Slow, immediate

FullSizeRenderOver break I filled my
green, mechanical pencil with
lead.

What else. Alone

it represents
nothing, is indicative of
nothing, suggests,
intimates,
prefigures,
symbolizes
nothing that I am immediately aware of.

It counterposes, offsets, analogizes, compares with, offsets, is juxtaposed with, supports, qualifies, contrasts with, is inimical to, controverts, contends with, counters, challenges, counteracts, oppugns, parallels, withstands, matches, relates to, is set off against, and is weighed in the balance with nothing.

Nothing, after all, I can be only immediately aware of.

In fact, this lack of awareness
equates with, or at least is indicative of,
the immediate.

(You see, then, how I’ve spoiled
everything. I should’ve kept quiet.)

“Immediate” means, first of all, “acting or being without the intervention of another object, cause, or agency” (Merriam-Webster). Immediate, then, means slow, not fast.

We are the immediate, the mediators between perception and meaning. We have to find ourselves there before we learn anything else.

Most classes use the present to understand the past or to build a future. Eternity, if it exists, comes later. But I want to put my class, as much as I can and should, on a quixotic journey to find the present.

Ye who teach that eternity defies explanation,
go back and learn that explanation defies eternity.

The immediate is the calm inside the confusion before a comparison comes to mind, before the elemental lead is compounded with — as (God!) I just did here — or similized or metaphorized with — something prior or employed to foreshadow something coming. It is the slow, dumb present.

Toulmin and the reasoning of children

3PictureStephenToulminStephen Toulmin, the twentieth-century British philosopher whose book The Uses of Argument helped to make logic available for everyday use, seems bemused in his preface to that book’s updated edition about the first edition’s significant contribution to informal logic. He had not, he says, “set out to expound a theory of rhetoric or argumentation: my concern was with twentieth-century epistemology, not informal logic” (vii). I’ll ignore his protestations as I present two practical contributions his book has made – and will make – in my classroom, but I’ll take him at his word in examining how his epistemological approach may have inadvertently contributed to my own educational theory and practice.

I’ve taught “the Toulmin model” in AP Language and Composition courses as a modern means of argument, more flexible than Aristotle’s compromise between Plato and the Sophists. Aristotle’s syllogisms and deductive reasoning get one only so far, and it would be tragic if logic of some kind might not be used for matters of that call for less than mathematical certainty, particularly matters of morality and public policy. Toulmin’s flexible construction of claims, data, and warrants meets this need. If Toulmin has successfully identified these “modes in which we assess arguments, the standards by reference to which we assess them and the manner in which we qualify our conclusions about them, [that] are the same regardless of field (field-invariant)” (15), or at least if he has created a model that makes something like logic more accessible to arguments normally impervious to Aristotle’s more syllogistic logic, then my students at least have a way of talking about, critiquing, and challenging many kinds of arguments the same way.

Toulmin oversimplifies Aristotle, however, and ends up duplicating Aristotle’s method for informal argument to some extent. Toulmin implicitly blames Aristotle for boiling down argument to “‘minor premiss; major premiss; so conclusion’” (89). However, Toulmin’s model, particularly his notion of the warrant as “incidental and explanatory, its task being simply to register explicitly the legitimacy of the step involved and to refer it back to the larger class of steps whose legitimacy is being presupposed” (92), is a lot like Aristotle’s notion of an enthymeme. Toulmin gives an example of an argument over someone’s hair color and identifies its trivial warrant: “the knowledge that Harry’s hair is red entitles us to set aside any suggestion that it is black, on account of the warrant, ‘If anything is red, it will not also be black’” (91). Yet Aristotle’s enthymeme, called by rhetorician Thomas De Quincey a “syllogism of which one proposition is suppressed” (Seaton 113), has some overlap with Toulmin’s warrant, which is distinguished from his data in part because of the former’s implicitness: “This is one of the reasons for distinguishing between data and warrants: data are appealed to explicitly, warrants implicitly” (92). Specifically, if an enthymeme’s minor premise is implied, then it serves also as Toulmin’s warrant. I’ve stopped teaching enthymemes in AP Language classes: the potential for overlap and confusion seems to outweigh the benefit from learning the subtle differences between enthymemes and Toulmin arguments.

Uses, now that I’ve read it, may help me teach argumentation in other ways. Toulmin’s occasional templates may also help my students express the relationships among claim, data, and warrants. He offers two such templates here: “‘Data such as D entitle one to draw conclusions, or make claims, such as C’, or alternatively ‘Given data D, one may take it that C’” (91). Toulmin, in fact, seems to have provided the philosophical backbone as well as the pedagogical structure for a popular book on argumentation I assign my students, They Say, I Say: The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing by Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein. They Say has a section on “Prove it” (Toulmin’s “data”)(42) and on “So what?” (Toulmin’s “warrant”)(92). It also discourages the use of formal logic (xxv) and expands on Toulmin’s use of templates (e.g., 64 – 65). They Say and its ilk, then, may be seen as means of implementing Toulmin’s theory into the classroom and expanding his practice there.

But the biggest contribution Toulmin makes to my classroom could be in the area of educational theory. Ironically, he addresses educational theory in Uses only in passing and then only to disclaim his theory’s applicability to educational theory:

If one asks how in the course of children’s lives they come to pick up the concepts and facts they do, or by what educational devices particular rational techniques and procedures are inculcated, one will of course have to proceed a posteriori, using methods drawn from psychology and sociology . . . (200)

Yet if one believes with Maria Montessori that a child’s reason begins functioning at birth (Standing 206), then the more logical side of Toulmin’s epistemology may be helpful in discovering in what sense that reasoning occurs. Seventeenth-century British philosopher John Locke also believes that children begin to reason at birth; his famous epistemological work An Essay Concerning Human Understanding famously dismisses the notion of “innate ideas” in favor of what has since been called a child’s tabula rasa, or “blank slate” (White 16 – 19). Locke’s position has been misunderstood: his “blank slate” protects the political sanctity of children since the existence of innate ideas would give “no small power,” as Locke puts it, to “one man over another, to have the authority to be the dictator of principles, and teacher of unquestionable truths; and to make a man swallow that for an innate principle which may serve to his purpose who teacheth them” (18 – 19).  Toulmin tacitly acknowledges the link between his epistemology and this aspect of educational theory when he finds himself unable to wholly dismiss the seventeenth-century controversy over innate ideas because “in the last resort one cannot set the psychological and logical aspects of epistemology utterly and completely apart” (196 – 197).

Toulmin, then, refuses to take a stand on either side of the “innate ideas” controversy, but his epistemology favors Locke’s and Montessori’s positions. Toulmin is often seen as an unwitting antidote to the extreme position of the early twentieth-century logical positivists, whose radical division of logic from rhetoric caused them to regard “statements of value as merely reports on the state of one’s glands,” as Northwestern University School of Communication Professor David Zarefsky puts it. Zarefsky sees Toulmin’s model as one of a few “reformulations of the concepts of reason and rationality” that came later in the twentieth century (16). Toulmin’s broadening of the notion of reason to include moral and practical concerns mirrors similar efforts by Locke and by Montessori, the latter of whom in discussing the Western world’s “moral paralysis” states that “reason today is hidden under a dark cloud and has almost gone down to defeat. Moral chaos in fact is nothing but one side of the coin of our psychic decline; the other side is the loss of our powers of reason. The pre-eminent characteristic of our present state is an insidious madness, and our most immediate need a return to reason” (Montessori 13 – 14). Toulmin, whom Zarefsky sees as attempting “to explain ethical reasoning” (16), seems to have unwittingly affirmed Locke (an educational theorist as well as a philosopher) in restoring reason as a tool of epistemology and educational theory.

Aided by the Toulmin model and the license to moral inquiry that the model represents, my students are empowered to argue claims of fact, value, policy, and definition without having to pretend that those claims’ moral implications are beyond the scope of reason.

Works Cited

Graff, Gerald, and Cathy Birkenstein. “They Say / I Say”: The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing. 3rd ed. New York: Norton, 2014. Print.

Montessori, Maria. Education and Peace. Trans. Helen R. Lane. Amsterdam: Montessori-Pierson Pub., 2007. Print.

Seaton, R. C. “The Aristotelian Enthymeme.” The Classical Review 28.4 (1914): 113-19. JSTOR. Web. 25 May 2015.

Standing, E. M. Maria Montessori, Her Life and Work. New York: Plume, 1998. Print.

Toulmin, Stephen. The Uses of Argument. Updated ed. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge UP, 2003. Print.

White, Morton. The Philosophy of the American Revolution. New York: Oxford UP, 1978. Print.

Zarefsky, David. “History of Argumentation Studies.” Argumentation: The Study of Effective Reasoning. 2nd ed. Chantilly, VA: Teaching, 2005. Print.

Direct experience

I somehow failed to transfer this six-year-old post to my blog’s current WordPress iteration. A friend wrote me today about Texas’s new slavery-neutral history textbook, and it reminded me of my post’s subject – my class’s seventh-grade history textbook. I’ve lightly edited the post. As best I can tell, the lesson plans my post refer to have been removed from the Internet.

The Internet is a sweet place for finding lesson plans.  While looking for ideas to sharpen my students’ critical reading skills recently, I came across a set of plans entitled, “Using Excerpts about Slavery.”  The plans employ excerpts from four different works: a history textbook serving Virginia students in the 1960’s and early 1970’s, a slave narrative, an Englishman’s travelogue, and a Frederick Douglass speech given in 1850.  According to the brief “Notes for the Teacher” that preface the material, the teacher should require students to consider and discuss the excerpts in small groups on successive class days, focusing on the excerpt’s credibility and engaging with a set of “Questions to Consider” that follow each excerpt.  It looked promising.

The notes begin with the lesson’s goal: “Students need to be cognizant that any historical account is one person’s truth. An author’s point of view is colored by his or her own experiences and belief system. Lack of direct experience can result in an author making assumptions that are not borne out. As an example, who but a slave could effectively understand the perspective of a slave or what the life of a slave was like?”

In order to judge the lesson’s utility for my own classroom, I read the first excerpt and the questions related to it, and I answered its questions. Here’s the excerpt (ellipses original):

Excerpt from Virginia: History, Government, Geography
Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1964[1]
“How Negroes Lived under Slavery,” pp. 368-376

A feeling of strong affection existed between masters and slaves in a majority of Virginia homes. . . The house servants became almost as much a part of the planter’s family circle as its white members. . . The Negroes were always present at family weddings. They were allowed to look on at dances and other entertainments . . . A strong tie existed between slave and master because each was dependent on the other. . . The slave system demanded that the master care for the slave in childhood, in sickness, and in old age. The regard that master and slaves had for each other made plantation life happy and prosperous.

Life among the Negroes of Virginia in slavery times was generally happy. The Negroes went about in a cheerful manner making a living for themselves and for those for whom they worked. . . But they were not worried by the furious arguments going on between Northerners and Southerners over what should be done with them. In fact, they paid little attention to these arguments.

1Textbook used in Virginia schools as late as 1972.

The “Questions to Consider” and my answers:

1.  How long after the Civil War was this written?

Not quite a century.

2.  Who do you think the authors were?  Could they have been former slaves?  Why or why not?

I think all three of the textbook’s authors were Virginians.  I don’t have any direct knowledge about two of them, but the third was my aunt.

My aunt was not a former slave.  I presume that all of the authors, and not just my aunt, were white, and that the authors wrote the textbook somewhat contemporaneously. So, no, they could not have been former slaves.

3.  How do you think they came up with their account of slavery?

My aunt would entertain us from a black-leather wing chair pierced with brass tacks in a small library lined on all four sides from floor to ceiling with books, mostly leather bound, standing muffled on shelves caged by glass panes.  The house was always clean and slightly musty, like my college’s rare books room I would discover years later, and it had no air conditioning, serviced as it was continually from before the War with a fairly dependable breeze from the tidal Rappahannock River, which was framed by the library’s only window.

Years after college, my eldest niece, who was then about the age I had been when I first visited my cousins on the Rappahannock, held forth on visits to my parents’ house as the first and (at that time) only grandchild. She dished out nicknames at a holiday dinner, and my somewhat loquacious father became “Grandfather Sit-in-Chair.”  Similarly, I can’t remember my aunt anywhere else but sitting erect at her chair’s edge – the back of her chair serving more as a reflection and an extension of herself than as a support – with her legs crossed and her index and middle fingers slowly incising a long cigarette that accentuated her small, slim build.  She’d waive the cigarette back in conversation, and sometimes throw her head back in laughter, but her posture always held firm and her elbow always seemed to hold the chair’s arm under subjection. Her smoke smelled like elegance and hazed the fading and cracked binding on the red and tan and black books behind her.

My father was a raconteur, but my aunt was more of a conversationalist.  She would turn her head from my parents to my siblings and me and ask us questions with a frankness that serves adults better than the sugary tone many of them employ with children.  Our answers would elicit a comment from her that would get the adults laughing, but we never felt ashamed or excluded.  We were happy to sit on the antique, Oriental carpet and play with the wooden toys she and my uncle favored for our cousins.  If my generation had been raised on my aunt instead of on Johnny Carson and Merv Griffin, it would have had a better inkling of what an interviewer and conversationalist could be.

The old house sits on a large tract of land down several country roads from my uncle’s law practice at the county seat.  After paying our respects to the adults for a suitable length of time, my two siblings and I would reacquaint ourselves with the antique-filled first floor, and then, with our cousins, we’d head outside.  At some point we’d always see Floe and Sammy.  Floe worked in the house and Sammy worked outside in the fields, helping with the garden and keeping things in repair.  I don’t remember ever seeing Floe and Sammy together, but my siblings and I liked both of them immensely.

One day, when my brother and I were both teenagers, we became conscious that our conversations with Floe always started and ended with the same subject: our growth.  My mother would take us through the narrow kitchen blocked entirely by Floe, who was either ironing or, more often, baking.  “Ummm-mmm!  My how you grown, child!  My how you grown!” Floe would say to us, wagging her face at us with a hand on her hip but sometimes just glancing at us out of the corner of her eye as she prodded the family’s dinner around on a skillet.

Sammy was also genial – a slim, middle-aged man whose gait pointed up his feet and knees and elbows – but our conversations with him were equally limited.  I remember only his responses to my aunt’s directives and pointed questions, responsess like, “Yessum, I’ll have that done by supper,” or “Yessum, over against the shed.”  My youngest cousin, a bit younger than my brother and I, would always address Sammy as “Sammy-boy,” picking the habit up, I guess, from my uncle, and it didn’t seem to bother Sammy, or my uncle, one bit.  I grew up addressing all adults by their titles and surnames, but I never learned Sammy’s or Floe’s last names.  I don’t think I addressed them at all.

Besides his responses to my aunt, I remember only Sammy’s laughter.  He’d laugh at most anything anyone said, laughing even when most people would have responded with words.  His good-natured laughter seemed as deep as an empty well.

When my brother and I were in our late teens, we speculated that the pay must have been pretty good for Floe and Sammy to act the way they did, and we suspected that they shed their roles with my cousins’ family when they were off duty.  But we didn’t know for sure.  We never really talked to them.  They didn’t seem to pay much attention to anything that animated us: news or politics or sports, for instance.  Looking back on it, I would have been surprised, I think, to have stumbled on Floe with her feet up, reading the newspaper at my aunt’s place, even though she lived there for a while, or to have seen Sammy in front of my relatives’ black-and-white TV.  In fact, I would have been shocked to have caught him in the house at all, now that I think about it.

To answer the question, I’m not exactly sure how my aunt came up with her account of slavery, but I know that she was a real historian and that she was certain of her facts.

4.  Do you believe the account is an accurate portrayal of slavery? Why or why not?

I first read this account in history class as a seventh-grader in the Newport News public school system.  It’s funny reading it now, word for word, because none of the wording surprises me but only bolsters my recollection of what I was taught.  I remember the general points from my textbook: the slaves were happy, happy to work hard, appreciative of their masters for taking the risk and the responsibility out of life – appreciative in a way children never are – and disdainful of the far-away, brooding political storm that centered on them in the abstract.

I don’t think I believed it or disbelieved it.  I remember wondering about it.  I remember trying to put myself in the slaves’ shoes for a little while in our all-white classroom at Riverside Elementary, not a half mile from the James River near its mouth.  My aunt’s words seem to paint a picture in my head of how the slaves could have enjoyed a simple life of labor under the beneficent hands of their masters.  But (I remember thinking) who would want to always do what someone else said?

Maybe they were dumb, I remember reasoning.  Too dumb to survive on their own or too dumb not to know it was not much of a life.  We had two blacks among our four classrooms of seventh graders when I was there, a girl and a boy.  I wasn’t friends with either of them, but both were popular and seemed smart enough.  They seemed to act like white children, mostly, except for certain phrases they would use as well as a manner of speech that ran counter, in some critical respects, to what we were learning in English.  I remember thinking how long it had been since the Civil War and wondering how much the slaves might have been like these two.

I remember my mind working on Martin Luther King, who was assassinated a year before my seventh grade, on the Watts riots I saw on the news, and on the vandalism King’s assassination had occasioned in my town’s downtown, which seemed as far from home as Watts.  I thought two ways, and I had two pictures in my head – one of happy slaves and one of angry slaves.  I don’t remember either picture winning out.

I do recall reading my aunt’s textbook and concluding that slavery would not be a life that I would choose for myself.  But if the Negroes really liked it, I thought, more power to them.

5. The excerpt is from a book that was once used to teach children in Virginia about slavery. Why would a textbook want students of Virginia to believe slavery was a positive experience for slaves?

You may or may not learn your roots in history class, but you learn your place.

Insanity is not amused

This morning, I opened the paper and found this:

3PicturePostStyle

I checked the time on the phone and found this:

3PictureNotification

Maybe a long life is not the goal.

The reason some think dreams foretell is perhaps that dreams foreshadow so well. Last night, an activist was hanging around one, but only at the end — just before the alarm rang — did he assert himself, clarifying the plot by offering me partnership. Why wasn’t he fooled by my habitual mix of prattle and quietude?

Marginal: What “fourscore and seven years ago” means

On Prose to the Gettysburg Address’s Poetry. An American child’s first penetration into the Gettysburg Address is that “fourscore and seven” means “eighty-seven.” What else does it mean?

A year ago, Adam Goodheart’s book 1861: The Civil War Awakening helped me unpack the opening phrase of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. In marking our nation’s birth at the moment the Declaration of Independence was signed, Lincoln was claiming that we at that moment moved from a state of nature to a society. In other words, the people, not the states, created the Union.

Charles Cotesworth Pinckney
Charles Cotesworth Pinckney

Lincoln’s Lockean argument was a philosophical go for the Confederacy’s jugular. If the people, and not the several states, created the Union, then “state sovereignty” is a myth. (You can compare some of the Gettysburg Address with what Goodheart convinced me was an earlier elucidation of it – Lincoln’s July 4, 1861 address to Congress – here.)

Over the break, I’ve been reading Pauline Maier’s book Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787 – 1788 and ran into a pertinent remark by one of my newfound heroes, South Carolina Federalist Charles Cotesworth Pinckney. Speaking at South Carolina’s ratification convention in 1788, Pinckney revealed his understanding of how Locke’s state of nature applies to July 4, 1776:

. . . speakers argued that South Carolina’s weakness required union for its security. Charles Cotesworth Pinckney went so far as to describe the assertion that the Declaration of Independence had made each state “separately and individually independent” as “a species of political heresy.” The Declaration, which never mentioned the states by name, was meant, he argued, to impress on America the maxim that “our freedom and independence arose from our union, and that without it we could neither be free nor independent.” (249)

Pinckney’s observation constitutes more evidence that Lincoln wasn’t the first to associate the events in 1776’s Continental Congress with the people’s sovereignty. States could not secede from the Union, Lincoln reasoned, because they had no legal or moral existence outside of the Union. (N.B.: Lincoln’s July 4, 1861 address establishes that he, like most Federalists and Whigs who raised the issue before him, acknowledged a state’s internal police powers.)

Indeed, Maier points out that, hard on the heels of South Carolina’s ratifying convention, Patrick Henry made his belief in state sovereignty the sine qua non of his objections to the proposed Constitution at Virginia’s ratifying convention: “No amendment, however, was likely to address [Henry’s] fundamental criticism of the Constitution: that its authority came from the people instead of the states” (266).

Henry had unpacked “We the People,” the first phrase of the proposed Constitution, and had seen, in its Lockean underpinnings, the end of what Pinckney had termed the “political heresy” of state sovereignty.

James Baldwin, Karl Popper, & other stuff I’ve read this year

3PictureBaldwin3Lists of books read are misleading. For instance, I spent the first half of this year reading Karl Popper every night, and I spent the second half of the year reading James Baldwin every night. This slow going through two authors presents a better idea of my reading this year than the more comprehensive list that follows of the books I’ve read. Popper and Baldwin – particularly Baldwin, and along with Shakespeare and Reinhold Niebuhr – really got me thinking over the past twelve months.

Due to my job demands, I read most of the listed books by listening to unabridged recordings of them while walking to and from school or while driving. Some books I both read and listened to using Whispersync, which I described in my post about my reading in 2013. Some books I read pretty quickly this year; others, like Robert Alter’s translation of the Book of Psalms, I read over several months. (I read Alter’s book as a devotional many mornings over nine months.) Except for the Psalms, poetry doesn’t make the list because I didn’t read any other poetry book from cover to cover. But I sure read many poems many times from Robert Lax’s work and from Tom Montag’s In This Place: Selected Poems 1982 – 2013. Overall, though, I read a lot less poetry this year than I have in years past.

My biggest experiment with slow reading methods involved slow reading on a Kindle. I typed 452 margin notes in my Kindle edition of Popper’s The Open Society and Its Enemies and then used the notes to write about what I read.

So Popper I’ve written about this year, but Baldwin I’ve only written around. I may never really write about Baldwin: he’s getting too close. But I’ll summarize here what I hear in him besides his heartbeat, which is indescribable.

Baldwin has a few themes that he returns to, book after book. One is the idea that identity is a mask, a rather fragile but essential mask that I construct – or that I allow my society to construct for me as I, wittingly or unwittingly, aid in its construction. An identity is usually false and shallow, and “it is questioned only when it is menaced,” as Baldwin says in a book of essays, The Devil Finds Work.

He understands his holy-roller preacher adolescence as a space where a mask was menaced. Although he disowns his Christianity, forty years after leaving the church he doesn’t “pretend to have surmounted the pain and terror of that time of my life.” In his early religious phase he “encountered the abyss of my own soul” in some measure. My own, legalistic religion benefitted me with a similar experience some time ago.

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The Tempest

The reason that it is important – of the utmost importance – for white people, here, to see the Negroes as people like themselves is that white people will not, otherwise, be able to see themselves as they are.

 – James Baldwin, from Nobody Knows My Name

. . . romance deals in marvelous events and solves its problems through metamorphoses and recognition scenes – through, in other words, transformations of perception.

 – Robert Langbaum, from his introduction to the Signet Classic edition of The Tempest

 

3PictureBookTempestThe island’s sand is bright white. Its lone palm is curved, like the line to a high kite. The storm clouds clear, and Ariel drifts down, bound to what the Washington Post calls “an amusingly thick rope.” She seems to miss her runway. She passes Prospero, but she delivers her lines, anyway, as, upside down, she reaches for the oncoming palm. She sounds dutiful and put out.

Will tomorrow’s show be the same, or is the actress making the most of tonight’s haywire high wire? Either way, I reflect, it’s Ariel: she wants to please Prospero because she wants her freedom. She’ll disorient every castaway, and also maybe herself, to leave.

We walk later the high, black catwalk from which Ariel was suspended. Beneath the stage, we touch the forbidden fruit on the banquet table that an hour before fell through a trap door.

But real magic pervades the wig room. Bethany and I are startled to see, on a black mannequin, fair Miranda’s hair. Our friend, who is showing us the ropes backstage, designs the wigs and costumes. She is visibly pleased. I’ve done my job well, then, she says.

Beforehand, I walk upstage in a parking garage. I’m a level below the lowest level with elevator service. An anxious Capitals fan behind me in an SUV drove me to this hell. I wanted to insinuate my car into a narrow spot a few levels up, but I didn’t want to hear more honking.

Outside it’s cold, and a man, covered in a surplus blanket or coat, sleeps against the garage. I’ve no sense of direction, and I’ve dropped Bethany, who has, off at the theater before parking. I’m disoriented. He could be dead. Then a guy comes out of the night as if he were the night coalescing.

He has a badge on a lanyard, just like the college kids that come to my door summertime in the suburbs. Except he’s around fifty, around my age, or he says he is, but I don’t believe him at first. He says he remembers the riots here after they shot King. He was five years old then. His dark dreadlocks fall behind him down somewhere near the dark street. They pull at the wrinkles on his forehead and make his eyes big and sweet.

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Invincibly impersonal

3PictureJamesBaldwinI read a scene tonight towards the end of Another Country that got me thinking about self-government. James Baldwin’s 1961 novel, I acknowledge, has nothing directly to do with government  or politics of any kind. But any novel portraying great anguish well and offering a glimmer of hope is a paean to self-government. It answers “maybe” or even “yes” to Alexander Hamilton’s question at the outset of the Federalist Papers: Can people govern themselves?

Self-government’s survival, in other words, depends on whether I’m willing to live out some anguish and accept my humanity.

In the scene, a character, with a friend in an art gallery, comes to realize that she has helped to create the husband she has grown to despise.

“And I saw that I’d loved him like that, like a child, and now the bill for all that dreaming had come in. How can one have dreamed so long? And I thought it was real. Now I don’t know what’s real.” (404)

I’ll quote from the characters’ more theoretical observations and reflect on self-government.

“You think that there isn’t any hope for us?”

“Hope?” The word seemed to bang from wall to wall. “Hope? No, I don’t think there’s any hope. We’re too empty here”— her eyes took in the Sunday crowd — “too empty — here.” She touched her heart. “This isn’t a country at all, it’s a collection of football players and Eagle Scouts. Cowards. We think we’re happy. We’re not. We’re doomed.” (406)

Government is messy because humanity is messy. There are two ways out. One is to escape from being human, to be transformed into something better – a saint, perhaps, or a god. The other is to redefine humanity to exclude the messy elements — that is, to define certain groups — groups to which I happily don’t belong — as subhuman.

No matter which of these two ways out I choose, I am drawn to one of two approaches to government. As the god superior to man or as the man superior to beasts, I and my fellow superiors can govern to enforce the gulf that separates us from the inferiors for the good of society. Or I can, perhaps in disgust, disclaim any role in governing.

Neither approach to government is self-government. Self-government requires my involvement and my humanity.

Self-government is personal. It’s not enough to espouse equality. It’s not enough to vote. Self-government insists that I become human. And to become human, I must own up to my part in humanity’s problems.

“You said once,” he said, “that you wanted to grow. Isn’t that always frightening? Doesn’t it always hurt?”

It was a question he was asking himself — of course; she turned toward him with a small, grateful smile, then turned to the painting again.

“I’m beginning to think,” she said, “that growing just means learning more and more about anguish. That poison becomes your diet — you drink a little of it every day. Once you’ve seen it, you can’t stop seeing it — that’s the trouble. And it can, it can” — she passed her hand wearily over her brow again — “drive you mad.” (405)

Self-government isn’t possible without personal growth, and growth isn’t possible without anguish and hope. Hope without anguish is immature hope – perhaps a necessary starting point, but untested and, if it stays untested for too long, dangerous. But anguish without hope leads to madness.

“You begin to see that you yourself, innocent, upright you, have contributed and do contribute to the misery of the world. Which will never end because we’re what we are.” (Id.)

Equality is hard work. It’s easy to espouse in theory but hard to admit in practice, when my equality with others includes aspects of humanity that offend me.

He watched her face from which the youth was now, before his eyes, departing; her girlhood, at last, was falling away from her. Yet, her face did not seem precisely faded, or, for that matter, old. It looked scoured, there was something invincibly impersonal in it. (405 – 406)

Public life is impersonal, and that impersonality can be either bad or good. Self-righteousness is impersonal because it treats the other as less than a person. But self-government is impersonal because it transcends personality. Self-government is based on a sacred truth, as the Declaration’s first draft puts it, that all men are created equal. Our essential equality, deeper than personality, is the basis for celebrating our diverse personalities and cultures – and for celebrating, ultimately, our common failings.

Only my personal anguish – only our collective personal anguish – can lead to the invincible, impersonal equality that makes self-government possible.

Self-government, then, doesn’t have much of a chance. But the stakes are too high for me not to take it personally.

Photo is of James Baldwin, 1924 – 1987.

Three feuding philosophers of political moderation

“. . . the law is the public conscience . . .”

— Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan

3PictureBookHobbesLeviathanWe know too much about the sausage factory – the lobbying, the money, the special interests, and the compromises – to equate law with the public conscience. We may, in fact, believe that there is no such thing as a public conscience. If so, we may hold to what seventeenth century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes calls a “seditious doctrine”:

Another doctrine repugnant to civil society, is, that whatsoever a man does against his conscience, is sin; and it dependeth on the presumption of making himself judge of good and evil. For a man’s conscience, and his judgment is the same thing; and as the judgment, so also the conscience may be erroneous. Therefore, though he that is subject to no civil law, sinneth in all he does against his conscience, because he has no other rule to follow but his own reason; yet it is not so with him that lives in a commonwealth; because the law is the public conscience, by which he hath already undertaken to be guided. Otherwise in such diversity, as there is of private consciences, which are but private opinions, the commonwealth must needs be distracted, and no man dare to obey the sovereign power, further than it shall seem good in his own eyes. (Kindle loc. 5022-5027)

You would think from this passage alone that Hobbes has great faith in legislation. But Hobbes doesn’t care much for legislatures. He prefers a strong executive, to put it mildly: he believes that the judges and any legislature should be in the service of the executive. And he admits that, no matter what the form of government, all laws may not be just. Hobbes asserts, however, that we are bound to obey even unjust laws because we made our public conscience forever superior to our private ones when we entered into compact to create a government.

Hobbes’ description of this “seditious doctrine” of individual morality anticipates Immanuel Kant, the eighteenth century German philosopher whose famous “categorical imperative” asserts that “one chooses to act or not act solely on the basis of principle and never on the basis of the calculation of results.” Kant believes that, “in order to be a moral principle, a precept needs to be chosen for oneself, not imposed by someone else or by ‘nature’” (Koterski 80). The king’s or the legislature’s law, then, cannot be a moral principle, cannot be or substitute for a private man’s conscience. So Kant champions private morality, and Hobbes champions public morality.

Neither leaves much room for the other. Hobbes would find that Kant’s categorical imperative leads to weak government and eventually anarchy. Kant would find that Hobbes’s notion of conscience would lead to a loss of individual conscience and freedom. (Here’s a link to a great article in rough draft form by Gerald Gaus entitled, “Private and Public Conscience (Or, Is the Sanctity of Conscience a Liberal Commitment or an Anarchical Fallacy?)” that addresses these competing ideas much better than I can.)

Middle ground is suggested by the reference to “nature” in Joseph Koterski’s characterization of Kant’s position above. While my individual conscience may not be enough to justify my disobedience to law, the relation between my conscience and natural law may be enough to justify disobedience.

Natural law – not a king’s or a legislature’s law – is the public conscience. This public conscience doesn’t displace my private conscience in governmental matters, as public conscience as expressed in positive law does for Hobbes. Instead, my private conscience bears witness to the public conscience through reason. Indeed, if natural law weren’t universally available to all people through their God-given conscience and capacity to reason, natural law could not exist. But because natural law is available to all people through reason, one’s private conscience can find some of its expression in the public conscience, and one has legal grounds to revolt from King George III, to prosecute Nazi war criminals (who obeyed German positive law to the letter), and to sit in the front of the bus – all forms of civil disobedience justified by one’s conscience as well as by natural law.

Natural law’s theory and use from the ancients forward as well its partial delineation makes it objective. Its appeal to conscience, its unwritten status, and its incomplete delineation make it flexible. We can argue about whether natural law’s notion of equality applies to homosexual rights, for instance. But when we do, from the perspective of the philosophy of our nation’s founding, we’re asking the right questions.

Each of these three positions with respect to the public conscience reflects one of my three interlocking circles of moderation. Each of these circles from my June 28, 2014 post, therefore, now receives its patron philosopher.

“Of the people” – active government – tends to emphasize the public conscience as expressed by law. While the New Englanders who most championed active government in the United States and Thomas Hobbes have very different theories of governmental structure, they both believe in a strong government whose laws express society’s conscience. Hobbes is, therefore, active government’s patron philosopher. (I know the idea of associating Hobbes with those who seek more government activism today would offend many of Hobbes’s admirers and many activists, too, but I’m limiting their association to the role of the public conscience and the relationship between government and the individual.)

“By the people” – responsive government – emphasizes individual rights and conscience over government. I anoint Immanuel Kant as its patron philosopher.

“For the people” – responsible government – emphasizes public morality and minority rights over majority rule. Seventeenth century British philosopher John Locke, whose writings formed part of the basis of our Declaration of Independence, is hereby installed as its patron philosopher.

Moderation starts when we assert one patron’s views with due respect to the views of the other two.

Philosopher Hobbes Locke Kant
Public conscience is . . . Positive law Natural law An invalid construct
Patron philosopher of . . . “Of the people” – active government “For the people” – responsible government “By the people” – responsive government

Works Cited

Gaus, Gerald. “Private and Public Conscience (Or, Is the Sanctity of Conscience a Liberal Commitment or an Anarchical Fallacy?).” (2014): n. pag. 2014. Web. 22 July 2014.

Hobbes, Thomas; J. C. A. Gaskin (1996-07-04). Leviathan (Oxford World’s Classics) Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

Koterski, Joseph. Natural Law and Human Nature: Course Guidebook. Chantilly, VA: Teaching, 2002. Print.

Can the scientific method save democracy?

3PictureKarlPopperAs I mentioned in my recent post, “A framework for political moderation,” I’ve been searching for a foundation for modern American democracy that tries to solve problems out of expediency with piecemeal legislation. I wasn’t searching for it here, though, in twentieth-century, Anglo-Austrian philosopher Karl Popper’s political science magnum opus, The Open Society and Its Enemies. Instead, I picked up Popper to learn what the originator of the appellation “historicist” had to say about that Hegelian juggernaut of a philosophy.

I’ve spent six months reading Popper’s book, mostly a few pages a night. Now that the school year’s over, I’ve had time to finish the book and to concentrate on what it is teaching me. I’d like to examine Popper here both for his take on historicism and for what I have come to recognize as his contribution to a modern, moderate political philosophy. I’ll start with historicism and meander into Popper’s broader philosophy.

Popper and historicism

Historicists, you may know, explain away claims to universality in scientific or political standards by pointing out these alleged standards’ subjective, historical contexts. (Subjective sociological and psychoanalytic contexts have since been advanced, too, of course, and Popper addresses them.) I’ve written a bit about Southern secessionists’ central historicist argument against the Equality Clause: all men are not created equal because (1) no man has an existence outside of the context of his tribe (or race) and (2) each race must earn its rights over time in the judgment of history.

Popper defines historicism this way:

[They believe that it is] the task of the social sciences to furnish us with long-term historical prophecies. They also believe that they have discovered laws of history which enable them to prophesy the course of historical events. The various social philosophies which raise claims of this kind, I have grouped together under the name historicism. (xliii).

Popper hates historicism as much as I do, but he cedes more ground to it than I do, though with little loss of effectiveness. He concedes to historicists that there are no a priori, or self-evident, truths. I like seventeenth-century Locke, who believes in self-evident truths. Popper likes eighteenth-century Kant, who doesn’t. But both of us have a faith in reason in common, and both of us dislike nineteenth-century Hegel, who overturned reason in favor of historicism.

Faith in reason or faith in equality?

Popper’s faith – or a priori political starting point – is not in equality, as mine is, but in reason. Popper believes that historicists such as Hegel undermine mankind’s faith in a universally understood reason, a faith necessary for advances in science and self-government. Like Popper, I find a faith in reason to be vital: our ability to reason about something like what Aristotle calls first principles permits us to have a chance at governing ourselves. But to me, “faith in reason” feels too much like “faith in faith” or, speaking from a Christian standpoint, too much like “faith in prayer.” It doesn’t feel like rock bottom. The Bible teaches faith in God, not faith in prayer; likewise, Locke and the Founders’ faith in equality is more fundamental than their faith in reason. The backbone of equality is its inherent hierarchy among God, mankind, and nature, and God’s absence or his ineluctable wrath, if accepted, creates a political vacuum that demigods fill, making equality impossible. I’d rather start with equality as the beginning (the standard – the individual in the state of nature) and the end (the goal – the realization in society) and reason as the means from the beginning to the end.

I don’t think Popper would call his faith in reason a priori, but I would: reason presupposes a certain metaphysical understanding of human nature. My assertion of mankind’s essential equality is no more metaphysical at its core than Popper’s assertion of mankind’s ability to reason. To affirm reason’s universal application – to assert that all men can reason enough in a democracy to effectively hypothesize about social problems and to work together toward possible solutions to them – is an affirmation and an assertion about human nature. Continue reading