On Labeling, or Of “*ssholes” and “liberals”

“You can’t label me” – A certain category of epistemologically and sociologically naive teen

This comes out of the myriad debates out the term “liberal,” listening to the Rationally Speaking podcast on the philosophical definitions around “asshole,” and a key line in Steve Bruce’s God is Dead: Secularization in the West.   This also seems completely random at a cursory glance but I assure you there are ties that link this together.   Before we begin, however, I should lay out two caveats: the first caveat is that I am not claiming anything remotely novel or innovative, and the second is that this is concerned with the fact that despite the fact most of what I am talking about should be obvious, they don’t seem to be in everyday discussions using “natural language.”

Let’s begin with the assertion by Steve Bruce: “typologies are neither true nor false; they are just more or less useful.”  Now, we can wrangle with meta-ethical and meta-epistemological concerns about use, but let’s assume a few things to avoid that particular debate: One) “useful” is not an absolute term; for us, it is thus a contextual term. Two) In a pluralistic society and where the lines of clear technocratic benefit are “blurry,” we must have a pluralistic notion use that can have specific domain   of validity.  Three) Usefulness is not a truth claim in the definitional sense, but avoids that particular question by focusing on use in an applied sense.    So by focusing on use in this way, we can see a few things.

A typology gives us terms with rules.  Those rules, even for our pragmatic notion, would need to be self-consistent, be subject to symbolic representation, and have clear terms with have cognitive content.  For example, as Harry Frankfurt did for the term “bullshit” and Aaron James’s have tried to do for the term “asshole,”  we see that natural language concepts do have clear cognitive context.  Even if the rules are generally not articulated, and there are common use exceptions, we still have a quite clearly specific general meaning for the terms “bullshit” and “asshole.”  We can thus create a typological map: “assholes,” “jerks,” “nice guys,” “bitches,” etc. as a model for a heuristic and thus set up a formal operation.   This does not bring us to any ontological truth of the asshole-being; it does not lead us to any universal telos of assholeness; one does not have a meta-linguistic criterion for category of the Platonic asshole.

It does, however, give us an perhaps useful way of understanding the cognitive content and a structure to place these things into.  Bruce’s example was the the typology was “church/sect/denomination/cult.”  While this typology is obviously religious, it is contextually applicable to most “ideological” institutions.  Bruce lays out the rules which operate on a double axis spectrum: unique claim to truth –> pluralistic claim to truth ( church –> denomination, sect –> cult ) and perception of general social respectability —> perception of general social deviance  (church –> sect, denomination –> cult).  Now, this does not get into a whole array of both incidental and necessary facts about any given ideological institution; however, it does show us a set of orientations and gives us a set of operations to deal with those institutions that are self-coherent.

So in our current conceptions of political discourse in the US can show up.   One of the most frustrating things about political labels is that they almost always lead to “no true Scotsman” fallacies because the typologies themselves are actually contested.  We will take the case of the much maligned concept of “liberal.”

This brings me to where all this breaks down: either the typology is inconsistent or the typologies are contested by use the same language.  In discussing “liberal,” I often think the term “asshole” has more cognitive content.   For example, most “political liberals” (read Democrats in the US and moderate Social Democrats in Europe) will debate the application of the term.  For many “conservatives”, “liberal and left” exist on a clear spectrum between “FDR and Stalin.” For many Marxists, the “liberal” is anyone who has a set of historical ideas stemming from John Locke and are tied to set a capitalist assumptions which would apply from John Calhoun to William Jefferson Clinton, but would exclude all the Marxists and most anarchists which would have DEFINITELY been included in the “conservative” typology.  Both of which are probably different from the typology liberals use themselves.  So the typology around liberal is “contested.”

It is, however, by all rubrics we can generate from the political typologies at hand: the term liberal is increasingly non-cognitive as it refers to increasingly contradicting positions: universal human rights vs. particularistic notions of cultural identity and appropriation, “market regulation” and “imposition of markets” and “socialization,”  stand-point epistemology and defense of universal application of science, etc.   This also means the term may have little coherent cognitive content. In fact, it merely becomes emotive.    When Marxists complain about liberals and when conservatives complain about liberals often those who identify as liberals have a hard time understanding the various typological rubrics being applied to them. Furthermore, those doing the accusation may be equally confused as what element of liberalism is actually the problem and may favor other elements of liberalism implicitly.

In short, in some respects, it is easier to know what I mean by “asshole” than “liberal.”

Another dangerous I will bring out that is not explicitly about liberalism.  I previously belonged to a “sectarian” Marxist group that has a both a teleological and typological reading of historical categories.  In retrospect, this Marxist group had a hypostatized the “stages” of development into a universal law where the categories of the typology have a metaphysical or ontological reality that was beyond the linguistic.  In fact, it strongly resembled dispensationalism, which the head pedagogue endorsing what seemed like satirical comparisons to John the Baptist.  It was not just that once the conditions where laid, the operations were seen as objective–it was that the conditions and axioms were seen as objective and absolute.   This is a problem though because it confuses explanatory power with a metaphysical truth claim.   So in this framework “liberalism” is “fulfilled and undone” by “socialism, which itself is fulfilled and undone by communism.”  Furthermore this process was “necessary and sufficient” and the only thing that could explain that was it did not appear to be case was “regression.”  If you have studied apocalyptic eschatology at all–it is clear how related these ways of think appear to be.

Now imagine trying to meaningfully use the term “liberalism” in such a context. Since the highly divergent typologies are both incompatible and seem to have less and less coherent cognitive content, then you have hypostatized criterion imposing themselves on the term.  The term may just break from any usefulness.

This leads me to a simple observation that should be obvious:  1) one must define ones terms in the areas where typologies are contested and 2) there is high incentive NOT to define terms in these contested areas as it opens up all sorts of fault lines in ones political identity and/or general self-conception.

What We Talk About When We Talk About “Reason”:

Last month, Steven Poole wrote a long form essay on the problems of “reason” and assuming human beings are not reasonable at Aeon. It’s aim is the chorus of research on cognitive bias and identity protection, which has illustrated that an Enlightenment notion of pure reason is not a human norm, and thus, to use Aristotle’s terminology, cannot a be telos of what it is to be human. Poole’s most significant point is that overly formalized versions of “reason” do not actually do the work people seem to think it does.   I would suggest everyone reads the essay, but the basic point is that there are hueristics which do not meet economic or formalized logical definitions of reason but make perfect  sense within a framework of motivated exposure to qualiative information.  In short, it is “reasonable enough” to function in a framework of situated instead of “pure” rationality.

Poole’s point is illuminating, but we can see some problems.  One) despite our Enlightenment and post Enlightenment rhetoric, we do not have a set of cultural shared prepositions for what constitutes reason as a cetagory.  It is logic?  Logics, however, are sets of formalizations. Is it economic rationality?  That definition of rationality is circular (people do things because it satisifies desires and we know this because they do it).  Is it any number of differing kinds of intelligences?  What is it just thinking scientifically?  That opens up a entirely more problematic can of worms as the demarcation problem remains highly unsettled.  Two) IF we limit ourselves to the most coherent notion “reason=logics”, then one is dealing with formalization.  Formalization is incredibly useful, but it cannot, by definition, deal with qualia.

The lament over the lost of pure reason is at one level profound, and another level problematic.  Situated “rationality” does not mean the threshold of pure science or pure logic.  It is neither pure reason.  This brings me back to Max Weber–instead of the recent attempt to continuously lament human’s lack of reasoning–we should got to a taxonomy of types of reason before some kind of Ur-form.    Weber devided reason up into instrumental reason, value reason, affectual reason, and conventional reason.   Weber’s heirarchy here should not concern us, but see that he recognized that in effect people are reasonable in context of either a goal or an identity.   This means that reasoning to meta-identity positions is bound to problematic.

Yet, as Dan Kahan’s work on cultural cognition and the work on cognitive biases play into each other: identity maintaince can lead to “irrational” and sub-optimal results, but this not irrational or even a-rational.  It is a situated rationality, and one that makes sense because identity and ideology matter.  Social beings maintain themselves this way, and attempts to be highly paternalistic on this (as Pole points out) are often actually just as given to cognitive bias.

This leads us to a set of hard questions: In addition to the structural constrains of funding, the recent discussions of failure of peer-review in scientific research, etc. For example, a lot of motivated rejection of scientific findings such as “climate change” or “evolution” do not correlate with general literacy in science. It is a value-reason motivated rejection in conflict with what appears to be strong scientific fact.

This means that “reason” is not the objective, singular ground of safety most assume.  In fact, it is just as contested. It has to be: qualia does matter.

Mini-review: The Great Stagnation by Tylor Cowen (Dutton Adult, 2011)

Cowen’s discussion of the technological plateau and move away from innovation in the productive economy is insightful at first. He is right that the 30 year cycle we saw with major innovations in most fields seemed to stop in the 1960s, and these cycles have shifted. He does mention as a off-hand aside that this was partly because of stolen land, and he does seem to talk about educational plateaus. He mentions India and China, and then things start to slide. For example, he seems to think marketizing schools would make them more proficient. I realize this is gospel in most George Mason economics circles, but there is actually no evidence for and plenty of evidence against it. See the competition in the for-profit (not merely private) sector of higher ed in the states–it is basically consists of things that are barely above diploma mills. Cowen might reply that this is due to the distorting factor of loans: then he should actually study China, Korea, and Latin America. There is a glut of for-profit private education there as well, and it exists without the government loan system in the US, so the market failures cannot be explained by rent-seeking behavior alone.

His answers are standard center-right economist answers even if he is much better at spotting the problems. He does not deny the centralization of wealth, nor is dishonest about tax breaks. It is sad that conservatism in the United States has come to those two talking points alone because otherwise it would be clear where Cowen’s ideological presumptions lie. For example, he briefly says that the Reagan (or Volker) revolution set the US right, but he has already proved economic stagnation continued unabated since the 1960s forward. Both statements can’t be truth. He is right about Keynesian retribution schemes being very limited in time frame (something that even Keynes’s himself pointed out), and generally are only affective after massive destruction of capital (after World War 2), but doesn’t seem to have an answer for why the austerity in Europe has not cleared out the “rot” and let to renewal in GDP in the EU outside of Germany and Nordic countries (who he makes a swipe at).

He is right that America is beyond the lowing hanging fruit, but does not seem to see that India and China’s rapid industrialization is also in a similar pattern of development. It is easy to grow massively when you are establishing yourself and opening up new markets: declines in the rates of profits per unit don’t kind in as quickly in those states and the need for extreme intellectual property to try to artificially force prices up through removal of competition isn’t a problem at that stage either. This, however, is rooted in historical economics which is something the synchronic thinkers in the neo-classical school of economic do not admit. Cowen is not different here.

So while Cowen’s diagnosis is in some ways dead-on: his prescription is more cliche from the Tom Friedman-style center-right school, and his optimism at the end may be a false note.

On the Myth and Use of History

My world is a historical world and the limits of my world are historical.  In so much that the primary sciences I concern myself with are social sciences and biology, the primary mechanism I use to understand the economic is the anthropological and the history of political-economy, and the primary metaphors in my writing are hidden traces of historical past on my subjective consciousness.  In other words, I am the rare non-conservative who thinks the past is playing out in the present and the future is contingent upon not just our ideas of the past but the threads of historical development that we probably have not seen.

Yesterday, I had a fairly heated debate with an ernstwhile friend on a pamphlet by Tylor Cowen. Cowen’s technocratic neo-liberalism which dons the mask of moderation is about as far as from my politics as one can run, yet I find myself agreeing with a lot of Cowen’s assertions in the great stagnation.  His answers, of course, I think are hogwash.  (For example, he thinks marketization of education would increase educational proficieny and make better educational investments ignore ALL the data from Higher education that indicates that for profit schools are actually LESS efficient at this than non-profits and governmental schools.  We have hard data for this, and not just in countries where government loans distort the market. East Asia and Latin America is rife with questionable for profit schools where there is no government loan system. Non-profits may produce the most educational efficiency as they are not as tied to the bureaucratic apparatus of the state, but one must remember that large scale businesses are also bureaucratic in nature and significantly more given to rent-seeking.)

The argument had to do with declining rates of profit and overly complex systems, which both parties largely agreed on, but also on the technological plateau on all most forms of tech outside of communications software.  Cowen talks about this, and he seems to think it is tied to decreased marketization and a focus on sectors where marketization does not work (such as healthcare). Of course, I think this is wrong, but technological stagnation outside of communications and even in production (where automation is not making leaps and bounds in new tech, but mainly just getting more affordable through miniaturization and remote supervision).   The plateau of technology that produced efficiency in the main of production has gone down with profits in non-monopoly sectors.

Regardless, Cowen’s own ideological commitments seem to lead him to avoid going all the way with his description.  A friend questioned that we could learn anything from the plateau and pointed out that “experts” could not predict the effiecacies that arrouse in 1820, 1850s, 1880s, 1920s, and 1940s-1950s, and thus the only thing we could learn was that experts were unable to predict historical trends.

While I actually do agree on the whole with the assetment of both credentialed experts and pundits, both of whom have professional and ideological pressures to have a very myoptic world view, I do not think history is that random.  The pleateu described is longer than the nearly perfect generational cycles before and correspond to declining rates of profits (even if income is up, there is a lot of evidence that profit per unit made is down), overly complex distribution systems which even markets seem to have a hard time deriving clear feedback from, and end of what Cower calls “low-hanging fruit” or what I call the end of a mixture of primitive accumulation and natural wealth (through depletion by use).  The cycles tied to wars and generational turns, as unpredictable as they were in content, were regular in form, and this seems to have changed.

In fact, even the delusions about history: the invented traditions, the retrojections, the impositions on the past, the ideological misreadings are somewhat predictable in form, but not content.  A change in the forms, however, happen but they indicate broad scale social changes, and again this may only be clearly predictable in content retrospectively.  While I realize this is a problematic appropriation from  a scientific idea, I sometimes wonder if an incompleteness theory of historigraphy is justified.   One can probablistically understand the form of historical movement, or one can understand the content of a historical movement, but one cannot deal synchronically with content and diachronically with form in any meaningful way at the same time. I suppose this could be called the rhyming dictory theory of historigraphy.

Mini-Review: The Quest for the Historical Satan, by Miguel De La Torre and Albert Hernandez (Fortress Press, 2011)


This book is much lighter than one expects a scholarly book on the figure of Satan and the history of evil to be. While it makes it a easy read, De La Torre and Hernendez also seem to risk alienating both a serious Christian and a serious secular audience with this lightness, and its mixed concerns. In some ways, this book bites off too much for one book to chew. The development of the figure of Satan in theological and pop culture was done in my detail by Jeffery Burton Russell several decades ago and in much more detail. Burton Russell, who was also a Christian, did not have an aims to redefine the Christian relationship to the Satanic and thus did not have the theological concerns of the end of the book.

De La Torre and Hernendez start and end with discussions of contemporary culture. The beginning of the book is interesting and entertaining to read, but what seems like digression on the film industry’s inversion of the apocalyptic and a few pages on LaVeyan Satanism seem slightly off topic. When the historical elements begin, focusing on Egypt seems problematic. Seth is actually not a simple demonic figure since Egyptian religion was not dualistic. Indeed, Set/Seth even has Pharoahs named after him. De La Torres and Hernendez do some interesting comparative religious work on the development Satan as the accuser in Jewish literature as well as the development of semi-Satanic figures such as Azazel, Belial, Samiel, etc. as well as the redevelopment of Satan mythology in the angelic literature around Enoch. While they discuss Gnosticism and the Satanic briefly as well as slightly further developing the thesis of Elaine Pagel’s in his “Origins of Satan” book from the 1990s.

The more interesting bits though were the comparative developments of early Islam and early Rabbic/Post-Temple Judaism. De La Torre and Hernendez, however, drop this after the post-classical, pre-medieval period. Furthermore, the seem to underdevelop the history of Satan in the late medieval and early modern period, which is where MOST of the modern ideas about Satan are from. Furthermore, outside of discussions of pre-millenialism and post-millenialism in the first chapter and some discussions on demonization in the early modern religious wars, the uniquely Protestant development of Satan is under-written about in the book.

Furthermore, the almost Jungian paradigm used in the end to encourage Christian’s to see Satan as a trickster archetype instead of a dualistic archetype will probably be unconvincing to both secularists and the religious. Despite this, I still would recommend the book. De La Torre and Hernendez are both sympathetic to Christianity (and are Christians if of a liberal bent) but are also pretty much in-line with mainstream scholarship on the subject in the secular world without being dismissive of religious claims. Their writing style is clear and clean–most academic jargon is removed–and the first and last chapters are particularly easy to read. The later middle chapters can seem bogged down with in-text quoting and can be a little bit of a slog, but no where near as intimating as much more scholar-aimed books on the same topic. I would, however, read this while also reading Pagels and Burton Russell’s work on the same topics.

Mini-Review: ‘David, King of Israel, and Caleb in Biblical Memory’ by Joseph L. Wright (Cambridge University Press, 2014)


‘David, King of Israel, and Caleb in Biblical Memory’ is a scholarly serious book about the layers of “war commemoration” and contested tribal polity hidden in the often contradictory layers of biblical memory in the David, Saul, and Caleb sections. Wright’s redaction analysis illustrates that many of the key elements of both the Caleb and David stories are probably much younger than assumed by scholarly consensus, and the fissures in the presentation of David show a narrative where David and Saul did not intertwine in the earliest texts.

While the text is definitely scholarly Wright offers enough analogies to contemporary society and political memory to illustrate the main points of the contested war commemoration. Wright clearly illustrates that in addition to a heroic path, the insiders and outsiders of Judahite and Calebite societies are clearly related to much of what otherwise seems lime marginalia to the main thrust of the stories of Caleb and David. Furthermore, Wright shows that Caleb actually offers a counter-history to Davidic and Judahite claims on the history of Hebron.