opposing a particular conception of the human being as a sovereign subject who can understand itself. Such humanism was at that time the orthodoxy in French Marxism and philosophy, championed the pre-eminent philosopher of the day, Jean-Paul Sartre, and upheld by the French Communist Party’s central committee explicitly against Althusser just a month before The Order of Things was published (DE1 36). In its humanist form, Marxism cast itself as a movement for the full realization of the individual. Foucault, by contrast, saw the notion of the individual as a recent and aberrant idea. Furthermore, his entire presumption to analyse and criticize discourses without reference to the social and economic system that produced them seemed to Marxists to be a massive step backwards in analysis. The book indeed seems to be apolitical: it refuses to take a normative position about truth, and accords no importance to anything outside abstract, academic discourses. The Order of Things proved so controversial, its claims so striking, that it became a best-seller in France, despite being a lengthy, ponderous, scholarly tome.

The explicit criticism of Marxism in [The Order of Things] was specifically of Marx’s economic doctrine: it amounts to the claim that this economics is essentially a form of nineteenth century political economy. It is thus not a total rejection of Marxism, or dismissal of the importance of economics. His anti-humanist position was not in itself anti-Marxist, inasmuch as Althusser took much the same line within a Marxist framework, albeit one that tended to challenge basic tenets of Marxism, and which was rejected by the Marxist establishment. This shows it is possible to use the criticism of the category of “man” in a pointedly political way. Lastly, the point of Foucault’s “archaeological” method of investigation, as he now called it, of looking at transformations of discourses in their own terms without reference to the extra-discursive, does not imply in itself that discursive transformations can be explained without reference to anything non-discursive, only that they can be mapped without any such reference. Foucault thus shows a lack of interest in the political, but no outright denial of the importance of politics.

And this is just looking at one of the many philosophers he touches on. Derrida, for example, didn’t write anything about Marx until the 1990s, and even then, it was to say (paraphrasing greatly) “Well, this certainly is an idea that has been around a lot without ever really doing anything, but while still being in the back of everyone’s minds, kinda like a ghost, huh?” And Derrida and Foucault basically hated each other.

So, yeah. Peterson is attacking an idea that exists in his head. A conspiracy of dead French philosophers who are out to get him, somehow, with their philosophy that says such scary things as “people use different frameworks of reasoning to come to different conclusions” and “understand things in context” and “people have different ideas from one another”. Really scary, mindblowing stuff there. They both get more complex, and they both use more examples, but you’d have to actually read their books to learn those, and neither Peterson nor Hicks have done that. They haven’t even reached “I browsed wikipedia” levels of understanding. That takes time and effort. And why bother with that when you could just spout off nonsense and rest assured that no one giving you money will bother to check your work?

de Sade and the Curious Endpoints of Power

The Marquis de Sade isn’t the world’s best philosopher. He’s a fairly good writer and stylist, and has an alright grasp of character dynamics, but his dialogues are worse than Plato’s when it comes to having one character give long speeches, and another nod, agree, and say “oh yes, you’re right, you’re so wise, you’ve convinced me completely.” Plato at least had the decency to have his characters argue a bit, and occasionally end a dialogue with the problem unsolved. de Sade, on the other hand, well…

The longest and most cohesive statement he wrote on his theories is in Philosophy in the Bedroom, a series of dialogues in which Eugénie, a young woman who has already been seduced by an older and more experienced woman, is further initiated into the world of libertineism by the older woman’s brother and his friend (and the well endowed gardener). In between various sex scenes, de Sade’s mouthpiece Dolmancé speaks at length about atheism, natural law, hatred of mothers, the pursuit of pleasure as the highest goal, and how the stronger are obligated to dominate the weaker.

Many have read this and his other works as attempts at satire, as trying to show the enlightenment philosophers where their theories inevitably lead, and speaking out against the perversions of the upper class, but that just doesn’t square with the details of his life, considering that he was imprisoned for beating a hired servant, Rose Keller, half to death, holding her captive for quite some time, and then trying to pay her off. He was arrested at the request of his mother-in-law, who wanted him unceremoniously locked away from her daughter. His letters are full of whining about how unfair it is that he’s in jail merely for beating up a whore he paid (which is an interesting interpretation of events, as Keller, a widow and beggar, was under the impression that she was being hired as a housekeeper). If it’s satire, it’s of the sort that is jealous of those who are getting away with what he was caught doing.

It’s easy enough to see where his hatred of mothers come from, considering the circumstances.

But he makes one very glaring and crucial mistake early in his philosophy that renders the entire system rather hilarious in light of his life, and it’s a mistake seen again and again in so many people who try to use Nature or the state of lawlessness or the power of the strong over the weak as justifications for their actions.

He starts with the fairly reasonable propositions that Nature doesn’t care about humanity’s existence one way or the other, and that pleasure is the highest goal of human existence. There is little evidence that the planet would stop spinning if humanity was wiped out, and life existed long before we came into being, so we can grant him this, I think. It’s the second bit that trips him up.

Because pleasure is the highest goal, we should be relentless in seeking it, and therefore nothing ought to stand in our way when it comes to wringing every last bit of pleasure to be had from everything and everyone around us. If you would enjoy someone, take them, whether they consent or not. If you’d like to kill someone, do it. If you want something, take it. The state does this all the time, so why shouldn’t the individual? Those who are strong enough to inflict their will upon the weaker deserve to have their will services, and those who are weaker should learn to enjoy the pain that accompanies their taking.

All well and good, if you accept some of his premises, but he makes a major misstep along the way, and forgets just how society was constituted in the first place.

There is no natural system of government. There are no natural laws. There are no divine rules set in place. These statements his philosophy is in complete accordance with. And so it is that the strong are allowed to set forth their will upon those who are weaker than them.

And they did. Hundreds of years ago. This is the origin of the state.

Implicit in the ability of one to impose one’s will on another is setting boundaries, rules, laws, that the weaker must follow. The idea that a group of strong individuals wouldn’t band together and assert their collective will upon a populace is such naivete that it’s surprising that so many miss it. This ahistorical view of things, the desire to restart history from right now, always seems to crop up. They miss that they are late to the party, that it already happened. And even if it were restarted, it’d only be a matter of weeks or months before people had banded together to form gangs, and then local municipalities, and then armies, and soon we’d have nations all over again. If the state were so weak, it would not be able to assert its will upon them. It wouldn’t be able to imprison or execute them.

But for someone who’s convinced that the powerful get to do what they want, whining when you’re the one’s getting fucked is just pathetic. You’re already living in the world you asked for. You did what you wanted, and people more powerful than you did what they wanted to you. Who are you to tell them that they can’t collectivize and mob together if it brings them pleasure to see you scorned?

At the end of Philosophy in the Bedroom, Eugénie’s mother arrives to try and save her daughter. She is beaten, humiliated, and raped by the assembled (primarily by her daughter), raped by a syphilitic servant, and her genitals are sewn up to insure that she is infected. If the collective is allowed to take revenge on a stand in for his mother-in-law because they disagree on her stances, why isn’t the collective allowed to have it’s way with him?

And when a truly strong man like Napoleon came into power and dominated the entire country, well, what possible objection could he have then? Dolmancé instructs Eugénie and the Madame de Saint-Ange not to complain when he whips them both bloody before sodomy, because it is only through pain that the greatest pleasure can be achieved.

Perhaps rather than struggling and running off to Italy whenever he could, de Sade should have learned to lay in prison and take it?

Or, perhaps, just perhaps, he’s not arguing in good faith, and like all folks of the Natural State of The World and The Strong Control The Weak persuasion, he imagines himself as the one holding the whip, rather than the one in the cell, and is baffled to find that this just isn’t the case?

Color Science

Consider a woman, Mary, who is color blind. She is a neuroscientist, and knows absolutely everything there is to know about color, all the wavelengths and all the effects of light on the eye, etc.. There is nothing she doesn’t know about it. But she has never, herself, experienced it. One day, a surgical procedure is developed, allowing her to see color for the first time. Does Mary gain any new knowledge?

So is formulated one of the modern classic philosophical arguments, and one that, honestly, is built on such a false premise that it’s difficult to believe that it’s had as much traction as it’s had. Rather than go through all the logical argumentation, I’ll simply rewrite the analogy, and the flaws should become glaringly obvious.

Consider a young man, Gary, who is a virgin. He is eighteen years old, and knows absolutely everything there is to know about sex. Thanks to the internet, there is nothing he does not know about it. But he, himself, has never actually had sex. One day, he goes on a date with a woman, and after dinner and a movie, they make love. Does Gary gain any new knowledge?

Obviously, Gary could not have full and complete knowledge of sex. Any claim as such is non-sense. There is no refutation of physicalism, because he never had the knowledge in the first place; he does not have all the physical knowledge, so his gain of new knowledge is nothing significant. He could imagine it, he could try to synthesize what it would be like, he could try to create a simulacrum via masturbation, etc. but any claim to absolute knowledge of the subject is necessarily false.

A hoax that got out of hand


I was angry with Alan Sokal back in 1996. He missed the point, to say the least, and, subsequently, did a great job providing everyone who didn’t want to think with an easy piece of shorthand to gesture at when they wanted to dismiss entire schools of thought without engaging with them (see also: Dawkins, Richard re: religion, whose blistering insights about the Problem of Evil and the Teleological Argument have only been debated for ~1500 years or so before he was born; a spectacular case of getting everything right but missing the point completely).

And so, in the grand tradition of academia, I decided to get back at him. And how better than to get him at his own game? A hoax of my own. It would take time, planning, effort. It would require coordination with someone just unscrupulous enough to want to see a proud man taken down a peg. And we wouldn’t go after some podunk little journal with no readers and even less renown. No, we’d hit one of the big time journals, one of the unassailable, unimpeachable bastions of integrity that represent the industry as a whole. The kind that the lay people have heard of.

So, my friend and partner-in-crime Andy and I started cooking up a paper that, clearly, had to be bullshit. There was no way anyone could read it and think that we were serious, that we had found a correlation. We stacked on as much garbage as we could, putting in as many spurious claims as we could link, each trying to out do the other in a marathon session that involved many bottles of wine and many scratch pads, trying to come up with the most ridiculous theory possible. It would be the “Naked Came the Stranger” of science publications.

“Autistic Enterocolitis” was the name we settled on.

We then stapled together some photos of sad kids and their upset parents, cribbed together some sentences about MMR from other papers we found lying around Andy’s office, copied the index out of an old Vladivostok telephone directory, and sent it off.

For the first year, nothing. If you don’t know what waiting for peer review is like, it’s an agonizing period of hurry up and wait. You are scrutinized by an anonymous jackass whose main concerns are advancing their own careers and making sure that they’ve been cited enough times in the bibliography that they feel like a part of the intellectual community. You will be given this person’s lowest possible priority, your paper lost underneath some student work, the novel they started last year, a coffee ringed calendar with numerous other “important” events they are blowing off, and the three complimentary textbooks they’re considering reviewing for next semester. But, if you’re lucky, some intern will knock the stack over when they rush in with multiple vials of blood that they’ve mislabeled and are hoping (praying?) that there’s some test that can be performed to identify the people they belong to so that they don’t have to do 18 more draws from even more doners in order to complete the experiment, and your (now bloodstained) paper will end up on top when the student finishes picking everything up through tears and goes running down the hall, wondering why they thought they could ever do anything right. Then you get a glance through to check that their name is somewhere in there, and a few notes to make it look like they did something. (“Nice use of commas, too many semi-colons. One is enough per paper to make the author look like s/he knows English grammar. Could have written more about mathematical diabetes, but otherwise acceptable for publication”)

Imagine our surprise when, on 28 February 1998, The Lancet published  “Ileal-lymphoid-nodular hyperplasia, non-specific colitis, and pervasive developmental disorder in children”

We were flabbergasted. Dumbstruck. It worked! We jumped up and down like teenage girls who’d just been asked to prom, hands clasped, the pictures on the walls of Andy’s apartment shaking each time we landed. How could they have taken the bait? Vaccines cause autism, which presents itself as a bowel disease we invented whole cloth? Who’d believe that garbage? And a sample size of only 12, a third of whom hadn’t presented autistic symptoms? We’d done it. All the was left was to call Social Text and let them in on the joke. They deserved it, after all they’d been through. They could drop the story and we’d let is spread like wildfire. We figured we’d let it stew for a week or two, then announce that we’d fabricated the whole thing — just enough time for the praise and adulation to start rolling in, but not enough that people would start actually acting on it. We didn’t want people to get hurt, after all. I was just wishing I could be there when Alan got the news that he’d been punked back.

But then, a funny thing happened. Not funny “ha ha”. More, funny “sad clown is going to hang himself and is on his way to the store to buy rope, and slips on a banana peel and falls off a bridge to his death”.

Somehow, people believed us. People really believed us. The newspapers and the TV didn’t bother to read the paper, they just ran with it. Those sorts of people emerged. Granola people. “I’m a Christian and a Mother and I Vote” people. Survivalists. Christian Scientists. The people who think the fluoride in the water contains mind control drugs. And these people convinced other people. It spread like a virus, like one of Dawkins’ memes, through the populace. It was too late. We’d let it loose, and there was no way to get it back into the cage.

And then Andy got weird; he started believing it too. We had an angry phone call one night, and we haven’t spoken since. He now denies that he ever knew me. It hurt, losing a close friend like that. That was 17 years ago. But he has famous friend now. Jenny McCartney loves him. So does Charlie Sheen. Alicia Silverstone. Donald Trump. One of the Kennedy kids. What use would he have for me?

It spiraled and snowballed, growing worse and worse. More and more people got in on the hoax. Old diseases came back, and came back with a vengeance. Children were disfigured. Babies born with horrific defects. Corpses piled up, needlessly. The Lancet finally retracted the paper, but the djinn was out of the bottle, the monkey’s paw had already closed one of its sinister fingers. I never wanted to hurt anyone. I never wanted to cause the extinction of the human race. I just wanted to rib back someone who’d ribbed us.

Gotcha, Alan. Ha ha?

Intellectual Laziness

Something that has existed since, well, probably forever (even though this paragraph originally started ‘Something that’s become more and more of a problem…’, it’s almost certainly been an forever), is the problem of intellectual laziness.

If you’ve only glanced at a complicated topic, something that people have doctorates in, have written long books about, have done extensive research in, etc. etc., you probably don’t understand it very well, and any criticism you’re going to make of it is going to be rather surface level and will merely question a few of the basic assumptions made by the field of study, as though said baseis have never been questioned before.

For example:

  • Why do people think God exists when something would have had to make God, and also Evil exists?
  • Math has no use in the real world, so why am I bothering to learn this?
  • We should get the government out of things, because all those regulations do it make it harder for people.
  • That’s not art, it’s just a bunch of crap thrown on a canvas. My kid could do that.
  • Postmodernism is just a bunch of gibberish.
  • Postmodernism is just a bunch of really simple ideas dressed up in fancy terminology.
  • Science has been wrong before, so why should I trust it now?

I could go on, but you get the idea. It seems to go in three stages:

  1. A negative gut reaction to whatever is being presented.
  2. A refusal to actually engage with the material, which might provide evidence counter to the gut reaction.
  3. Repetitions of the same tired criticisms that everyone else makes, especially dismissal of anyone who cares enough to really be invested in “that crap”.

Odds are, if your criticisms can be found in the first two links of a google search for Anti-[whatever], and those aren’t from .edu sites, or are being shouted on YouTube by a man with an ill-chosen pseudonym, you haven’t engaged deeply enough.

(A parable: a fellow was writing a story about a leprechaun, and doing some research into the origins of the mythical figure — what they represented, why they endured as symbols of Irish culture and heritage, how their depictions had changed over time, how the stories told about them gave differing moral lessons. While out drinking one night, a friend of his, one of those folks prone to outbursts and moods, yelled “Your work is shit. You believe in nothing. Leprechaun’s don’t exist. I don’t need a degree in leprehuanology to know that!” Obviously, thought the fellow, but didn’t bother saying anything out loud, because you know how those types can be once they’re in their cups.)

A better method, albeit one that requires effort and opens one up to actual criticism, is Dennett’s “Steelmanning”. Described in his book Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking, the Steelman is the opposite of a Strawman. You attempt to present the other person’s argument in the strongest terms possible, giving them the most charitable interpretations, making an actual case for them being correct, and demonstrating that you understand them completely. Then, and only then, do you begin any criticism.

Now this, of course, requires more than skimming the Wikipedia article on a given subject, and then making up what you think someone (some idiot?) might think about this (stupid) topic. Books are involved. Knowledge of the different schools of thought within a discipline. Replying to actual assertions, rather than the simply the existence of what you assume the thing is.

An short example contrasting the two:

“John Searle is stupid. His stupid Chinese Room doesn’t prove anything about learning or AI, because a person isn’t a computer. Some guy with a bunch of books wouldn’t be able to translate Chinese as well as a super computer, and therefore the other person would notice, and the Turing test would fail. What an idiot.”


“Searle’s Chinese Room thought experiment, in which it is asserted that there is no difference between a computer interpreting commands and a person executing commands in a language they do not understand, is an interesting thought problem. The basic conclusion is that no artificial intelligence will be capable of contemplating itself, or understanding it’s own actions, just as the person manually executing the ‘program’ will not understand the language they are working in. There will be no ‘Strong AI’, to use Searle’s term. However, many objections have been raised to this analogy, and the one which I find the most compelling is that Searle’s conclusion (“Therefore there is no Strong AI”) does not follow from his premises. He assumes a dualism between Strong and Weak AI, and, because his experiment seems to demonstrate that there is not a Strong AI, he assumes it must be Weak. This does not follow. It merely proves that, in this particular instance, thought is not just computation. It does nothing to positively identify criteria for thought, nor to establish that computers are incapable of it. It does not prove that, simply because computational processes and their output can occur in the absence of a cognitive state, that thought is not occurring in this instance. Is there any way for Searle to prove to me that he himself is thinking, and not simply interpreting and executing external commands which his unconscious interior does not actually understand? Even more generally, is there a difference between the real thing and a perfect simulacrum? That is a question far too broad for discussion here. Needless to say, despite its numerous flaws, the Chinese Room is an interesting thought project that has entertained philosophers and AI researchers for years.”

As much as I might disagree with John Searle, and find many of his ideas based on incorrect premises, I would never call him a stupid person, or think that he should stop writing. It is chiefly because he is such an intelligent person that he is capable of producing such brilliant (if wrong) things as the Chinese Room. And I assume he’s writing in good faith, because he’s a doctor of philosophy at UC Berkeley.

Try it out next time you feel tempted to, say, claim that Islam is horrible because of the actions of a tiny minority of Wahhabists, or that Feminism is a cancerous political movement because of Andrea Dworkin rather than a multifaceted approach to cultural theory through which any number of subjects can be interpreted, or if you’re about to type “That’s Economics 101!” while not realizing that there is a 102, a 301, a 505, and other much more complicated classes that expand on and systematize the dumbed down and simplified explanations given in 101 classes so that students aren’t overwhelmed and can basic concepts (By analogy, they don’t cover friction when calculating motion in Physics 101. Does friction exist?).

Update: There will be further discussion of John Searle, rest assured.I have a lot more to say about Chinese Rooms, Limited INC., and, well… A lot. We’ll get there.