Regarding Arthur Schopenhauer's "Of the Sufferings of the World."
The essay displays, as expected, the extraordinary eloquence and intelligence of the author. But in the end, I am convinced that he is describing the tortured mind of Arthur Schopenhauer, not of “man”. I find very little warrant in that essay to make the generalization. Of course, that argument appears elsewhere in his metaphysical writings, in particular in The World as Will and Idea. But as I indicated earlier, but won’t elaborate here, I have even more fundamental problems with that metaphysics.
Let this suffice: Schopenhauer, like the logical positivists (e.g. Ayer) and some existentialists (e.g. Sartre) attempts to find the grounds of ethics in the experience of individuals (in Schopenhauer’s case, in his own experience). Finding none there, Ayer and Sartre conclude that there is no objective foundation of ethics. Schopenhauer, as indicated in the final paragraphs of the essay, does find such grounds. However, all three fail to appreciate that morality is a social phenomenon, and it is in the complexity of human interactions that the justifications for moral behavior might be found. (See my “Conscience of a Progressive”, especially Chapter 12),
Much of what Schopenhauer says in “Sufferings,” while presumably true of the author,” is simply false in my experience and, I suspect, of almost everyone else. To take just one example:
The delight which a man has in hoping for and looking forward to some special satisfaction is a part of the real pleasure attaching to it enjoyed in advance. This is afterwards deducted: for the more we look forward to anything else, the less satisfaction we find in it when it comes.
Have you not, many times in your life, had a mildly pleasant anticipation, or even no pleasure at all in anticipation of an event which, to your amazement, turned out to be a total hedonic “blast”? I know that I have. And what of pleasant surprises, utterly unanticipated? Schopenhauer apparently experienced none of this. Poor man!
As a counterexample in my own experience, in 1989 I decided to attend a gathering of Orange County philosophers at the home of my late friend, Gregory Kavka. As often as not I opted not to attend these informal discussions, and might well have done so this time. As it happened, we hosted a group of travelling philosophers from Soviet Academy of Sciences, and that meeting resulted in an invitation to present a paper at conference in Moscow which, in turn, led to an involvement with Russian philosophers and environmentalists that continues to this day. In the decade that followed that chance meeting I travelled seven times to Russia, with most expenses paid either by my university or my Russia hosts. In short: pleasant surprises and experiences far exceeding the pleasures of anticipation.
Next, consider this, where Schopenhauer seems to be saying that it would have been better if life had never appeared on the Earth:
If you try to imagine, as nearly as you can, what an amount of misery, pain and suffering of every kind the sun shines upon in its course, you will admit that it would be much better if, on the earth as little as on the moon, the sun were able to call forth the phenomena of life; and if, here as there, the surface were still in a crystalline state.
Again, you may look upon life as an unprofitable episode, disturbing the blessed calm of non-existence. And, in any case, even though things have gone with you tolerably well, the longer you live the more clearly you will feel that, on the whole, life is a disappointment, nay, a cheat
As I read this, I thought of the concluding paragraph in Norman Malcolm’s Wittgenstein: A Memoir, where Malcolm cites Wittgenstein’s final words: “Tell them I had a wonderful life.” He continues:
By “them” he undoubtedly meant his close friends. When I think of his profound pessimism, the intensity of his mental and moral suffering, the relentless way in which he drove his intellect, his need for love together with the harshness that repelled love, I am inclined to believe that this life was fiercely unhappy. Yet at the end he himself exclaimed that it had been “wonderful.”! To me this seems a mysterious and strangely moving utterance.
This leads me to ask, was Wittgenstein mistaken in saying that he “had a wonderful life?” How might one prove otherwise? Who is a better judge on the value of that life than Wittgenstein? Doesn’t that judgment come close to what philosophers call an indisputable datum?
Several years ago, the journal Ethics (University of Chicago) asked me to referee a strange paper, wherein the anonymous author (it was a blind review), in a labored hedonic/phenomenalistic analysis, concluded that when the pluses and minuses are all added up, human life is not worth living and that it would be better if the planet were obliterated by a cosmic catastrophe such as an asteroid collision or a nova. A similar conclusion, it seems, to that of Schopenhauer.
Apparently that argument failed to convince the author since, had it done so, he never would have written the paper due to his prior suicide. I believe that in my critique of that paper I cited the Malcolm’s closing paragraph.
Personally, I associate myself with Wittgenstein and against Schopenhauer, and understandably so since I have had a much less tortured life than either of them. There is much in my life that I regret and some for which I am ashamed, and I have suffered a few injustices (notably by the U/U Philosophy Department in 1971). Still, I would not for an instant choose turn down an opportunity to live it again.
So in conclusion, I must feel pity for the man who wrote “On the Sufferings of the World,” and gratitude that he spoke for himself and not for mankind at large. To be sure, there is a great deal of suffering in the world, but it is not due to the metaphysical foundations of the human will and anticipations. Rather it is due human injustice and folly – the incapacity of human political and economic institutions to deal with crises that are largely the result of greed, selfishness and the consequences of industrialization. Witness global climate change, energy policy (“peak oil”), population, oligarchy, etc. These crises could, in principle, be dealt with through humane and rational policies, but it is apparent now that they will not be.
And these are grounds for genuine pessimism. Those grounds are social, institutional, political and economic, not, as Schopenhauer would have it, metaphysical.
Still, all this is no excuse for inaction and resignation. History has a way of coming up with surprises, and men and women of good will are morally obligated to “assist history” in achieving the apparently impossible. The lives of great men and women such as Harriet Tubman, Susan B. Anthony, Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, and Andrei Sakharov all testify to the validity of such efforts.
So we (and in particular, myself), have no need for Schopenhauer right now. Nor for that matter, for optiminsts like Leibnitz, or his contemporary counterparts Julian Simon and Milton Friedman.
On "Balance" and "False Equivalency"
I believe that my primary dispute with Schopenhauer (as I perhaps dimly understand him) is that he counsels acceptance of suffering with resignation. On the contrary, I believe that the enduring responsibility of all moral persons is to actively mitigate suffering and resist evil, with the understanding that neither can be entirely eliminated. Thus I endorse Robert Kennedy's oft-quoted remark: "There are those who look at things the way they are, and ask why... I dream of things that never were, and ask why not."
There is much to say in favor of the eastern view of inclusion, particularly as a solvent to the rampant Manichaeism that pervades western religion and politics. Witness the often phony divisions between "left" and "right," and "liberal" and "conservative," in today's political rhetoric.
But one can carry this inclusion business too far. I am reminded of Bertrand Russell's comment on Aristotle's Golden Mean:
"There was once a mayor who had adopted Aristotle’s doctrine; at the end of his term of office he made a speech saying that he had endeavored to steer the narrow line between partiality on the one hand and impartiality on the other. The view of truthfulness as a mean seems scarcely less absurd."
Yet today in the corporate media, we find "truth as a mean" repeatedly displayed in the "false equivalency" phenomenon whereby confirmed empirical and scientific truth must somehow be "balanced" with a contrary view, however dubious. As Paul Krugman once quipped: "the shape of the earth -- two views." Thus the ongoing debate on the settled issue of global climate change, a debate which has blocked urgent and effective climate policy. The media, in the meantime, has largely abandoned its traditional role of exposing error and defending truth, yielding at last to the post-modernist dogma that "there is no truth, only belief and interpretation." (See my "Yes Virginia, There Is a Real World" http://gadfly.igc.org/pomo/po-mo.htm ).
Well, dammit, that's the very last thing this poor world needs in the face of the current emergencies. Mankind (primarily in the West, mind you) has over the past half-millennium, painstakingly and at much cost and sacrifice, developed an instrument that is supremely well equipped to discover and validate the truths of nature. It is called “science.” Yet this generation of politicians and journalists, by promulgating nonsense, dogma and superstition, and by starving educational institutions and shutting the University doors to brilliant but poor students, is writing the death warrant of our nation.
My response: "Rage, rage, against the dying of the light." (Dylan Thomas)
Yes, yes, I know, science applied as technology has brought about much if not most of our present miseries. But that is not the fault of science, rather of those institutions that apply it. But that's another topic. (See "On Behalf of Science," http://gadfly.igc.org/pomo/behalf.htm ).
True, "nature is pragmatic, not ethical" -- still better, as Robert Ingersoll put it, "in nature there are neither rewards nor punishments; there are consequences." Still an understanding of the ways of nature is a necessary, if not sufficient, requisite of moral wisdom and appropriate political action. And the acquisition of confirmable knowledge via science and education entails rejection, not "inclusion," of error and superstition.
Of course, I've written much about these matters in the 250 or so essays that I have published in the internet during the past decade -- bread cast upon the digital waters, with little noticeable return (and absolutely no financial return). So last year a prolonged writing block engulfed me, as I posted a mere three essays, in contrast to an average of about thirty in the preceding years. So now it has become compellingly obvious that I must break out of this block soon, lest it become permanent. And as every writer knows, there is only one remedy: sit at the desk and put one word after another.
I know full well that I have plenty to write about, as I continue to read voraciously -- politics, economics, environmental science, moral philosophy, etc. And with this reading, numerous fetal-essays swim about in my head, demanding to be born. At the moment, I am reading a college text in Intro. Economics -- which I should have done decades ago. After that, I will turn to some excellent books by dissident ecological and behavioral economists. I am convinced that our politics and media today are under the thrall of a dogmatism as irrational and unyielding as that of the Spanish Inquisition: it is variously called "neo-classical economics," "neo-liberalism" and "market fundamentalism." ("Theo-classical" as William Black calls it). I want to rejoin the struggle to unseat this dogma, which has caused untold human misery, and now threatens total control of our national and much of the global economy.
. . .
As for accepting "nature's rules," I am reminded of Margaret Fuller's remark, "I accept the Universe," and Thomas Carlyle's retort, "Gad, she'd better!" Therein lies my disgust with the religious right, which rejects evolution, and the others on the radical right who deny climate science (global warming). But just what is, and is not, a "rule of nature?" There's the rub. Is it a "rule of nature" that these regressives must prevail politically? Is it a "rule of nature" that greed, privatization and the unregulated free market always yield morally superior results, as the libertarians would have us believe? Neither of us believe this, nor, I suspect, does a majority of our citizens. Yet these are the prevailing dogmas that guide our politics today. And so, it is the duty of responsible and informed citizens to resist them, and to repudiate the corporate media that promulgates these myths.
And so I am enlisted -- or at least have been until recently.
About my revived involvement with the Classical Guitar.
Over the two months of preparation for that performance, I was brutally reminded that the guitar can be a jealous and demanding mistress. I began with tender fingers and without adequate fingernails, and had to patiently endure a few weeks of pain and frustration while I developed calluses and operational nails. And of course, my hands were weak and clumsy. This instrument requires unusual physical strength, especially in the left hand. I am getting it back, but all too slowly.
I am reacquiring my repertory at about two pieces a week. Now I have more than a set (45 minutes) in memory. Twenty years ago I had more than four sets in memory and performance-ready. Soon I will be taking on some pieces that I had never tried before but had put in my "anticipations" file.
All told, this hasn't been easy, but it has been rewarding and I remain well-motivated as I experience slow progress. Still, I am not remotely the guitarist that I used to be, and doubt that I ever will be.
All this as I devote an average of four hours a day to that "jealous and demanding mistress," my guitar. And how to I justify this major distraction? Easy. Many poor blokes spend up to four hours a day commuting to and from work. And in my retirement, I no longer have the distractions of classes, lesson plans, office hours, committee meetings, commuting, etc. And as you well know, in my earlier life the guitar delayed, but did not totally shut down my graduate studies and my subsequent profession. So, yes, I think that I can bring it off.
I was saddened to learn recently that my friend and the builder of my guitar, David Rubio, had died a decade ago. He had a productive and fulfilling life.
. . . .
As it happens, and as I feared, the guitar has now captured me and I am vividly reminded why I had to give it up twenty years ago. So much for "balance."
The good news is that I am making good progress with the guitar. The bad news is that it is a very long road toward full recovery of my former "chops". When I put the guitar aside twenty years ago, I had four "sets" (about three hours) of music in memory and performance-ready. Now, with persistence and requisite energy, I might manage about an set and a half, some of it still quite unpolished. Then, in the succeeding months, I will work to improve the quality and quantity of my repertory.
Looking back twenty years, I reflect that I simply had to give up the guitar, and because of that necessity I cannot regret doing so. The 90s was a very eventful decade. I was invited to present papers at numerous conferences abroad -- in England, Japan, Germany, Italy, Canada and Russia (seven times), in addition to the US. My employment, however, was less successful, validating The Partridge Rule, whereby my reputation is a directly proportional to the distance from my residence. I am well-regarded abroad, but my immediate colleagues find it very difficult to take me seriously. Suffice to say that with all that world-travelling, there was simply no room for guitaring -- not even casually.
Now at this summing-up stage of my life, I must acknowledge that all the time that I devoted to the guitar, while it provided some enjoyment to myself and I hope to some of my audiences, amounts to a zero legacy. Great artists such as Segovia, Williams, Bream and Parkening, have advanced the art and have mentored the next generation of great guitarists. If, at an early age, I had chosen the guitar as my career and devoted full attention and talent to it, I might have made a lasting contribution. But I made a different choice, which can not be undone.
My legacy, however slight, resides in my publications, which for a brief time seems to have attracted some international attention, and in my students, some of whom have established significant careers in moral, political and environmental philosophy, and in public service. Those of lesser accomplishment have, I hope, acquired through my teaching, an enhanced and active environmental conscience and earth-citizenship. If I leave behind anything of enduring value, it will be through my scholarship and my teaching, not my guitar. And the contemplation of that legacy gives me some small measure of satisfaction.
For the near future, there will be no "balance" in my life as I frantically strive to resume my semi-career as a performer. (And yes, we could use the additional income). Beyond that, say by mid-summer, I hope to cut back on the music biz and restore that "balance." Time will tell.
In the meantime, I have enough education and intellect, and I am sufficiently in touch with current news and scholarship, to realize that our politics has gone quite insane -- denying science, in the thrall of ancient myths and modern economic dogma. We are facing a planetary climate and ecological emergency, and a major corporate/media campaign has succeeded in stifling any appropriate global response to that emergency.
But don't let me get started on all that. No need in any case, for I have written about all this at length. In fact, over the past decade I wrote and posted some 250 articles for the internet, as well as several papers for scholarly publication. And I wrote a book, abandoned some three years ago at about 80% completion (and still at my website). All this effort with negligible effect. And yet, as I have often noted before, if I have booked passage on the Titanic, at least I can choose to go down with a bailing can in my hands.
So I must resolve, once that "balance" between art and scholarship is restored, to rejoin the struggle. If I am both fortunate and wise, the guitar will restore my composure and perspective and thus enhance my scholarship. If not, then it will prove to be a fatal distraction. The choice is mine.
Wish I could be more upbeat. But the news of the world combined with the "rules of nature" forbids.
In the meantime, we cultivate our respective gardens.
About Frederick Clements and "Disequilibrium Ecology.
I have come to the conclusion that "climax theory" is a "useful fiction," also called an "ideal type" -- somewhat like perfect vacuum and frictionless machine in physics -- never found in nature, but nonetheless useful as a heuristic device.
Neo classical economists claim as much for the concepts of "economic man" and "perfect market" which also do not exist in reality (outside of Ayn Rand novels). Unfortunately, so-called "conservative" politicians and pundits regard these fictions as real, resulting in untold economic misery and political mischief. And all too many economists who should know better seem to believe that the hypothetical behavior of an imaginary person (homo economicus) in a fiction environment (perfect market) provides useful information regarding economic behavior in the real world. They are woefully wrong, of course. But I digress. (More about these economic fictions and their consequences in my "Dim View of Libertarianism").
Back to "climax theory." As has been known for centuries, long before the advent of ecological science, a cleared forest (by cutting or fire or volcanic eruption) will, if unattended, then produce shrubs, succeeded by broadleaf softwoods such as aspens and birches, then shade tolerant trees such as oaks or conifers (depending on the climate) -- the so-called "climax stage." That's one kind of succession. There are many others of course. E.g., the region north of Mt. St. Helens. Similarly with fauna.
However, a "climax stage" is not permanent, a fact often overlooked by naive environmentalists who are often also associated with a strong "balance of nature" doctrine. Some media observers of ecological opinion have tried to make a big deal out of the alleged "overthrow" of "traditional conservation policies" by the recent emergence of "disequilibrium ecology." However, there is much less here than meets the journalistic eye. All informed ecologists, including Clements to the best of my knowledge, understand first, that "climax" and "equilibrium" apply "all external factors being equal and permanent," and second that "all external factors" are never "equal and permanent." Therefore, to repeat, "climax" and "balance of nature" are "ideal types," never fully exemplified in nature.
Daniel Botkin (coincidentally my Dept. Chair at UC Santa-Barbara), no fan of environmental activists, has written of the "overthrow" of "conventional environmentalism" by disequilibrium theory in his book Discordant Harmonies. It is, on balance, a fine book. But its central flaw is a determined attempt to "prove" the obvious and to place himself firmly on one side of a "controversy" that is, on closer inspection, not controversial. At least, not controversial among informed ecologists. Not now, and I suspect, not ever.
So here's the "Cliff Notes" summary: ecological succession tending toward a relatively stable "climax" stage is a fact. But that "climax" stage is not permanent and unchanging (thus, strictly speaking, not really a "climax" stage), due to climate change, extinctions, mutations and the importing of alien species, etc..
There is much more to be said about this, but perhaps you have already read some of my ideas at "The Online Gadfly." You will find that "much more" online. See especially, "Reconstructing Ecology," "Nature for Better or Worse" (Parts 7 & 8), and "'Disequilibrium Ecology,' Much Ado About Nothing." All at "The Ecology Project.
As you likely know from my website, I am a retired environmental philosopher. However, in my retirement, as I have become ever more alarmed at the political and economic madness which has befallen our country and, by contagion, well beyond it, I have also become a belated amateur political scientist (perhaps better, a "political philosopher"). The product of this interest is likewise to be found at The Online Gadfly.
May 15, 2014
Libertarians will tell us that the solution to the tragedy of the commons is privatization. To be sure, this remedy applies in some cases, including Hardin’s example of the common pasture. But this solution creates new problems, most notably the externalization of costs (e.g. downstream and downwind pollution) and private coercion resulting from control of essential resources. Nonetheless, like Maslow’s carpenter who sees a hammer and nail as the solution all problems, libertarians insist that “free markets” and privatization solve all social and political problems. And so, they would privatize all commons including education, information, public lands and even, in effect, government itself (cf. “Citizens United v FEC”). I guess that would include the atmosphere and the ocean, but I fail to see how they could bring this off. We are all (correction, “the 99%” are) suffering today from the implementation of that privatization of the commons.
I have defended “the tragedy of the commons” and “the social contract” at some length in online book-in-progress, “Conscience of a Progressive,” especially Chapters 5 & 6 . See also my “Dim View of Libertarianism.”
November 10, 2012
A university student engaged in research on invasive species asks for a clarification of my views on "Ecological Nihilism" and "Disequilibrium."
To begin, I would like to make clear that I totally reject "ecological nihilism." Also "environmental nihilism" if I understand what you mean by that term. I argue against the former, defended by Mark Sagoff, in my paper Reconstructing Ecology. In that paper I failed to make a clear distinction between "ecological nihilism" and "disequilibrium ecology." I don't repeat that error in "Much Ado..."
In "Much Ado" I try to point out that "equilibrium" and "disequilibrium" are not opposites, but rather are complementary conditions in natural ecosystems. Ecosystems "tend toward" equilibrium, but never achieve it due to "perturbations" both internal (e.g. mutations and evolution) and external (e.g. climate change, importation of alien species, etc.). Recall my analogy with walking: forward imbalance followed by recovered balance followed by imbalance then balance, etc. "Perfect equilibrium" is a so-called "ideal type" (like "perfect vacuum" and "frictionless machine" in physics, or "economic man" and "perfect market" in economics): useful theoretically, but never exemplified in "the real world." And why not? "Perfect equilibrium" in ecology presupposes "all other factors constant," and, of course, that never happens in nature. When an ecosystem is thrown "off balance" (for example due to a catastrophic fire), as it strives to regain balance it achieves a new state.
It is also noteworthy that "successful adaptation" in ecosystems often "contain the seeds of their own destruction" (to borrow a political concept from Hegel and Marx). In an ecological succession, for example recovery from a fire, life returns in the form of scrub and brush, to be replaced by species such as aspens and birches, to be replaced by shade tolerant species such as conifers. (The sequence varies with climate, altitude, etc.). Each stage of the succession creates conditions at first favorable and later unfavorable to the dominant species, tending eventually toward a so-called "climax stage" wherein energy inflow and outflow are balanced and total biomass does not increase. But a "climax stage"only means that the succession slows. It never stops. In other words "climax" is relative, not absolute, because, once again, in nature "all other conditions constant and equal" never obtains.
Again, I believe that I explain this is more detail in "Much Ado."
Regarding "natural ecosystems," I suggest that you read my two sections on the concept of "natural" (Sections 3 & 4) in "Nature for Better or Worse". There you will find that I am very suspicious of the term "natural." It is a relativistic term. I interpret a "more natural" (or more "wild") ecosystem to mean a system that is relatively unaffected by human interventions in an area where non-human (i.e."natural") conditions obtain. The Florida Everglades is an example. The interior of the Amazon rain forest, more so. But none completely so: all are affected by the atmosphere which, unfortunately, is to a significant degree, a human artifact.
As for invasive ("alien") species, this too is a complicated issue. Some alien species adapt to a host ecosystem without affecting much change. For example, in the Utah desert most native plant species have been replaced by non-indigenous, yet the fauna is virtually the same as it was with the original species.
However, many invasive species radically transform the host ecosystem. Water hyacinths and zebra mussels are examples. These aliens can alter existing systems when they encounter no natural predators and thus proliferate out of control. Or they occupy an ecological niche (i.e. a "function") more effectively then the native species, thus causing the local extinction of the natives. ("Law of competitive exclusion"). The importation of mosquitos and avian malaria, and also of the Samoan brown snake, into Hawaii are dramatic examples. They caused the extinction of scores of native bird species.
So the "threat" of invasive species must be examined on a case-by-case basis. Similarly the indicated remedies for the effects of "invasion." And so, quite frankly, as you study the conditions in the Everglades, you will come to know much more about that local situation than I do. Perhaps my discussion of "Ecosystemic Health" (Section 7 of "Nature for Better or Worse") might be helpful.
Well this is much more than you expected to read, and I assure you much more than I expected to write. You have posed some very difficult but important questions.
I hope that these comments prove useful to your project.