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Author Information: Bernard Wills, Memorial University,

Wills, Bernard. “Our Weimar Moment, Part Two.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 3 (2018): 27-31.

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On a wall in Montreal, Quebec, on 5 June 2017. Its address was 5317 Waverly.
Image by Fred: via Flickr / Creative Commons


I am not the person to solve these dilemmas however. I am a philosopher not an activist and my only job is to help clarify our thinking about the mess we find ourselves in. In that spirit I offer the following observations. They take the form of a reflection on Karl Marx whose writing seem to take on new life in the era in which we live. Marx has been gravely disserved by the elevation of his writings into a kind of holy writ.

Though I have deep reservations about certain aspects of his thinking (which I will discuss below) it is surprising to me how accurate a diagnosis he offers of our current crisis. I will not comment here on the strange tension between brutal dialectical realism and hazy utopianism that is the ambiguous legacy of the Marxist tradition. Nor will I be reviving such difficult and contentious notions as the theory of surplus value or Marx’s arcane analysis of Victorian economics.[1]

If Marx is still relevant as a prophet for the 21st century it is not for these things but for his central insight that Capitalism as a system is unsustainable: of its very nature it absolutizes the profit motive and the relentless pursuit of profit at all costs must bring the system itself crashing down. It is clear to me, for instance, that untrammeled markets will destroy the social and ecological capital on which they rest and on this point at least Marxism seems to me correct.

Only a system where the means of production are radically democratized is capable of wielding the instruments of modern technology in a way that is sustainable and broadly fair. Marx got many things tragically wrong but at the beginning of the 21st century we may wonder if he has gotten this one thing right. Not ten years ago this would have seemed a ridiculous question: the consensus surely was that the second half of the 20th century had left Marx’s thought far behind.

However, is it true that current conditions (as so many have claimed) falsify not only the details of Marx’s account but its spirit? The reason for saying so has hitherto been powerful: beginning with the post-depression era and continuing after the Second World War liberal democratic states have been governed by a consensus. Markets have been given freedom to operate on the assumption that in certain key areas Government will intervene to even out the cruelties and inequities of the market place, for example with labor laws, social security systems etc. The true answer to Marx has always been that democratic states have the power and will to balance the demands of the market with basic social goods to a degree sufficient to prevent revolution.[2]

Of course, corporations and their apologists have never really accepted this consensus and, as the post war interventionist state has been fundamentally secular in outlook neither have the people we now call social conservatives. If Marx is right the post war consensus that has hitherto governed us is inherently unstable: corporations who face the imperative of ever improving their bottom line can, indeed must, do so by incrementally chipping away at every aspect of the state that embodies a higher good than the pursuit of individual profit. Since the whole raison d’etre of the liberal state has been to make the world safe for capitalism and the indefinite growth it promises the political class must more and more cede to these demands.

However, man does not live by bread alone: to ensure electoral success corporate interests must align themselves with nationalists, racists, religious zealots and other disaffected groups as these are the one great mass of people outside the corporate sector who regard the post-war state as inherently corrupt. Thus, one sees the strange alliance between evangelical Protestants, conservative Catholics and the kleptocrats of the corporate elite: both fundamentally hate the progressive state and wish it dismantled, if for diametrically opposed reasons.

On a wall in Paris, France, on 10 June 2017, near Bellevue.
Image by Gullem Vellut via Flickr / Creative Commons


Anyone who reads the Communist Manifesto will see that Marx understood this dialectic perfectly well: the liberal state will always be threatened by an alliance of Capital with ethnic, national and religious exclusivism, in a word, fascism. As the liberal state is, in its essence, aligned with capital anyway it will inevitably lose this fight, making concession after concession until it is fundamentally toothless and an object of general contempt.

Ironically, given Marx’s notion that the state must ultimately wither away, the Liberal state will weaken itself to a point where it simply becomes expendable. The resultant unfettered pursuit of profit will produce such environmental devastation, such immiseration of what was once the middle class and such a cheapening of core values in spheres such as education and health-care that it will not be sustainable: the question of an alternative economic model will then present itself whether we wish it or not.[3] It is not for philosophers to predict the future or to dictate to practical people what they need to do. I only make the general point that the question of laissez faire economics is one of the handful of human notions on which the data appears to be in.

Yet it is clear too that without markets (of some kind) there is no way to adjust production to the real needs and demands of individuals (markets, after all, long predate capitalism). The grim catastrophe that was international communism was both the triumph and downfall of the technocratic dream: a universal society devoted to the conquest of nature and of chance. I do not simply refer here to ecological disasters such as the destruction of the Aral Sea or nuclear testing in Kazakhstan. I refer to the entire notion of a state that absorbs society in order to subject it to authoritarian technocratic control.

I think the lesson is clear that no party or political movement no matter how well intentioned can absorb the government. No government can absorb society in its economic, cultural or scientific aspects. This is illustrated, for instance, by the utter failure of centrally planned economies to meet the needs of actual human beings.[4] Contingency and difference, whether in the form of an economic market or a ‘marketplace of ideas’ or a culture of criticism and resistance within the state (in the form of a free press, political opposition and so on) are essential to a free society. As Robert Heilbroner points out a free market at very least provides a place where dissidents and non-conformists can earn a living. (69)

I prescind here from the question of whether Marx (who is still as I have noted a major social theorist) is to blame for the fate of Marxism in the 20th century: certainly Marx says some potentially disturbing things about a temporary ‘dictatorship’ of the proletariat where the workers, or more disturbingly, people who have appointed themselves as representative of the workers, take on the power of the Hobbesian sovereign.[5] State absolutism seems set as the precondition for abolishing the state.

It is no doubt possible to find a reading of Marx that insulates him from all that has subsequently been done in his name: such a procedure, though, runs the risk of turning his doctrine into a mere idealism, something that should have been a moving force in history but, alas, wasn’t due to Lenin, Plekhanov, the backwardness of the Russian people or what have you. Does Marxism allow any judgment but that of history? Does it not seem to fail its own most fundamental test?

I note however that many of the people who currently flaunt the symbols and language of international socialism are (barring the odd lunatic who still pines for forced collectivization) social democrats at heart or anarchists rather than orthodox Marxist/Leninists. Certainly their concerns over environmentalism and the rights of indigenous peoples belong more to the progressivism of this century than of the last.[6] Crucial notions for Marx are the technological conquest of scarcity and the full automation of labor and this certainly now looks naive from an ecological viewpoint. It looks increasingly like a Faustian delusion to believe that nature sets no limits on the possibility of abundance and prosperity. To truly eliminate scarcity, we must redefine our wants and needs, boring as that sounds, rather than overwhelm demand with supply.

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“”We Made a Devil’s Bargain”: Fmr. President Clinton Apologizes for Trade Policies that Destroyed Haitian Rice Farming” (

Aeschylus, The Suppliants trans. Phillip Vellacott (Penguin Classics, London 1961)

Barzun, Jacques. Darwin, Marx, Wagner (Doubleday Books, New York, 1958)

Baudrillard, Jean, The Mirror of Production trans. Mark Poster (Telos Press, St. Louis, 1975)

Blake, William. The Marriage of Heaven and Hell from The Complete Poems (Penguin Classics, London, 1978)

Blum, George P. The Rise of Fascism in Europe (Greenwood Press, Westport, 1998)

Danticat, Edwige “Sweet Micky and the Sad DeJa Vu of Haiti’s Presidential Elections” (New Yorker, Dec.3, 2015)

Eagleton, Terry. Marx (Orion Publishing Group Ltd., London 1997)

Edmonds, Ennis B. Rastafari, A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2012)

Frank, Dana. “The Thugocracy Next Door” Politico. Retrieved from

Hegel, GWF. The Phenomenology of Mind (Harper Torchbook, New York, 1967)

Heilbroner, Robert. Twenty First Century Capitalism (Anansi Press, Concord, 1992)

Marx, Karl and Engels, Friedrich. The Communist Manifesto (Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1986)

Marx, Karl, and Engels, Friedrich. The German Ideology (International Publishers, New York, 1970)

Russell Hochschild, Arlie: “The Ecstatic Edge of Politics: Sociology and Donald Trump (

Pulver, Matthew. “Bill and Hillary’s Hyper-Capitalist Disaster: How the Clintons Can Apologize for a Decade of Deadly Policies”

Spielvogel, Jackson J. Hitler and Nazi Germany (Pearson Prentice Hall, Upper Saddle River, 2005)

[1] Of course fundamental challenges exist to Marixist economics and the anthropology underlying it. Of particular note here is Jean Baudrilliard, whose Mirror of Production castigates Marx for failing to question the principles of ‘political economy’ as defined in the 18th Century and making a fetish of Bourgeois notions of ‘labor’ under the all- encompassing sign of ‘production’. Thus, Marxism, far from being a radical critique of Capitalism simply reproduces its underlying logic. I cannot weigh in on this critique here but simply note its importance. I will say, however, that confronting Marxist notions of labor and productivity with, say, the ontologies of indigenous peoples shows just how dependent they are on the theoretical foundations of bourgeois Liberalism. Indeed, the Lockean stance towards nature, expropriation as property through productive labor, does not disappear from Marx but is simply socialized. The capitalist expropriation of the surplus value of labor disappears to make the social expropriation of land, “waste lands” as the Manifesto puts it, proceed apace. (54) Progressive advocates for the rights of indigenous peoples will have to rethink fundamental aspects of the Socialist tradition if they are serious about accommodating the indigenous viewpoint on land and ecological responsibility.  

[2] Or complete ecological collapse. Whatever the consequences to the planet corporations have made it clear that they wish to exploit fossil fuels until they are gone: one can only conclude that they prefer death to the intolerable burden of ecological responsibility. So far no national government or coalition of national governments has been able to tell them no. Of course a government that cannot tell private interests no is no government at all. So far, the liberal state has been failing one of its most significant tests and to that extent playing in the general rhetoric that states are useless anyway and might as well be replaced by private corporations or anarchist communes.

[3] We do not suffer from a lack of such models but from an excess. Trying to pick one’s way through the proposals of participatory economists, anarchists, mutualists, syndicalists, anarcho-feminists and so on is rather like trying to decide which of a hundred sects of Protestantism represents the true religion. I offer no opinion on whether social forms like these may play a role in a post capitalist order. For all this author knows they might have many useful things to contribute. They do seem, however, to embody one principle which is surely erroneous: that the community will never have to exercise sovereignty over the will of individuals. As will be pointed out below the most anarcho-syndicalist of communes will still have to function in some minimal sense as a state. I point this out because the utopian notion that the human being can, in her immediate natural will, embody the will of the community is a dangerous delusion which lays the groundwork for 20th century totalitarianism. One way of reading the current essay is as a critique of the utopian impulse as it afflicts both Capitalist and other societies. The problem with all these suggestions is that, for now at least, they are merely ideal and do not reflect forces immanent in the world, a thing Marx himself deprecated.  

[4] Ironies abound here. Robert Heilbroner notes: “As citizens of the former Soviet Union are discovering to their consternation, a market system means the end of the long queues for bread that were a curse of life under a system of centralized command, but it also means the introduction of a queue which did not exist formerly- namely, standing in line at employment offices and looking for work.” (73-74) The curse of a command system is the inability to provide goods in sufficient quantity as and when people actually need them. If bread runs low the command system cannot pivot and continues producing other items (like the notorious black lamps) for which there is no demand at all. The curse of Capitalism is its inability to supply a sufficient amount of meaningful and non-exploitive work for its citizens: one accepts ‘structural unemployment’ and alienated labor rather as the Soviet citizen made due without toothpaste.    

[5] Communist Manifesto pp.53-54. Of course, barring Cincinnatus of early Roman times, no ‘dictatorship’ has ever been temporary by choice. A realist like Marx ought surely to have known that power does not renounce itself. Of this section of the Manifesto Jacques Barzun comments: “Nowhere does Marx’s imaginative weakness and inconsequence appear more clearly than in this mishmash of bloody revolution with reformism.” (Darwin, Marx, Wagner, 188) This may be harsh but there is a grain of truth to it nonetheless. Barzun deftly points up the naiveté underlying Marx’s apparent worldliness: “One therefore wonders by what secret mechanism he expected that in this case (i.e. the violent overthrow of the bourgeoisie) men goaded to destruction and sadism would settle down into artisans of peace and order.” (187) In any violent revolution you will have men with guns and men with guns do not readily give them up. Most likely they will then become a militant clique who appoint themselves as representatives of the proletariat assuming its dictatorial function. This clique will already be criminalized by a long standing habit of identifying ethics with political expediency. A revolutionary general (in a depressingly familiar pattern) then becomes the next autocrat after killing or jailing his rivals. A new autocracy is the result and as Eagleton points out: “…a Socialism which fails to inherit from the middle class a rich legacy of liberal freedoms and civic institutions will simply reinforce that autocracy.” (43) Perhaps it is this dynamic of armed insurrections, rather than supposed ‘material conditions’ in Russia or elsewhere that vitiated 20th Century Communism. We might then judge the insurrectionist approach to be largely a failure.

[6] Assimilation of indigenous peoples (so called ‘futureless societies’) was as firm a part of Soviet doctrine as of Canadian or American Liberalism. Indeed, what could it possibly mean to be an indigenous person in the universal technocracy envisaged by Marx and his followers? A person who claimed and expressed indigeneity would be, from this perspective, clinging to outmoded forms of life (i.e. forms of life that do not reflect current modes of production) and would, for that reason, be counter-revolutionary (see German Ideology, 44 for Marx’s dismissive account of indigenous societies). At any rate nothing could be further from the scientific character of Marxism than the mania for ad hominem attacks and personal invective typical of certain contemporary radicals. Whether a capitalist is a loving father or steps on puppies is perfectly irrelevant. Marx is concerned with how institutions affect the perceptions and attitudes of the people who inhabit them. Capitalism is not oppressive because individual capitalists are bad people. A capitalist system run by kindly old grandfathers would not be a whit less oppressive. To be fair though, this contradiction is in Marx himself who never reconciled the vituperative rhetoric of Marxism with its actual substance.

Author Information: Bernard Wills, Memorial University,

Wills, Bernard. “Our Weimar Moment: Part One.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 2 (2018): 70-75.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink:

Please refer to:

Art by Tom Blackford of Shoreditch, UK. Image by Duncan C via Flickr / Creative Commons


I, like many worried about the rise of Fascism in America, thought Hilary Clinton would, by however modest a margin, buy us a few years to confront it more effectively. Now that I have been disabused of this hope it is time for sober reflection. Clinton has lost an election now she would otherwise have lost in four years. The populist wing of the Republican Party would simply have found a slicker, more intelligent candidate who is not a walking gaffe machine. 2020 was going to be theirs anyway. The extra time would have been nice but the reckoning has come now instead of later. So be it.

A populist politics of racial and ethnic resentment has triumphed; xenophobic, anti-intellectual and contemptuous of institutions and the rule of law.[1] This politics either points towards or currently embodies a Fascist ideology depending on whether you are an optimist or a pessimist.[2] Here are some reflections I have prepared on this crisis and though academics generally hate to be proven wrong I sincerely hope (for once) that most of what I say is unduly pessimistic.

The west, it seems, is having its ‘Weimar’ moment: its feckless elites are incapable of resisting the rising tide of right wing authoritarianism. This is not an American problem; it is a global problem. This is so firstly because America’s problems are ipso facto the world’s problems. There is no place to hide from chaos in the U.S. unless one disengages from the global economy completely. Secondly, the forces that have propelled Trump to success in the United States are active in Europe as well and no doubt his victory will only encourage the forces of reaction there.

If a renascent Fascism wins electoral success in both the US and Europe will Canada hold out long as the lone island of sanity? Our own Conservative party will no doubt learn its lessons from Le Pen and Wilders if they or their ilk follow Trump to electoral success. Indeed, when in 8 to 10 years the Liberal Government has run its natural course there will be no stopping them. They will succeed in the way extremist parties always succeed: by waiting for a protest vote to sweep them into power. Fascism (proto or otherwise) will then come to Canada too.

It is hard to feel sorry for the Clintons, Blairs and Bushes who have made this possible. They and the neo-liberal doctrines they shilled for are now in the place that Orthodox Communism was in the 1980’s. They have no credibility with the people they govern and cannot move them a millimeter towards the good. Who really wanted another Clinton in the White House? Who wanted more trade deals, more ‘humanitarian’ military interventions, more bailouts and bloated profits for the financial sector? Who wanted more ‘restructuring’ and ‘rationalization’? More wage stagnation and the continued decline of the middle class? The main pillars of the New World Order, trade liberalization, privatization, and perpetual austerity summon as much enthusiasm now as the Soviet Union’s last five- year plan.

Of course these things were never meant to be political or subject to democratic control. That is why they were enshrined in international agreements and enforced by the IMF and World Bank. Politics, indeed history itself, was supposed to be over and done with as people like Fukayama assured us in the 90’s. Clinton, a child of this era, would never have done anything ‘political’ in the sense of disturbing these global economic and security arrangements. She would have simply administered them (one suspects fairly competently) while trying to sell the results to an increasingly alienated public. However, anyone who thinks this kind of bland administrative talent benign should study the ugly history of the Clintons’ dealings with Haiti and Honduras, those whose appointed station in the Global order is to provide cheap, immiserated labor in perpetuity. [3]

This system, of course, will not change under Trump, it will only become more chaotic. The neo-liberals at least offered some measure of order and predictability along with basic constitutional guarantees (unless of course you happen to be young, male and Muslim or a Black victim of police violence). Trump however faces a task even less manageable than Clinton. Capital under Trump will be more aggressive and unfettered than ever. Ordinary people will be poorer and unhealthier than ever. To keep the latter engaged increasingly ugly racial rhetoric will be necessary. At the same time Trump will not have the gift of another Clinton in four years. He will have to keep certain aspects of the post war liberal consensus in place to please independents.

Image via Thierry Ehrmann via Flickr / Creative Commons


The result will be a farrago of mismatched policies. There will be great pots of money for homeland security, police and the military. At the same time there will be ‘fiscal responsibility’ promised house Republicans. Abortion may be out but gay marriage will be in. Muslims and Hispanics will be subject to various forms of legal (or extra-legal) harassment but corporations who benefit from them will be given their open borders and cheap migrant workers. Infrastructure will be massively expanded but of course there will be tax cuts for all. A gifted politician might pull this off for a time but of course Trump is in the White House precisely because he is a political innocent.

As a result, Trump is unlikely to please the constituencies whose expectations he has raised. His ramshackle transition team of racists, millenarian weirdos, neo-con creeps and corporate hacks already embodies every aspect of this incoherent program. When the inevitable disappointment sets in will Trump’s base decide that he has been co-opted by the system he was elected to shake up? Will they decide that they simply did not elect someone radical enough? If so, should we prepare for David Duke in 2020?[4]

As some context for understanding this however we might try to define the idea that runs through Trump’s and other far right movements: this idea might be labeled ‘particularism’ which gets at the common core of the far right more than comparisons to Hitler, Franco, Mussolini or whoever (illuminating as these might sometimes be). This idea is based on the failure of two cosmopolitanisms: that of Neo-Liberalism and international Communism. In place of this it offers nationalism and ethno-identity politics as the third way.

Of course, this is nothing new. The wars in the Balkans have already showed us ethnicity is a powerful force in contemporary politics. Far right movements have existed for decades in the United States and Europe even after the defeat of Germany. However, it is now clear that the same forces have moved from the periphery into the heartland. The United States, France, Germany, and Great Britain are the new Balkans in that fundamental questions of the nature of politics are now mooted there rather than in the hinterlands of Europe. So, where Neo-Liberalism saw universality embodied in a vision of as humans as consumers and Marxism saw universality embodied in a vision of humans as producers the new right emphasizes humans as embedded in relationships and identities that are fundamentally local or at most national.

Thus, it rejects any effort to globalize trade and invokes the virtues of protectionism. As it opposes the free flow of capital so it opposes the free flow of people: refugees are now ‘economic migrants’ (read ‘moochers’) at best and terrorists at worst.[5] As in the old European right there are no ‘rights of man’ but rather rights of Englishmen, Frenchmen and Americans. Thus ‘others’ of various kinds can freely be tortured, denied habeas corpus and so on. At the extreme end this rejection of a universal moral language of rights becomes a narcissistic celebration of ‘whiteness’ or ‘European identity’. At its most benign (if one can call it that) it expresses itself in a nostalgia for old national identities perceived to be under threat form ‘globalism’ and ‘multiculturalism’.

On the face of it this all seems grossly unfair: if capital can migrate about the globe seeking the best deal why can’t workers do the same? Moreover, much of the current refugee crisis can be laid at the feet of Western nations and their blundering ‘humanitarian wars’ which have created chaos and displaced multitudes. At any rate such people show no awareness that the reason people emigrate to the West is that our current global power arrangements ensure that the West is the site of economic privilege and that most people who aspire to a higher standard of living have to move to attain it. One might as well battle the tides as try to stop labor from going where money and opportunity reside: again we have accepted this proposition with respect to corporations so why not workers?

I doubt the far right would be impressed by this plea however: after all, they seem to think neither labor nor capital should go anywhere. They would no doubt say Globalism in any form must be dismantled and national identities along with national institutions must be reinforced. Many on the left share this vision at least where buttressing the nation state is concerned. At the same time though they still envisage a post-modern fluidity where identity is concerned oblivious to the fact that globalized economic and political institutions are the lynchpin of any such vision and that to restore the nation state is to restore the ethnic, cultural and perhaps even sexual identities that underwrite it. It is the resurgent right that shows more consistency here as at the core of their vision lie not the rights of persons but the rights of citizens understood, as in antiquity, in an exclusionary sense.[6]

Here we are then, with our political options reduced to three nostalgias. We can invoke the glory days of Reagan and Thatcher though the ecological and social externalities of neo-liberalism are not manageable. We can turn back to the ghastly regimes of international socialism and view them through a haze of false nostalgia. Finally, there are ‘identity politics’ and ‘victim culture’ invented by the left but now fully and freely appropriated by the right.[7] This movement (in its current form) would restore the nation state as an ethnic, cultural and economic monolith and at its extreme looks back to the fascist movements of the 20’s and 30’s. Are we really so out of ideas? Is there no viable future but only increasingly desperate revivals of a failed and discredited past?

Resistance is heartening and it is largely to the political left that we must look for opposition to what is perhaps the most corrupt Oligarchy in the history of the planet. It would be equally heartening to think the left is ready to undertake this task. Alas I am not fully convinced it is. The only left leaning party in North America (outside the fringe parties) is the Canadian New Democratic Party, and it is shackled to the centrism imposed by electoral politics. Nor can it seem to mobilize the urban and rural poor who are among its natural allies. There are more radical elements of the party but many of these are composed of current or former student leftists who are as much a hindrance as a help. Students go to university to find and forge identities and so it is natural that they will tend to form cliques (a tendency magnified ten-fold by social media). They will stake out stark positions and uncompromising attitudes, issue unconditional demands rather than working proposals, and use jargon culled from the social sciences to reinforce in-group identity.

The point of a political club is to be small and confer a sense of status on those who belong. However, the point of a political movement is the exact opposite: its task is to be large and this is incompatible with cocksure dogmatism and a censorious tone that turns off potential allies. Growing a movement entails brokerage, forging alliances with people NOT our immediate allies to organize rallies, sit ins, mass strikes, defections and so on. This is not an activity for a self-righteous minority who, of course, want only to distinguish themselves from less enlightened folk. What works in Graduate school does not necessarily work outside the academy.[8]

This sectarian attitude reaches its peak among the proponents of ‘black bloc’ tactics: encouraging private militias and paramilitary violence is an idea so devastatingly misconceived that it is astonishing to still have to argue the point. It is also an idea beloved of the far right who use the exact same language to justify it. As the sole resistance to the current unsustainable regime the Left more than ever has to put its childhood things away and resist the romanticized and fake glamour of ‘revolutionary’ violence.[9]

Contact details:


“”We Made a Devil’s Bargain”: Fmr. President Clinton Apologizes for Trade Policies that Destroyed Haitian Rice Farming” (

Aeschylus. The Suppliants trans. Phillip Vellacott (Penguin Classics, London 1961.

Barzun, Jacques. Darwin, Marx, Wagner. New York: Doubleday Books, 1958.

Baudrillard, Jean, The Mirror of Production trans. Mark Poster St. Louis: Telos Press, 1975.

Blake, William. “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell” from The Complete Poems (Penguin Classics, London, 1978.

Blum, George P. The Rise of Fascism in Europe. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1998.

Danticat, Edwige “Sweet Micky and the Sad DeJa Vu of Haiti’s Presidential Elections” New Yorker, Dec.3, 2015.

Eagleton, Terry. Marx. London: Orion Publishing Group Ltd., 1997.

Edmonds, Ennis B. Rastafari, A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.

Frank, Dana “The Thugocracy Next Door” (

Hegel, GWF. The Phenomenology of Mind. New York: Harper Torchbook 1967.

Heilbroner, Robert. Twenty First Century Capitalism. Concord: Anansi Press, 1992.

Marx, Karl and Engels, Friedrich. The Communist Manifesto. Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1986.

Marx, Karl, and Engels, Friedrich. The German Ideology. New York: International Publishers, 1970)

Russell Hochschild, Arlie: “The Ecstatic Edge of Politics: Sociology and Donald Trump (

Pulver, Matthew “Bill and Hillary’s Hyper-Capitalist Disaster: how the Clintons can apologize for a Decade of Deadly Policies”

Spielvogel, Jackson J. Hitler and Nazi Germany. Upper Saddle River: Pearson Prentice Hall, Upper Saddle River, 2005.

[1] Whether or not individuals who voted for Trump did so for these motives or not they voted for a movement which embodies them. All extremist parties really need to succeed is a base and one other chunk of voters, fellow travelers, who simply want to ‘throw the bums out’.

[2] By Fascist I here refer to a populist movement which sees its will as thwarted by constitutional and legal restraints and embodies that will in a demagogue who promises to overthrow them, usually as part and parcel of some myth of national redemption. I think this applies rather well to the Trump movement. Others may differ but I will not quibble over a word. Trump is a destructive figure whether he can be successfully categorized as a Fascist or not. Thus, how closely his Fascism maps onto other historical Fascisms may be left to specialists to determine. There are, however, grave dangers to the ‘Hitler’ analogy which will be noted below: for this reason, it is well to note that Trump’s ‘Fascism’ is very much his own.

[3] For starters see Edwige Danticat “Sweet Micky and the Sad DeJa Vu of Haiti’s Presidential Elections” (New Yorker, Dec.3, 2015), Dana Frank “The Thugocracy Next Door” Matthew Pulver “Bill and Hillary’s Hyper-Capitalist Disaster: how the Clintons can apologize for a Decade of Deadly Policies” ( In fact the Clintons critics on this matter include the Clintons themselves: “”We Made a Devil’s Bargain”: Fmr. President Clinton Apologizes for Trade Policies that Destroyed Haitian Rice Farming” (

[4] Since I wrote these words it has become clearer that plutocrats and interventionists are the most likely winners of the ideological struggle going on in the Trump regime. What will happen to the populist movement he courted when this becomes too plain to deny is anyone’s guess. More hopefully though the far right, for now at least, has been checked in France and Holland.

[5] Of course in the real world poverty and violence go hand in hand rendering the supposed distinction between ‘economic migrants’ and ‘genuine refugees’ pretty much meaningless.

[6] Perhaps this is less than fair to the ancients: after all the rights of strangers and exiles were the province of Zeus Xenios and were hedged with the complex etiquette of the guest/host relationship (see Aeschylus, The Suppliants). Similar notions of sanctuary in the contemporary world are, alas, the object of contempt on the far right.

[7] If some implied moral privilege is attached to victimhood, then of course everyone will claim to be a victim. There is nothing at all to prevent Christian Fundamentalists or campus conservatives from casting themselves in this role once the narrative has been established. Further, even the perception of a double standard in these matters will only re-inforce their conviction. None of this is to say that there are no victims or that ‘identity politics’ has not improved overall civility in many crucial ways: anyone who remembers the eighties blushes at certain things that were routinely said. Everything, though, is subject to the law of unintended consequences.

[8] Current discussions surrounding ‘white privilege’ illustrate this point. When activists invoke this concept they think, naturally enough for university educated people, that they are conveying the denotation of the phrase: an unearned social advantage adhering to a particular race. As advertisers are aware, however, the general public hears connotation as much or more than denotation and ‘privilege’ alas connotes posh schools and delicate lace tea cozies. As these things are part of the experience of a tiny minority even of white people the phrase is dead on arrival. Rhetoric (in the ancient sense) needs to be attended to as much as social science.

[9] And here, to be frank, I must confront what I call ‘performative’ leftism: the notion that policing simple everyday speech acts somehow is the revolution, or at least an easy way to put one’s commitment to it on constant public display. The North American left is obsessed with words, no doubt as befits a movement whose milieu is the university, but apart from some real (though modest) gains in civility what have we gained from this obsessive focus but a spate of brutal neologisms? Environmental devastation and income inequality are getting worse not better and splitting hairs over vocabulary will not alter that fact. It may be the case (though in fact I doubt it) that linguistic usage embodies in a straightforward way current oppressive social structures (as opposed to Anglo-Saxon ones!) but I see no evidence at all that altering the former will have any significant effect on the latter. I support any linguistic change that makes for more civil or respectful interchange (obviously we are well quit of words like ‘retard’ or ‘faggot’) but focusing on this should never be confused with manning the barricades and becomes contemptible as a self-righteous display.

Author Information: Robert Frodeman, University of North Texas,

Frodeman, Robert. “The Politics of AI.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 1 (2018): 48-49.

The pdf of the article provides specific page references. Shortlink:

This robot, with its evocatively cute face, would turn its head toward the most prominent human face it could see.
Image from Jeena Paradies via Flickr / Creative Commons


New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman has been a cheerleader for technology for decades. He begins an early 2018 column by declaring that he wants to take a break from the wall-to-wall Trump commentary. Instead, ‘While You Were Sleeping’ consists of an account of the latest computer wizardry that’s occurring under our noses. What Friedman misses is that he is still writing about Trump after all.

His focus is on quantum computing. Friedman revisits a lab he had been to a mere two years earlier; on the earlier visit he had come away impressed, but feeling that “this was Star Wars stuff — a galaxy and many years far away.” To his surprise, however, the technology had moved quicker than anticipated: “clearly quantum computing has gone from science fiction to nonfiction faster than most anyone expected.”

Friedman hears that quantum computers will work 100,000 times faster than the fastest computers today, and will be able to solve unimaginably complex problems. Wonders await – such as the NSA’s ability to crack the hardest encryption codes. Not that there is any reason for us to worry about that; the NSA has our best interests at heart. And in any case, the Chinese are working on quantum computing, too.

Friedman does note that this increase in computing power will lead to the supplanting of “middle-skill and even high-skill work.” Which he allows could pose a problem. Fortunately, there is a solution at hand: education! Our educational system simply needs to adapt to the imperatives of technology. This means not only K-12 education, and community colleges and universities, but also lifelong worker training. Friedman reports on an interview with IBM CEO Ginni Rometty, who told him:

“Every job will require some technology, and therefore we’ll need to revamp education. The K-12 curriculum is obvious, but it’s the adult retraining — lifelong learning systems — that will be even more important…. Some jobs will be displaced, but 100 percent of jobs will be augmented by AI.”

Rometty notes that technology companies “are inventing these technologies, so we have the responsibility to help people adapt to it — and I don’t mean just giving them tablets or P.C.s, but lifelong learning systems.”

For that’s how it works: people adapt to technology, rather than the other way around. And what if our job gets outsourced or taken over by a machine? Friedman then turns to education-to-work expert Heather McGowan: workers “must reach up and learn a new skill or in some ways expand our capabilities as humans in order to fully realize our collaborative potential.” Education must become “a continuous process where the focused outcome is the ability to learn and adapt with agency as opposed to the transactional action of acquiring a set skill.” It all sounds rather rigorous, frog-marched into the future for our own good.

Which should have brought Friedman back to Trump. Friedman and Rometty and McGowan are failing to connect the results of the last election. Clinton lost the crucial states of Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan by a total of 80,000 votes. Clinton lost these states in large part because of the disaffection of white, non-college educated voters, people who have been hurt by previous technological development, who are angry about being marginalized by the ‘system’, and who pine for the good old days, when America was Great and they had a decent paycheck. Of course, Clinton knew all this, which is why her platform, Friedman-like, proposed a whole series of worker re-education programs. But somehow the coal miners were not interested in becoming computer programmers or dental hygienists. They preferred to remain coal miners – or actually, not coal miners. And Trump rode their anger to the White House.

Commentators like Friedman might usefully spend some of their time speculating on how our politics will be affected as worker displacement moves up the socio-economic scale.

At root, Friedman and his cohorts remain children of the Enlightenment: universal education remains the solution to the political problems caused by run-amok technological advance. This, however, assumes that ‘all men are created equal’ – and not only in their ability, but also in their willingness to become educated, and then reeducated again, and once again. They do not seem to have considered the possibility that a sizeable minority of Americans—or any other nationality—will remain resistant to constant epistemic revolution, and that rather than engaging in ‘lifelong learning’ are likely to channel their displacement by artificial intelligence into angry, reactionary politics.

And as AI ascends the skills level, the number of the politically roused is likely to increase, helped along by the demagogue’s traditional arts, now married to the focus-group phrases of Frank Luntz. Perhaps the machinations of turning ‘estate tax’ into ‘death tax’ won’t fool the more sophisticated. It’s an experiment that we are running now, with a middle-class tax cut just passed by Congress, but which diminishes each year until it turns into a tax increase in a few years. But how many will notice the latest scam?

The problem, however, is that even if those of us who live in non-shithole countries manage to get with the educational program, that still leaves “countries like Egypt, Pakistan, Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia, China and India — where huge numbers of youths are already unemployed because they lack the education for even this middle-skill work THAT’S [sic] now being automated.” A large cohort of angry, displaced young men ripe for apocalyptic recruitment. I wonder what Friedman’s solution is to that.

The point that no one seems willing to raise is whether it might be time to question the cultural imperative of constant innovation.

Contact details:


Friedman, Thomas. “While You Were Sleeping.” New York Times. 16 January 2018. Retrieved from

Author Information: Kenneth R. Westphal, Boðaziçi Üniversitesi, Ýstanbul,

Westphal, Kenneth R. “Higher Education & Academic Administration: Current Crises Long Since Foretold.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 1 (2018): 41-47.

The official SERRC publication pdf of the article gives specific page references for formal bibliographical reference. However, the author himself has provided a pdf using a layout specifically designed for the presentation of this manifesto for the future of research publication and academic exchange of ideas. We encourage you to download Dr. Westphal’s own file above. Shortlink:

* * *

The current crises in education are indeed acute, though they have been long in the making, with clear analysis and evidence of their development and pending problems over the past 150 years! – evident in this concise chronological bibliography:

Mill, John Stuart, 1867. ‘Inaugural Address Delievered to the University of St. Andrews’, 1 Feb. 1867; rpt. in: J.M. Robson, gen. ed., The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, 33 vols. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1963–91), 21:217–257.

Ahrens, Heinrich, 1870. Naturrecht oder Philosophie des Rechts und des Staates, 2 vols. (Wien, C. Gerold’s Sohn), „Vorrede zur sechten Auflage“, S. v–x.

Cauer, Paul, 1890. Staat und Erziehung. Schulpolitische Bedenken. Kiel & Leipzig, Lipsius & Fischer.

Cauer, Paul, 1906. Sieben Jahre im Kampf um die Schulreform. Gesammelte Aufstötze. Berlin, Weidmann.

Hinneberg, Paul, ed., 1906. Allgemeine Grundlage der Kultur der Gegenwart. Leipzig, Tuebner. Cattell, J. McKeen, 1913. University Control. New York, The Science Press.

Veblen, Thorstein, 1918. The Higher Learning in America: A Memorandum on the Conduct of Universities by Business Men. New York, B.W. Huebsch.

José Ortega y Gasset, 1930. Misión de la Universidad. Madrid, Revista de Occidente; rpt. in: idem., OC 4:313–353; tr. H.L. Nostrand, Mission of the University (Oxford: Routledge, 1946).

Eisenhower, Milton S., et al., 1959. The Efficiency of Freedom: Report of the Committee on Government and Higher Education. Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press.

Snow, C.P., 1964. The Two Cultures, 2nd rev. ed. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Rourke, Francis E., and Glenn E. Brooks, 1966. The Managerial Revolution in Higher Education. Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press.

Byrnes, James C., and A. Dale Tussing, 1971. ‘The Financial Crisis in Higher Education: Past, Present, and Future’. Educational Policy Research Center, Syracuse University Research Corp.; Washington, D.C., Office of Education (DHEW); (ED 061 896; HE 002 970).

Green, Thomas, 1980. Predicting the Behavior of the Educational System. Syracuse, NY, Syracuse University Press.

Schwanitz, Dietrich, 1999. Bildung. Alles, was man wissen muss. Frankfurt am Main, Eichhorn. Kempter, Klaus, and Peter Meusburger, eds., 2006. Bildung und Wissensgesellschaft (Heidelberger Jahrbücher 49). Berlin, Springer.

The British Academy, 2008. Punching our Weight: The Humanities and Social Sciences in Public Policy Making. London, The British Academy;

Head, Simon, ‘The Grim Threat to British Universities’. The New York Review of Books, 13. Jan. 2011;

Thomas, Keith, ‘Universities under Attack’. The London Review of Books, Online only • 28 Nov. 2011; (The author is a Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, and former President of the British Academy);

Hansen, Hal, 2011. ‘Rethinking Certification Theory and the Educational Development of the United States and Germany’. Research in Social Stratification and Mobility 29:31–55.

Benjamin Ginsberg, 2011. The Fall of the Faculty. Oxford University Press.

Don Watson, ‘A New Dusk’. The Monthly (Australia), August 2012, pp. 10–14; http://www.the

Commission on the Humanities & Social Sciences, 2013. The Heart of the Matter: The Humanities and Social Sciences for a vibrant, competitive, and secure nation. Cambridge, Mass., American Academy of Arts and Sciences;

Randy Schekman, ‘How journals like Nature, Cell and Science are damaging science’. The Guardian Mon 9. Dec 2013;[1]

Motroshilova, Nelly, 2013. [Real Factors of Scientific Activity and Citation Count; Russian.] ‘ÐÅÀËÜÍÛÅ ÔÀÊÒÎÐÛ ÍÀÓ×ÍÎ-ÈÑÑËÅÄÎÂÀÒÅËÜÑÊÎÃÎ ÒÐÓÄÀ È ÈÇÌÅ-ÐÅÍÈß ÖÈÒÈÐÎÂÀÍÈß’. Ïðîáëåìû îöåíêè ýôôåêòèâíîñòè â êîíêðåòíûõ îáëàñòÿõ íàóêè, 453–475. ÓÄÊ 001.38 + 519.24; ÁÁÊ 78.34.[2]

Ferrini, Cinzia, 2015. ‘Research “Values” in the Humanities: Funding Policies, Evaluation, and Cultural Resources. Some Introductory Remarks’. Humanities 4:42–67; DOI: 10.3390/ h4010042.[3]

O’Neill, Onora, 2015. ‘Integrity and Quality in Universities: Accountability, Excellence and Success’. Humanities 4:109–117; DOI: 10.3390/h4010109.

Scott, Peter, 2015. ‘Clashing Concepts and Methods: Assessing Excellence in the Humanities and Social Sciences’. Humanities 4:118–130; DOI: 10.3390/h4010118.

Halffman, Willem, and Hans Radder, 2015. ‘The Academic Manifesto: From an Occupied to a Public University’. Minerva 53.2:165–187 (PMC4468800);[4] DOI: 10.1007/s11024-015-9270-9.

Albach, Philip G., Georgiana Mihut and Jamil Salmi, 2016. ‘Sage Advice: International Advisory Councils at Tertiary Education Institutions’. CIHE Perspectives 1; Boston, Mass., Boston College Center for International Higher Education; World Bank Group;

Curren, Randall, 2016. ‘Green’s Predicting Thirty-Five Years On’. In: N. Levinson, ed., Philosophy of Education 2016 (Urbana, Ill.: PES, 2017), 000–000.

The CENTRAL AIMS OF EDUCATION, especially higher education, I explicate and defend in:

Westphal, Kenneth R., 2012. ‘Norm Acquisition, Rational Judgment & Moral Particularism’. Theory & Research in Education 10.1:3–25; DOI: 10.1177/1477878512437477.

———, 2016. ‘Back to the 3 R’s: Rights, Responsibilities & Reasoning’. SATS – Northern European Journal of Philosophy 17.1:21–60; DOI: 10.1515/sats-2016-0008.

On CITIZENSHIP EDUCATION for survival, see:

Randall Curren and Ellen Metzger, 2017. Living Well Now and in the Future: Why Sustainability Matters. Cambridge, Mass., MIT Press.

Randall Curren and Charles Dorn, forthcoming. Patriotic Education in a Global Age. Chicago, University of Chicago Press.

Though the latter title begins nationally, addressing proper patriotism, their thinking, analysis and recommendations are international and cosmopolitan; they write for a very global age in which we are all involved, however (un)wittingly, however (un)willingly, however (un)wisely.

On the necessity of liberal arts education also for technical disciplines, see:

Carnegie Mellon University, College of Engineering, General Education Requirements for [Graduating] Classes 2016 and Later:

On ‘BIBLIOMETRICS’ and journal ‘impact factor’, see:

Brembs, Björn, Katherine Button and Marcus Munafò, 2013. ‘Deep impact: unintended consequences of journal rank’. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience 7.291:1–12; DOI: 10.3389/fnhum.2013.00291.

Moustafa, Khaled, 2015. ‘The Disaster of the Impact Factor’. Science and Engineering Ethics 21: 139–142; DOI: 10.1007/s11948-014-9517-0.

PloS Medicine Editorial, 2006. ‘The impact factor game. It is time to find a better way to assess the scientific literature’. PLoS Medicine 3.6, e291.

Ramin, Sadeghi, and Alireza Sarraf Shirazi, 2012. ‘Comparison between Impact factor, SCImago journal rank indicator and Eigenfactor score of nuclear medicine journals’. Nuclear Medicine Review 15.2:132–136; DOI: 10.5603/NMR.2011.00022.

There simply is no substitute for informed, considered judgment. All the attempts to circumvent, replace or subvert proper judgments and proper judgment raise the question: who benefits from all the speed-up, distraction and over-load, and how do they benefit? And conversely: who loses out from all the speed-up, distraction and over-load, and how so?

P.S.: AHRENS (1870, v–x) Mahnung, uns umfaßend mit der Gesamtheit der Gesellschaft sowie der internationalen bzw. inter-kulturellen Verhältnissen, und nicht nur mit den besonderen Aufgaben unserer Gesellschaftsfraktion bzw. -gruppe, zu beschäftigen, wird nicht durch blose Ablehnung seiner vielleicht religiösen Auffaßung unserer „gesammten göttlich-menschlichen Lebens- und Culturordnung“ (a.a.O, S. ix) entgangen. Seine Mahnunng gilt gar ohne Milderung schon hinsichtlich unseres Hangs, den Eigen- bzw. Fraktionsinteressen Vorrang übers Gemeinwohl beizulegen, ohne sich zu besinnen, daß das Gemeinwohl auch die eigene Teilhabe daran miteinbeschließt. Die übliche Betonung der eng-konzipierten Zweckrationalität verdammt uns zur gegenseitigen, sei’s auch unabsichtlichen Beieinträchtigung, am Mindestens durch Tragik der Allmende.

* * *

Herrad von LANDSBERG, ‘Septem artes liberales’, Hortus deliciarum (1180).


Philosophy, the Queen, sits in the center of the circle. The three heads extending from her crown represent Ethics, Logic and Physics, the three parts of the teaching of philosophy. The streamer held by Philosophy reads: All wisdom comes from God; only the wise can achieve what they desire. Below Philosophy, seated at desks, are Socrates and Plato. The texts which surround them state that they taught first ethics, then physics, then rhetoric; that they were wise teachers; and that they inquired into nature of all things.

From Philosophy emerge seven streams, three on the right and four on the left. According to the text these are the seven liberal arts, inspired by the Holy Spirit: grammar, rhetoric, dialectic, music, arithmetic, geometry, and astronomy. The ring containing the inner circle reads: I, Godlike Philosophy, control all things with wisdom; I lay out seven arts which are subordinate to me. Arrayed around the circle are the liberal arts. Three correspond to the rivers which emerge from Philosophy on the right and are concerned with language and letters: grammar, rhetoric, and dialectic. Together they comprise the trivium. The four others form the quadrivium, arts which are concerned with the various kinds of harmony: music, arithmetic, geometry, and astronomy.

Each of the seven arts holds something symbolic, and each is accompanied by a text displayed on the arch above it. Grammar (12:00) holds a book and a whip. The text reads: Through me all can learn what are the words, the syllables, and the letters.

Rhetoric (2:00) holds a tablet and stylus. The text reads: Thanks to me, proud speaker, your speeches will be able to take strength.

Dialectic (4:00) points with a one hand and holds a barking dog’s head in the other. The text reads: My arguments are followed with speed, just like the dog’s barking.

Music (5:00) holds a harp, and other instruments are nearby. The text reads: I teach my art using a variety of instruments.

Arithmetic (7:00) holds a cord with threaded beads, like a rudimentary abacus. The text reads: I base myself on the numbers and show the proportions between them.

Geometry (9:00) holds a staff and compass. The text reads: It is with exactness that I survey the ground.

Astronomy (11:00) points heavenward and holds in hand a magnifying lens or mirror. The text reads: I hold the names of the celestial bodies and predict the future. The large ring around the whole scene contains four aphorisms:

What it discovers is remembered;

Philosophy investigates the secrets of the elements and all things;

Philosophy teaches arts by seven branches;

It puts it in writing, in order to convey it to the students.

Below the circle are four men seated at desks, poets or magicians, outside the pale and beyond the influence of Philosophy. According to the text they are guided and taught by impure spirits and they produce is only tales or fables, frivolous poetry, or magic spells. Notice the black birds speaking to them (the antithesis of the white dove, symbol of the Holy Spirit).

Some Observations on the Current State of Research Evaluation in Philosophy

K.R. WESTPHAL (2015)

Although many institutions, whether universities or government ministries, have now in effect mandated publication in ‘listed’ academic journals, such listings by (e.g.) Thompson-Reuters is o n ly a subscription service, nothing more, altogether regardless of academic standards or scholarly calibre. Significant publications are those which pass stringent peer review by relevant experts. Unfortunately, the trappings of such procedures – including ‘international’ editorial offices – are all too easy to imitate or dissemble. Furthermore, due to declining standards in graduate training in philosophy (across the Occident), peer reviewing even at reputable journals and presses is deteriorating significantly.

I know that there are ‘listed’ journals publishing ‘research’ papers I would not accept from an undergraduate student. I know that there are ‘international’ journals which publish materials not deserving the slightest notice. I know there are excellent journals and presses – in particular: by the very best German publishers – which are not ‘listed’ because those publishers simply do not need those listings, nor their expense. I know that there are highly regarded presses which publish very many good, even excellent items, but also publish spates of mediocre books to make money, and have been doing so for decades. These assertions I can document in detail, if ever details be of interest.

The increasingly common procedure to ‘rank’ individual research publications by the purported ‘rank’ of their venue – their press or journal – is in principle and in practice fallacious. There simply is no valid inference from any empirically established ‘curve’ to the putative value of any single (equally putative) ‘data point’. Additionally, no press or journal consistently publishes research falling only within one well-defined calibre; there are excellent pieces of research published in unassuming venues, and there is too much mediocre publication by purportedly leading venues.

I also know that constrictions in funding have led to ‘streamlining’ graduate training within the field of philosophy (and surmise that this is not at all unique to philosophy), so that less time is spent in graduate studies. Additionally, over-specialisation within the field of philosophy has accelerated the production of mutually irrelevant bits of ‘research’, each restricted to its own narrow orthodoxy, coupled with a severe decline in methodological sophistication and indeed basic research skills and procedures. The declining calibre of graduate training has, inevitably, had an enormous adverse effect on the calibre of ‘professional’ refereeing for publication, both by journals and by presses.

Now that we have the technical resources for purely electronic publication, at an enormous savings and economy of distribution in comparison to print media, many publishers are doing their utmost to keep their print media profitable, or to make exorbitant profits from much less expensive electronic publication. Both tendencies are countered, to an extent, by newly established, typically open-access electronic journals. These developments are very welcome and important, and many of these new e-journals are by international standards high-calibre operations. Nevertheless, it will take time for ‘reputation’ to accrue to genuinely deserving e-journals, and (one hopes) to shake out the mediocre or dishonest pretenders.

One final point which merits emphasis is that the notion of ‘monoglot’ scholarship only arose ca. 1950, primarily amongst Anglophones, and was sanctions by law in only one region (the former Soviet Union). Thirty years ago, scholars working on Ancient Greek philosophy were fluent in the main modern European languages and kept abreast of research published in Greek, German, French and English. Now my German colleagues note that often a German monograph appears on a neglected topic in Ancient Greek philosophy, only to suffer neglect by an English book on the same topic published a decade later. The pitfalls of ‘Eurenglish’ (e.g. in Brussels) I shall not detail; we simply must return to teaching, facilitating and expecting mastery of multiple languages.

For these and many other reasons, these are very difficult times for scholarship and for the academy. Accordingly, I am all the more committed to maintaining academic excellence. In this connection and in these regards, I wish to underscore that there simply is NO substitute for the expert assessment of individual pieces of research, whether articles, monographs or collections.

Contact details:

[1] Randy Schekman is Professor of biochemistry at the University of California, Berkeley; he, James Rothman and Thomas Südhof were jointly awarded the 2013 Nobel Prize for physiology or medicine.

[2] Editor’s Note – Ironically and appropriately, given the topic of this article, our Digital Editor is unable to render Cyrillic text on any of the computers in the SERRC office in Toronto. These technical difficulties constitute another reason to read Dr. Westphal’s original pdf copy.

[3] Ferrini (2015), O’Neill (2015) and Scott (2015) appear in a special issue, titled per Ferrini’s editorial introduction; Humanities is sponsored by the Academia Europaea, now published with open access by MDPI (Multidisciplinary Digital Publishing Institute, Basel); previously published by Cambridge University Press.

[4] Published by the US National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health: National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI).

Here is the full video of Albert Doja’s lecture at Harvard University, “Social Morphodynamics: Mapping Identity Transformations, Cultural Encounters, and the Evolution of Core Values.” A written version of the lecture appeared earlier this week on our site. Some of the content in the video is a little bit different from the written version, and includes a question-and-answer session with the live audience.

Please refer to:


Author information: Albert Doja, University of Lille & University of Harvard,

Doja, Albert. “Social Morphodynamics: Mapping Identity Transformations, Cultural Encounters, and the Evolution of Core Values.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 1 (2018): 14-25.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink:

In this paper given to Harvard CES community in the framework of my appointment as a Visiting Research Scholar, I outline a personal account of a theoretical path toward a specific research project and scientific method, which I believe may figure out what anthropology is or may be heading today. European societies are facing new challenges stemming from cultural encounters and identity transformations. These have revealed the vulnerability of the EU project and cosmopolitan European identity.

To address these challenges I propose a new theoretical and methodological approach. My research in progress on European identity transformations draws on structural socio-anthropology and aims to develop some of Lévi-Strauss’s and Pierre Bourdieu’s conceptual and theoretical tools. I outline a complex research strategy including the use of Bayesian inference and computer formalism, while comparison of the findings with policy choices and practices will make it possible to assess the effects of European integration policies.

A colour-adjusted photo of buildings bombed during the Kosovo War.
Image by MagneG via Flickr / Creative Commons



This September 2017, I took up an appointment at Harvard University where I am offered a visiting position at the Center for European Studies. Today September 20, 2017, I have the honor to be the first to open the Visiting Scholars Lecture Series with this talk to Harvard community, which makes me feel very much honored and be very grateful to be part of Harvard intellectual community. Two weeks earlier, at the end of the induction day of Harvard CES Visiting Scholars, we went to look, among other things, what it means to a freshman to touch John Harvard’s feet.

Before that, however, I came at Harvard through the Massachusetts Avenue and I first stopped at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where so many things are being done on quantum theory, on artificial intelligence, and on “anthropological futures”, to mention but the title of a book by Michael Fischer, a MIT professor of anthropology. Moving from one quarter to another, the mind is constantly up a storm that could push the limits of human performance and understanding. As a French educated and French minded anthropologist, a memorable question came immediately to my mind from Marvin Minsky and his Society of Mind: “What magical trick makes us intelligent?”

Quite naturally, I found myself asking – What is a magical trick that makes the research I am doing? What magical trick makes identity politics so powerful? Paraphrasing Marvin Minsky, the trick is that there is no trick. The research I am doing as the power of identity politics or the importance of populism that is taking much of our debates nowadays, as we have seen last week at CES, stem from the vast diversity of people’s minds, not from any single, perfect principle, value, idea, or motivation. People’s actions and decisions, like the research any of us is doing, “emerge from conflicts and negotiations among societies of processes that constantly challenge one another” (Minsky 1986, 308).

Among many things, the cognitive revolution is now a contemporary interdisciplinary effort to provide scientific answers to long-standing epistemological questions. It was born here, in this intellectually stimulating environment, as an important intellectual movement among some celebrated forefathers, the computer scientists Herbert Simon and Marvin Minsky, the psychologists George Miller and Jerome Bruner, the linguist Noam Chomsky and the French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss.

The Influence of Lévi-Strauss

For Lévi-Strauss, since human brains are themselves natural objects and since they are substantially the same throughout the species Homo sapiens, we must suppose that when cultural products are generated the process must impart to them certain universal (natural) characteristics of the brain itself. Thus, in investigating the elementary structures of cultural phenomena, we are also making discoveries about the nature of humankind.

Verbal categories provide the mechanism through which universal structural characteristics of human brains are transformed into universal structural characteristics of human culture. In this way, category formation in human beings follow universal natural paths. It is not that it must always happen the same way everywhere but that the human brain is so constructed that it is predisposed to develop categories of a particular kind in a particular way.

The epistemological issues of anthropological knowledge and the ethical conception of the anthropologist’s work are consistently present throughout Lévi-Strauss’s work, in its ontological, aetiological and salvational dimensions, as he dealt with both the nature and the denaturation of humankind and society, trying to return to the means, or showing the absence of means, to alleviate the evils. Clearly, it is his own adroitness and talent to have been able to establish the theoretical foundations of a revolutionary contribution, both scientific and humanistic, to general anthropology.

Contrary to the received ideas of his critics, little of recent topical, ethical, methodological or epistemological interest escaped Lévi-Strauss’s notice, understanding and engagement. His corpus of work is far-reaching and comprehensive in scope, encompassing methodology, philosophy, history, humanism, mythology, linguistics, aesthetics, cognition and reasoning. Indeed, Claude Lévi-Strauss anticipated and called for the advent of what I believe must be the future of a theoretical anthropology. He is hailed as a “Hero of our time”, by Susan Sontag and many others since the early 1960s (Sontag 1963), and his vision and ambition was to provide a new epistemology and a new ethics, a new approach to methodology and a new global awareness (Doja 2008, 2010a).

While revisiting the old debate between Derrida and Lévi-Strauss on the place of writing (Doja 2006a, 2006b, 2007), I came to the conclusion as many others (cf. Wiseman 2009) that we must legitimately ask to what extent, at least in popular imagination, a version of structuralism invented retrospectively by “poststructuralists” has become substituted for the real thing.

Anthropology today concerns itself with questions of identity politics, migration, diseases, famine, poverty, feminism, reflexivity, corruption, illiberalism, globalism, ethnic conflicts, civil wars, human rights, cultural activism, fundamentalism, terrorism, and many other related themes. An attempt to restore Lévi-Strauss to a central position can hardly prove immediately relevant to all of these social and political issues. Yet it is possible to show that structural anthropology may innovatively account for much more than the dynamics of social systems and the praxis of competitive and strategic practices.

Some of Lévi-Strauss’s achievements could lay strong claim to having mapped, within anthropology, the philosophical parameters of an increasing preoccupation with issues of contextualization and reflexivity in the face of the declining coherence of meta-narrative and grand theory, as well as with issues of political concern and engagement in the post-colonial era. We may be correct in asserting that Lévi-Strauss used structural arguments coherently and correctly to analyze the cultural order, its transient character by means of entropy and irreversibility, and not surprisingly, deconstruction, or rather “dissolution”, to use its own term, and self-reflexivity.

I have been fortunate enough to meet Lévi-Strauss in person. As I also said on occasion elsewhere (Doja 2013, 42), when I met him for the first time during a party in the impressive Library of the Social Anthropology Laboratory where I was doing my Ph.D., I presented him some Albanian ethnographic data in a typical way, that is, thinking I had something to tell that could interest him. I remember there was something about the motives of Albanian medieval ballads, warrior songs, customary laws, social organizations and the like. Surely, he paid particular attention to my matter, seemingly out of courtesy, but I remain grateful for his critical encouragement of my rather untypical theorizing attitude, which I will have to develop later.

I was talking about the possibility of linking my stuff to incest prohibition theory and structural analysis of myths with the aim of revealing the hidden ideological dimension and instrumental character of social values like honor morality. My purpose was to point at the silencing of human agency, in particular women’s agency, under the appearance of structural coherence. Was he still listening just out of courtesy, especially to my critical, yet insufficiently developed ideas of the interactive relationship between structure and agency? No doubt! Yet, guess what? When I met him again ten years after, not only he had nothing forgotten of what I told him ten years earlier, but he also infallibly remembered my own theoretical position almost with the same terms, a discussion that we followed in the years to come through a number of letters exchanged.

Nevertheless, I remained an “inconstant” disciple. There was a time in my anthropological training when, educated in France in the early 1990s, I found Lévi-Strauss simultaneously inspiring and terrifying, which ultimately convinced me of the superiority of what I had learned. In the next phase, after moving to Britain in 2000 to take up a Lectureship at the University of Hull and then a Senior Fellowship at the University of Limerick in Ireland, all my anthropological knowledge gained in the French tradition of anthropology was so challenged by various British-American postmodern approaches of the time as I reached to the point that I had everything to learn from the beginning.

But with maturity, I came to see that with Lévi-Strauss there is perhaps more truth in the next than in the previous side of my anthropological education. Arguably, some aspects of Lévi-Strauss’s theory may be advanced as a workable methodology helping us to build innovative anthropological approaches to agency and politics in history, culture and society.

Image by ShinyPhotoScotland via Flickr / Creative Commons


The Morphodynamic Approach

One of the more powerful of Lévi-Strauss’s ideas is his description of the generative engine of myths on the basis of the set of their own transformations. In mythical thinking, the basic transformations that Lévi-Strauss distinguished between a number of characters or terms of myths and their large number of possible roles or functions are controlled by means of a special relationship that he formulated in a canonical way, which demonstrates how the transformations of the myths can be captured. Lévi-Strauss’s concept of canonical formulation that articulates the transformational dynamics of mythical networks transcends a simple analogical relation to a quadratic equation, Fx(a):Fy(b)::Fx(b):Fa‑1(y), which articulates a dynamic homology between meaningful elements and their propositional functions. This formulation made it possible for Lévi-Strauss to detect a sort of genuine logical machine generative of open-ended meaning within specified mythical networks.

In a quadratic equation of this kind, the generative virtues of the so-called “double twist” of the canonical transformation in the structural study of myth imply two conditions internal to canonical formalization. According to Lévi-Strauss, a formulation of this type reflects a group of transformations in which it is assumed that a relation of equivalence exists between two situations defined respectively by an inversion of terms and relations, provided that one of the terms is replaced by its opposite and that a correlative inversion is made between the function value and the term value of two elements (Lévi-Strauss 1955, 252–253 [Eng. 228]).

After the method for the structural study of myth was introduced (Lévi-Strauss 1955), the generative virtues of the so-called “double twist” of canonical transformation have remained for a long time not understood, until the knowledge progress in qualitative mathematics became sufficiently advanced to understand them, especially after they were made comprehensible as an anticipated formalization of catastrophe models in new mathematics and morphodynamics (Petitot 1988; Scubla 1998; Maranda 2001; Desveaux 2001).

What is more important, for a catastrophist operation of this kind to take place, the very idea of canonical relation requires a third operating condition, which is external to canonical formalization. In all cases, it is expressed as the necessity of the crossing of a spatiotemporal boundary, defined in territorial, ecological, linguistic, cultural, social, or other terms, but which is always a boundary condition in mathematical sense, required to be satisfied at the boundary of a topological domain in which a set of differential equations is to be solved.

The catastrophist operation that requires a boundary condition of this kind is claimed by Lévi-Strauss to be important in determining the mathematical solutions to various mythical problems. Namely, a series of variations inherent in the myths of a given people cannot be fully understood without going through myths belonging to another people, which are in a relation of inverse transformation with the formers.

The great discovery of Lévi-Strauss made it possible for structural anthropology to overcome the logic of binary oppositions – to which it is too often and obstinately reduced – in order to become a morphogenetic dynamics. In a broad sense, while the key categories that Lévi-Strauss developed are embodied in the anthropological objects he studied (myths and mythical networks), they have the potential to be usefully and critically applied to other domains if radically tweaked.

Many studies show that the structural analysis initiated by Lévi-Strauss may innovatively account for the ways in which social relations are ever more mediated by and implicated in broader political processes (Asch 2005; Marchart 2008; Constable 2009). In this wake, my original idea is to argue that the requirement of a boundary condition in canonical formalization can anticipate the discursive activation of a particular cultural ideology acting as a hidden agency of instrumental politics. Let me illustrate briefly with some cases of sometimes accomplished and sometimes still ongoing research projects.

Cultural Activism

A common topical issue of Balkan ethnography, especially Albanian ethnography, is the view that associates patriarchal cultural traits with high fertility rates, extended family structures, marriage patterns, and the cultural myths and ideologies of honor and blood. Without disputing the notion of the Albanian family system being patriarchal, it seems that the cultural myths and ideologies associated with patrilineality are conflated with the actual practices of patriarchy. Many commentators have too easily assumed that the patriarchal language and discourses that symbolically support patrilineality result uniformly in outcomes and practices that they simply reify as patriarchal (e.g. Kaser 2008).

Almost ten years ago, I took up a more careful reading and systematic critical analysis of demographic data, historical sources and ethnographic evidence to show that the Albanian family is confronted since a long time with particularly low fertility rates and with a relatively high average age at marriage for women, which cannot support the assumption of a patriarchal extended family (Doja 2010b). Arguably, a more analytical approach to the alleged segmentary organizational pattern of parallel agnatic groups of men in Southeast European societies, including Albania, would also reveal that the segmentary structure of social organization appeared inadequate.

A morphodynamic approach and transformational analysis can show that the ideological construction of these myths can be invalidated if we take what is put forward as empirical evidence is nothing more than a strong cultural activism, acting as a kind of what I call a cultural Viagra for social survival. In this situation, cultural pressure subjugates both women and men to the reproduction of social norms and values, aiming at limiting Albanian women to their childbearing function and Albanian men to their protecting function. In this way, the cultural activism commonly obscures an important fact of a purely ideological dimension, which could be only uncovered after mapping the overall data within a canonical formalization of morphodynamic approach and transformational analysis.

This photo was originally taken in 2000, in a field in Pristina, Kosovo.
Image by Andreas Adelmann via Flickr / Creative Commons


War Politics of Mass Rapes

Last year, at a conference on war and sexual violence held in CUNY Graduate Center in New York, resulting in a forthcoming edited volume, I presented another highly topical case that is even more explicit (Doja 2016). Feminist and other accounts of war rapes during the ethnic conflicts in former Yugoslavia and elsewhere have exposed extensively the importance of misogynistic masculinity, preparing the ground for an ahistorical approach, which has also reified a conceptualization of so-called backward Balkan social structures, norms, and values.

A common way of approaching the dimensions of mass rape and sexual violence during the sinisterly notorious ethnic conflicts in former Yugoslavia has been to explain them specifically against a cultural background supported by the existence of a tribal society, complex joint family structures known as zadruga in South Slavic areas, customary laws known as Kanun in North Albanian area, patriarchal practices, and other savage customs. This is not only obscure but also unscrupulous.

If we look closely to social and family structures, both marriage and vengeance rest on the symbol of blood and both are institutions that give shape to alliances. If marriage created a network of alliances and divided society in exogamous groups, vengeance also created a continuously moving scenario in which memberships and strategic alliances constantly coagulated the consistency of agnatic groups. In general, a relation of matrimonial affinity and hospitality was experienced as a relationship of friendship and solidarity just as a relation of feud vengeance was lived as a relationship of hostility. Yet, if matrimonial affinity and feud vengeance were opposed to one another as much as many other structural modalities of association or dissociation between different agnatic groups, friendship and hostility were part of the same opposition.

Matrimonial affinity and feud vengeance, friendship and hostility were only different expressions of a single and unique structural relationship. Definitely, the whole of social relations and values remained placed under the sign of ambivalence. In this sense, at a more empirical level, emotional sentiments as well as social relations and values of affinity, friendship, and hospitality, must have something in common with the relationship of love and solidarity to hatred and disintegration. Precisely this kind of structural ambivalence may allow a new theoretical and methodological approach to explain the effectiveness of mass rapes as a military strategy of ethnic cleansing in former Yugoslavia.

Marriage is a transaction of women exchanged between agnatic groups of men, a customary transaction intended to seal political alliances and conceal debts of blood, honor or money. In this sense, marriage is not only a social institution of sexual relations, but also a sexual regulation of social violence and a sexual institution of social stability. Also rape as a forced sexual intercourse is not a simple aggressive expression of sexuality, but rather a sexual expression of social violence. From the position of structural logic, marriage becomes possible by the means of matrimonial alliance that is supposed to bring love, friendship, and solidarity. In the same way, rape can be defined as a confrontational misalliance that becomes possible by the means of war, and which would necessarily induce hatred, hostility, and disintegration.

This is not, however, to understand women’s experiences of rape and marriage in a binary and rigid structuralist relation, because there is necessarily a problem with this argument that is inspired from Aristotle’s logic of analogy, which cannot be valid. The permutational relation between indexical terms and function values of both rape and marriage may be productively mapped onto a catastrophist model following Lévi-Strauss’s morphodynamic theory. Indeed, not only war is a catastrophe, but also rape in war is a catastrophe on its own. Accordingly, we may offer a catastrophist model to conceptualize rape by means of a canonical formalization in which the solidarity role of marriage will stand to the hostility of rape as the ambivalence of marriage stands to the rape politics of an unspeakable and unthinkable solidarity‑1, which is a solidarity upside down or anti-solidarity:

marriage (solidarity) : rape (hostility) :: marriage (hostility) : solidarity1(rape)

Here rape is replaced forcibly by marriage, its opposite, and a correlative inversion is made between the functional ambivalence of marriage and the unknown, unspeakable ontology of an enforced rape function. Yet, for a catastrophic operation of this kind to take place, the logical operation of a boundary condition is required. In a context in which mass rape was deliberately used as a possible instrument of ethnic cleansing, everything happened as if the activation of a specific political and instrumental agency was necessary for the notorious effectiveness of mass rape to take place.

This kind of ideological agency, which is mathematically identified by the requirement of a boundary condition in canonical formalization, can be shown to promote and put forward the cultural assumptions specific to a given group. During the Bosnian war and the Kosovo war in former Yugoslavia this specific agency was provided by the increasing role of traditionalist and nationalist discourses, which burst moral order and social morphology in the first place, precisely by bringing to the fore the destructive workings of family honor and blood ideology. Indeed, the mass rapes of women were intended to forcefully instill a kind of shame and disgrace as a social pollution that should bring necessarily the disorder and break-up of the social system of any group in its totality. Typically, at war, such a social pollution and catastrophic disorder is termed in Albanian with a generic term for “total killing”, shfarosje, which means literally “kinship uprooting”.

Returning to a paraphrased Lévi-Strauss’s terminology from The Raw and The Cooked (Lévi-Strauss 1964), the unspeakable political effectiveness of mass rapes is forwarded to account not just for a “raw” madness of cultural norms and values. It is mainly the twist of a “cooked” evil of ideological agency acting as an instrumental politics of ethnic cleansing during ethnic conflicts in former Yugoslavia. The cultural activism of family honor and blood ideology makes it possible afterwards for family norms and values to be converted into ethnic-religious ideology, for ethnicity to be converted into nationalist consciousness, for this consciousness to become organized into conflict, and for organized nationalism to become militarist, masculinist, misogynist, racist, and violent.

Identity Politics

The requirement of an operating condition that in the study of myth is expressed as a boundary condition in mathematical sense may be of particular interest for the study of identity transformations, in the comparative analysis of transformations resulting from intercultural dynamics, especially in processes of identity construction and identity politics. This brings to my last case, that is, my research proposal on the morphodynamics of European identity transformations that I intend to develop during my stay at Harvard as a CES visiting scholar, and which aims at reinvigorating neo-structural constructivism to turn the focus towards profoundly political implications.

Social relations are often weird and counterintuitive. Especially in the identity field, discursive practices do not always have definite ontological properties. They often appear to be entangled in strange combinations of seemingly incompatible states of either societal, ethnic-religious and national-populist, or civic and normative characteristics. In this sense, identity ontologies can be compared to the seemingly mysterious state of particles that in quantum mechanics is called superposition.

Both M.I.T. and French physicists are conducting real-life tests of whether quantum particles truly exist in superposition states. I assume that a comparable quantum connection to be tested may also exist in the identity field between seemingly opposed and incompatible identity ideas, values and motivations. The main assumption is that identity transformations are affected by seemingly opposite cultural ideologies that are in inverse relationship to one another and act as political instruments of power and hegemony.

On empirical level, I assume that European integration is never complete and unstable relations subsist between civic ideas and societal motivations. In term of research design, logical processes and political tensions must be explored in relation to identity shifting at societal, ethnic-religious, regional-national and supranational levels. In many situations, discursive practices are not necessarily positioned to provide a particular identity meaning, as the observer in social research, just as in quantum mechanics, influence what they observe. This only becomes clear once we look what they mean. Incompatible identities may become deeply connected as their properties match in opposition to one another when they are observed and mapped.

Here it is important that the distinction between indexical terms and functional values of the identity field is conceptualized topologically as relational, not substantial. This means that relative positions of identity indexes, kinds, agents, units, and ontologies are determined by a structured set of power relations and group identities that achieve their own transformations through identity politics. Actually, whatever its properties, any identity is only applicable in reference to an otherness and can only be realized on the boundary of one in contact or confrontation with, or in contrast to the other.

In this sense, civic ideas and ethnic motivations appear to exist in a quantum superposition state and possess multiple conflicting meanings at once. If they are entangled in this way, like in quantum mechanics, I predict that when the cultural position of ethnic motivations is revealed, both civic and ethnic identities will fall into exact opposed positions of instrumental ideologies. Here I assume that the identity field is again comparable with the Heisenberg uncertainty principle in quantum mechanics, given that the more exactly the cultural position of identity values and aims is determined, the less exactly the identity momentum of policy outcomes can be known. Indeed, the wave-particle duality in quantum physics might be thought as the multiplex interaction in the identity field between civic ideas and ethnic motivations.

On conceptual level, I assume that this instability reveals an apparent risk of discursive activation of hidden instrumental politics and ideological agency that could promote Ethnicization of European values and unsuspected outcomes of public policies. A neo-structural model of the identity field is expected to capture it, based on the evolution rules of canonical transformations defined by Lévi-Strauss and the concept of political field borrowed from Pierre Bourdieu. In Bourdieu’s field theory, power relations are reframed as lines of forces in an electromagnetic field and social space as a multiplicity of relatively autonomous fields. In the European identity field, the dynamics of interactions shows that discursive practices support or reject modalities of belonging that conform to public logics, which are instrumentally used to affect identity building and transformation.

While potential political tensions in the reproduction of identity field restrict or encourage boundary crossing, I assume that any transgression generates a hysteresis effect, which is mathematically calculable in electromagnetic and other fields, and which can explain identity politics as a system of identities depending on the history of their own transformations. Further logical-mathematical reformulations of Lévi-Strauss’s methodology can provide logical formalization of transformational regularities in concrete situations of identity field, which may allow taking hold of a “generative engine” of identities based on their own transformations.

This would mean, for example, that the double sequence of doing good to your natives and doing harm to foreigners is complemented by another double sequence of doing harm to natives as if you were doing good to strangers already ignored and inexistent [F(g)n:F(h)e::F(h)n:F(g)e‑1]. This may seem to be weird but it’s what happens more often than not, especially with public policies twisted by populist arguments.

Mapping the interaction between identity terms and functions onto permutational relations between identity indexes, functions, kinds, agents, units, ontologies and ideologies also reflect their positions in the identity field, while reformulating their topological relationship in canonical way will demonstrate how identity transformations can be captured and instrumental agency behind identity politics can be revealed. For example, computer simulations of the normative function [F(n)] of civic identity (Ci) will be confronted to the societal, ethnic-religious, nationalist/populist/fundamentalist function [F(e)] of cultural identities (Cu).

Ideally, this confrontation is supposed to bring the transformation of cultural identity into normative functional identity [F(n)Cu]. Yet, canonical formulation F(n)Ci:F(e)Cu::F(n)Cu:F(Ci)e‑1 also demonstrates whether normative function of civic identity [F(Ci)] is transformed into ambivalent agency, as political factions or societal groups could characterize a hidden unsuspected European identity (e‑1), or the “ethnicity” of an upside down Europe. Remember that in the structural study of myth an additional operating condition is required as a boundary condition in both empirical and mathematical sense. In the identity field, this validation requirement must lead us to search for hidden instrumental agencies of identity politics and ideology that could constrain identity transformation in one or another direction.

Finally, narrative references of indexical terms and functional values in coded categories of identity discursive practices and modelling validations of their sub-literal meanings provide precise indications to hidden realities that characterize empirical situations of either Ethnicization of sociocultural relations or Europeanization of societal, ethnic-religious, regional-national values. The target is to deliver a computational model to conceptualize and recursively map the determinants of civic solidarity and intercultural attitudes, which allow developing a policy instrument to assess how core values and identity transformations evolve as boundary conditions of European integration, social cohesion and intercultural dynamics.

On methodological level, which remains still the most underdeveloped part and beside collaboration with colleagues from Europe, I hope to develop this research project in collaboration with potentially interested Harvard faculty, anthropologists, sociologists, political scientists, computer scientists, and mathematicians. We need a heavy infrastructure design of computational models and protocols based on Bayesian inference, DEVS formalism, and construction of systemic numeric references to identity discursive practices. In practical terms, we explore the role of metaphoric and dichotomous aspects of discursive practices and the functional relationships they suggest in identity categorization. Functional shifts are assumed depending on whether the same metaphors of gender/kinship and building/construction are used as indexical terms of identity expression or as instrumental functions of identity politics.

The differential discontinuity between indexical terms and functional values in the identity field is a logic of dichotomization and permutation in metaphorical and metonymic series. Open series of antithetical pairs of identity indexes, kinds, agents, units, and ontologies, and the permutation of their indexical and functional values, are available to any agent across identity field to be pinned conspicuously on identity kinds of various reference units, be they individuals, societal groups, nation states, institutions, organizations. We identify non-exhaustive series of ontological assumptions of identity objectified in terms of indexical evidence referring to supposed origin, common cultural heritage, collective memory, language, religion, social/legal norms, institutional/political system, media, citizenship, sovereignty, or federation of the identity unit under consideration.

They allow configuring metaphorical/metonymic permutations of discursive practices that force instrumental functions of identity building to compel identity transformations. We assume that such functional values as recognition, socialization, distribution, diffusion, participation, persuasion, emulation, manipulation, imposition, discrimination, claim or contestation relate to actors’ ontological assumptions and motivations, thus identifying the subjective agency of underlying identity politics.

Computer-assisted textual analysis and agentive algorithms of discursive surveys will disaggregate literal meanings of narrative texts into multiple descriptors that make up and objectify indexical terms of identity expression and their functional values in identity politics. Their coding in sub-literal numeric references to indexical terms of characteristics, performances and affiliations, will create multiple datasets to map: 1) the distribution of identity situations and relations into constructed categories according to their function values of either common refuges of close belonging or separate clusters of open inclusiveness; 2) the presence or absence of indexical terms of behavioral components, convictions and attitudes related to corresponding function values of identity politics; 3) the permutation of indexical terms into functional values and vice-versa; 4) the identification of factors affecting such distributions and permutations with respect to sociocultural and political order.

Contact details:


Asch, Michael (2005) “Lévi-Strauss and the Political: the Elementary Structures of Kinship and the resolution of relations between indigenous peoples and settler states.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, vol. 11, no. 3, pp. 425–444. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9655.2005.00244.x.

Constable, Nicole (2009) “The Commodification of Intimacy: Marriage, Sex, and Reproductive Labor.” Annual Review of Anthropology, vol. 38, no. 1, pp. 49–64. doi:10.1146/annurev.anthro.37.081407.085133.

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Doja, Albert (2006a) “The kind of writing: anthropology and the rhetorical reproduction of post-modernism.” Critique of Anthropology, vol. 26, no. 2, pp. 157–180. doi:10.1177/0308275X06064993.

Doja, Albert (2006b) “The predicament of heroic anthropology.” Anthropology Today, vol. 22, no. 3, pp. 18–22. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8322.2006.00439.x.

Doja, Albert (2007) “Creative misreading and bricolage writing: A structural appraisal of a poststructuralist debate.” Portuguese Review of the History of the Book, vol. 11, no. 22, pp. 89–104.

Doja, Albert (2008) “Claude Lévi-Strauss at his Centennial: toward a future anthropology.” Theory, Culture & Society, vol. 25, no. 7-8, pp. 321–340. doi:10.1177/0263276408097810.

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Doja, Albert (2016) “Raw madness and cooked evil: the unspeakable politics of mass rapes as an instrument of ethnic cleansing.” Paper presented at the International Conference War and Sexual Violence. Graduate Center, City University of New York, 28-29 April 2016, Video at

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Author Information: Steve Fuller, University of Warwick, UK,

Fuller, Steve. “Against Virtue and For Modernity: Rebooting the Modern Left.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 12 (2017): 51-53.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink:

Toby Ziegler’s “The Liberals: 3rd Version.” Photo by Matt via Flickr / Creative Commons


My holiday message for the coming year is a call to re-boot the modern left. When I was completing my doctoral studies, just as the Cold War was beginning to wind down, the main threat to the modern left was seen as coming largely from within. ‘Postmodernism’ was the name normally given to that threat, and it fuelled various culture, canon and science wars in the 1980s and 1990s.

Indeed, even I was – and, in some circles, continue to be – seen as just such an ‘enemy of reason’, to recall the name of Richard Dawkins’ television show in which I figured as one of the accused. However, in retrospect, postmodernism was at most a harbinger for a more serious threat, which today comes from both the ‘populist’ supporters of Trump, Brexit et al. and their equally self-righteous academic critics.

Academic commentators on Trump, Brexit and the other populist turns around the world seem unable to avoid passing moral judgement on the voters who brought about these uniformly unexpected outcomes, the vast majority of which the commentators have found unwelcomed. In this context, an unholy alliance of virtue theorists and evolutionary psychologists have thrived as diagnosticians of our predicament. I say ‘unholy’ because Aristotle and Darwin suddenly find themselves on the same side of an argument, now pitched against the minds of ‘ordinary’ people. This anti-democratic place is not one in which any self-respecting modern leftist wishes to be.

To be sure, virtue theorists and evolutionary psychologists come to the matter from rather different premises – the one metaphysical if not religious and the other naturalistic if not atheistic. Nevertheless, they both regard humanity’s prospects as fundamentally constrained by our mental makeup. This makeup reflects our collective past and may even be rooted in our animal nature. Under the circumstances, so they believe, the best we can hope is to become self-conscious of our biases and limitations in processing information so that we don’t fall prey to the base political appeals that have resulted in the current wave of populism.

These diagnosticians conspicuously offer little of the positive vision or ambition that characterised ‘progressive’ politics of both liberal and socialist persuasions in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. But truth be told, these learned pessimists already have form. They are best seen as the culmination of a current of thought that has been percolating since the end of the Cold War effectively brought to a halt Marxism as a world-historic project of human emancipation.

In this context, the relatively upbeat message advanced by Francis Fukuyama in The End of History and the Last Man that captivated much of the 1990s was premature. Fukuyama was cautiously celebrating the triumph of liberalism over socialism in the progressivist sweepstakes. But others were plotting a different course, one in which the very terms on which the Cold War had been fought would be superseded altogether. Gone would be the days when liberals and socialists vied over who could design a political economy that would benefit the most people worldwide. In its place would be a much more precarious sense of the world order, in which overweening ambition itself turned out to be humanity’s Achilles Heel, if not Original Sin.

Here the trail of books published by Alasdair MacIntyre and his philosophical and theological admirers in the wake of After Virtue ploughed a parallel field to such avowedly secular and scientifically minded works as Peter Singer’s A Darwinian Left and Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate. These two intellectual streams, both pointing to our species’ inveterate shortcomings, gained increasing plausibility in light of 9/11’s blindsiding on the post-Cold War neo-liberal consensus.

9/11 tore up the Cold War playbook once and for all, side-lining both the liberals and the socialists who had depended on it. Gone was the state-based politics, the strategy of mutual containment, the agreed fields of play epitomized in such phrases as ‘arms race’ and ‘space race’. In short, gone was the game-theoretic rationality of managed global conflict. Thus began the ongoing war on ‘Islamic terror’. Against this backdrop, the Iraq War proved to be colossally ill-judged, though no surprise given that its mastermind was one of the Cold War’s keenest understudies, Donald Rumsfeld.

For the virtue theorists and evolutionary psychologists, the Cold War represented as far as human rationality could go in pushing back and channelling our default irrationality, albeit in the hope of lifting humanity to a ‘higher’ level of being. Indeed, once the USSR lost the Cold War to the US on largely financial grounds, the victorious Americans had to contend with the ‘blowback’ from third parties who suffered ‘collateral damage’ at many different levels during the Cold War. After all, the Cold War, for all its success in averting nuclear confrontation, nevertheless turned the world into a playing field for elite powers. ‘First world’, ‘second world’ and ‘third world’ were basically the names of the various teams in contention on the Cold War’s global playing field.

So today we see an ideological struggle whose main players are those resentful (i.e. the ‘populists’) and those regretful (i.e. the ‘anti-populists’) of the entire Cold War dynamic. The only thing that these antagonists appear to agree on is the folly of ‘progressivist’ politics, the calling card of both modern liberalism and socialism. Indeed, both the populists and their critics are fairly characterised as somehow wanting to turn back the clock to a time when we were in closer contact with the proverbial ‘ground of being’, which of course the two sides define in rather different terms. But make no mistake of the underlying metaphysical premise: We are ultimately where we came from.

Notwithstanding the errors of thought and deed committed in their names, liberalism and socialism rightly denied this premise, which placed both of them in the vanguard – and eventually made them world-historic rivals – in modernist politics. Modernity raised humanity’s self-regard and expectations to levels that motivated people to build a literal Heaven on Earth, in which technology would replace theology as the master science of our being. David Noble cast a characteristically informed but jaundiced eye at this proposition in his 1997 book, The Religion of Technology: The Divinity of Man and the Spirit of Invention. Interestingly, John Passmore had covered much the same terrain just as eruditely but with greater equanimity in his 1970 book, The Perfectibility of Man. That the one was written after and the other during the Cold War is probably no accident.

I am mainly interested in resurrecting the modernist project in its spirit, not its letter. Many of modernity’s original terms of engagement are clearly no longer tenable. But I do believe that Silicon Valley is comparable to Manchester two centuries ago, namely, a crucible of a radical liberal sensibility – call it ‘Liberalism 2.0’ or simply ‘Alt-Liberalism’ – that tries to use the ascendant technological wave to leverage a new conception of the human being.

However one judges Marx’s critique of liberalism’s scientific expression (aka classical political economy), the bottom line is that his arguments for socialism would never have got off the ground had liberalism not laid the groundwork for him. As we enter 2018 and seek guidance for launching a new progressivism, we would do well to keep this historical precedent in mind.

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Author Information: Bernard Wills, Memorial University of Newfoundland and Labrador,

Wills, Bernard. “Conservatism: The End of An Idea.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 12 (2017): 7-16.

The pdf of the article refers to specific page numbers. Shortlink:

Image from Studios via Flickr / Creative Commons


I recently noticed that conservatism as a political stance is definitively dead. Truth is it has been on life support for decades. This has not stopped all sorts of people from using the term both positively and negatively. All sorts of people proudly proclaim themselves to be conservatives while others angrily denounce people as conservatives. The death of conservatism means, for starters, that neither group fully grasps of the term they are using. The word has become utterly detached from the thing. Another thing it means is that an individual may have conservative opinions but only in the sense that an individual may worship the goddess Artemis in her back yard or live like a 17th Century Puritan. It is a private eccentricity with no public institutional reality. The death of conservatism is then something like the death of God.

A New Classification of Politics: Three Ideologies

There is no significance to taking any public stand as a conservative. This is for one basic reason. This reason is that the victory of ideology in contemporary politics is now total and that conservatism is not an ideology.[1] Our political discourse is now divided between three ideological stances: the progressive, the neo-liberal and ethno-nationalist stances. So called social conservatives used to exist but they have utterly disappeared into the third stance as is plain with the rise of Trump in the United States and the rise of similar populists elsewhere.[2] There are now no social conservatives of any note who are not also ethno-nationalists and indeed primarily ethno-nationalists.

This is absolutely evident from their obsession with a purported clash of civilizations between the West and Islam. By and large Muslims share the values of social conservatives when it comes to things like family, modesty, the centrality of religion and so on. Yet social conservatives despise and fear Muslims all the same making it plain that by family values they mean white Anglo-Saxon family values and by piety they mean white Anglo-Saxon piety. That is the core of the ethno-nationalist position: that western Christian values are cherished not for their supposed universality but as the foundation of a tribal identity. From time to time the neo-Liberal stance is classified as ‘conservative’ though for no reason I can fathom: as Marx pointed out predatory capitalism rips the veil form all traditional pieties by reducing everything to a cash value. The proposition that limitless accumulation is the aim of life and indeed the primary duty of a citizen is consistent with no ancient wisdom I know of religious or otherwise.

Conservatism then is no more. Is this a good thing or a bad thing? It is hardly my place to say: conservatism itself advises us that like all human constructions it is finite and imperfect. However, at this point the reader may well be waiting, impatiently, for a definition of conservatism. What is it that I say has died?

I will proceed to offer if not a definition then an account of what conservatism is in the root sense of the word: an attitude to the world which seeks to conserve or protect those principles, values or institutions on which genuine human flourishing has always and will always rest. It will then be evident that people who use the term most loudly haven’t the faintest interest in conservatism or conservative values and perhaps never have. Of course, I run the risk of baffling people (both boosters and knockers) who will not recognize their version of conservatism in anything I say. I ask such people to be patient until I finish my exposition.

How Were We Able to Drink Up the Sea?

I said above that conservatism is not an ideology: from writers labelled ‘conservative’ it would be difficult to cull a doctrinal statement. This means that it has no definition in the sense of a core statement of doctrine or set of prescriptive demands: it is, if like, the position which is not a position but rather an attitude and a practice. However, I can give you a living example of it from a much despised source.

I find an excellent description of conservatism as a life stance expressed in the five pillars of the Islamic faith.[3] Soi-disant ‘conservatives’ who are shocked and angered by this should ask themselves why as these values seem to me core to any conservative stance towards the world. The first of these pillars is the shahada or profession of faith: There is no god but god and Mohammed is his prophet. Now conservatism does not inherently care about the latter part of this assertion: it is happy to recognize a multitude of other prophets who have taught in other parts of the world such as Siddartha, Jesus, or Confucius.

The first however is essential: conservatism is theocratic in orientation. Humans are first and foremost unconditionally responsible to a divine order: to the standards which are ultimate because they are founded in the unchanging nature of God. No human being is to place any finite value, such as family, clan, party in the place of God. The regard the finite as infinite in value and as an absolute end is to commit the arch-error of shirk. On this basis conservatism attaches only a qualified value to the goods of this world: it does not absolutize the relative. No movement, no passion, no interest which is merely human or temporary can trump our duty to god and his sovereign will. Order is prior absolutely to freedom and in fact it is true freedom to recognize this.

Of course this whole position is pointless if we do not know God’s will. Fortunately, it is of the nature of god to reveal himself in scriptures, historical events, the exemplary deeds of prophets and saints and so on. God is present and active in the world. His will is manifest in the sacred teachings and philosophies (the philosophia perennialis) of the world as in the depths of our own conscience.[4] Indeed, his will is present even in those conscious non-believers who nonetheless enshrine the eternal verities (the good, the beautiful and the true) within their hearts.

For this reason, the second pillar enjoins us to prayer. Humans must remember and acknowledge both internally and externally the absoluteness of God. This is important because it cuts against the grain. Our tendency is to lose focus in the midst of the world’s distractions. We wander away from our final end and our ultimate good. We put wealth, or lust, or power or anger at the center of our lives instead of the union with god we all intrinsically long for. We miss our happiness by seeking it in things that cannot, of their very metaphysical nature, supply it.

This is why prayer, both personal and liturgical is central to a well lived life for in prayer we re-collect our ultimate aim, the peace that comes of divine union. This peace is the aim of all prayer even when expressed in its lowest manifestation which is petitionary prayer. Conservatism calls us to recollect those spiritual values that make for true fulfillment against everything faddish and temporary. It calls to put the eternal always before the merely modish and to this extent prayer is one of its liveliest manifestations as it a call to remember god in the midst of this world.

A Union of Materialism and Faith

Yet our lives are in this world too. Conservatism rejects the pessimism of the millenarian and gnostic. It does not long for an immanent millennium to destroy the present world order but waits patiently for the fulfillment of things in the fullness of time. Thus, when faced with the worldly Gnosticism of the secular revolutionary or the religious despair of those who simply wish to be raptured into eternity as the world burns it counsels skepticism. Thus, as our status in the next world is determined by how we live in this one our duty to god is also our duty to community. Almsgiving is then a conservative value. Wealth exists to be shared. It is not an idol and not an end. It is a means to community and those who are blessed with it in turn bless others. Wealth selfishly hoarded is not wealth at all and thus zakat is enjoined on all believers.

This is especially important as we tend to the selfish and misguided view that our wealth is the deserved result of our special virtue whereas in truth all good things come from god and god alone. As it comes from god it is given back to god as god is present in the neediness of our neighbors and the needs of our community. How vulgar then is the so called ‘prosperity gospel’ preached by certain Christians who claim to have Jesus in their hearts when they do not even have Mohammed! There are many displays of vulgar wealth in the Islamic world as in ours. People in the East and the West need constant reminding that the needs of the community outweigh the wants of the individual.

This is part of our human fallibility, our tendency to forget our ultimate end for merely proximate ones. The principle of almsgiving is, however, particularly salutary for those of us living in the Christian west as our societies have made the endless accumulation of personal wealth their over-riding principle even at the expense of the very soil we live on and the air we breathe. I should note though entirely in line with conservatism zakat assumes that differences between people entail differences in wealth and that this will not be abolished but equalized through giving.

The fourth pillar counsels fasting on the sound conservative principle that we do not live for the gratification of the senses but for the fulfillment of the spirit. Fasting reminds us that the primary struggle in life is with ourselves and that the demands of the moral and communal life are at odds (often) with the gratification of the senses. Indeed, there is no substitute for the feeling of hunger as those who never feel it have no conception of the suffering of those who do. This is why great wealth so often goes with poverty of the spirit and why it is harder for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle.

Yet fasting is only one letter away from feasting. As there is a time to curb the senses there is a time to release them particularly in the context of communal celebration. As Aristotle said long ago, proper self-control involves not just self-denial, knowing when to say no to our desires, but also knowing when to indulge them: one does not gorge at a funeral or fast at a wedding. Still, as giving free rein to our desires must be choice and not compulsion our moral training will tend to focus on self-denial so that our indulgence may be unconstrained by evil habit.

Finally, the fifth pillar enjoins on us pilgrimage to Mecca and why not as life itself is a pilgrimage? T. S. Eliot prays: “help us to care and not to care” and this is the core of the notion that we are pilgrims in this world. The world of time and space we inhabit is both affirmed and transcended. We give ourselves over to finite ends yet leave the fruit of our action in the hands of providence. The finite passes over to the infinite as we give over our worldly projects and passions, releasing them into the eternal will of God.

On practical level this is a powerful inoculation against despair as the world does not bear all the weight of our expectations (which of its creaturely nature it can never bear). Consider as an example the old expression “better dead than red”. Those who uttered this expression meant that the Western Bourgeois form of freedom was freedom absolute and that its potential loss justified the nuclear annihilation of the planet. Of course, Western Bourgeois freedom (though admirable in many ways) is a provincial form of freedom. It does not exhaust every possibility of human good. Only a whig-history-on-steroids view of western institutions as the inevitable and only culmination of human history could justify such nihilism.

Conservatism will have no truck with this sentiment. History is an arena of struggle subject to advances and retreats. Yet possibilities for good remain in the darkest of times and the insanity of history can never destroy or even affect in the slightest the eternal essence of God source and ground of all good. In a godless universe, where this world is the only locus of good, history becomes a battleground in which the stakes are absolute and compromise unthinkable: hence the vicious ideological battles of those who think they have solved the riddle of history and claim to be bringing about the final human good.

When Opposition to the Radical Falls Away

Of course it can be objected that conservatism as I have described it here has no more been tried than Christianity or communism. Conservativism, one might say, has never really existed outside the elegant, wistful prose of conservatives. There is much truth to this charge yet it is, of course, true of all moral stances that their instantiations are very far indeed from their archetypal forms. Hence we get the characteristic vice of the conservative: the tendency to forget fundamental values for external privileges and the inability to identify what it is that ought, in fact, to be conserved.

Still, on the plus side of the ledger, the conservative might well ask whether his or her own view is comprehensive of all its rivals. Conservatives share with progressives a concern for justice and equity especially for the poor and marginalized. Conservatives share with ethno-nationalism a concern for the particularities of language and culture over against the homogenizing tendencies of globalism and technocracy. Conservatives even share with neo-liberals a suspicion of totalitarian power, planning and control.

However, conservatism, in the west at least, may well be dead for a more fundamental reason. This is because there is a powerful alternative to the conservative tradition and that is the radical tradition. All three of our contemporary ideologies have their roots in radicalism and are closer to each other than they can readily imagine given their current conflict. For the radical tradition the constraints imposed by tradition are in almost all cases artificial. What the conservative tradition would constrain the radical tradition would release. Radicalism envisages a flowering of human diversity, a host of new avenues in which self-hood can be explored beyond the stale platitudes of convention. This radical principle has routed conservatism (much of which expressed itself as cheap nostalgia anyway) and is the default position of all North Americans.[5]

This spirit can express itself as radical egalitarianism or its opposite. For instance, among ethno-nationalists it is assumed that the will of the demos embodies the wisdom and good sense of the people. This wisdom would readily express itself were it not for the constraints imposed by various ‘elites’ whose abstract intellectualism has lost touch with the community and indeed with reality. These elites constantly invoke the authority of science, or education or expertise or data against what ‘simple folk’ can see with their own eyes. When the demos seeks to express its will this is declared ‘unconstitutional’ or ‘against the rule of law’ by lawyers or advocacy groups or other ‘elite’ institutions.

The demos however, holds all such institutions in contempt and seeks to impose its will through a ‘great leader’ who is willing to flout them and indeed is willing to flout moral convention altogether (even moral conventions like marital fidelity to which the demos remain sentimentally attached). Thus, we have a kind of direct democracy outside of constitutional and legal constraints such as conservatism has forever warned against. That these radicals sometimes espouse ‘conservative’ seeming policies or points of view is irrelevant as they espouse them lawlessly and in a manner contemptuous of the very traditions they claim to value.

Why, for instance, is it conservative to despise the opinions of the educated and even pour contempt on the intellect itself? Such things are an expression of a rebellious and anti-authoritarian spirit. The demos trusts only in its collective judgment and not only rejects but actively despises any other principle. That this attitude is over-determined by socio-economic factors is plain but that does not make it any easier to deal with on a day to day basis especially as the scapegoating of immigrants, prisoners and others is high on the populist wish-list and the populace resents institutional constraints on its will to revenge especially.[6]

There is of course the other side of this coin and that is the populism of progressive movements such as the occupy movement, black-bloc radicals and so on.[7] These movements, it must be said, have aims that seem overall nobler and better than the beefs and resentments of populists. However, this is a weakness as much as a strength: as I said above every stance struggles with its shadow. Noble ideals are a proven danger when not accompanied by political and moral pragmatism and relentless self-examination. Moral crusaders have a distressing tendency to fumble badly when actually called upon to run things: this is because sweeping moral denunciations are a form of cheap grace while actual governance (self-governance included) is slow, patient work.

Return to Innocence Lost (or Imagined)

There is also a false innocence that can maintained simply by never facing the temptations of power. William Blake (a far deeper radical) was a persistent critic of any form of abstract moralism. For him no political or theological order could be the basis of freedom that did not overcome the problem of self-righteousness: our tendency to identify ourselves with an abstract principle of goodness and others (inevitably) with an abstract principle of evil. In a powerful image he tells us that blood sacrifice and war are the culmination of the moral law, the categories of good and evil unrelieved by charity, solidarity, or forgiveness.[8]

Moralism is for Blake a form of violence. (see for instance plates 47-51 of Jerusalem) Our care must embrace the ‘minute particulars’ of humanity: no ‘humanism’ can be liberating that puts an abstraction like ‘Humanity’ before flesh and blood human beings. We all have encountered people who virtue signal on every conceivable ‘issue’ but have little but venom in their hearts: one danger of the progressive stance lies, then, in the monsters of self-righteous zeal that it breeds.

At any rate, such people envisage (after some difficult to specify revolutionary event) a world in which a host of sexualities, ethnicities, personalities and identities flourish without constraint and (though this is surely impossible) without mutual contradiction.[9] As the economic discipline of Capitalism lies behind all other forms of oppression the current economic order must be overthrown. The suggested alternative is often some form of anarchism.

Like the populists, anarchists distrust and despise constitutionalism which after all only serves to protect the oppressors. Indeed, the anarchists despise traditional civil liberties as a form of constraint and mock those who espouse them as ‘liberals’. In particular, they resent the fact that such liberties prevent them from waging all-out war against their eternal adversary the populists. The populists heartily agree. Both sides fantasize about epic street confrontations or cyber battles that will issue in a final rout of the forces of evil. In other words, they are secular (and indeed religious) millenarians.

Each believes in a great battle, an apocalyptic convulsion that will only happen if liberals and other idiots get out of the way. A significant minority of each group considers this not just as a ‘culture war’ but as a ‘war’ war with brickbats, fires and vandalism of property. At any rate both agree on the Manichean position: the world and everything in it is hopelessly vitiated and corrupt and must be purged by fire whether this be the literal fire of Armageddon or the flames of secular revolution.

Finally, we have the technological dreamers. They do not dream of an unconstrained populist will or an unconstrained flowering of genders and sexualities but of the unconstrained power of technical and economic innovation. The enemy is, again the state and its institutions. Regulation of industry and common sense controls over heedless technological advancement are as bizarre and repellent to them as constraints on abortion or sexuality are to progressives. They, after all, represent the creative energy behind all forms of human advancement, all growth and prosperity. Technological or business imperatives cannot be questioned without questioning prosperity and progress themselves: the two things which for this ideology are non-negotiable. Such people see nothing ironic or odd in the fact the demands of progress and the spread of prosperity never conflict with their own self-interest.

The self- interest of the entrepreneur or innovator is the interest of the community. In a seeming parody of the Marxist utopia where the freedom of each is the freedom of all the neo-liberals and libertarians do not see the economic freedom of the individual as ever conflicting with the good of the community. This is, of course, the dream of anarchists as well: that individual wills can exist in immediate and natural harmony once the power of the state is gone. The technophiles go even further however: for them this harmony can be achieved and maintained in the midst of unrestrained competition.

The magic of the market will smooth out all inequities and bring prosperity and balance to all (or, if the libertarian leans also to vengeful populism, to the deserving). At any rate the neo-liberals have one ace in the hole that it is difficult to imagine anyone overcoming: this is the fact that almost all acts of rebellion can be appropriated and monetized. This is particularly true of physical vandalism. Capitalism does not fetishize physical property the way some anarchists think it does: burn a bank to the ground and you will find only that stock in private security companies has gone up.

Liberation as Consuming Fire

For all three groups the enemy is clear as is the goal: the repressed must be liberated. The demos must be free to enact its vengeful fantasies on immigrants, prisoners or gays. The libertarian must be free to innovate and make more money than anyone can find a use for. Sexual and ethnic minorities must be free to express their forms of life to whatever limit logic implies. All must be free and all must be free especially of the enemy of freedom, the state and its laws and institutions.[10] This is the core of each position quite apart from the fact that within each there may be many demands reasonable in themselves.

This indicates that the radical stance is the stance where our politics is concerned. Everything must be liberated though conservatives may warn again and again that liberation may mean the freedom of everything awful as easily as the freedom of everything good. Lamentation however is pointless (with apologies to Canada’s lamenter-in-chief George Parkin Grant!). This is because the radical principle is our principle and is, indeed, along with conservatism, a fundamental human option. Moreover, it has great achievements to its credit even as conservatism has many disgraces.

At the same time radicalism imposes its own constraints: most of us would rejoice if anti-vaxxers stopped being such fools yet they are acting on an impeccable radical principle, that of personal autonomy, as well as a suspicion of institutionalized medicine that many of us share. In fact, this example raises a vexing problem: vaccination can only be carried out on a population, all must buy into it for it to work. How would an anarchist society founded on a principle of radical freedom (whether anarcho-communist or right wing patriot) handle a question of this sort? Will radical stances license such appalling disorder that conservatism will become a living option? Are Clinton and Trudeau after all the best we can hope for?

Blake certainly painted a dark vision of the hellish cycle of rebellion and reaction: the perpetual alteration between sanguinary radicalism and stultifying conservatism. Is this our future? Philosophy, alas, does not deal with the future. It counsels only that we temper hope as well as fear and judge all things sub-specie-aeternitatis. It is with this stoic sentiment, as boring as it is true, that I will conclude. We seem at an impasse though the author would certainly be happy to learn from others that he is unduly pessimistic about the world.

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Aristophanes. The Clouds trans. C.D.C. Reeve, from The Trials of Socrates. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 2002)

Blake, William. Complete Poems ed. Alicia Ostriker. London: Penguin Classics, 1978.

Girard, René. I See Satan Fall Like Lightning trans. J.G. Williams. (Ottawa: Novalis, 2001)

Hegel, G.W.F. The Phenomenology of Mind. trans. J.B. Baillie. (New York: Harper Torchbook, 1967.

Reno, Robert “Why I Am anti-anti-TrumpFirst Things. Retrieved from

Smith, John Huston. The World’s Religions New York: Harper Collins, 1991.

[1] A fundamental problem with conservatism is that as soon as it defines itself vis a vis its ideological rivals it itself becomes an ideological construct rather than an assumed form of life. At that point conservatism turns into reaction. This problem was noted as long ago as Aristophanes the Clouds. One ace in the hole of the radical tradition is that as soon as traditional norms are questioned and have to be self-consciously defended the conservative standpoint is lost. At that point conservatism becomes a position duking it out with the other positions scoring the odd victory here and suffering the odd reverse there.

[2] The fatal weakness of social conservatism as a political movement was that it never articulated a positive vision of society leaving this work first to neo-liberals and now to ethno-nationalists. Its politics was simply oppositional: devoted to blocking actions against abortion or homosexuality or other things deemed decadent, conflicts that were and are unwinnable. On this basis it forged its foolish alliance first with corporate kleptocracy and then with strident populism culminating in ludicrous defenses of Trumpism from previously reputable conservative publications like First Things. (e.g Robert Reno  

[3] For a rich introduction to Islam and indeed to other major faiths see The World’s Religions by John Huston Smith.

[4] This notion of a ‘perennial philosophy’ is central to writers we might place on the conservative spectrum from traditionalist writers like Rene Guenon to more eclectic figures like Aldous Huxley or Simone Weil who, while influential in some conservative circles, defy easy categorization. These metaphysically inclined thinkers contrast with the more pragmatic strain of conservatism stemming from the tradition of Burke and Swift. The American Russel Kirk may be taken as one of the last influential exponents of this view. One can add to this list the disciples of Leo Strauss (a far deeper thinker than Kirk), Canadians like George Grant as well as pure reactionaries in the tradition of Joseph de Maistre. What any of these figures would have thought of Donald J. Trump, a wealthy vulgarian straight from the pages of the Satyricon, one can only guess. Ironies abound here however: Guenon, a western convert to Islam, seems to have influenced the volcanic anti-Islamic rage of Steve Bannon. The paleo-conservatism of the genteel Russel Kirk also spawned the nativism of Pat Buchanan. Every stance has its shadow, the embodiment of its darker tendencies and ethno-nationalism seems to stand in this relation to conservatism.

[5] Any defense of a conservative principle in politics and society in the west can only be a highly qualified one for the reason that there are (in my view at least) a plurality of moral languages with claims on our attention and one of these is indeed that of the radical tradition. For Westerners this problem is acute for, as far as I able to determine, the roots of radicalism are in the Gospels and the Epistles of Paul. These are not Conservative documents in my reading of them precisely for their doctrine of radical solidarity with the poor which undermines the binaries on which traditional human societies are built (and sometimes subverts those texts themselves). It was not for nothing that the Emperors of Rome thought Christianity a fundamental threat to civilized standards. In the West, then, the radical principle is already present in its primary theological constitution (however much it tries to ignore or forget that fact).

[6] Indeed, conservative Christianity is, with some honorable exceptions, becoming a pharisaical revenge cult. Behind all the rhetoric around ‘security’ (Canada remains one of the securest societies on planet Earth where terrorism is concerned) and the ‘Muslim threat’ one will find the simple will to retaliate in kind against anyone who represents the hated ‘other’ no matter how guilty or how innocent.

[7] I have before me the online Anarchist Library compiled by the Green Mountain Collective. ( These sources give the inescapable impression of an abstract ideological rage consuming itself in an intellectual and historical vacuum: pretty much as Hegel saw the French revolutionaries. (The Phenomenology of Mind, 604) Talking to proponents of these views online (if talking is quite the word for it) only deepens this impression. Perhaps I am being harsh however: if the reader is curious, she may peruse Hegel’s chapter ‘Absolute Freedom and Terror’ and judge for herself if the comparison is apt. Those curious as to why the revolution always eats itself and why revolutionaries must at last turn on themselves may find Hegel’s analysis helpful.

[8] That ‘progressives’ will verbally disembowel each other over ideological differences barely discernible to outsiders shows that they are far from immune to the mimetic violence described by René Girard (2001; 24-31) Just as Blake said, moral abstraction enacts ritual violence. Progressivism is far from alone in this of course and indeed the ethno-nationalist stance is even more Manichean and violent. Still, the fact that it is over all the most humane of the current stances only makes the trap deeper: without what theologians once called a sense of sin it is difficult to imagine any politics escaping the scapegoating impulse and the self-righteous violence it manifests. Considering the ridicule and anger one provokes from many progressives by defending a stance of non-violence things do not seem hopeful.

[9] This is a deeper problem than many realize. The total liberation of one standpoint is the suppression of another: unconditional solidarity with ALL standpoints at once seems a chimerical notion. This is why in practice progressives (for instance) must always favor some oppressed people over others: aboriginal people in Guatemala, say, over outlandish folk like the Copts in Egypt. This why the radical stance may, for all protestations to the contrary, be implicitly totalitarian. Consider the following problem: A adopts the deep narrative about himself that he is the one true prophet of God. A desires not only the liberty to adopt this self-description but demands the universal recognition of this deep description by others. It is, to him, a fundamental denial of his personhood should anyone question his foundational narrative as, in his mind, he IS this narrative. However, trouble arises if B also adopts the deep story that SHE is the one true prophet of God as others cannot offer unconditional affirmation of both narratives. Here is where the currently much maligned standpoint of liberalism steps in. The liberal defers the eschaton by imposing articles of peace on A and B while each prosecutes their claim to be the one true prophet. With this peace imposed A and B come to the realization that, whatever differences divide them, they share a common nature as rational agents. They can now differ on each other’s deep story, neither one need be forced to accept the other because neither party is reducible to their narrative. With that they can go about their affairs. The alternative is playing the zero sum game of establishing my narrative as the dominant one through the suppression of the other contrary narrative. A simply destroys B. This is the totalitarian stance. Its dangers are evident yet the liberal stance costs as well. By entering that stance, we forgo universal recognition for the sake of peace and subordinate our deep story to the common good, at which point we cease to be simply our story, we assume a common public narrative as our own somewhat as we give up our private religious perceptions to join a church. I tend to think that is a cost worth paying though others may differ.

[10] This is why the most embattled principle of all is the centrism espoused by the Democratic party in the U.S. and the Liberal Party in Canada. As in the thirties it seems “the center cannot hold” (to quote W.B. Yeats). The basic problem seems to me that no centrist government can impose discipline on the fossil fuel-industry. Nor can it impose any discipline on the speculators and financiers who hoard badly needed funds offshore: a miserly activity contrary to the very nature of the capitalism they are said to espouse. That said, if there is anything which can be said to be ‘conservative’ in the current context it is belief in a social democratic state with traditional civil liberties protected by a strong constitutional framework. This, if I would hazard a guess, would be the best polity currently on offer. I have given short shrift to the phenomenon of political centrism in this piece, a deficiency I hope to make up in a subsequent essay.

Vice Ontology, Quassim Cassam

SERRC —  November 16, 2017 — 1 Comment

Author Information: Quassim Cassam, University of Warwick, UK,

Cassam, Quassim. “Vice Ontology.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 11 (2017): 20-27.

The pdf of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink:

Please refer to:

Image by Francois Meehan via Flickr / Creative Commons


One of the frustrations of trying to make headway with the rapidly expanding literature on epistemic vices is the absence of an agreed list of such vices. Vice epistemologists are more than happy to say what makes a character trait, attitude of way of thinking epistemically vicious and most provide examples of epistemic vices or lists of the kind of thing that have in mind. But these lists tend to be a hotchpotch. Different philosophers provide different lists and while there is some overlap there are also some significant variations. Closed-mindedness is a popular favourite but some vices that appear on some lists fail to appear on others. Here, for example, is Linda Zagzebksi’s list:

intellectual pride, negligence, idleness, cowardice, conformity, carelessness, rigidity, prejudice, wishful thinking, closed-mindedness, insensitivity to detail, obtuseness, and lack of thoroughness (1996: 152).

Confronted by a list like this several questions suggest themselves: why do these items make it onto the list and not others? Why not dogmatism or gullibility? Is idleness really an epistemic vice or a vice in a more general sense? Are all the items on the list equally important or are some more important than others? What is the relationship between the listed vices? It isn’t necessarily a criticism of vice epistemologists that they rarely tackle such questions. They are mainly concerned to develop a theoretical account of the notion of an epistemic vice, and individual vices are more often than not only mentioned for illustrative purposes.

An Order for Vice

But as vice epistemologists get down to listing epistemic vices they need to make it clear on what basis included items have been included and excluded items have been excluded. If some epistemic vices are deemed to be subservient to others it needs to be explained why. As Ian James Kidd notes in his valuable contribution, an important but neglected issue for vice epistemology is taxonomy, and this means having a story to tell about the basis on which epistemic vices can reasonably be grouped and ordered.[1]

Kidd rises to this challenge by drawing on the historically influential notion of a capital vice.[2] Capital vices are ‘source vices’ that give rise to other vices. Kidd asks whether there are capital epistemic vices and gives closed-mindedness as a possible example. According to Heather Battaly, whose view Kidd discusses, closed-mindedness is an unwillingness or inability to engage seriously with relevant intellectual options.[3] One way to be closed-minded is to be dogmatic but Battaly suggests that closed-mindedness is the broader notion: one is dogmatic if one is closed-minded with respect to beliefs one already holds but one can be closed-minded without being dogmatic.

For Battaly, closed-mindedness does not require one already to have made up one’s mind since one can also be closed-minded in how one arrives at one’s beliefs. The upshot is that closed-mindedness is the ‘source of dogmatism’ (Kidd 2017: 14). This doesn’t settle the question whether closed-mindedness is a capital epistemic vice if genuine capital vices have more than one sub-vice.

Still, Kidd reads Battaly’s view of the link between closed-mindedness and dogmatism as providing at least some support for viewing the former as a capital epistemic vice. Furthermore, it looks as though the capitality relation is in this case a conceptual relation. It might be a psychological fact that being closed-minded tends to make a person dogmatic but the postulated connection between closed-mindedness and dogmatism looks conceptual: it is built into the concepts of closed-mindedness and dogmatism that being dogmatic is a way of being closed-minded.

To what are analyses of concepts of specific epistemic vices answerable? One might think: to the nature of those vices themselves but then it needs to be explained how talk of the ‘nature’ of epistemic vices is to be understood. In what sense do such vices have a ‘nature’ that analyses of them capture or fail to capture?

Going Back to Locke

This way of formulating the methodological question should resonate with readers of Locke, not least because it represents the question as turning on the ontology of vice. In Locke’s ontology there is a fundamental distinction between substances and modes. Substances, for Locke, are the ultimate subjects of predication and exist independently of us. Gold and horses are Lockean substances, and our complex ideas of substances aren’t just combinations of simple ideas or observable properties.

They are ideas of ‘distinct particular things subsisting by themselves’ with their own underlying nature that explains why they have the observable properties they have (II.xii.6).[4] Since our ideas of substances are ‘intended to be Representations of Substances, as they really are’ they are answerable to the nature of substances as they really are and aren’t guaranteed to be adequate, that is, to do justice to the actual nature of what they are intended to represent (

In contrast, our ideas of modes are ideas of qualities or attributes that can only exist as the qualities or attributes of a substance. Modes are dependent existences. Simple modes are combinations of the same simple idea whereas mixed modes combine ideas of several different kinds.[5] So, for example, theft is a mixed mode since the idea of theft is the idea of the concealed change of possession of something without the consent of the proprietor. Locke’s key claim about ideas of modes is that they are ‘voluntary Collections of simple Ideas, which the Mind puts together, without any reference to any real Archetypes’ (II.xxxi.3). It follows that these ideas can’t fail to be adequate since, as Michael Ayers puts it on Locke’s behalf, we form these ideas ‘without the need to refer to reality’ (1991: 57).[6] Take the idea of courage, which Locke regards as a mixed mode:

He that at first put together the Idea of Danger perceived, absence of disorder from Fear, sedate consideration of what was justly to be done, and executing it without that disturbance, or being deterred by the danger of it, had certainly in his Mind that complex Idea made up of that Combination: and intending it to be nothing else, but what it is; nor to have any other simple Ideas, but what it hath, it could not also be but an adequate idea: and laying this up in his Memory, with the name Courage annexed to it, to signifie it to others, and denominate from thence any Action he should observe to agree with it, had thereby a Standard to measure and dominate Actions by, as they agreed to it’ (II.xxxi.3).

When it comes to our ideas of substances it is reality that sets the standard for our ideas. With mixed modes, it is our ideas that set the standard for reality, so that an action is courageous just if it has the features that our idea of courage brings together. Locke doesn’t deny that ideas of mixed modes can be formed by experience and observation. For example, seeing two men wrestle can give one the idea of wrestling. For the most part, however, ideas of modes are the products of invention, of the ‘voluntary putting together of several simple Ideas in our own minds’ (II.xxii.9), without prior observation.

An interesting consequence of what might be described as Locke’s conceptualism about modes is that there is in a sense no external standard by reference to which disputes about what is and is not part of the idea of mixed modes can be settled.[7] Again Locke uses the example of courage to make his point.

Suppose that one person X’s idea of a courageous act includes the idea of ‘sedate consideration’ of ‘what is fittest to be done’ ( This is the idea of ‘an Action which may exist’ (ibid.) but another person Y has a different idea according to which a courageous action is one that is performed ‘without using one’s Reason or Industry’ (ibid.). Such actions are also possible, and Y’s idea is as ‘real’ as X’s. An action that displays courage by X’s lights might fail to do so by Y’s lights and vice versa but it seems that the only respect in which Y’s idea might count as ‘wrong, imperfect, or inadequate’ (II.xxxi.5) is if Y intends his idea of courage to be the same as X’s. Apart from that, both ideas are equally legitimate and can both be used in the classification of actions.

In fact, this isn’t quite Locke’s view since it omits one important qualification. At one point he argues that:

Mixed Modes and Relations, having no other reality, but what they have in the Minds of Men, there is nothing more required to those kinds of Ideas to make them real, but that they be so framed, that there be the possibility of existing comformable to them. These Ideas being themselves Archetypes, cannot differ from their Archetypes, and so cannot be chimerical, unless any one of them will jumble together in them inconsistent Ideas (

On reflection, however, consistency isn’t enough for our complex ideas of mixed modes to be ‘real’. For these ideas not to be ‘fantastical’ they must also ‘have a Conformity to the ordinary signification of the Name’ ( So it would count against Y’s (or X’s) conception of courage that it doesn’t accord with the ordinary meaning of common usage of words like ‘courage’ or ‘courageous’.

Return to the Present

What is the relevance of Locke’s discussion for the issues that Kidd is concerned with? A natural thought is that epistemic vices like closed-mindedness and dogmatism are, like the idea of courage, mixed modes. As noted previously, there is room for debate about how these epistemic vices are to be understood and how they are related. Starting with dogmatism, here is one account by Roberts and Wood:

A doctrine is a belief about the general character of the world, or some generally important aspect of the world, which bears the weight of many other beliefs. Thus a mother who refuses, in the face of what should be compelling evidence, to give up her belief that her son is innocent of a certain crime, is perhaps stubborn, obstinate, or blinded by her attachment, but she is not on that account dogmatic. By contrast, someone who holds irrationally to some fundamental doctrine, such as the tenets of Marxism or capitalism or Christianity, or some broad historical thesis such as that the Holocaust did not occur, is dogmatic (2007: 194-5).

Battaly sees things slightly differently. On her view, it is possible for a person to be dogmatic even in relation to relatively trivial beliefs or beliefs that aren’t representative of ideologies or doctrines. One can be dogmatic about whether one’s pet is well-behaved or whether one’s son is innocent of a crime. Roberts and Woods’ conception of dogmatism is narrow whereas Battaly’s conception is broad. Who is right?

If being ‘right’ is a matter of conceiving of dogmatism is a way that does justice to its real or true nature then the Lockean conceptualist says that there is no such thing. As a mixed mode, dogmatism is a voluntary collection of simple ideas. Roberts and Wood are free to stipulate that dogmatism has to do with doctrine and Battaly is free to reject this stipulation. Relative to Roberts and Woods’ complex idea of dogmatism the belief that one’s pet is well-behaved is too trivial to be dogmatic. Relative to Battaly’s idea of dogmatism the belief that one’s son is innocent of a certain crime might be dogmatic.

However, the disagreement between the broad and narrow accounts of dogmatism is, on a Lockean reading, a not very deep disagreement between two policies about the use of the term ‘dogmatic’. The most one can say is that the narrow account is closer to ordinary usage, and this might be a case for preferring that account. Beyond that, it’s not clear what is really at issue.

Turning to the relationship between dogmatism and closed-mindedness, Kidd bases his proposal that closed-mindedness is a capital vice of which dogmatism is an offspring on the idea that dogmatism is a sub-class of closed-mindedness: one is dogmatic if one is closed-minded with respect to beliefs one already holds but closed-mindedness doesn’t require one already to have made up one’s mind. Suppose, to borrow Battaly’s example, that P is the proposition that there was no Native American genocide. Even if a person starts out with no prior belief about the truth or falsity of P, their inquiry into its truth or falsity can still be closed-minded. They might, for example, systematically ignore evidence that P and look for evidence against P.

But if this is a how the inquirer behaves then a natural question would be: why is their inquiry into the truth or falsity of P closed-minded in just this way? And the answer that suggests itself is that they are closed-minded in just this way because they already really believe that P. So we do not have here a compelling case of closed-mindedness without the subject already having made up their mind about the topic at hand. The belief that P is implicit in their epistemic conduct and this means that their dogmatism can’t be distinguished from closed-mindedness in quite the way that Kidd recommends. Ordinarily, dogmatism and closed-mindedness aren’t clearly distinguished and there is bound to be an element of stipulation in any proposed way of carving up the territory.

Be Natural – Is There Anything Else?

This is not necessarily an objection to the notion of a capital vice. It is permissible for a vice epistemologist to try to bring some order to the chaos of ordinary thinking and represent one vice as an offshoot of another. It is important to recognize, however, that such proposed regimentations are just that: an attempt to introduce a degree of systematicity into a domain that lacks it. It’s helpful to compare the classification of epistemic vices with the classification of so-called ‘natural modes’. A criticism of Locke’s theory of mixed modes is that it ignores natural modes.[8] Examples of non-natural modes are the ideas of a lie, democracy and property. Lies are lies regardless of their underlying causes.[9]

In contrast, although diseases are modes, ‘the name of a disease will normally be introduced, and then be generally applied, on the basis of repeated experience of a set of symptoms, and on the assumption that on each occurrence they have the same common cause, whether a microbe or an underlying physiological condition’ (Ayers 1991: 91). However, there is a still a sense in which the individuality and boundary conditions of diseases are imposed by us. So, for example, diseases can be classified by bodily region, by organ, by effect, by the nature of the disease process, by aetiology, or on several other bases.[10] There is nothing that compels us to adopt one of these systems of classification rather than another and there is no absolute sense in which one particular system of classification is the ‘right’ one. With diseases and other such modes there is still the relativity to human interests and concerns that marks them out as modes rather than substances.

To make things even more complicated there are some modes that fall somewhere in between the natural and the non-natural. For example, one might take the view that perception and memory are such ‘intermediate’ modes. Perception is mechanism-dependent in the sense that it isn’t really perception unless some underlying physiological mechanism is involved. Plainly, however, no specific mechanism need be involved in all cases of perception. Human perception and dolphin perception both involve and require the operation of physiological mechanisms but the precise mechanisms will no doubt be very different in the two cases. The necessity of some mechanism is a respect in which intermediate modes are ‘natural’. The fact that no particular mechanism is required is a respect in which intermediate modes are akin to non-natural modes.[11]

In these terms, are epistemic vices natural, non-natural or intermediate modes? The discussion so far, with its emphasis on choice and stipulation in the classification of epistemic vices, might be thought to imply that such vices are non-natural but there is room for debate about this. Just as all manifestations of a particular disease are assumed to have a common cause at the level of physiology so it might be argued that the identification and attribution of epistemic vices is based on the assumption of a common psychological cause or mechanism. Epistemic vices are in this respect, and perhaps others too, like diseases.

Closed-mindedness is a case in point. There is the view that being closed-minded isn’t just a matter of being unwilling or unable to engage seriously with relevant intellectual options. A closed-minded person also has to have what Kruglanski calls a high need for ‘closure’, that is a low tolerance for confusion and ambiguity.[12] It might be argued that this is the distinctive psychological component of closed-mindedness that causally explains the various cognitive dispositions with which the trait is closely associated. In this case the psychological component is a motive. Would this justify the classification of closed-mindedness as a natural mode, an epistemic vice whose attribution in different cases is based on the assumption of a common motivational core that functions as a common psychological cause?

If so, then dogmatism is different from closed-mindedness in precisely this respect. What motivates a dogmatic commitment to a political doctrine might be a psychological need for closure but other motives are also possible. For example, a person’s dogmatism about a particular political doctrine might be a reflection of the ways in which a commitment to it is part of their identity, their sense of who they are.

Whether or not this is the right account of dogmatism it is doubtful that the motivational account applies epistemic vices generally. There are epistemic vices like stupidity, understood as foolishness rather than lack of intelligence, which lack an obvious motivational component. People aren’t motivated to be stupid in the way that they are supposedly motivated to be closed-minded. And even in the latter case one might wonder whether the desire for closure is strictly necessary or, even if it is, whether it is an independently identifiable component of closed-mindedness. One might count as having a high need for closure because one is closed-minded. Here, the attribution of the motive follows rather than underpins the attribution of the trait.

What Is a Vice of Knowledge?

So one should be careful about representing epistemic vices as natural modes. There is still the option of representing them as intermediate modes but it’s not clear whether epistemic vices are mechanism-dependent in anything like the way that perception is mechanism-dependent. This issue merits further discussion. In the meantime, the one thing that seems reasonably clear is that epistemic vices are epistemically harmful and blameworthy or otherwise reprehensible.[13] The sense in which they are epistemically harmful is that they systematically obstruct the gaining, keeping or sharing of knowledge. However, there is considerable room for maneuver when it comes to defining the individual character traits, attitudes or ways of thinking that are epistemically harmful.

Where does this leave the notion of a capital vice and the project of identifying some epistemic vices as capital vices and others as offspring vices? To the extent that ordinary ways of talking about vices like closed-mindedness and dogmatic are imprecise there is a lot to be said for the project of establishing clear lines of demarcation and relations of priority between different epistemic vices.

However, any such project needs to be informed by a proper conception of what epistemic vices are, ontologically speaking, and a well-founded view as to whether the project consists in the discovery of real distinctions that are there anyway or rather in the imposition of boundaries that only exist in virtue of our recognition of them. To think of epistemic vices as modes is to be committed to an ‘impositionist’ reading of the capital vices project. The point at which this project starts to look suspect is the point at which it is conceived of as fundamentally a project of discovery.[14] The discovery in this domain is that there is, in a certain sense, nothing to discover.[15]

Contact details:


Ayers, M. R. Locke, Volume 2: Ontology. London: Routledge, 1991.

Battaly, H. “Closed-Mindedness and Intellectual Vice,” Keynote Address delivered at the Harms and Wrongs in Epistemic Practice conference, University of Sheffield, 4 July 2017.

Cassam, Q. “Parfit on Persons.” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 93 (1993): 17-37.

Cassam, Q. “Vice Epistemology.” The Monist, 88 (2016): 159-80.

Kidd, I., “Capital Epistemic Vices.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6 (2017): 11-17.

Kruglanski, A. W. The Psychology of Closed-Mindedness. New York: Psychology Press, 2004.

Locke, J. An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Edited by P. H. Nidditch. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975.

Perry, D. L. “Locke on Mixed Modes, Relations, and Knowledge.” Journal of the History of Philosophy 5 (1967): 219-35.

Robbins, S. L, Robbins, J. H. & Scarpelli, D. G. “Classification of Diseases.” Retrieved from, 2017.

Roberts, R. C. & Wood, W. J. Intellectual Virtues: An Essay in Regulative Epistemology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Zagzebski, L. Virtues of the Mind: An Inquiry into the Nature of Virtue and the Ethical Foundations of Knowledge. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

[1] ‘Vice epistemology’, as I understand it, is the philosophical study of the nature, identity and significance of epistemic vices. See Cassam 2016. ‘Vice epistemologists’ are philosophers who work on, or in, vice epistemology. Notable vice epistemologists include Heather Battaly, Ian Kidd and Alessandra Tanesini.

[2] Kidd 2017.

[3] Battaly 2017.

[4] All references in this form are to a book, chapter and section of Locke 1975, which was originally published in 1689.

[5] Locke’s examples of mixed modes include beauty, theft, obligation, drunkenness, a lie, hypocrisy, sacrilege, murder, appeal, triumph, wrestling, fencing, boldness, habit, testiness, running, speaking, revenge, gratitude, polygamy, justice, liberality, and courage. This list is from Perry 1967.

[6] Locke illustrates the arbitrariness of mixed modes by noting that we have the complex idea of patricide but no special idea for the killing of a son or a sheep.

[7] There is more on ‘conceptualism’ in Cassam 1993.

[8] For a helpful discussion of this issue see Ayers 1991, chapter 8. My understanding of Locke is heavily indebted to Ayers’ commentary.

[9] See Ayers 1991: 97.

[10] For more on the classification of diseases see Robbins, Robbins and Scarpelli 2017.

[11] This paragraph is a summary of the discussion of intermediate modes in Ayers 1991: 96-7.

[12] Kruglanski 2004: 6-7.

[13] This is the essence of what I call ‘obstructivism’ about epistemic vice, the view that epistemic vices are blameworthy or otherwise reprehensible character traits, attitudes or ways of thinking that systematically obstruct the gaining, keeping or sharing of knowledge. For obstructivism, epistemic vices aren’t delineated by their motives.

[14] I’m not suggesting that this is how Kidd conceives of the project. His approach is more in keeping with impositionism.

[15] Thanks to Heather Battaly and Ian James Kidd for helpful comments.

Author Information: Gregory Lobo, Universidad de los Andes, Bogotá, Colombia,

Lobo, Gregory J. “Back to Basics: Straw Men, Status Functions, and Human Rights.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 11 (2017): 6-19.

The pdf of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink:

Please refer to:

Image by United To End Genocide, via Flickr


“They won’t let me be a citizen, because then they have to give me rights and they won’t call me a refugee because then they have to give me aid,” said Mr. Saifullah. “I am not a citizen or a refugee. I am an illegal alien. I am nothing.”[1]

While Mr. Saifullah, quite tragically, gets it, Professor Corlett, sadly, does not. This brief essay is an attempt to help Professor Corlett “get it,” to understand why status functions are important for understanding human rights. Along the way some basic misunderstandings regarding the substance and purpose of John Searle’s reflections on how his social ontology might shed light on discussions of human rights will be clarified. These misunderstandings are evident in Corlett (2016),[2] henceforth simply 2016, and were initially addressed in a scant seven pages by Lobo (2017),[3] henceforth Lobo.[4] In reaction to Lobo’s seven pages, Professor Corlett produced a 22 page response,[5] henceforth 2017, rejecting Lobo’s clarifications and reaffirming his original conclusions as found in 2016.

In the first part of what follows, Corlett’s principal objection to Searle’s thinking will be re-presented. As in Lobo, it will be shown once more that the objection is unfounded, by comparing relevant textual citations from 2016 and 2017 with textual citations from Searle (2010)[6] and Searle (2011).[7] In the second part, the purpose of Searle’s intervention into the field of human rights thinking will be clarified. This will reveal that Corlett’s objections — even if they were not baseless — are in any event not germane.

Finally, what is claimed in Lobo to be Searle’s major contribution to human rights thinking, based on the concept of the status function, will be discussed. In 2017 Corlett mishandled (that is, treated without due care) Lobo’s representation (paraphrase) of what he, Lobo, understands to be Searle’s major contribution to the discussion.[8] It is possible that it is this error by Corlett that led to him dismissing said contribution in 2017 as entirely unoriginal. The discussion will clarify both the substance of Searle’s actual contribution and its originality.

Errors and Corrections

Fundamentally, Corlett errs in his characterization of Searle’s thinking on human rights. Among his initial errors is this: “Searle’s conception of human rights is purely institutional, e.g. he believes that such rights are products only of social construction.”[9] Corlett’s related but more principal concern would seem to be that Searle’s thinking on human rights “is not completely justified”[10] because Searle does not address the issue of what Corlett refers to as the “essential moral properties” of such rights. The best explication to found in Corlett of what this might mean is this: a human right “finds at least part of its grounding in morality.”[11] It is appropriate to ask, what is meant by morality? “By ‘morality,’ it is meant that such rights have moral foundations in an objective sense.”[12]

If the reader is less that satisfied with this tautology, so be it: Corlett offers nothing further. Of more concern, perhaps, is that based on Corlett (2016 and 2017) everything indicates that the guarantor of objectivity, and thus morality (and of the objectivity of objectivity and the morality of morality), would seem to be none other than the “tradition” or the “leading philosophers of human rights.” This, of course, should not worry the reader in any way at all. It is important to point out that Corlett re-words this moral concern of his towards the conclusion of 2016, criticizing Searle’s thinking, both in general and on human rights specifically, for lacking what he refers to as a “morally normative” component or element,[13] for which a non-tautological explication is never offered.

Now, to support this characterization of Searle’s thinking, Corlett quotes from Searle (2011), an article in which Searle is replying to some of the critics of his 2010 work. Having characterized Searle’s conception of human rights as “purely institutional” and “social construction[ist],” and complained that Searle’s thinking “does not even address” questions of morality in relation to human rights, Corlett seeks to give credence to this characterization by quoting Searle, thusly: “‘[o]n my [Searle is using the first person] account all rights are status functions and thus human creations. We do not discover human rights in nature as we discover human chromosomes. But if human rights are created by human beings, then what rationally compelling justification can we give for the creation of universal human rights?’ (Searle 2011, pp. 139–140).”[14]

Here it is relevant to ask, if Corlett is going to quote Searle asking what rationally compelling justification can be given for the creation of universal human rights, why does Corlett not let Searle answer? For Searle does answer the question Corlett quotes. But Corlett passes over Searle’s answer, as if it does not exist.

Instead of allowing Searle his answer (quoting it), Corlett immediately interjects a non sequitur: “In Searle’s terms, then, human rights are epistemically subjective rather than objective.”[15] Now, this is a non sequitur insofar as it has nothing to do with the question Searle poses; however, it is anything but a non sequitur for Corlett’s purposes. For by interjecting so, Corlett is clearly seeking to hang Searle on what Corlett sees as the problematic inferences one can make when reading Searle’s question in the absence of an answer.

Corlett, it appears, seems to want the reader to imagine that Searle is posing a rhetorical question, out of exasperation, to which everyone already knows the answer. Through his presentation of Searle’s question, absent Searle’s answer, it looks like Corlett is suggesting that in asking the question, “what rationally compelling justification can we give for the creation of universal human rights?”, Searle is implying that we really can’t give a rationally compelling justification for them at all. This would mean that we are left only with institutions and social construction — or what Corlett sums up as the “epistemically subjective”.

But Corlett is being dishonest.[16] For Searle does answer; his question is not born of exasperation, and it is certainly not rhetorical.[17] And his answer, as much as his question — which is about universal human rights and their justification — shows that Searle seeks, in fact, to ground human rights in moral foundations, even as he continues to understand human rights, indeed all rights, as the result of human creativity.

The Meaning of the Question

Still, before turning to Searle’s answer, it is worth considering further the implications of Searle’s question, especially with respect to Corlett’s accusation that Searle’s thinking lacks considerations of the morally normative. Searle asks about legitimacy in the creation of universal human rights. But for a right to be universal it would have to be, ipso facto, normative, morally so, ethically so, and it would have to be so normative for everyone — for it is universal. In other words, a universal human right is, by definition, always already morally normative, and Corlett’s principal complaint against Searle’s thinking, that it lacks consideration of the morally normative because it is purely institutional, collapses.

That being the case, it is still worth pondering the implications of Searle’s answer to the question he poses. Recall that Searle is asking after a rationally compelling justification for the creation of universal human rights. He immediately responds: “I offer a justification, but if I am right it limits the scope of human rights.”[18] How could this be so; how could his thinking contemplate limits (which again, suggests normativity)? For on Corlett’s reading, Searle’s “purely institutional”, “social construction[ist]” understanding of human rights amounts to a “madness” which does nothing less than pave the way to outrages like white supremacy and slave ownership.[19] On Corlett’s reading, Searle’s thinking allows any old anybody to dream up any whimsy that strikes their fancy and call it a human right. In 2016 Corlett, as is being evidenced, understands Searle poorly and thus his reading is completely wrong (not only plausibly wrong but, to repeat, completely wrong); but in 2017, after Lobo, Corlett still manages to somehow remain refractory to evidence that annuls his thesis.

Here is, finally, how Searle answers the question he posed: “A right is legitimately created only if it can rationally be justified by a correct conception of human nature, a set of values about human beings, and can rationally impose an obligation on all human beings to respect it.”[20] In insisting that the rights in question have to be rationally imposable on all, Searle is insisting on something that is equivalent to an insistence on moral normativity and universality. Corlett missed these words. One could argue that he had to miss them, for they incontrovertibly refute all elements of his thesis. Or it could be allowed, charitably, that in 2016 he missed these words due to the pressures of working to deadline, and the employment of the quite fallible strategy of selective reading, which has claimed many more and much greater heads than his.

What is perhaps quite unforgivable however, is Corlett’s reaction when confronted by these words of Searle in Lobo. In 2017, having had the chance to contemplate both the existence of these words, and the damage they quite clearly do to his thesis, Corlett responds in the following manner: he concedes that this “is the closest published statement by Searle of which I [Corlett] am aware that on the surface appears to align his view of human rights with the conception of human rights as moral ones which I attribute to the contemporary human rights tradition.”[21] But his concern, the reader will recall, is that Searle is a pure institutionalist, a “mad”[22] social constructionist, whose work “lacks an essentially morally normative component.”[23] The quotation, one among many (see Lobo for more), confirms that Corlett’s concerns are groundless. So now the less charitable conclusion must be drawn: Corlett is purposefully ignoring the evidence before his eyes.

How Do You Justify?

Look at his initial response: “on the surface,” he insists, superficially, this quotation seems to successfully indicate that Corlett has misjudged Searle. But only there, on the surface. “However, the statement does not quite succeed in doing so,”[24] Corlett continues, in an attempt to regain his footing. This is to be expected, for the reader will recall, Corlett’s standard is “complete justification.”[25] According to such logic, not quite succeeding amounts to nothing less than unmitigated failure. But in what way is the statement not quite successful? How will Corlett justify his use of the mitigating locution, “on the surface”?

As follows: “according to the conception of human rights which I articulate but do not endorse in Corlett (2016) and herein, being rationally justified by a correct conception of human nature is not a jointly sufficient condition of a human right, though it might be relevant to the issue of human rights possession (i.e., of who qualifies in having a human right).”[26] This “justification” is left without further comment. Corlett seems to think it is meaningful. The reader should decide for herself, but it is here deemed — further commentary notwithstanding — twaddle.

From the ridiculous to the sublime: what Corlett does next in his attempt to annul the overwhelming evidence that he has, as they say, constructed a straw man, a straw Searle, against whom to aim his arrows, is nothing less than extraordinary. He extends his attempt to undercut the pertinence Searle’s wholly unobjectionable observation that a “right is legitimately created only if it can rationally be justified by a correct conception of human nature,” by introducing into argument the following, equally unobjectionable, truism: “That something is rationally justified can be a subjective or relative matter.”[27] This is extraordinary — in this context — because Searle is careful to make this consideration central to his thinking.

In his discussion of human rights he very clearly says:  “I can at least argue for my conception of what I think is valuable in human life.”[28] In other words, and in the same sense, he can certainly argue (as can Corlett) for what he thinks should be morally normative. But as Searle immediately observes: “such arguments, as is typical in ethics, are not demonstrative, in the sense that any rational [and, it might well be added, reasonable] person is bound to accept them on pain of irrationality [or unreasonableness].”[29] Searle concludes this thought with an idea that should interest Corlett, for it speaks directly to the latter’s concerns: “But from the fact that they [the arguments] have an element of epistemic subjectivity, it does not follow that they are arbitrary or beyond the scope of argument”.[30]

It would seem there is little more to be said on this topic, for anyone who understands, at least roughly, how language works, knows that it is possible to say equivalent things without using identical words. Thus it is no stretch whatsoever to conclude on the basis of what Searle says that he is arguing, explicitly, for moral considerations in the elaboration of human rights. He explicitly rejects the notion that they can be elaborated arbitrarily or without reference to moral foundations. This information and argument was presented in Lobo, but ignored in and by Corlett in 2017.

When Is the Universal Truly Necessary?

Sadly, however, this is not in fact the least of it. What is truly astonishing about Corlett’s pointing up that subjectivity and rationality are an important concern — as indeed they are — is that, in neither 2016 nor 2017, is there found any clear (non-tautological) explication of what counts as “morally normative” — his central peeve — anyway; the closest Corlett comes to giving the expression some substance is when he refers to “what are moral rights above and beyond what societies say they are” in 2016,[31] and in 2017, when he says that “human rights are […] are non-institutionally moral or ethical, backed by valid moral or ethical principles or rules.”[32]

To repeat: in an attempt to cut at Searle, Corlett informs his reader (as if the reader were unaware): “That something is rationally justified can be a subjective or relative matter.”[33] To be clear, Corlett is broadcasting the insight that what counts as rational and as justified (and by extension, surely, what is “true,” “valid,” “objective” and so on) is in fact subjective, relative — to one’s point of view, no doubt. It is claimed here that this intervention is astonishing. Why? Not for its content, certainly, but because the subject of its enunciation, namely Corlett himself, has in both 2016 and 2017 used the following phrases as if they were not tainted with subjectivity or relativity in the slightest: “‘true morality’,”[34] “valid moral claims,”[35] “valid moral rules,”[36] “a morally enlightened moral conscience,”[37] “objectively valid moral rules,”[38] “valid moral principles,”[39] notions like “objectively valid,”[40] “a proper interpretation,”[41] formulations like “[b]y ‘valid’ is meant objectively valid,”[42] “valid moral or ethical principles,”[43]  and this, while exhausting, is hardly an exhaustive list.

In not one single instance that can be found does Corlett allow that something like “true morality” might be a subjective or relative matter, that what counts as “a morally enlightened moral conscience” might be an unsettled question, within the scope of argument.[44] What is to be made of a statement like the following: “what makes a human right valid […] is valid [?] moral/ethical principles or rules which confer [wait for it…] validity on a human rights claim or interest and thereby confer the right in question to a particular individual or group”?[45] It is too distressingly convoluted and tautological to be considered a valid[46] English sentence; but what is more bothersome in the present context is it begs the question (begged by all the other just cited formulations too): who decides what is valid, true, objective, normative, moral, proper and so on?[47]

For Corlett there is a “true morality” that is not subjective, not relative; there are “valid moral claims” that are not subjective or relative matters; there is a “morally enlightened moral conscience” (yes, he uses the redundancy) and this is neither subjective nor relative. It is surprising that Corlett — that anyone engaged in the philosophical, and more pointedly, the social epistemological, if you will, enterprise — would so unselfconsciously, so unreflectively, so unironically, deploy such terms in an attempt to find fault with Searle’s — indeed, anyone’s — thinking. Does he not realize that such formulations are entirely of a piece with the discourses of radical religionists, Nazis, Stalinists, Maoists and so on?

They are not, however, part of Searle’s discourse. And in this regard it is to be noted, as a sort of coda to this section, that in the piece most selectively cited by Corlett[48] in 2016, and which has provided much food for thought above, Searle has the following to say about validity and the morally normative. First, validity: “a valid justification does not necessarily produce agreement.”[49] This observation does not seem to register with Corlett (his truism cited above notwithstanding). Searle goes on: “As a philosopher I would have a much easier life if people agreed with all my valid arguments. (No doubt my adversaries have the same feeling about my inability to appreciate their ‘valid’ arguments.)

The point for the present discussion is that one can legitimately argue for the validity and universality of certain human rights even though one knows that the conception of human dignity that one is arguing from is not universally shared and that one’s arguments will not convince people who wish to deny humans their rights.”[50] Who would dispute this? On the face of the evidence (2016 and 2017) Corlett would: “the moral conception of a human rights holds that such rights do not change.”[51] In other words, Corlett thinks these things can placed beyond argument. An audience of totalitarians would likely be the first to agree.

Regarding human rights more specifically, Searle says: “there ought to be a general account of them and how they relate to our humanity.”[52] This is essentially an argument in favor of something like moral normativity; he then adds, “I try to provide the beginning of such an account.”[53] Indeed. He then offers up a critique of merely “utilitarian” justifications of human rights, which again evinces his understanding of the need for some sort of normative grounding for them. It is deeply troubling that Corlett cannot intellectually grasp this. Finally, Searle reiterates his point, already present in 2010 but ignored for some reason by Corlett in 2016 and 2017, namely, that “a right can continue to exist even when it is not recognized” and that one therefore does “not lose” one’s “rights in a situation where they are generally violated.”[54] This provides a segue into the next section.

Searle’s Purpose and Contribution

In 2017, towards the end of his 22 pages responding to Lobo’s seven, Corlett admits that he doesn’t really know what Searle is up to in Searle (2010): “this discussion of Searle’s view of human rights raises the question of precisely which questions he is attempting to answer.”[55] Corlett offers up a couple of possibilities; but both are wrong. The overall goal for the chapter that so vexes Corlett is not to explore the field or tradition of human rights but to see what light, if any, Searle’s social ontology sheds on the ontology of human rights.[56] Towards the end of his chapter, Searle, having partially (but hardly completely) explored the debate on human rights, summarizes his basic position, using italics:

the justification for human rights cannot be ethically neutral. It involves more than just a biological conception of what sorts of beings we are; it also involves a conception of what is valuable, actually or potentially, about our very existence.[57]

Though he does not speak of morality in this quotation, he mentions ethics and elaborates what he means: it concerns what is valuable about our existence, which is to say, what is good, and best even. In other words, he insists on the need to formulate human rights by the light of reason (it is unclear how else such universal human rights might be formulated), with close attention paid to considerations grounded in the non-institutional, i.e. the biological, and extending into the ethical and moral. This quotation, in and of itself, should be enough to short-circuit Corlett’s argument, and knock the stuffing, the straw, out of the Searlean stand-in he constructs; in the face of it he could gracefully admit that he had misread Searle (for misreading is something to which even the best of us succumb), perhaps express gratitude for the clarification, and all involved could move on. Or not.

And so, in 2016 and 2017 these words from Searle (2010), cited in Lobo, which constitute clear evidence that Searle acknowledges the need to ground human rights in moral norms, are simply ignored or disputed as not saying exactly what Corlett wants (remember: he will accept nothing less than complete justification). It remains to be seen whether they will be ignored again, so it is worth emphasizing what Searle is doing here: Searle is doing exactly what Corlett says he is not doing. That Searle doesn’t use Corlett’s favorite phrases is what seems to make it impossible for Corlett to see this. With the benefit of this second clarification, perhaps he will.

But Searle is also doing something else. While not concerned at all to align his thinking with Corlett’s hallowed tradition, he is anxious to explore and resolve a paradox at the heart of thinking about human rights: on the one hand it is said human rights did not exist before the Enlightenment, but on the other hand, it is also said that human rights have always existed, but were only recognized with the Enlightenment, and indeed, can exist even when not recognized.[58]

Searle’s way of resolving the paradox is what was argued in Lobo to be his big contribution to the debate, which Corlett in 2017 dismisses as unoriginal.

So Who Is Right?

First, it is important to see how Corlett understands Lobo’s paraphrasing of Searle’s contribution. Corlett, conveniently (in more than one sense of the word) cites Lobo summarizing Searle: “Searle ‘… makes a contribution to the philosophy of human rights whose importance, I think, is hard to exaggerate, when he points out that what is crucial is that their potential bearers be recognized as a fully-fledged member of the human community and thus as entitled to the rights that accrue, automatically and inalienably, to each and every member of said community’ (Lobo 2017, 28.).”[59] This quotation is truncated, which would not be a problem[60] were the truncation signaled with an ellipsis; but it is not (and the initial ellipsis is not being questioned here).[61] Here is what Lobo wrote, with the missing words italicized:

…makes a contribution to the philosophy of human rights whose importance, I think, is hard to exaggerate, when he points out that what is crucial is that their potential bearers be recognized as actual bearers, that each and every member of the human species must be recognized as a fully-fledged member of the human community and thus as entitled to the rights that accrue, automatically and inalienably, to each and every member of said community.[62]

Does it make a difference? Insofar as Corlett’s version of Lobo evinces once more what might at this point be justly characterized as a tendency to selectively read, to conveniently misread, it probably makes a difference. The difference it might make is compounded by the fact that Corlett repeats the misquotation again on his next page, and it is on the basis of this misquotation that he dismisses as unoriginal what Lobo has said is an important contribution to the human rights discussion, as “either assumed, asserted, or argued by many doing rights theory during the past few decades.”[63] Tellingly, he does not cite any textual support for this assertion. He does however again quote the substance of the misquotation (this is the third time), as part of his attempt to denude Searle’s contribution of value.

It is perhaps inevitable that, having misquoted Lobo, Corlett should misunderstand him, and believe him to be saying something already and widely said. What is it that Corlett thinks Lobo is saying, that has already been said? It is this: “one must be a human being in order to be in a position to make valid rights claims.”[64] Or, the “fact” that humans are “members of the human community”, Corlett continues, “places them in a position to possess human rights.”[65] Now if this were what Lobo is saying, and if this were what Searle is saying (for Lobo is taken to be explicating Searle here), then Corlett would be right, and Lobo, at the very least, would probably be embarrassed, but grateful for the lesson. But again, this formulation of Corlett is based on a misreading, evidenced by Corlett’s reliance on an unreliable, and ungrammatical misquotation he produced.

What the Meaning of the Argument Was in the First Place

So what is Lobo actually saying? First, a return to the accurate quote, again adding emphasis where appropriate: with regard to human rights “what is crucial is that their potential bearers be recognized as actual bearers.” To make sense of this (these are the final lines of Lobo; the idea has been explicated previously in that text), one has to understand the socio-ontological difference between potential and actual bearers, and it is here that Searle’s work, whatever faults it may well and otherwise manifest, is so important.

For Searle’s work (specifically his discussion of status functions) allows us to understand that being human is not an ontological condition but a socio-ontological condition. This is a subtle point.[66] But it is profound.[67] One might say that there is the species, homo sapiens, (this is in a sense an assertion about ontological reality) members of which are potential bearers of human rights. But at the level of the symbolic, at the level of social ontology, members of the species homo sapiens are only often, but not always, regarded as humans and thus — lately at least — as possessors of human rights. Thus, potential bearers of human rights, that is members of the species homo sapiens, have to be recognized as humans (members of the human community) if they are to effectively have their human rights. If Corlett does not understand this, it is simply because he does not understand how status functions work, which is the subject for another occasion.

The second part of the text mishandled by Corlett is this, emphasizing with italics where necessary: “each and every member of the human species [i.e. every individual homo sapiens] must be recognized as a fully-fledged member of the human community and thus as entitled to” human rights. Note what is not being said here. It is not being said that “one must be a human being in order to be in a position to make valid rights claims”; nor is it being said that “members of the community of humans […] possess human rights.” These are both by now trite observations which, and Corlett is surely correct here, have long been part of the human rights tradition.

What is being said, based on Searlean social ontology, is that one must be recognized as a human being in order to make valid rights claims, that one must be seen as a member of the human community to (effectively) possess human rights, or to not have one’s human rights violated. What is the difference? The difference is that being a homo sapiens does not mean you are seen as, recognized as, a human being, a member of the community, and it is in this sense that a homo sapiens/human being can be said to both possess and be denied their human rights. Corlett’s whole discourse in 2016 and 2017 is predicated on the (mistaken) assumption that being human is socio-ontologically unproblematic and that the issue is the social existence and recognition of rights; but in fact it is about where and when homo sapiens are recognized and not recognized qua humans.

Corlett, and likely the tradition he invokes (if indeed he invokes its positions accurately, which at this point, it is not uncharitable to imagine, we have reason to doubt), may well say “No! Humans are humans, and as such are possessors of human rights!” Well, he and his vaunted tradition should go say it to Mr. Saifullah.

The Voice of a Lost Man

Mr. Saifullah? The reader is referred to the present essay’s epigraph. Mr. Saifullah, according to the story in the New York Times, is a member of the Rohingya refugee community living in Pakistan for the last four decades, in conditions that the paper describes as “distressingly impoverished even by Karachi’s standards.” He and the community to which he belongs are actively being denied their basic rights.

But how can this be so?, Corlett must ask — for surely Mr. Saifullah is human; clearly he belongs to the human community. Such a “fact”, Corlett would say, means he possesses rights, and he can claim them. Corlett would invoke the morally normative elements of the rights Mr. Saifullah possesses as a member of the human community and insist on the application of the normativity in question. And surely, just like that, Mr. Saifullah’s humanity would be recognized by the relevant parties and his rights, never lost, just violated, would be made effective.

If only it were so easy…

But Mr. Saifullah, unlike Corlett, gets it. He understands (that is to say, his words evidence at least an implicit understanding) that being a homo sapiens does not in fact make you a member of the human community, for he understands that the human community is not ontological in any straightforward way; rather, it is socially and symbolically ontological.[68] He understands that it is not what one is, but how one is seen, for how one is seen is what determines whether one will be afforded the considerations rights supposedly guarantee one.

Look at Mr. Saifullah’s words: “They won’t let me be a citizen, because then they have to give me rights and they won’t call me a refugee because then they have to give me aid”. And then: “I am not a citizen or a refugee. I am an illegal alien. I am nothing.” He understands that they — they, those who are not part of any hallowed tradition, but whose thinking on the matter is nonetheless decisive in a way Corlett, safely ensconced in the beautiful University of San Diego, doesn’t seem to even want to comprehend — don’t want to see him as a citizen or grant him citizenship, because then his rights as a human would have to be honored.

But nor will they call him a refugee, because in today’s world, refugees have rights to aid that have to be honored. But Mr. Saifullah is not done. For he knows that the Pakistani functionaries who are not honoring his rights cannot simply ignore him as if he were not there. He is not invisible; he exists.[69] But as what? And so they assign him a status function, though it is not the status function of human: in effect they are saying, this homo sapiens is not (at least not first and foremost) a human; he is, rather, an illegal alien.

As such it is not so much that his rights as a human are violated — for he is not seen as a human, at least not in the important sense; it is that qua this sort of social object — i.e. an other beyond the protections of the law — his “rights” need not be so much be ignored as actively violated. For how else would one treat an illegal alien?[70] In being counted as an illegal alien, he is able to be counted as nothing.

There is little left to say, except for the fact that Searle’s contribution sheds light on the rise in animal rights activism and indeed, on cases where people treat animals better than they treat homo sapiens. The former somehow acquire the status of human (understood in this case as the bearer of “rights” to life and comfort and to not be killed for food, etc.) and receive a level of care that millions of homo sapiens do not, these latter being assigned the status not of humans but of “the poor” or “the criminal” or “illegal aliens” or what have you. This point was made in Lobo.[71]

Conclusion: isn’t it (really) ironic?

Professor Corlett, to conclude, ends with stupendous irony, only adding substance to and validating Searle’s contribution, when he argues, in an attempt to score an inconsequential point against Searle (and Lobo), that there “are humans [what he means to say, though he doesn’t know it, is homo sapiens] both throughout history and today who have neither a moral […] right to life nor to freedom of expression, namely, those who deserve capital punishment based on their” crimes.[72]

Here Corlett is evidencing his subjective, relative perspective. For in Colombia, for example, such homo sapiens do not exist (at least not today): the Colombian constitution explicitly forbids not only capital punishment but also life imprisonment, no matter what the crime. But he is also evidencing an implicit endorsement of the Searlean perspective. For, of course, in contexts where such respect for what are still considered members of the human community in Colombia is absent, such homo sapiens are indeed, as he says, displaced from said community, and thus stripped of the rights that are otherwise a “simple” consequence of being (declared) human.

How? By declaring them to be something else. Which is to say that they are, through an institutional process, assigned a status function which, given the particular institutional arrangement and its foundational moral norms, supersedes the status function of human: they become now the condemned, convicts, guilty of capital crimes or indeed crimes against humanity, all status functions which permit and, in the corresponding situation, possibly demand that the organism to which such status function is assigned be put to death. Hopefully Professor Corlett will take some time to consider the consequences of this latent corroboration of Lobo’s presentation of Searle before dashing off another excessively long response. Or perhaps he will take the higher road, and simply leave things as they now stand.

Contact details:


Corlett, J. Angelo. “More on Searle on Human Rights.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 10 (2017): 15-36.

Corlett, J. Angelo. “Searle on Human Rights.” Social Epistemology 30, no. 4 (2016): 440-463.

Lobo, Gregory J. “Reason, Morality and Recognition: On Searle’s Theory of Human Rights.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no 9: (2017): 22-28.

Searle, John R. Making the Social World: The Structure of Human Civilization. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.

Searle, John R. “Replies.” Analysis 71, no. 4 (2011): 733-741.

[1] Mehreen Zahra-Malik, “Far From Myanmar Violence, Rohingya in Pakistan Are Seething,” The New York Times, Sep. 12, 2017, accessed Sep. 13, 2017 A version of this article appears in print on September 13, 2017, on Page A4 of the New York edition with the headline: Far From Myanmar’s Strife, Pakistan’s Rohingya Suffer.

[2] J Angelo Corlett, “Searle on Human Rights,” Social Epistemology 30, no. 4 (2016): 440-463.

[3] Gregory J Lobo, “Reason, Morality and Recognition,” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 9 (2017): 22-28.

[4] Fearing that the use of the first person, while often justified, nonetheless interrupts the dialectic of collaborative reasoning, as interlocutors instantiate a personal, private relationship with “their” arguments and interpretations, such that they become embodiments of the same and thus refractory to evidence that contradicts them/their position, the third person is employed consistently throughout this essay, in an attempt to avoid what in Colombia is called a dialogue of the deaf (diálogo de sordos).

[5] J Angelo Corlett, “More on Searle on Human Rights,” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 10 (2017): 15-36.

[6] John R Searle, Making the Social World: The Structure of Human Civilization (Oxford: Oxford

University Press, 2010).

[7]John R Searle, “Replies” Analysis 71, no. 4 (2011): 733-741.

[8] Corlett’s mishandling of Lobo’s words is troubling on the face of it; it is even more so in light of Corlett’s insistence that “both critics and defenders of an author’s work owe it to themselves, the author, and others to carefully quote an author in constructing her position” (2017, 32 emphasis added).

[9] Corlett, “Searle,” 454.

[10] Corlett, “Searle,” 455. It shall go unremarked that “complete justification” would seem to be an impossible standard.

[11] Corlett, “Searle,” 454.

[12] Corlett, “Searle,” 454-455. More will be said about Corlett’s use of the notion of objective below.

[13] Corlett, “Searle,” 461-462.

[14] Corlett, “Searle,” 454.

[15] Corlett, “Searle,” 454.

[16] Though Lobo’s sincere attempt to help Corlett understand and correct the errors in his understanding of Searle have been received ungraciously by Corlett and, rather, met with snide but baseless insinuations (see 2017, 32), the temptation to fall into a mimetic replication of Corlett’s unprofessional response will here be resisted. The characterization of Corlett as dishonest, to be absolutely clear, is direct, and based on the evidence: that even though Lobo points out what Corlett has done in 2016, alerting him to his error, Corlett continues to ignore the evidence, and proceeds as if it didn’t exist and directly refute his position. He might have been understandably distracted the first time round, but the second time suggests something approaching dishonesty. Additionally, elsewhere in 2017 (see page 26), Corlett again acts in such a way as to justify the charge of dishonesty, as when he textually cites Lobo paraphrasing Searle, ignores Lobo’s textual citation of Searle, and then faults Lobo for not citing Searle directly.

[17] At the risk of redundancy, the reader is again reminded that in 2017 Corlett points out that “both critics and defenders of an author’s work owe it to themselves, the author, and others to carefully quote an author in constructing her position” (2017, 32). It seems that  Corlett exempts himself from this simple standard, actively transgressing it by engaging in selective quotation to serve his ends or by simply representing his own version of an author’s position without recourse to textual evidence. For example, Corlett argues, or implies (the difference is hugely important to Corlett) that someone (probably Searle, possibly Lobo) is “insist[ing] that only humans can have a right to life” (2017, 33). But no one, at least niether Searle nor Lobo, insists on such a thing.

[18] Searle, “Replies,” 741.

[19] Corlett, “Searle,” 456.

[20] Searle, “Replies,” 741.

[21] Corlett, “More,” 28-29, emphasis added. It is important to point out that the issue is not really whether Searle’s thinking can be aligned with any tradition. What is in question is whether Searle integrates what Corlett refers to as moral normativity into his thinking on human rights. Though Searle doesn’t use that precise phrasing, the evidence is insurmountable: he clearly does.

[22] Again, Corlett deploys the phrase “Searlean madness” in 2016 (456) to make the case that there is no distance between Searle’s thinking and white supremacy. One wonders how much distance there is between this sort of aspersion and calumny.

[23] Corlett, “Searle,” 458.

[24] Corlett, “More,” 29.

[25] Corlett, “Searle,” 455.

[26] Corlett, “More,” 29.

[27] Corlett, “More,” 29.

[28] Searle, Making, 192.

[29] Searle, Making, 192. In footnote 18 on page 29 of 2017, Corlett makes a fuss about the difference between reasonable and rational, emphasizing his preference for the former. His argument is unconvincing and one can just as easily make the case for their interchangeability. A quick online search using Google reveals: rationality — the quality of being based on or in accordance with reason or logic. Corlett is quite clearly clutching at straw(s).

[30] Searle, Making, 192.

[31] Corlett, “Searle,” 455. One might ask, justly, in what way this formulation differs from Searle’s insistence that human rights be formulated to rationally impose an obligation on all human beings to respect them.

[32] Corlett, “More,” 22.

[33] Corlett, “More,” 29.

[34] Corlett, “Searle”, 455. Corlett uses quotation marks around this phrase, though it is not clear why. For they most certainly are not scare quotes. His use of the term is non-ironic, thoroughly sincere.

[35] Corlett, “Searle,” 456, 460.

[36] Corlett, “Searle,” 457.

[37] Corlett, “Searle,” 456, 457 twice, 459.

[38] Corlett, “Searle,” 455, 457.

[39] Corlett, “Searle,” 457.

[40] Corlett, “More,” 20.

[41] Corlett, “More,” 23.

[42] Wait, what? Corlett, “More,” 20.

[43] Corlett, “More,” 22.

[44] It is noted, in passing, that Searle would recognize such concepts to be subject to argument. See below.

[45] Corlett, “More,” 25.

[46] Stipulated here.

[47] To this most basic criticism can be added that Corlett, in repeatedly drawing on the formulation that human rights are “discovered by human reason” (2016, 455; 2017, 25, 34), seems to think that rights are on the same level as black holes and quarks (truly “discovered” by human reason before being empirically observed), and that, moreover, reason itself is an uncorrupt tool, that its ethical discoveries are somehow beyond subjectivity and relativity.

[48] That is to say, cited selectively, for Corlett’s rhetorical convenience, rather than for the dialectical process.

[49] Searle, “Replies,” 741.

[50] Searle, “Replies,” 741.

[51] Which might well lead one to describe such rights as eternal, insofar as eternal can be taken to mean unchanging.

[52] Searle, “Replies,” 741.

[53] Searle, “Replies,” 741.

[54] Searle, “Replies,” 741.

[55] Corlett, “More,” 33.

[56] Searle, Making, 175.

[57] Searle, Making, 190.

[58] Searle, Making, 177.

[59] Corlett, “More,” 17.

[60] In point of fact it would be a problem, for as cited by Corlett, it is ungrammatical. Corlett appears not to notice.

[61] At the risk of even more redundancy: In 2017 Corlett insists that “both critics and defenders of an author’s work owe it to themselves, the author, and others to carefully quote an author in constructing her position” (2017, 32, emphasis added).

[62] Lobo, “Reason,” 28.

[63] Corlett, “More,” 18.

[64] Corlett, “More,” 18.

[65] Corlett, “More,” 18.

[66] Hence, possibly, Corlett’s difficulty with it?

[67] See previous note.

[68] As any high schooler who learned the Greek roots of the word barbarian implicitly understands too.

[69] One might put it this way: his ontology is not in question (but nor is it decisive). What is in question, and what will be decisive, is his social ontology.

[70] This question, should it not be clear, is posed rhetorically.

[71] As further evidence of Corlett’s problematic practice, he usurps Lobo’s use of the phenomena of animal rights to make what seems to be a similar point, but without attribution. But typically, he gets it wrong because he misses the point. Someone who, in his own words, “painstakingly summarize[d]” Searle’s social ontology clearly doesn’t understand Searle’s main contribution to the field, status functions, and thus misses the point that social ontology is not about what is, it is about what can claim to be and what is recognized as being. People treat animals as if they were human, sometimes as if they were more than human. Often, people do not treat humans (homo sapiens) as human.

[72] Corlett, “More,” 2017.