Say What? James McCune Smith on Revolutionary Conservatism

Left: Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Manuscripts Archives & Rare Books Division., ‘Dr. James McCune Smith.’ NYPL Digital Collection, 1891. Right: US Capitol Building under repair, Washington, D.C., 2016 Amy Cools

‘We will save the form of government and convert it into a substance’

James McCune Smith, ‘The Destiny of the People of Color’ (1843),
published in The Works of James McCune Smith, 2006

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Happy Birthday, Niccolò Machiavelli!

Niccolò Machiavelli statue at the Uffizi

Cary Nederman introduces us to his piece on Niccolò Machiavelli for The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy thusly:

Why an entry on Machiavelli? That question might naturally and legitimately occur to anyone encountering an entry about him in an encyclopedia of philosophy. Certainly, Machiavelli [May 3, 1469 – June 21, 1527] contributed to a large number of important discourses in Western thought—political theory most notably, but also history and historiography, Italian literature, the principles of warfare, and diplomacy. But Machiavelli never seems to have considered himself a philosopher—indeed, he often overtly rejected philosophical inquiry as beside the point—nor do his credentials suggest that he fits comfortably into standard models of academic philosophy. His writings are maddeningly and notoriously unsystematic, inconsistent and sometimes self-contradictory. He tends to appeal to experience and example in the place of rigorous logical analysis. Yet succeeding thinkers who more easily qualify as philosophers of the first rank did (and do) feel compelled to engage with his ideas, either to dispute them or to incorporate his insights into their own teachings. Machiavelli may have grazed at the fringes of philosophy, but the impact of his musings has been widespread and lasting. The terms “Machiavellian” or “Machiavellism” find regular purchase among philosophers concerned with a range of ethical, political, and psychological phenomena, even if Machiavelli did not invent “Machiavellism” and may not even have been a “Machiavellian” in the sense often ascribed to him. Moreover, in Machiavelli’s critique of “grand” philosophical schemes, we find a challenge to the enterprise of philosophy that commands attention and demands consideration and response. Thus, Machiavelli deserves a place at the table in any comprehensive survey of philosophy…’

Learn more about the often contradictory, ever controversial, always fascinating and relevant Niccolò Machiavelli:

The Inverted Advice of Niccolò Machiavelli – by William J. Connell for the Times Literary Supplement

Machiavelli and the Italian City States – Melvin Bragg in conversation with his guests Quentin Skinner, Evelyn Welch, and Lisa Jardine

Niccolò Machiavelli – by Cary Nederman for The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Niccolò Machiavelli: Italian Statesman and Writer – by Harvey Mansfield for Encyclopædia Britannica

*A version of this piece was previously published at Ordinary Philosophy

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Happy Birthday, Rosa Luxemburg!

Rosa Luxemburg, By unknown photographer around 1895-1900 [Public domain], via Wikimedia CommonsRosa Luxemburg, Mar 5 1871 – Jan 15 1919, was the Marxist theorist, writer, economist, revolutionist, anti-war and anti-capital-punishment activist, and philosopher who was murdered during the German Revolution of 1918–1919.

Though she was an anti-war activist, Luxemburg was also critical of the idea that a just society can be brought about by incremental reforms through established political systems. If she was to be involved in the 2016 Democratic primary race between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, she would very likely have backed Bernie, with his more revolutionary style and rhetoric: she was sharply critical of the Social Democratic Party of Germany, to which she belonged (in its left wing) for favoring a Clinton-style within-the-system, gradual reformist approach. However, Luxemburg’s internationalism takes Marxist thinking beyond the point where leading Marxists of her day had progressed, with their focus on unique formulations of Marxist political theory tailored to their own particular national identities and histories. She would likely find fault, then, with Sanders’ protectionism.

Luxemburg’s other great contribution to Marxist thought is her theory about the accumulation of capital. Since capitalism’s primary fuel is constant and ever-increasing consumption, she thinks it’s a mechanism for the ultimate destruction of our material capabilities to sustain ourselves, starting with the ecosystems on which indigenous people, the poor, and the working class depend. Here as well, her progressive thinking takes her far beyond Marx himself, and her concerns in this timely issue make her as relevant now as ever.

Read more about the brilliant and fearless Luxemburg:

The Crisis of German Social Democracy (The Junius Pamphlet) ~ by Rosa Luxemburg, 1915

‘The Dialectic of the Spatial Determination of Capital: Rosa Luxemburg’s Accumulation of Capital Reconsidered’ ~ by Peter Hudis for Logos: A Journal of Modern Society & Culture

Rosa Luxemburg: Polish-German Revolutionary ~ by Helmut Dietmar Starke for Encyclopædia Britannica

‘Who’s Who: Rosa Luxemburg’ ~ at First World War.com

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Happy Birthday, Hannah Arendt!

Hannah Arendt, born on October 14, 1906 in Hanover, Germany, was one of the twentieth century’s leading thinkers about political philosophy and the nature of evil. In the one and only filmed interview with her that survives, Arendt objected to being called a philosopher; she said she doesn’t feel like a philosopher, and that she thinks she has not been accepted in the philosophical community. We’re still hashing out what she meant by these statements to this day: some believe that she didn’t feel, as a woman, that the traditionally male-centric philosophical circle had room for her, so she did her work in another arena of thought; some believe since she emphasizes action and responsibility in her ethics and political thought, she felt this did not fit into the abstract nature of the accepted philosophical canon. However, her latter remark has proved no longer true, if it ever was: she is not only accepted into the philosophical circle, she has earned a prominent place in it.

Arendt completed her doctoral degree in philosophy in 1928. By 1940, she was forced to flee the Nazi’s persecution of intellectuals, first as a refugee to Paris, then to the United States, where she arrived in 1941. She settled in the U.S. for good, became a naturalized citizen, and taught at the University of Chicago and then at New York City’s New School for Social Research. Arendt established herself as a major political thinker with her 1951 book Origins of Totalitarianism, and a controversial one with her series of articles for The New Yorker about the Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann’s 1961 trial. She used this series as the basis for her 1963 book Eichmann in Jerusalem.

Among Arendt’s major themes is the idea that evil is not so much the result of an active malevolence but of thoughtless complacency. She distills this idea in her concept the banality of evil, which made people very uncomfortable at that time and ever since. Many hate this idea in part because they detect in it an element of victim-blaming, such as in Arendt’s including in her discussion the supposed cooperation of many Jewish community leaders in the massive and efficient deportation of the Jews to Nazi concentration camps and gas chambers. But I believe people hate Arendt’s concept more because of its implication that it’s so very easy for every single one of us to participate in great evil through our own carelessness and laziness.

Arendt’s philosophy of action and personal responsibility, problematic as it might be in some particulars, presents an important challenge even as it lays on all of us what might feel like an intolerable burden. She demands that we shake off complacency every moment of our lives, that we resist the temptation to thoughtlessly participate in harmful practices and ways of thinking. In an age where mass consumption has become the norm, even the source of meaning and impetus for most of our actions, regardless of its ravages on the beautiful world that gives us life, there are few ideas that are more timely or more important.

Learn about the life and thought of the courageous and brilliant Hannah Arendt:

Hannah Arendt ~ Interview with Gunter Gaus for Zur Person

Hannah Arendt ~ by Maurizio Passerin d’Entreves for The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Hannah Arendt ~ Melvyn Bragg talks to Lyndsey Stonebridge, Frisbee Sheffield, and Robert Eaglestone for In Our Time

Hannah Arendt: American Political Scientist ~ by the editors for Encyclopædia Britannica

Hannah Arendt and the Hierarchy of Human Activity ~ by Finn Bowring for The Times Literary Supplement

Film Review: Hannah Arendt ~ Yasemin Sari for Philosophy Now

The Trials of Hannah Arendt ~ Corey Robin for The Nation, May 12, 2015

Why Do Hannah Arendt’s Ideas about Evil and the Holocaust Still Matter? ~ An interview with Michael Rosenthal for the Stroum Center for Jewish Studies at the University of Washington

Various articles ~ by Hannah Arendt for The New Yorker magazine

Various articles featuring Hannah Arendt ~ Maria Popova for Brain Pickings

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‘Free Speech’ is a Blunt Instrument. Let’s Break It Up, by Robert Simpson

April 15, 1967, Spring Mobilization to End the War, San Francisco

Free speech is important. It guards against governments’ dangerous tendency to repress certain kinds of communication, including protest, journalism, whistleblowing, academic research, and critical work in the arts. On the other hand, think of a doctor dispensing bogus medical advice, or someone making a contract that she plans to breach, or a defendant lying under oath in court. These all involve written or spoken statements, but they don’t seem to fall within the domain of free speech. They are what the legal theorist Frederick Schauer at the University of Virginia calls ‘patently uncovered speech’: communication that warrants no special protection against government regulation.

However, once we extrapolate beyond the clear-cut cases, the question of what counts as free speech gets rather tricky. A business whose website gets buried in pages of search results might argue that Google’s algorithm is anti-competitive – that it impedes fair competition between sellers in a marketplace. But Google has dodged liability by likening itself to a newspaper, and arguing that free speech protects it from having to modify its results. Is this a case of free speech doing its proper work, or an instance of free speech running amok, serving as cover for a libertarian agenda that unduly empowers major corporations?

To answer this question, we need a principled account of the types of communication covered by free speech. But attempts to provide such an account haven’t really succeeded. We can pick out cases on either side of the divide – ‘Protections for journalism and protest? Yes! For perjury and contracts? No’ – but there aren’t any obvious or natural criteria that separate bona fide speech from mere verbal conduct. On the contrary, as theorists have told us since the mid-20th century, all verbal communication should be understood as both speech and conduct.

Some authors see these definitional difficulties as a fatal problem for the very idea of free speech. In There’s No Such Thing as Free Speech: And It’s a Good Thing Too (1994), the American literary critic and legal scholar Stanley Fish argued that ‘free speech’ is really just a rhetorically expedient label that people assign to their favoured forms of communication. There’s a grain of truth in this; but it doesn’t change the fact that governments still have a tendency to repress things such as protest and whistleblowing, and that we have good reasons to impose institutional safeguards against such repression if possible.

Instead of throwing out free speech entirely, a better response might be to keep the safeguards but make their sphere of application very broad. This is roughly what happens in Canadian law, where nearly any type of conduct can fall within the constitutional ideal of ‘free expression’, provided that it is trying to convey some kind of meaning. The downside is that if nearly anything can qualify as ‘expressive’ in the relevant sense, then we cannot categorically privilege expression itself as an inviolable norm. WhistlAll we can ask lawmakers to do is factor in the interests that such expression serves, and try to strike a balance with all the other, competing interests (such as ‘equality’, for example, or ‘national security’). While such trade-offs are standard in Commonwealth legal systems, they have the unwelcome effect of making it easier for governments to justify their repressive tendencies.

I’d propose a third way: put free ‘speech’ as such to one side, and replace it with a series of more narrowly targeted expressive liberties. Rather than locating actions such as protest and whistleblowing under the umbrella of ‘free speech’, we could formulate specially tailored norms, such as a principle of free public protest, or a principle of protected whistleblowing. The idea would be to explicitly nominate the particular species of communication that we want to defend, instead of just pointing to the overarching genus of ‘free speech’. This way the battle wouldn’t be fought out over the boundaries of what qualifies as speech, but instead, more directly, over the kinds of communicative activities we think need special protection.

Take the idea of public protest. Standard free-speech theory, concerned as it is with what counts as speech, tends to draw a line between interference based on the content of the speech, such as the speaker’s viewpoint (generally not allowed), and interference that merely affects the time, place and manner in which the speech takes place (generally allowed). But this distinction runs into trouble when it comes to protest. Clearly governments should be blocked from shutting down demonstrations whose messages they oppose. But equally they shouldn’t be able to multiply the rules about the time, place and manner in which demonstrations must take place, such that protests become prohibitively difficult to organise. One reason to have a dedicated principle of free public protest, then, is to help us properly capture and encode these concerns. Instead of seeing demonstrations as merely one application of a generic free-speech principle, we can use a narrower notion of expressive liberty to focus our attention on the distinctive hazards faced by different types of socially important communication.

If this all seems a bit optimistic, it’s worth noting that we already approach some types of communication in this way – such as academic freedom. Universities frequently come under pressure from political or commercial lobby groups – such as big oil, or the Israel lobby – to defund research that runs counter to their interests. This kind of threat has a distinctive underlying causal mechanism. In light of this problem, universities safeguard academic freedom via laws and regulations, including guidelines that specify the grounds for which academics can be fired or denied promotion. These moves are not just a specific implementation of a general free-speech principle. They’re grounded in notions of academic freedom that are narrower than and distinct from freedom of speech. My suggestion is that all our expressive liberties could be handled in this way.

The subdivision of expressive liberties isn’t going to magically fix all the genuinely controversial issues around free speech, such as what to do about search engines. However, we don’t need to resolve these debates in order to see, with clarity and confidence, that protest, journalism, whistleblowing, academic research and the arts need special protection. The parcelled-out view of expressive liberties captures the importance of these activities, while sidestepping the definitional problems that plague standard free-speech theory. These are not merely theoretical advantages. Any time a country is creating or revising a bill of rights, the question of how to protect communicative practices must be considered afresh. Multiple expressive liberties is an approach worth taking seriously.Aeon counter – do not remove

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

~ Robert Simpson is a lecturer in philosophy at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia. He writes regularly about social and political philosophy. (Bio credit: Aeon)

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Happy Birthday, Jean-Jacques Rousseau! / O.P. Recommends …Rousseau on Nature, Wholeness and Education by Michele Erina Doyle and Mark K. Smith

Jean-Jacque Rousseau's Tomb in the Parthenon, Paris, photo 2015 by Amy Cools

Jean-Jacque Rousseau’s tomb in the crypt of the Parthenon, Paris, which I visited in 2015 during my travels there following the life and ideas of Thomas Paine, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Thomas Jefferson in Paris

I found this article I really enjoyed, called Jean-Jacques Rousseau on Nature, Wholeness and Education by Michele Erina Doyle and Mark K. Smith, and thought I’d share it with you in honor of his birthday. I regret I ran out of time to write an original one, but Doyle and Smith’s is excellent and I’m so glad to have discovered it! You’ll also find links below to more great resources to introduce you to the life and ideas of this strange and interesting man.

The article begins, ‘Why should those concerned with education study Rousseau? He had an unusual childhood with no formal education. He was a poor teacher. Apparently unable to bring up his own children, he committed them to orphanages soon after birth. At times he found living among people difficult, preferring the solitary life. What can such a man offer educators? The answer is that his work offers great insight. Drawing from a broad spectrum of traditions including botany, music and philosophy, his thinking has influenced subsequent generations of educational thinkers – and permeates the practice of informal educators. His book Émile was the most significant book on education after Plato’s Republic, and his other work had a profound impact on political theory and practice, romanticism and the development of the novel….’ Read more:

Learn more about Rousseau:

Bertram, Christopher, ‘Jean Jacques Rousseau‘. In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Cranston, Maurice. ‘Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Swiss-Born French Philosopher.’ In Encyclopædia Britannica.

Delaney, James J. ‘Jean-Jacques Rousseau, (1712—1778)‘, in The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Doyle, Michele Erina and Mark K. Smith (2007) ‘Jean-Jacques Rousseau on Nature, Wholeness and Education’, from The Encyclopaedia of Informal Education

West, Steven. Three episodes from the Philosophize This! podcast: Rousseau Government Pt. 1, Rousseau pt. 2, and Rousseau pt. 3 – The General Will

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

New Podcast Episode: Frederick Douglass Seneca Falls, Canandaigua, Honeoye, and Mt Hope Cemetery Sites

Women's Rights National Historical Park headquarters, Seneca Falls NY

Women’s Rights National Historical Park headquarters, Seneca Falls NY

Listen to this podcast episode here or on Google Play, or subscribe on iTunes

Eleventh day, Tuesday March 30th

It’s a beautiful, clear sunny day, and the chill of the morning gives way to a balmy afternoon. I drive about an hour east and slightly to the south, through the lovely Finger Lakes region of New York to Seneca Falls.

I’m here to visit what’s now the Women’s Rights National Historical Park, which is headquartered at 136 Fall Street in Seneca Falls. I begin with the reconstructed Wesleyan Church next door at Fall and Mynderse Streets, the site of that momentous occasion which brings me here. I’ve long wanted to visit this place and had hoped to do so during my history of ideas travel series about Elizabeth Cady Stanton, but didn’t have enough time during that trip to make the journey, about a five hour drive from New York City one-way. But here I am at long last…. Read the written account here:

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, entirely supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!