Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Is Tom Friedman Right? Is that a Tremor? Or Am I Imagining Things?

In his column "What If?", Tom Friedman contemplates a configuration of disconcerting events that could make life much more challenging (to put it mildly). The slowing or ending of Chinese growth (a main engine of world growth), low oil prices pressuring petro-regimes, Europe under pressure from migration based on Middle East turmoil, the U.S. caught in an increasingly polarizing politics that leads to further inaction, and so on. And while I don't see Bernie Sanders "socialism " (whatever that is) as an equivalent of the proto-fascism of Trump (Italian-style) or Cruz (McCarthy-style), I do think that Friedman's other points bear some scrutiny.

In fact, for some time now I've begun to wonder if there isn't something below our conscious awareness that's causing us humans some great unease. Perhaps we're like animals who can sense that an earthquake is about to happen. I don't know how true that is of animals, let alone humans, but I'm beginning to wonder. Are we getting too crowded? In large parts of the world (centered in Asia) we are too many for the environment, while some places, like Europe, seem to be imploding. We know that economic inequality is a big problem in the U.S., with many people feeling a deep economic angst that grows into resentment. Most people know that climate change is real and unavoidable now, the official ostrich position of the Republican Party notwithstanding. What upsets will that cause? And we have a tiny, tiny group of Moslems who have not hope of gaining true power, who are essentially reactionary nihilists, who are creating fear and even panic far beyond their power to cause serious harm. And in all likelihood, political extremism and religious millenarianism across religions will increase.

The mass of people who are expressing their unease don't go to Davos, don't read The Economist or the New York Times, and aren't guided by reading the official tea leaves, but they feel--and they feel fear. To paraphrase FDR, we should fear fear. It's a terrible guide to decision-making because it's intended by evolution to act as a warning and quick trigger. But we don't need a quick trigger, we need considered action, and politicians peddling that are in short supply.

Yea, I could ruin a dinner party, too.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Ultrasociety: How 10,000 Years of War Made Humans the Greatest Cooperators on Earth, by Peter Turchin

In Ultrasociety: How 10,000 Years of War Made Humans the Greatest Cooperators on Earth,  Peter Turchin has another book that translates his sophisticated models of historical dynamics into a prose exposition that non-specialists can enjoy. As in his previous work,  War and Peace and War, he has succeeded in his task by mixing accounts of historical (and pre-historical) incidents and epochs with lessons about the science of evolution. Having admired his accomplishment in War and Peace and War, I held high expectations for this book. He has met and exceeded those expectations by addressing a set of topics of even greater and wider import than those of his first (popular) book. He does this by following the course of most academics whom I admire: they transgress departmental boundaries to explore new connections and arrive at new insights. In his case, he moved from an academic specialization in population dynamics to helping found the new science of Cliodynamics, the study of history using large data sets to create mathematical models of historical dynamics. Although already a fan (and thanks to the internet for allowing groupies like me to follow along with new thoughts and trends between books), I almost shouted “Amen!” aloud when I read:

The situation [of competing theories] is made worse by the division of social science into “tribes” of anthropologists, sociologists, political scientists, and economists. Each discipline tends to emphasize its own set of theories while disagreeing with others (and even among its own adherents). Social scientists are the blind men touching different parts of an elephant and drawing different conclusions about it. -- Peter Turchin, Ultrasociety: How 10,000 Years of War Made Humans the Greatest Cooperators on Earth, Location 567.

The thesis of Ultrasociety is simple: over the course of human evolution, we humans have become the most cooperative species on the planet, outpacing our nearest rivals,  the more numerous and highly cooperative ants. As Turchin points out, several factors account for this distinction, including two factors that take humans beyond the biological. First, in addition to biological evolution, which is slow and random, humans developed culture, the transmission of information via representation. The transmission of information by culture from generation to generation allows changes in human behavior to occur much more rapidly than any change in the human genome would allow. As a practical matter, the lives of humans, especially in the last 10,000 years (since the advent of agriculture) have changed by orders of magnitude far beyond anything that biological evolution by itself could have allowed.  
Mild-mannered look belies intriguing thoughts: Peter Turchin

Turchin identifies a second crucial spur to changes in human ways of life, and it may come as a shock to readers. It’s war. Especially in the last 10,000 years, war is—for all its horrors—the most potent source of cultural evolution. War compels change and change occurs through cooperation within groups. As humans developed societies beyond those of hunter-gatherers, as they developed civilization (a society based on cities), war became more organized and pronounced, and increasing competition for survival ensued. The seeming paradox is at the heart of Turchin’s analysis.

By the way, Turchin notes that the idea of the "noble savage" leading a bucolic, pastoral life is a fantasy; in fact, hunter-gatherers have shockingly high rates of violent death from warfare and other forms of homicide. Note that Turchin is not a war-monger. He concedes the horror of war and that it entails destruction—often vast destruction. He is not, as some--especially during the period before the First World War--who think war a fine tonic for whatever ails society. Not at all. However, he recognizes war as a competitive environment that spurs intra-group cooperation.

Competition between groups and cooperation within groups, whether hunter-gatherer tribes or highly developed and coordinated nation-states are traits that evolutionary theory explain. The controversial (but increasingly accepted) theory of cultural multilevel selection is a key concept for understanding the dynamics involved in these competitions that require so much cooperation. To explain this, Turchin provides a brief history of evolutionary biology and the controversy about whether groups can evolve and undergo a process of natural selection. As recently as the 1970s, with the publication of Richard Dawkins's book,  The Selfish Gene (and more recently in some of Steven Pinker’s work), mainstream biology believed that evolution occurred only on the level of individual genomes and not among groups. Turchin points out that there was an early, naïve theory of group selection that did not hold up to scrutiny. However, in work conducted by by David Sloan Wilson and colleagues, the theory of multilevel selection became more sophisticated. This theory now provides a persuasive—albeit not universally accepted—theory of how groups compete and evolve.

Part of what makes Turchin's work fascinating is that he translates the highly theoretical and mathematically modeled work of evolutionary biology (his native field) into commonplace examples taken from anthropology and history. For instance, he draws upon his academic home at the University of Connecticut, which has a phenomenally successful women's college basketball program (and a successful men's program as well) to frame the problem of cooperation and competition within a group. He uses examples of sports teams as a microcosm of the problem of cooperation and competition. As a member of numerous sports teams and now as a boys varsity basketball coach, this issue has long intrigued me. How does one promote competition within the team to draw out the best individual performances and determine playing time, while requiring those same individuals to coalesce and cooperate unselfishly at the highest level to defeat an opponent? To the extent the team succeeds in cooperating against an opponent, the team will likely win. Maximum success depends on individuals putting aside their selfish interests (glory, pay) for the benefit of the team. Moreover, what applies to something as inconsequential as sports (at least at bill level of high school sports), applies to the level of intergroup competition in something as deadly serious as war. (Of course, this leads one to speculate on the relationship between war and sports, but that's a subject for another time). Turchin explains the dynamics involved and provides some revealing information about how relationships and status among members of a team affect team performance. Studies have shown that wide disparities in pay between professional players correlates with poorer team performance. Those teams with the greatest equality of pay tend to be the most successful. Although Turchin does not mention this directly, one has to wonder how this applies to society as a whole. With an increasing awareness of a growing inequality in American society since the 1970s, one can't help but notice the increasing social and political polarization that occurred during the same period. We have become an increasingly less cooperative polity and society as inequality has grown. Turchin also notes the triumph of individualist philosophies espoused by Ayn Rand, Friedrich Hayek (which is a selective reading of his total work by some proponents), and others who emphasize a highly individualistic and laisse-fair ideology. Turchin quotes the "greed is good" speech by the fictional character Gordon Gecko in the movie Wall Street as an exemplar of the ascendant selfish ideology that began running amok in the 1980s. Turchin makes clear that an undue emphasis on individual accomplishment and selfishness hurts the society as a whole.

Turchin can claim to be the founding father of Cliodynamics, a discipline that works to discern patterns in history and prehistory based on the quantification of data through mathematical modeling. Attempts of this sort in the past have been failures. Through the lens of the philosopher R. G. Collingwood (of whom I've been reading a great deal lately), this endeavor doesn’t qualify as history properly understood. For Collingwood, History is the history of thought and not the history of behavior. But Turchin's work and the work of others in Cliodynamics demonstrates the weakness of Collingwood's position. When Collingwood emphasizes history as the history of thought, including the thoughts behind human actions and choices, he limits history to examining the tip of the iceberg. Just as humans are the result of eons of evolution layered one upon another to arrive at our current state, with most of the functions of our bodies running involuntarily and without our conscious knowledge or decision, so with many of the actions of society. Many actions seen together, aggregated over large groups, display behaviors that are not the result of a conscious decision. Often they are the aggregate of individual decisions that reveal a larger pattern. We deal with this every day when considering market "decisions." (But note our personification of markets often leads to poor analysis. The “market” is not a conscious individual; it’s an abstraction of many individual actions aggregated for the convenience of analysis). Turchin analyzes data from the past to better understand the past. (Note: the only source of knowledge is the past!) To me, Cliodynamics is a welcome addition to the field of history. Although I retain my prejudice for history as the history of thought, with an emphasis on political and intellectual decisions, we simply cannot ignore the fact that human beings are both a part of Nature and apart from Nature. To understand the totality of the human past—the highest intellectual endeavor—we need to take advantage of all the tools available. Looking at history through different lenses provided by of social and natural sciences is a resource that we are foolish to ignore. 

Indeed, in this book, Turchin suggests that perhaps we humans can move another step forward on our evolutionary journey and make war obsolete. The massive improvements in warfare and killing efficiency epitomized by atomic weapons make this more than a utopian dream. It's a practical necessity. The next logical—even necessary—step in cultural evolution must be increased cooperation, or we run the risk of regression to a less cooperative, must more barbaric (in the worst sense of the term) reality. Turchin uses the international space station as an example of the level of cooperation that nations are capable of attaining. He suggests that perhaps economic competition can replace war as a means of spurring cultural innovation without suffering the horrors of war. Paul Krugman, another social scientist inspired by Isaac Asimov’s vision of “psychohistory” outlined in his Foundation books, suggests we need an attack of aliens to foster an economic growth and cooperation, which is much in keeping with Turchin’s direction of thought. I believe that with the imminence of global climate change, we—as a species working through nation-states—will either ratchet-up our levels of peaceful cooperation to combat (by abatement and adaptation) what will become an increasingly alien environment—or we will suffer an increasingly deadly level of social and political conflict.

One mark of a successful book is that it leaves you wanting more. You hear yourself saying, “telling me more about this and that.” So it is with this book. The number of issues that it raises, the number of possible areas of explorations it suggests, are too numerous to list completely. But to name just one area of where I’d like to know more:  Turchin describes the idea of “cultural evolution” as a scientific theory “based on mathematical models [that] are empirically testable.” Id., Location 330. Moreover, there is a tradition within sociology of social evolution and development theory, as well as theories of history (addressed by Turchin in War and Peace and War). However, I’m wondering about connections with theories of cultural evolution (or change) based on language and other symbolic systems, such as the work of Owen Barfield, Walter Ong, Jean Gebser, William Irwin Thompson and Ralph Abraham, and Clare Graves and Don Beck (an eclectic list, I admit). None of these thinkers, I believe, would necessarily disagree with the biologically based theory of cultural evolution espoused by Turchin, but it would be interesting to determine where they mesh and where they conflict.


So, I’ll stop here. With an outstanding book, the temptation is to go on and on about it. I’ll not. Go read it yourself. 

Monday, November 2, 2015

Dilbert on Donald: I'm Not Persuaded

Comment withheld
Along with many, the Donald Trump phenomenon fascinates me. He comes across as a bombastic, narcissistic demagogue, mostly (but not entirely) full of hot air and baloney. On the other hand, he was until recently the favorite of most Republican voters. Many political commentators have attempted to deconstruct the Trump phenomenon. Is his popularity the result of his personal characteristics? Or is it the result of a miasma in the political air that has infected Republican voters? (I’m happy to note the Democrats and sane people seem immune to the Trump airs.) However, one assessment of Trump that has caught my attention comes from Scott Adams, creator of the Dilbert comic strip.
Dilbert creator & hypnotist Scott Adams

Scott Adams wrote How to Fail at Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of My Life Story, a book that I enjoyed. (My review here.) In that book, Adams writes about many topics, but his distinction between goals and systems is worth the price of the book. But the book has much more than that. Adams is an open-minded and inquiring fellow, and he’s willing to try ideas and techniques to figure out what works and what doesn’t. Among the many practices he’s tried is hypnosis, and he finds it effective. I’ve been doing some reading on my own about hypnosis as a part of my interest in all types of persuasion, influence, and power. And while I don’t have any training in hypnosis, Adams does, and he writes about it in his book and in his blog. He defines hypnosis broadly, and like me, he’s interested more widely in persuasion. As a part of this interest, he’s been writing about Donald Trump. Adams describes Trump as one of the “Master Wizards” of persuasion (His Master Wizard—or Master Persuader—Hypothesis is an offshoot of his Moist Robot Hypothesis. Read his book or go to his blog for details.) In his ongoing commentary on Trump and the Trump presidential campaign, Adams entertains the possibility of a Trump landslide in the coming presidential election. By the way, Adams doesn’t claim that Trump would necessarily be a good president, just that he’s in a good position to win because he’s exhibiting the ways of a Master Wizard. I think that Adams is onto something, but I find Adams’s hypothesis has severe limitations.

In reading about hypnosis via The Rogue Hypnotist and Kreskin, as well having done some background reading on Milton Erickson, I believe that there are situations where conversational hypnosis can work. Also, there’s the whole topic of advertising and propaganda as a form of mass persuasion, which relates to hypnosis. Kreskin, for instance, claims there is no hypnosis in the sense of a pure trance, only suggestibility, and from what I’m learning, that’s probably an accurate characterization of what goes on. Kreskin reveals that in his shows, when he “hypnotizes” someone on stage, he makes a point of choosing a volunteer who is readily open to suggestion (which he’s learned to identify quickly). Some people are more much open and suggestible than others.

I believe that I’m on the less suggestible side of the scale. I’m WEIRD (Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic) (courtesy of Jonathan Haidt), and I’m also a lawyer with over 30 years of experience in negotiations, hearings, trials, and appeals. In other words, I have a professionally trained crap detector. This is not to say up never been bamboozled (I have), but at least in the arena of a courtroom I know how to ask probing questions and deploy appropriate skepticism. This attitude carries over, at least to some extent, in other aspects of my life.

For instance, this skeptical-inquiring mindset, which is so handy in cross-examination, kicks on when watching a Republican presidential debate. The amount of free-flowing crap is immense. I'm not suggesting that the Democrats don’t dispense it, just that it's not the same magnitude of volume. Some people may accuse me of being close-mindedness, but I believe that reality has a well-established liberal bias. (Please take the statement with a large grain of salt as I stated it with tongue-in-cheek. Oh! How I love a good cliché!) Of course, someone will say that this is merely my liberal bias shining through, but I started my life as a Republican and only left that fold slowly and without rancor towards family, friends, and acquaintances that remained within the fold. (I learned in the most recent debate that I’m over three decades ahead of Ben Bernanke.) I’ve changed other beliefs and practices as well, and these changes didn’t occur as a matter of whim or some spooky, undue influence. In other words, careful thought and reason play a role in my life and can play a role in the lives of others. It can play a role in politics.

So the question becomes, “How much baloney can a candidate dispense and still garner a majority of the votes?” This a vital question because it goes to the viability of democracy itself. Some have defended democracy as good enough if people are smart enough to vote for their own interests. (I think Richard Posner makes this argument in Law, Pragmatism, and Democracy.) Of course, self-interest or organized group interests do carry significant (often inordinate) weight in political decision-making, but even granting that weight, many decisions aren’t compelled or even influenced by financial self-interest (narrowly defined). Most issues about cultural and ethics discussed in the political realm, such as gay marriage, abortion, and marijuana legalization, aren’t issues that affect the pocketbooks of most voters. Yet, many hold strong views on these topics. If those views are not informed by reason and inquiry, and not shaped by self-interest (narrowly understood), then how are they shaped? Visions informed by habit, fear, or hope quickly fill any void. In the arena of values (culture war) politics, we see and hear political pitches aimed at fundamental beliefs, fears, and hopes. (Alas, fears trump—pun intended—hopes as primary motivators.) In this arena, the candidate with the best skills for suggesting—without arguing—for a position will probably come out ahead. But can the candidate who fools a lot of the people a lot of the time win over enough of the voters?

Scott Adams suggests that Donald Trump is bluffing about immigration to establish an opening negotiating stance, or that Trump’s actions are the opening act in a three-act play will bring about a happy ending for both the protagonist (Trump) and illegal immigrants. Tragedy will turn to Romance. Maybe. Adams may argue (and I haven’t seen this yet), that candidates throughout American history have campaigned saying one thing and then doing quite another. Sometimes this is a matter of duplicity, sometimes the result of a change in circumstances, and sometimes the result of a genuine change of beliefs. However, it must remain a fundamental tenet of electoral democracy that we believe that a candidate will act consistently with what the candidate says during the campaign. When this doesn’t happen, such as Nixon’s pledge to “Bring Us Together”, it causes a profound rend in the body politic. Thus, the most fundamental question becomes one of the degree of trust we can place in a candidate to do what the candidate says he will do. Alternatively, as some voters tacitly suggest, should we grant a candidate carte blanche upon entering office? Most voters do this by not paying any attention to candidates. They base their choice on the flimsiest of reasons, such as whether the voter would like to sit down and share a beer with the candidate (typically men) or whether the candidate would “keep us safe”.

Trump reminds me of the former Italian leader, Silvio Berlusconi and the current Russian president Vladimir Putin. Both of them were elected leaders, with Berlusconi often playing the clown and accomplishing very little. Putin is quite severe, actively increasing the power of the state and pushing a nationalist agenda. Other elected leaders who provide a negative role model are Hitler and Mussolini, both of whom came to power through electoral process (they both immediately threw overboard after having gained power). Note! I’m not saying the Trump is a Hitler and a Mussolini. I’m only citing them as examples of the efficacy of some types of political rhetoric and persuasion. Hitler was able to persuade a many in the German nation to follow him. Of course, he killed or imprisoned those whom he could not persuade. Persuasion that draws upon nationalistic rhetoric, triumphalism, and fear, can—in certain circumstances—prove extremely persuasive. No matter how persuasive Trump may be to some, to support him for his persuasive abilities (if they do hold up enough to get him even nominated), is not an indicator of this fitness for office. (And, again, Adams has not endorsed Trump.)

A general reservation that I hold about Scott Adams’s Master Wizard Hypothesis is that it doesn’t address democratic eloquence. For instance, the current incumbent two-term president, Barack Obama, is often quite eloquent in formal speeches, and quite measured in his interviews. In rhetorical style, he’s the anti-Trump. And so for that matter is Dr. Ben Carson, Trump’s current chief rival for the Republican nomination. Despite significant obstacles, American voters have twice elected Obama as president of the United States. (And remember wooden Al Gore outpolled the affable George W. Bush.) If we look throughout American history, the greatest and most effective presidents, Lincoln, Washington, Franklin Roosevelt, Theodore Roosevelt, Thomas Jefferson, are all displayed a high level of verbal intelligence and eloquence. In the modern era, Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt could speak movingly to large crowds, but their off-the-cuff bombast – well, I can’t think of any examples of that. The era of presidential debates started in 1960 with Nixon and Kennedy. Neither of those two candidates displayed the verbal sparring and insult that we hear now between the Republican candidates. In fact, both were courteous and respectful toward the other. While not always the case, the verbally eloquent and articulate presidential candidate defeats the opponent with a greater amount of bombast, even those who may have used some of the techniques of hypnotic suggestion that Adams find so empowering in Trump. From what I can discern from my study, hypnosis works in a significant way when the receiver wants to be open to suggestion. We may thus conclude that many Republican voters want to receive the suggestions the Trump (and the other Republican candidates) want to purvey.

All this may prove moot, as some national polls, as well as most recent Iowa poll showed the Ben Carson is now ahead of the entire field. Mild-mannered Dr. Ben Carson, another anti-Trump. Or is he just more subtle in his choice of language and staging? It appears that people are attracted to Carson precisely because of his mild, understated manner. How does this work with the Adams’s Master Wizard Hypothesis about Trump?

In one blog, Adams notes that someone measured Trump as speaking at a fourth-grade level. Adams thinks that’s a part of Trump’s communication wizardry. Any effective speaker must know the audience and match the appropriate linguistic register to that audience, but how low should you go? For instance, listen to Obama talking to and about “folks” when he’s in a small group or informal setting and compare that to the more literary register of his formal speeches. Or think of Lincoln telling humorous tales and bawdy jokes to his friends sitting around a cracker-barrel and then penning the immortal words of the Gettysburg Address and his Second Inaugural Address. Did Churchill bring the English language to war by using vague phrasing at a fourth-grade level to rally the British people in their darkest hour? And that later became their finest hour in part because of his eloquence. All of these speakers used powerful images and sophisticated language that resonated with widely held beliefs shared by their audiences. So does Trump do this so well? Has the American electorate been dumbed-down? I’m not persuaded yet.

Based on my years of study and practice of persuasion, I don’t believe that there is a Holy Grail of persuasion. There are many little things that you can do to increase your odds of success, but nothing guarantees success. We are subject to the whims and caprices of that most implacable of gods, the Audience. Even the Master Wizard Gerry Spence, who’s Win Your Case: How to Present, Persuade, and Prevail--Every Place, Every Time, that Adams has read (if it follows Spence’s earlier How to Argue and Win Every Time I’ve read) says you can’t win every time—at least not in the sense of getting everything you hoped for through persuasion. (Spence’s titles go in for hyperbole, but he is very persuasive and credible.) You have to choose your battles as best you can. I believe that Trump’s success to date is more a function of the hopes and fears of his audience. Or more accurately, their hopes that he can deliver them from their fears. I believe that this Washington Post article, assessing Trump’s appeal as a function of his audience provides greater explanatory power about Trump’s success to date than does Adams’s Master Wizard Hypothesis.  

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

David Brooks & the Effective Executive

Candidate sought, no experience required
Sometimes I feel that I pick on David Brooks too much. His ideas are usually sound, but not quite. In his column entitled "A Sensible Version of Donald Trump", Brooks imagines an attractive version of the political outsider. But he stumbles in important places.





Extreme make-over needed
He provides a speech for his fantasy candidate: "I’m no politician. [Brooks doesn’t address how someone running for president isn’t by definition a politician, but we’ll let that slide for the moment.] I’m just a boring guy who knows how to run things." “Run things”? Politicians, at least politicians who aspire to leadership, don't“run things," they lead people. In a democracy, they should be leading citizens. The Brooks fantasy (all too common) is that business executives, who often enjoy a degree of command and control greater than found in the military, make good political leaders. They don't. Governing is a matter of leadership, and the greatest presidents in American history on this list includes no business executives. Washington and Jefferson, who operated slave plantations, come about as close as any of the possibilities. (And Jefferson wasn’t very good on the business aspect of his plantation.) The most common background besides having held office? Lawyer. All of the top 10 were accomplished leaders. Even former generals like George Washington and Dwight Eisenhower are distinguished by their ability to work with others and to use persuasion as well as command. Politicians—at least the ones we should elect--articulate visions and then translate those visions into laws and policies for the benefit of their constituents—and they have an encompassing definition of their constituency. It's not a matter of managing things; it's a matter of leading people. That too many politicians don't do this well is unfortunate, but it doesn't change the reality of what is necessary and possible.

I understand that those politicians who have held office, as opposed to those that are now running for office for the first time, have records that show them bending to the will of their constituents and campaign contributors. That is, they've had to take positions and make decisions that reflect the tug-of-war between the myriad interests and ideologies of American politics. The difference that Donald Trump and Ben Carson share is that they have the luxury of not having served and not having created a record of political performance. We would be naïve to believe that somehow their inexperience would allow them to rise above the quotidian world of political give-and-take arising out of the demands of contentious voters and contributors.

Brooks rightly notes that we have a polarized and corrupt political culture with little accomplishment. Congress fiddles while we burn. However, he refuses to identify the overarching role played by big money in politics, the regime of legalized corruption that now pervades our campaign finance system. Reforming the system, which in some measure all of the Democrats support (especially Lawrence Lessig), isn't a cure-all, and it won't make fringes of political discourse come to reason, but it is the first and most important step and should be promoted on every occasion. Brooks seems loath to do this.

Brooks is certainly correct in identifying the fact that those in the lower echelons of the income and wealth distribution, not necessarily accurately defined as just “the lower half,” have seen their quality of life deteriorate in many ways that often begins with financial loss. Brooks goes on the cite a study that shows that the integration of poor families into better neighborhoods results in a long-term improvement in many measures of quality of life for those families. He cites this as an example of the value of society and community in improving the lot of individuals. He takes a cheap shot at Bernie Sanders because he accuses Sanders of being a "statist" and claiming the term "socialist" (seeking maximum irony) for his outlook. There's a good deal of irony in Brooks’ assertion given that some of the most dynamic communities in America have arisen on the political left, specifically in the labor movement. Community exists in small towns, as well, along with the dull force of conformity. Like many a conservative, Brooks likes to ignore the role the state can play in fostering community and collective action when the demands of a problem exceed those of civil society and smaller units of government.

Brooks hedges his “socialist” bet by saying we should be “getting a little moralistic." By this, he means setting standards for individual behavior. In this, I'm all for him. I value an integral approach to social and political problems of all sorts. By integral, I’m referring to the work of Ken Wilber and those working along similar lines. For example, problems in communities suffering poverty, crime, family disintegration, poor education, etc. are “wicked" problems that demand assessments and actions from a variety of perspectives. Human problems can't often be resolved only through individual initiative or through community action alone, but only through a combination of both. Brooks seems to have this sensibility, but he doesn't articulate it nearly as well as Ken Wilber and Alan Watkins (for example) whose book, Wicked and Wise: How to Solve the World’s Toughest Problems, I’m currently reading. Their template is the most sophisticated template for addressing “wicked” problems. By the way, “wicked problems” as they define them, have multiple stakeholders, multiple causes, multiple symptoms, and multiple solutions, and the problem continues to change. Thus, the business executive who believes that she (a nod to Carly Fiorina for the sake of gender equality among poor candidates) can say just do “x” or just do “y” and the problem will be solved. That doesn’t work in the Middle East or Ukraine, in dealing with Putin or China, or with global climate change, or—well, just about anything involving a multitude of human beings.   

So once again, thank you, David Brooks, for almost getting it right and thereby allowing me to finish the job. At least to my mind. 

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

The Idea of History by R. G. Collingwood

Revised edition 1993 with van der Dussen introduction
In the spring of 1973, I took a course in the Philosophy of History through the Philosophy Department at the University of Iowa from Professor Laird Addis. As a text, he assigned Patrick Gardiner's Theories of History (1959) (The field does not move quickly.)  Included in that book were readings from R.G. Collingwood's The Idea of History. Professor Addis also listed Collingwood's book in the syllabus as a work to read in its entirety if we wanted to write about it. I have no recollection of reading any of it. I have no idea of what Collingwood argued. This could be in part the fault of Professor Addis, who was working in his own book with a neo-positivist perspective on history and the social sciences. (The Logic of Society: A Philosophical Study (1975).) Then again, it was probably because I was a dumb kid. Curious, but still behind the curve.

Since then, reading E.H. Carr, John Lukacs, John Lewis Gaddis, Niall Ferguson, Owen Barfield and others writing about history as a way of knowing, Collingwood's name kept popping up. So, in Jaipur, seeing an inexpensive copy (of the revised edition), I popped for it. It made the trip back to China from the U.S. this year, and now I've completed it.

It is a great book. I kick myself for waiting so long to read it.

As a historian-archeologist and as a philosopher, Collingwood knows his stuff. He treats various issues in detail, constructing sophisticated and subtle arguments with appealing, workman-like prose. While the book changes the way we think, it does so without over-taxing our patience or resolve. Indeed, this work, first published after his death in 1943 through the efforts of his former pupil, T.M. Knox, is composed in some part from lectures given by Collingwood as well as from completed essays. But whether a particular part of the book is based on lectures or on written essays, it makes no difference. While reading Collingwood at any juncture, I had the feeling of listening to someone wise discoursing on a topic that he knows deeply by heart.

Collingwood means to bring to history that same questioning attitude that marked the development of the natural sciences from the 17th century on. But he doesn't suggest that history is a weak sibling to natural science; instead, he sees history as the gateway to self-knowledge and to understanding our world. Collingwood stakes out his territory very thoroughly.  For instance, he discusses the nature of evidence for historians, and he draws upon the English detective novel tradition of the 1920s and 1930s--Christie and Sayers pop to mind--to illustrate how the historian proceeds. To bookend this practical concern, he deals with the failings of realist and empirical theories of history. He prefaces all of this with a history of the philosophy of history (not a term coined until Voltaire), taking the reader from Herodotus and Thucydides to his own peers, such as Croce and Oakshott.

I could go on at some length about this book, picking almost any page at random to showcase some profound insight, but I'll stop here with the intention of a deeper exploration in the future.

Do I go too far? The Times Literary Supplement named The Idea of History one of the 100 most influential books in western culture since WWII. Whether  that is correct, I know not, but it should be!


Saturday, September 19, 2015

Moral Judgments in History

Yesterday on my other blog ("Steve's View From Abroad" about living abroad and traveling), I posted a note about the sirens that marked the anniversary of the "Chinese War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression". As the sirens sounded, I happened to be reading R.G. Collingwood's The Idea of History, and specifically, "Lectures on the Philosophy of History" given in 1926. In that section, Collingwood writes about the historian's attitude toward the past. Collingwood argues that it is not the job of the historian to judge the past, but to deal with the facts and attempt to explain it.

I think that he's right. This seemingly cold-blooded attitude--as Collingwood describes it--is required for an accurate understanding of the nature of the past. The past is done, final; and to pass moral judgment upon it is to waste energy that should be spent on current concerns. Like the pathologist performing an autopsy, the job is not to mourn or decry the fact of an untimely or unjust death, but to understand it, to explain it, and to pass on information to the present and future that may prove of use there. This is not to say that we should become callous about wars of aggression, slavery, or any of the seemingly infinite number of wrongs that we humans can commit. No so! But to dwell in the world of past wrongs as if it was real is a fool's errand and the tool of tyrants and demagogues who manipulate the gullible to dwell on past wrongs at the expense of current, ongoing malfeasance.

This is not an easy attitude to take. We cannot think of wrongs without some sense of moral revulsion. As the Chinese (or any feeling person) will react in horror and revulsion at the Rape of Naking and the history of brutality and hostility wrought by the Japanese in China between 1931 and 1945, this reaction must halt at the visceral level. For those who go further--those who exercise their historical consciousness--the next step is to perform the autopsy. Lessons can be learned, but the past cannot be changed nor can it serve as a reliable motive as it fades further and further into the blur of the accumulated past. This is the role of forgiveness at the personal level and some practical statute of limitations at the social level.

Here are Collingwood's thoughts on the subject:

[I]t is not the function of the historian to pass judgment, but to explain; and to explain is always to justify, to show the rationality of that which is explained; for (he goes on) whereas the practical consciousness always looks to the future and tries to bring into existence something better than what now exists, and therefore always regards the present as bad, whereas it can regard the past as simply good because it is not real and therefore has not to be opposed and improved, the theoretical or historical consciousness, concerned simply with what is, must regard the present with an impartial eye and must therefore see in it the outcome of all the past's endeavor, and therefore better than the past. [402]

To say that the whole course of history has been a continual passage from the good to the better is true and valuable, if it means that we must look at history not with a view to criticizing it but with a view to accepting it and reconciling ourselves to it, not it to ourselves. But it is false if it means that we are called upon to pass moral judgments on its course and at the same time restricted from passing any but a favorable judgment. We are not called upon to pass moral judgments at all. Our business is simply to face the facts. To say that the Greek victory at Marathon was a good thing or the Renaissance papacy a bad thing is simply to indulge in fantasies that impede, instead of advancing, the course of historical study. The real holocaust of history is that historian's holocaust of his emotional and practical reactions towards the facts that it presents to his gaze. True history must be absolutely passionless, absolutely devoid of all judgments of value, of whatever kind. [402]

[I]t's easy to forget that what we are studying is the past, and to deceive ourselves into thinking that Athens and Sparta are as real as France and Germany. And we do this, we feel about them as we feel about France and Germany, that it is up to us to do something about it, to decide upon a course of action, or at least to make up our minds how we should act if opportunity arose to act. It will not arise; and for that very reason we may take the same kind of self-deceptive pleasure in making up our minds how we should act that we take in framing pungent rapartees to an adversary whom we know we shall not meet. We are amusing ourselves by transplanting ourselves in imagination into a scene whose very essence, as an object of historical thought, is that we are not in it and can never be in it: and this not only confuses our historical thinking but squanders in fantasies our moral energy which it is our duty to devote to the actual problems of life. [403]

To pass moral judgments on the past is to fall into the fallacy of imagining that somewhere, behind a veil, the past is still happening; and that when we so imagine it we will fall into a kind of rage of thwarted activity as if the massacre of Corsyra was now being enacted in the next room and we ought to break open the door and stop it. To rescue ourselves from the state of mind we need only to realize clearly that these things have been; they are over; there is nothing to be done about them; the dead must be left to bury their dead and praise their virtues and lament their loss. [404]

The Idea of History (Revised Edition)

Friday, September 18, 2015

China Bit: Sirens in Suzhou

Sirens to remind people of Japanese aggression
Sep 9, 2015|By Pan Zheng

Air raid sirens will sound across Suzhou on September 18 to mark the outbreak of China’s War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression in 1931. The city government decided to test sirens on this day instead of April 27, the anniversary of Suzhou’s liberation in 1949.
All over Jiangsu Province, sirens will be heard to commemorate the September 18 Incident 84 years ago when the Japanese army attacked Chinese troops in Manchuria, setting off a 14-year war in China.
The sirens will sound at 10pm and last nine minutes. People are reminded to stay calm during the alarm.


I Googled the item above as sirens here began wailing at 10 a.m. this morning. Given that began wailing at exactly 10 a.m. and that the weather outside was calm--being a good Iowan the first thing that I think of with a warning siren--I didn't think too much of it. Also, the pedestrians, cyclists, and motorists continued in their nonchalant ways. But a second round led me to my computer to find the above. I'd never heard warning sirens here before. (Note that the article refers to them as "air raid sirens". Really?)
This reminder of Japanese aggression isn't the only recent reminder of that distant war  that the Chinese people have received of late. Earlier this month the Chinese celebrated a new holiday to mark the surrender of the Japanese to Chinese forces, ending the brutal and humiliating occupation of China by the Japanese. The big-wigs celebrated by holding a Soviet-style parade of military hardware and goose-stepping troops parading through Tiananmen Square. Apropos the occasion, Vladimir Putin attended as a guest. Meanwhile, a great many ordinary Chinese spent the holiday pouring into Japanese-owned malls to buy Japanese-manufactured goods, or they went out and bought Japanese brand cars. One senses a disconnect from the leadership's ideas about how they should think of Japan. For C, it was a day off of school. 
Some suggest that all of this reminder of a war that ended over 70 years ago is to foment nationalist pride and denigrate the Japanese. In the U.S.,  it would be the equivalent of sounding sirens to mark December 7, 1941, and the bombing of Pearl Harbor, or to declare a national holiday for V-J Day. Even in my youth, less than 20 years after V-J Day, I don't recall any commemoration. And while the anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack was noted, it was not a holiday or major event.  Those who lived then and were affected by the war, such as my parents, certainly recalled that date and what they were doing when they learned of the attack. But for us young ones, it was strictly a historical event.  The current generational equivalent is 9/11, but note that American high schools are now populated by those who have no personal memory of 9/11. Time passes. 
As for me, if I'd have been asked, I would have suggested a celebration of 70 years of peace between China and Japan (and the U.S. and Japan). The cause for celebration is the successful rehabilitation of Japan after the war and its place in the world today. A fact, that I must add, justifies some measure of American pride. 
Anyway, an interesting choice of a date to test the sirens. But was something else something else being tested? 

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Seeking Redemption--Having Watched the Republican Debate

I have an urge to go find a confessional. Why? Because I just spent almost 3 hours of my precious remaining time on earth watching a (so-called) debate between the Republican presidential hopefuls. Masochism is certainly a sin, isn't it? But I will try to justify this exercise of watching a once great party brought low by sharing my observations and attempting to obtain some insight into the thoughts--however deceitful or irrational--on display during this time. I'll keep my observations short; while greater than tweet-length, not too deep. 

The CNN hype at the beginning: "round 2", the "main event", and "you don't know what might happen tonight".  Appalling! American political discourse put on the level of a boxing match. This may be on par with the level of thought, but it's not the way we should be approaching the selection of a presidential nominee. 


At least Donald Trump had the good sense not to do the marriage & kids thing. Are we supposed to be selecting spouse-in-chief? Father (or mother Carly) knows best? 


Ben Carson used the word "portend". Awfully high-brow! And Trump used "braggadocious".  (At least that's how I think you'd spell it.) 


Trump is such a blow-hard, so full of bombast. Is anyone else reminded of Mussolini by his preening and facial gestures? (Not to mention the bombast.) 


Paul called out Trump for his "sophomoric" behavior and "junior high" name-calling. Rightly put, at least if we consider it benign, but perhaps it isn't. 


I can see why Ben Carson would appeal to many. He's a blank slate for the most part with conservative instincts and a thoughtful demeanor. You have a sense that if elected, he'd try to do the right things (although I don't think his ideas of what those right--even far right--things would be.)


I am shocked--shocked!--to learn how weak and puny our military is. We're pushed around by everyone! We should spend more money on our military and make it strong! Someone should tell the other nations of the world how weak we are, they seem to believe otherwise. Does it have to do with the fact that we outspend something like the next 12-15 nations combined on the military? 


The debate "moderator" and two questioners let the bullshit slide right past them without  so much as a mental bleep. 


Bush & Rubio, both from Florida, were willing to admit Hispanic connections (marriage, family) and to speaking Spanish. Refreshing given the high degree of xenophobia otherwise at play. 


Trump & Fiorina shared each other's failings in business. Why on earth do we persist on believing that somehow business people would make outstanding political leaders? You have to climb the greasy pole in most any organization (unless family-owned), but other than that, politics and government are very different from running a business. 


One point of Huckabee: he seems to be advocating a consumption tax, which might not prove a bad idea. (See economist Robert Frank on this idea.)


Republicans love foreign policy because each seems to thrive on the fantasy of tough talk and military deployment (sane words from Rand Paul providing a welcome respite from that nonsense.) Unreality pervades all politics, but at some point, it gets too close to real. 


Trump almost admits to his ignorance. Not as humility--I challenge you to find any humility in this man--but almost as a "so what?" moment. I can buy the right advisors! 


Huckabee referenced "the enemies within"? Is he yearning for the paranoia of the Cold War? It's a really scary phrase. 


Several of the candidates sounded as if they were running for president of Israel. News flash: you're not. Israel is an ally whose interests often overlap with ours, but whose policies (especially given the current government) are not necessarily in line with those of the U.S. The job of the president is to define and pursue the interests of one nation and one people: the United States. This doesn't mean non-cooperation or going it alone; quite the contrary. But friends don't enable friends to do stupid things or things contrary to our vital interests. 

Ted Cruz wants a bust of Churchill back in the White House. Why not that of FDR, the great American president? And I think Cruz, if he ever bothered, would find Churchill a supreme realist (mostly), not an ideologue of the Cruz-crazy ilk. 


All the candidates invoked the god Reagan as they all want to act so differently than he acted (raising taxes, negotiating with foes, "soft" on immigration, etc.). How our words sing praises to our deities as our actions mock them. (Of course, Reagan did this, too.)


Some pandering to resentment. Someone rolled out the old "those who play by the rules" chestnut. But the magnet of resentments, Trump, appeals to resentment with a dog whistle outside of the debate forum. 


I missed a bit of the debate (happily called away to Skype with my daughter), and so I missed the part about climate change, the polar bear in the room that Republicans choose to ignore. And then (and I'm glad my public health daughter missed this), they went off on vaccines. Did Dr. Carson not scream? Enough on these topics alone to never vote for these guys or gal.


In fairness, Kasich seems rational and qualified. By far. Paul is refreshing on foreign and military policy. Rubio bright but limited. A kid. Carson a fine man, but not a vibrant political or policy thinker or leader. (It takes both.) 


But mostly I'm sad that the once great party has regressed to the Know-Nothing party against immigrants, science, diplomacy, and real economics. Sad for our nation. 

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

An Autobiography by R.G. Collingwood

A generic cover. Not a generic philosopher
After reading Collingwood's Autobiography, I started and am in the midst of James Hillman’s The Soul’s Code: In Search of Character about Hillman’s acorn theory of individuals. (To be reviewed after I finish it.) One of the first items he considers in his review of biographical material from a variety of individuals, is this quote from Collingwood’s An Autobiography.
My father had plenty of books, and … one day when I was eight years old curiosity moved me to take down a little black book lettered on its spine “Kant’s Theory of Ethics.” … as I began reading it, my small form wedged between the bookcase and the table, I was attacked by a strange succession of emotions. First came an intense excitement. I felt that things of the highest importance were being said about matters of the utmost urgency: things which at all costs I must understand. Then, with a wave of indignation, came the discovery that I could not understand them. Disgraceful to confess, here was a book whose words were English and whose sentences were grammatical, but whose meaning baffled me. Then, third and last, came the strangest emotion of all. I felt that the contents of this book, although I could not understand it, were somehow my business: a matter personal to myself, or rather to some future self of my own.… there was no desire in it; I did not, in any natural sense of the word, “want” to master the Kantian ethics when I should be old enough; but I felt as if a veil had been lifted and my destiny revealed. There came upon me by degrees, after this, a sense of being burdened with a task whose nature I could not define except by saying, “I must think.” What I was to think about I did not know; and when, obeying this command, I fell silent and absent-minded.

Hillman, James (2013-02-06). The Soul's Code: In Search of Character and Calling (Kindle Locations 270-280). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition, quoting Collingwood, An Autobiography, 3-4
Image result for R.G. Collingwood imagesHillman uses this quote to illustrate his contention that each of has a daimon or genius to which we are called. But it serves as well to locate the subject of the autobiography and the path he will take. This nerdy, precocious, and rather quiet kid became a man who looks as if he could have been a chartered accountant during the inter-war period, or at best, a model for Hercule Poirot—not at all a demeaning model if you’ve read The Idea of History. But his appearance belies the power of his thinking. Collingwood was, by his own admission, a lone wolf even as he arose to the prominence of an endowed chair in philosophy at Oxford. He had no fellow combatants as he challenged the ‘realist’ philosophers that ruled in British philosophy, men like Moore, Russell, Wittgenstein, and their acolytes. And, as Collingwood laments in his book, although his thinking is quite different from the British Idealists who preceded him, because he’d rejected the contemporary realist camp, having tried it and found it wanting, he was dubbed an ‘Idealist’ and shunted aside. One of the interesting aspects of this book, which is really a history—would Collingwood approve of my use of the word ‘history’ here?—of Collingwood’s intellectual development. He writes very respectfully and without any personal venom (Russell perhaps excepted) about forbearers and contemporaries of all stripes, and then he cuts them to intellectual ribbons. This unassuming appearing man wielded an intellectual switchblade.
What makes this book compelling is not just the intellectual firepower, the incisive prose, or the pithy aphorisms, but the fact that this was a man on fire. He was on fire with profound new ideas. And he was on fire because he knew that death was chasing him, threatening to cut him down before he made his ideas known. The history of this book tells us a good deal. It was “written at top speed in the late summer of 1938” according to biographer Fred Inglis. (Inglis, Fred (2009-07-06). History Man: The Life of R. G. Collingwood (p. 217). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.) Collingwood had already suffered minor strokes and he’d realized that he was headed to an early death, which he suffered in January 1943, just short of age 54. Collingwood wanted to get his ideas out, and he disliked the idea of leaving the problems of publication to an executor, as he writes in his Autobiography. In fact, Collingwood’s best-known work, The Idea of History, was published posthumously under the direction of his literary executor, his former student T.M. Knox, and this effort proved problematic, as Collingwood suspected it would. Some of Knox’s choices are hard to defend now, including his undervaluation of Collingwood’s late works, like An Autobiography and The New Leviathan.
Under these time constraints, Collingwood also wanted to make sure that he contributed to the struggle in the wider world, especially against fascism. As his autobiography makes clear, Collingwood wanted not only to think about the world and history, he wanted to change the world and the way that we consider and use history. While some of his ideas about the nature of fascism seem dated now, and his failure to address the ravages of totalitarian communism seems naïve or negligent, the reader does perceive that this is someone who knows that the world has gone badly astray. He is deeply critical of some fellow philosophers, many of whom spin theories more and more abstracted from the outside world. He also lays into the politicians that created the Treaty of Versailles that made such a mess of the post war world. When this seemingly mild-mannered, mild-looking man looks askance at a person or practice, he can take on the visage of a fire-breathing dragon.
If you’re a Collingwood fan, or want to read more about how one man saw the world and philosophy from about 1910 to 1938 and how he grew within that period, then this is an excellent book. And if you want to see an A+ philosopher at work, one who bucked the trends and got a great deal right, then this book is for you.
As I intend to write more about Collingwood in the future, I won’t write more here, but I’ll share a selection of quotes from his book. There’s so much here to ponder: applaud, question, and build upon, but that’s for a later time. Read a bit here and there, and I think that you’ll get a sense of this underappreciated man. 
All quotes from of Collingwood, R. G. An Autobiography. Read Books Ltd.. Kindle Edition. Following each quote is its Kindle location:

[The natural sciences have a history of their own, and . . . the doctrines they teach on any given subject, at any given time, have been reached not by some discoverer penetrating to the truth after ages of error, but by the gradual modification of doctrines previously held; and will at some future date, unless thinking stops, be themselves no less modified.  64
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Here I was only rediscovering for myself, in the practice of historical research, principles which Bacon and Descartes had stated, three hundred years earlier, in connexion [sic] with the natural sciences. Each of them had said very plainly that knowledge comes only by answering questions, and that these questions must be the right questions and asked in the right order. And I had often read the works in which they said it; but I did not understand them until I had found the same thing out for myself. 321
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The questioning activity, as I called it, was not an activity of achieving compresence with, or apprehension of, something; it was not preliminary to the act of knowing; it was one half (the other half being answering the question) of an act which in its totality was knowing. 335
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I therefore taught my pupils, more by example than by precept, that they must never accept any criticism of anybody’s philosophy which they might hear or read without satisfying themselves by first-hand study that this was the philosophy he actually expounded; that they must always defer any criticism of their own until they were absolutely sure they understood the text they were criticizing; and that if the postponement was sine die it did not greatly matter. 343
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My plan was to concentrate on the question, ‘What is Aristotle saying and what does he mean by it?’ and to forgo, however alluring it might be, the further question ‘Is it true?’ 351
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My work in archaeology, as I have said, impressed upon me the importance of the ‘questioning activity’ in knowledge: and this made it impossible for me to rest contented with the intuitionist theory of knowledge favoured by the ‘realists’. 381

They were the classical expressions of a principle in logic which I found it necessary to restate: the principle that a body of knowledge consists not of ‘propositions’, ‘statements’, ‘judgements’, or whatever name logicians use in order to designate assertive acts of thought (or what in those acts is asserted: for ‘knowledge’ means both the activity of knowing and what is known), but of these together with the questions they are meant to answer; and that a logic in which the answers are attended to and the questions neglected is a false logic. 386
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I began by observing that you cannot find out what a man means by simply studying his spoken or written statements, even though he has spoken or written with perfect command of language and perfectly truthful intention. In order to find out his meaning you must also know what the question was (a question in his own mind, and presumed by him to be in yours) to which the thing he has said or written was meant as an answer. It must be understood that question and answer, as I conceived them, were strictly correlative. 396

The current logic maintained that two propositions might, simply as propositions, contradict one another, and that by examining them simply as propositions you could find out whether they did so or not. This I denied. If you cannot tell what a proposition means unless you know what question it is meant to answer, you will mistake its meaning if you make a mistake about that question.  414

No two propositions, I saw, can contradict one another unless they are answers to the same question. 417
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Meaning, agreement and contradiction, truth and falsehood, none of these belonged to propositions in their own right, propositions by themselves; they belonged only to propositions as the answers to questions: each proposition answering a question strictly correlative to itself. 421
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There have always been people who saw that the true ‘unit of thought’ was not the proposition but something more complex in which the proposition served as answer to a question. Not only Bacon and Descartes, but Plato and Kant, come to mind as examples. When Plato described thinking as a ‘dialogue of the soul with itself’, he meant (as we know from his own dialogues) that it was a process of question and answer, and that of these two elements the primacy belongs to the questioning activity, the Socrates within us.  435
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For a logic of propositions I wanted to substitute what I called a logic of question and answer. It seemed to me that truth, if that meant the kind of thing which I was accustomed to pursue in my ordinary work as a philosopher or historian—truth in the sense in which a philosophical theory or an historical narrative is called true, which seemed to me the proper sense of the word—was something that belonged not to any single proposition, nor even, as the coherence-theorists maintained, to a complex of propositions taken together; but to a complex consisting of questions and answers. 456
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By ‘right’ I do not mean ‘true’. The ‘right’ answer to a question is the answer which enables us to get ahead with the process of questioning and answering. 465
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What is ordinarily meant when a proposition is called ‘true’, I thought, was this: (a) the proposition belongs to a question-and-answer complex which as a whole is ‘true’ in the proper sense of the word; (b) within this complex it is an answer to a certain question; (c) the question is what we ordinarily call a sensible or intelligent question, not a silly one, or in my terminology it ‘arises’; (d) the proposition is the ‘right’ answer to that question. 472
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[T]he question ‘To what question did So-and-so intend this proposition for an answer?’ is an historical question, and therefore cannot be settled except by historical methods. When So-and-so wrote in a distant past, it is generally a very difficult one, because writers (at any rate good writers) always write for their contemporaries, and in particular for those who are ‘likely to be interested’, which means those who are already asking the question to which an answer is being offered; and consequently a writer very seldom explains what the question is that he is trying to answer. Later on, when he has become a ‘classic’ and his contemporaries are all long dead, the question has been forgotten; especially if the answer he gave was generally acknowledged to be the right answer; for in that case people stopped asking the question, and began asking the question that next arose. 484
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For example, metaphysicians have been heard to say ‘the world is both one and many’; and critics have not been wanting who were stupid enough to accuse them of contradicting themselves, on the abstractly logical ground that ‘the world is one’ and ‘the world is many’ are mutually contradictory propositions. A great deal of the popular dislike of metaphysics is based on grounds of this sort, and is ultimately due to critics who, as we say, did not know what the men they criticized were talking about; that is, did not know what questions their talk was intended to answer; but, with the ordinary malevolence of the idle against the industrious, the ignorant against the learned, the fool against the wise man, wished to have it believed that they were talking nonsense.  498
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 [P]hilosophy, from the days of Socrates down to our own lifetime, had been regarded as an attempt to think out more clearly the issues involved in conduct, for the sake of acting better. 571
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[I urged my students to take] this subject [moral philosophy] seriously, because whether you understand it or not will make a difference to your whole lives’. The ‘realist’, on the contrary, said to his pupils, ‘If it interests you to study this, do so; but don’t think it will be of any use to you. Remember the great principle of realism, that nothing is affected by being known. That is as true of human action as of anything else. Moral philosophy is only the theory of moral action: it can’t therefore make any difference to the practice of moral action. People can act just as morally without it as with it. I stand here as a moral philosopher; I will try to tell you what acting morally is, but don’t expect me to tell you how to do it.’ 582
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The inference which any pupil could draw for himself [from the realists] was that for guidance in the problems of life, since one must not seek it from thinkers or from thinking, from ideals or from principles, one must look to people who were not thinkers (but fools), to processes that were not thinking (but passion), to aims that were not ideals (but caprices), and to rules that were not principles (but rules of expediency). If the realists had wanted to train up a generation of Englishmen and Englishwomen expressly as the potential dupes of every adventurer in morals or politics, commerce or religion, who should appeal to their emotions and promise them private gains which he neither could procure them nor even meant to procure them, no better way of doing it could have been discovered. 590
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The school of [T.H.] Green had taught that philosophy was not a preserve for professional philosophers, but every one’s business; and the pupils of this school had gradually formed a block of opinion in the country whose members, though not professional philosophers, were interested in the subject, regarded it as important, and did not feel themselves debarred by their amateur status from expressing their own opinions about it. As these men died, no one took their place; and by about 1920 I found myself asking, ‘Why is it that nowadays no Oxford man, unless he is either about 70 years old or else a teacher of philosophy at Oxford or elsewhere, regards philosophy as anything but a futile parlour game?’ The answer was not difficult to find, and was confirmed by the fact that the ‘realists’, unlike the school of Green, did think philosophy a preserve for professional philosophers, and were loud in their contempt of philosophical utterances by historians, natural scientists, theologians, and other amateurs. 607
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They [the realists] were proud to have excogitated a philosophy so pure from the sordid taint of utility that they could lay their hands on their hearts and say it was no use at all; a philosophy so scientific that no one whose life was not a life of pure research could appreciate it, and so abstruse that only a whole-time student, and a very clever man at that, could understand it. They were quite resigned to the contempt of fools and amateurs. If anybody differed from them on these points, it could only be because his intellect was weak or his motives bad.  617
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In logic I am a revolutionary; and like other revolutionaries I can thank God for the reactionaries. They clarify the issue. 634
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So far as my philosophical ideas were concerned, I was now cut off not only from the ‘realist’ school to which most of my colleagues belonged, but from every other school of thought in England, I might almost say in the world. 637
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Viva voce [discussing]  philosophy is an excellent thing as between tutor and pupil; it may be valuable as between two intimate friends; it is tolerable as between a few friends who know each other very well; but in all these cases its only value is to make one party acquainted with the views of the other. Where it becomes argument, directed to refutation and conviction, it is useless, for (in my long experience, at least) no one has ever been convinced by it. Where it becomes general discussion it is an outrage. One of the company reads a paper, and the rest discuss it with a fluency directly proportional to their ignorance. To shine on such occasions one should have a rather obtuse, insensitive mind and a ready tongue. Whatever may be true of parrots, philosophers who cannot talk probably think the more, and those who think a lot certainly talk the less. 647
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 [A]ccording to my own ‘logic of question and answer’, a philosopher’s doctrines are his answers to certain questions he has asked himself, and no one who does not understand what the questions are can hope to understand the doctrines. The same logic committed me to the view that any one can understand any philosopher’s doctrines if he can grasp the questions which they are intended to answer. Those questions need not be his own; they may belong to a thought-complex very different from any that is spontaneously going on in his own mind; but this ought not to prevent him from understanding them and judging whether the persons interested in them are answering them rightly or wrongly. 658
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I found it not only a delightful task, but a magnificent exercise, to follow the work of contemporary philosophers whose views differed widely from my own, to write essays developing their positions and applying them to topics they had not dealt with, to reconstruct their problems in my own mind, and to study, often with the liveliest admiration, the way in which they had tried to solve them. This power of enjoying and admiring the work of other philosophers, no matter how widely their philosophies differed from mine, was not always pleasing to my colleagues. 680
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History did not mean knowing what events followed what. It meant getting inside other people’s heads, looking at their situation through their eyes, and thinking for yourself whether the way in which they tackled it was the right way. 693
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‘[R]ealists’ thought that the problems with which philosophy is concerned were unchanging. They thought that Plato, Aristotle, the Epicureans, the Stoics, the Schoolmen, the Cartesians, &c., had all asked themselves the same set of questions, and had given different answers to them. 699
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Plato’s πóλις and Hobbes’s absolutist State are related by a traceable historical process, whereby one has turned into the other; any one who ignores that process, denies the difference between them, and argues that where Plato’s political theory contradicts Hobbes’s one of them must be wrong, is saying the thing that is not. 741
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[T]he history of political theory is not the history of different answers given to one and the same question, but the history of a problem more or less constantly changing, whose solution was changing with it. 744
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[M]etaphysics (as its very name might show, though people still use the word as if it had been ‘paraphysics’) is no futile attempt at knowing what lies beyond the limits of experience, but is primarily at any given time an attempt to discover what the people of that time believe about the world’s general nature; such beliefs being the presuppositions of all their ‘physics’, that is, their inquiries into its detail.

. . . . Secondarily, it is the attempt to discover the corresponding presuppositions of other peoples and other times, and to follow the historical process by which one set of presuppositions has turned into another. 782-786
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[T]he beliefs whose history the metaphysician has to study are not answers to questions but only presuppositions of questions, and therefore the distinction between what is true and what is false does not apply to them, but only the distinction between what is presupposed and what is not presupposed. . . . [the] presupposition of one question may be the answer to another question. The beliefs which a metaphysician tries to study and codify are presuppositions of the questions asked by natural scientists, but are not answers to any questions at all. This might be expressed by calling them ‘absolute’ presuppositions. 791-793
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[T]he alleged distinction between the historical question and the philosophical must be false, because it presupposes the permanence of philosophical problems.  817

For me, then, there were not two separate sets of questions to be asked, one historical and one philosophical, about a given passage in a given philosophical author.  
There was one set only, historical. 851-852
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[Supposed criticisms of a philosopher] taught me a second [lesson], namely, ‘reconstruct the problem’; or, ‘never think you understand any statement made by a philosopher until you have decided, with the utmost possible accuracy, what the question is to which he means it for an answer’.  882
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For in the history of philosophy, as in every other kind, nothing capable of being learnt by heart, nothing capable of being memorized, is history.  894
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Nature was no longer a Sphinx asking man riddles; it was man that did the asking, and Nature, now, that he put to the torture until she gave him the answer to his questions. 926
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[The] chief business of twentieth-century philosophy is to reckon with twentieth-century history. 934
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 [I] had learnt by first-hand experience that history is not an affair of scissors and paste, but is much more like Bacon’s notion of science. The historian has to decide exactly what it is that he wants to know; and if there is no authority to tell him, as in fact (one learns in time) there never is, he has to find a piece of land or something that has got the answer hidden in it, and get the answer out by fair means or foul.  959
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In this sense, knowledge advances by proceeding not ‘from the known to the unknown’, but from the ‘unknown’ to the ‘known’. Obscure subjects, by forcing us to think harder and more systematically, sharpen our wits and thus enable us to dispel the fog of prejudice and superstition in which our minds are often wrapped when we think about what is familiar to us. 1014
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[It] was a commonplace, though a concealed one, that all ‘scientific’ knowledge in this way involves an historical element; and it was clear to me that any philosopher who offered a theory of ‘scientific method’, without being in a position to offer a theory of historical method, was defrauding his public by supporting his world on an elephant and hoping that nobody would ask what kept the elephant up. 1024
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[It] seemed to me as nearly certain as anything in the future could be, that historical thought, whose constantly increasing importance had been one of the most striking features of the nineteenth century, would increase in importance far more rapidly during the twentieth; and that we might very well be standing on the threshold of an age in which history would be as important for the world as natural science had been between 1600 and 1900. 1031
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A war [WWI] had just ended in which the destruction of life, the annihilation of property, and the disappointment of hopes for a peaceable and well-ordered international society, had surpassed all previous standards. What was worse, the intensity of the struggle seemed to have undermined, as if by the sheer force of the explosives it consumed, the moral energies of all the combatants; so that (I write as one who during the latter part of the war was employed in preparations for the peace conference) a war of unprecedented ferocity closed in a peace-settlement of unprecedented folly, in which statesmanship, even purely selfish statesmanship, was overwhelmed by the meanest and most idiotic passions. We had been warned some time ago, by Norman Angell, that in modern war there would be no victors in the sense that no party could be enriched by it; but we now learned that in another sense too there were no victors: no party whose morale rose superior to it; no group of statesmen who, by the end of it, had not become a mob of imbeciles, capable only of throwing away all the opportunities their soldiers had won them. 1044
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The War was an unprecedented triumph for natural science. Bacon had promised that knowledge would be power, and power it was: power to destroy the bodies and souls of men more rapidly than had ever been done by human agency before. This triumph paved the way to other triumphs: improvements in transport, in sanitation, in surgery, medicine, and psychiatry, in commerce and industry, and, above all, in preparations for the next war. 1052
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It happened because a situation got out of hand. As it went on, the situation got more and more out of hand. When the peace treaty was signed, it was more out of hand than ever. 1057
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The contrast between the success of modern European minds in controlling almost any situation in which the elements are physical bodies and the forces physical forces, and their inability to control situations in which the elements are human beings and the forces mental forces, left an indelible mark on the memory of every one who was concerned in it. 1059
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[F]or sheer ineptitude the Versailles treaty surpassed previous treaties as much as for sheer technical excellence the equipment of twentieth-century armies surpassed those of previous armies. 1062
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[It] seemed almost as if man’s power to control ‘Nature’ had been increasing pari passu with a decrease in his power to control human affairs. . . .  [I]t was a plain fact that the gigantic increase since about 1600 in his power to control Nature had not been accompanied by a corresponding increase, or anything like it, in his power to control human situations. 1063-1065
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Not only would any failure to control human affairs result in more and more widespread destruction as natural science added triumph to triumph, but the consequences would tend more and more to the destruction of whatever was good and reasonable in the civilized world; for the evil would always begin using the engines of destruction before the good, the fool always before the wise man. I seemed to see the reign of natural science, within no very long time, converting Europe into a wilderness of Yahoos. 1068
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 [A]ny attempt to bring ethics within the field of psychology (and attempts of that kind had been made often enough), or to do the same with politics, would necessarily and always result in failure. 1093
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Was it possible that men should come to a better understanding of human affairs by studying history? Was history the thing which in future might play a part in civilized life analogous to that of natural science in the past? Obviously not, if history was only a scissors-and-paste affair. 1115
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[An] historian cannot answer questions about the past unless he has evidence about it. His evidence, if he ‘has’ it, must be something existing here and now in his present world. If there were a past event which had left no trace of any kind in the present world, it would be a past event for which now there was no evidence, and nobody—no historian; I say nothing of other, perhaps more highly gifted, persons—could know anything about it.  1124
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In general terms, the modern historian can study the Middle Ages, in the way in which he actually does study them, only because they are not dead. By that I mean not that their writings and so forth are still in existence as material objects, but that their ways of thinking are still in existence as ways in which people still think. The survival need not be continuous.  1135
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By about 1920 this was my first principle of a philosophy of history: that the past which an historian studies is not a dead past, but a past which in some sense is still living in the present. 1138
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[H]istory is concerned not with ‘events’ but with ‘processes’; that ‘processes’ are things which do not begin and end but turn into one another; and that if a process P1 turns into a process P2, there is no dividing line at which P1 stops and P2 begins; P1 never stops, it goes on in the changed form P2, and P2 never begins, it has previously been going on in the earlier form P1. 1139
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There are in history no beginnings and no endings. History books begin and end, but the events they describe do not.  1143
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The old pragmatic idea of history was futile because its idea of history was the scissors-and-paste idea in which the past is a dead past, and knowing about it means only knowing what the authorities say about it. And that knowledge is useless as a guide to action; because, since history never exactly repeats itself, the problem before me now is never sufficiently like the problem described by my authorities to justify me in repeating the solution which then succeeded, or avoiding that which then failed. 1165
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[S]uppose the past lives on in the present; suppose, though incapsulated in it, and at first sight hidden beneath the present’s contradictory and more prominent features, it is still alive and active; then the historian may very well be related to the non-historian as the trained woodsman is to the ignorant traveller. 1169
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The historian’s business is to reveal the less obvious features hidden from a careless eye in the present situation. What history can bring to moral and political life is a trained eye for the situation in which one has to act.  1173
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[I]f ready-made rules for dealing with situations of specific types are what you want, natural science is the kind of thing which can provide them. The reason why the civilization of 1600–1900, based upon natural science, found bankruptcy staring it in the face was because, in its passion for ready-made rules, it had neglected to develop that kind of insight which alone could tell it what rules to apply, not in a situation of a specific type, but in the situation in which it actually found itself. It was precisely because history offered us something altogether different from rules, namely insight, that it could afford us the help we needed in diagnosing our moral and political problems.  1182
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[T]here are situations which, for one reason or another, can be handled without appeal to any ready-made rules at all, so long as you have insight into them. All you need in such cases is to see what the situation is, and you can then extemporize a way of dealing with it which will prove satisfactory. 1189
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When I speak of action, I shall be referring to that kind of action in which the agent does what he does not because he is in a certain situation, but because he knows or believes himself to be in a certain situation. 1192
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I shall not be referring to any kind of action which arises as a mere response to stimuli which the situation may contain, or as the mere effect of the agent’s nature or disposition or temporary state. And when I speak of action according to rule, I shall be referring to that kind of action in which the agent, knowing or believing that there is a certain rule, applicable to the situation in which he knows or believes himself to be, decides to act in accordance with it. . . .  I shall not be referring to any kind of action in which the agent, though actually obeying a rule, is unaware that he is doing so. 1194; 1197Top of Form

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Rules of conduct kept action at a low potential, because they involved a certain blindness to the realities of the situation. If action was to be raised to a higher potential, the agent must open his eyes wider and see more clearly the situation in which he was acting. If the function of history was to inform people about the past, where the past was understood as a dead past, it could do very little towards helping them to act; but if its function was to inform them about the present, in so far as the past, its ostensible subject-matter, was incapsulated in the present and constituted a part of it not at once obvious to the untrained eye, then history stood in the closest possible relation to practical life. 1237
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[Chapter title] HISTORY AS THE SELF-KNOWLEDGE OF MIND 1248
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History and pseudo-history alike consisted of narratives: but in history these were narratives of purposive activity, and the evidence for them consisted of relics they had left behind (books or potsherds, the principle was the same) which became evidence precisely to the extent to which the historian conceived them in terms of purpose, that is, understood what they were for; in pseudo-history there is no conception of purpose, there are only relics of various kinds, differing among themselves in such ways that they have to be interpreted as relics of different pasts which can be arranged on a time-scale. 1276
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 ‘[A]ll history is the history of thought.’ You are thinking historically, I meant, when you say about anything, ‘I see what the person who made this (wrote this, used this, designed this, &c.) was thinking.’ Until you can say that, you may be trying to think historically but you are not succeeding. And there is nothing else except thought that can be the object of historical knowledge.  1281
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Political history is the history of political thought: not ‘political theory’, but the thought which occupies the mind of a man engaged in political work: the formation of a policy, the planning of means to execute it, the attempt to carry it into effect, the discovery that others are hostile to it, the devising of ways to overcome their hostility, and so forth. 1284
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Consider how the historian describes a famous speech. He does not concern himself with any sensuous elements in it such as the pitch of the statesman’s voice, the hardness of the benches, the deafness of the old gentleman in the third row: he concentrates his attention on what the man was trying to say (the thought, that is, expressed in his words) and how his audience received it (the thoughts in their minds, and how these conditioned the impact upon them of the statesman’s thought). 1286
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On what conditions was it possible to know the history of a thought? First, the thought must be expressed: either in what we call language, or in one of the many other forms of expressive activity. 1292
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Secondly, the historian must be able to think over again for himself the thought whose expression he is trying to interpret.  1295
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I will not offer to help a reader who replies, ‘ah, you are making it easy for yourself by taking an example where history really is the history of thought; you couldn’t explain the history of a battle or a political campaign in that way.’ I could, and so could you, Reader, if you tried. 1302
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This gave me a second proposition: ‘historical knowledge is the re-enactment in the historian’s mind of the thought whose history he is studying.’ 1305
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 ‘Historical knowledge is the re-enactment of a past thought in-capsulated in a context of present thoughts which, by contradicting it, confine it to a plane different from theirs.’ 1328
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Every historical problem ultimately arises out of ‘real’ life.1331
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In the kind of history that I am thinking of, the kind I have been practising all my life, historical problems arise out of practical problems. We study history in order to see more clearly into the situation in which we are called upon to act. Hence the plane on which, ultimately, all problems arise is the plane of ‘real’ life: that to which they are referred for their solution is history. 1333
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In knowing that somebody else thought it, he knows that he himself is able to think it. And finding out what he is able to do is finding out what kind of a man he is. If he is able to understand, by rethinking them, the thoughts of a great many different kinds of people, it follows that he must be a great many kinds of man. He must be, in fact, a microcosm of all the history he can know. Thus his own self-knowledge is at the same time his knowledge of the world of human affairs. 1338
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[T]he question that had haunted me ever since the War. How could we construct a science of human affairs, so to call it, from which men could learn to deal with human situations as skillfully [sic] as natural science had taught them to deal with situations in the world of Nature? . . . . [The] answer was now clear and certain. The science of human affairs was history. 1342;1344

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[T]he revolution in historical method which had superseded scissors-and-paste history by what I called history proper had swept away these sham sciences and had brought into existence a genuine, actual, visibly and rapidly progressing form of knowledge which now for the first time was putting man in a position to obey the oracular precept ‘know thyself’, and to reap the benefits that only such obedience could confer. 1353
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[A] second principle was that, since history proper is the history of thought, there are no mere ‘events’ in history: what is miscalled an ‘event’ is really an action, and expresses some thought (intention, purpose) of its agent; the historian’s business is therefore to identify this thought. 1478
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[The] third principle was that no historical problem should be studied without studying what I called its second-order history; that is, the history of historical thought about it. 1526
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Just as philosophical criticism resolved itself into the history of philosophy, so historical criticism resolved itself into the history of history. 1533
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[N]o historian is entitled to draw cheques in his own favour on evidence that he does not possess, however lively his hopes that it may hereafter be discovered. He must argue from the evidence he has, or stop arguing. 1600
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If you want to know why a certain kind of thing happened in a certain kind of case, you must begin by asking, ‘What did you expect?’ You must consider what the normal development is in cases of that kind. Only then, if the thing that happened in this case was exceptional, should you try to explain it by appeal to exceptional conditions. 1618
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[The] opposite of this dogma seemed to me not only a truth, but a truth which, for the sake of his integrity and efficacy as a moral agent in the wider sense of that term, ought to be familiar to every human being: namely, that in his capacity as a moral, political, or economic agent he lives not in a world of ‘hard facts’ to which ‘thoughts’ make no difference, but in a world of ‘thoughts’; that if you change the moral, political, and economic ‘theories’ generally accepted by the society in which he lives, you change the character of his world; and that if you change his own ‘theories’ you change his relation to that world; so that in either case you change the ways in which he acts. 1698
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It could be admitted that the way in which a man acts, in so far as he is a moral, political, economic agent, is not independent of the way in which he thinks of the situation in which he finds himself. . . .   If knowledge as to the facts of one’s situation is called historical knowledge, historical knowledge is necessary to action. But it could still be argued that philosophical thinking, which has to do with timeless ‘universals’, is not necessary. 1704-1706
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My notion was that one and the same action, which as action pure and simple was a ‘moral’ action, was also a ‘political’ action as action relative to a rule, and at the same time an ‘economic’ action as means to an end. . . . There were, I held, no merely moral actions, no merely political actions, and no merely economic actions. Every action was moral, political, and economic. 1715; 1720-1721

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The rapprochement between theory and practice was equally incomplete. I no longer thought of them as mutually independent: I saw that the relation between them was one of intimate and mutual dependence, thought depending upon what the thinker learned by experience in action, action depending upon how he thought of himself and the world; I knew very well, too, that scientific, historical, or philosophical thinking depended quite as much on ‘moral’ qualities as on ‘intellectual’ ones, and that ‘moral’ difficulties were to be overcome not by ‘moral’ force alone but by clear thinking. 1728
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I did not see that my attempted reconstruction of moral philosophy would remain incomplete so long as my habits were based on the vulgar division of men into thinkers and men of action. 1733
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My philosophy and my habits were thus in conflict; I lived as if I disbelieved my own philosophy, and philosophized as if I had not been the professional thinker that in fact I was. My wife used to tell me so; and I used to be a good deal annoyed. 1742
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The whole system [electoral democracy], however, would break down if a majority of the electorate should become either ill informed on public questions or corrupt in their attitude towards them: by which I mean, capable of adopting towards them a policy directed not to the good of the nation as a whole, but to the good of their own class or section or of themselves. 1786
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Then came the Daily Mail, the first English newspaper for which the word ‘news’ lost its old meaning of facts which a reader ought to know if he was to vote intelligently, and acquired the new meaning of facts, or fictions, which it might amuse him to read. By reading such a paper, he was no longer teaching himself to vote. He was teaching himself not to vote; for he was teaching himself to think of ‘the news’ not as the situation in which he was to act, but as a mere spectacle for idle moments. 1791
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I know that Fascism means the end of clear thinking and the triumph of irrationalism. I know that all my life I have been engaged unawares in a political struggle, fighting against these things in the dark. Henceforth I shall fight in the daylight. 1926