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Archive for the ‘Arts & Letters’ Category

What is Libertarianism?

In Arts & Letters, Economics, Humanities, liberal arts, Liberalism, Libertarianism, Philosophy, Western Philosophy on April 18, 2018 at 6:45 am

Definitions of libertarianism often convey a sense that this philosophy is total and complete, that its manifestation in the concrete world is immanently knowable. Vigorous debates about the fundamental tenets of libertarianism dispel any hope that the essence or principal attributes of libertarianism can be easily captured in a brief sentence or paragraph.

The central concern of libertarianism, however, is to maximize individual liberty and economic freedom to enable human flourishing. Liberty and freedom involve the ability of human agents, acting alone or in concert, voluntarily to pursue their wants and goals using their earned talents and natural skills, absent the forcible, coercive mechanisms of government and without infringing on the rights of others to so act.

Elsewhere I have said that “[e]xperimentation is compatible with—perhaps indispensable to—libertarianism to the extent that libertarianism is, as I believe, the search for the correct conditions for human flourishing—as well as the cautious description and reasoned implementation of principles emanating from that condition.”[1]

I used the phrase “to the extent that” to suggest that my conception of libertarianism is not definitive or absolute, that it is subject to scrutiny and debate. I emphasized “the correct conditions for human flourishing” because libertarians have propounded disparate and even contradictory theories about how best to achieve human flourishing.

The conditions that have succeeded to that end have proven themselves to be correct, or at least more correct than demonstratively unworkable alternatives.

The word “search” is meant to underscore the primacy of the intellect and knowledge: Human agents must be free to think and freely articulate the content of their thoughts before practices and institutions—the products of thought—may be tested, refined, verified, modified, adapted, or discarded according to their tangible success within physical (as opposed to purely mental or ideational) experience.

The principles that emerge from this process of applied thinking can be described as libertarian if they aspire to generate and actually generate individual liberty and economic freedom without increasing the forcible interference of government with consensually interacting human agents.

 

[1] Allen Mendenhall, Literature and Liberty: Essays in Libertarian Literary Criticism (Lexington Books, 2014), p. 14 (italics added).

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Session Twenty: Richard Bulliet on the History of the World

In Arts & Letters, Eastern Civilizaton, Historicism, History, Humanities, liberal arts, Pedagogy, Teaching on April 11, 2018 at 6:45 am

Here, in the twentieth lecture of his course, The History of the World, Richard Bulliet discusses the History of the World to 1500 CE, focusing on Mongol Eurasia and its Aftermath:

A Different Kind of Score Settling in the #MeToo Age

In Academia, Arts & Letters, The Academy on April 4, 2018 at 6:45 am

This article originally appeared here in The American Spectator.

Writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Katrin Schultheiss tells her story about enrolling in a doctoral program where so-called “Professor Famous” was on faculty. Professor Famous was, she submits, “an internationally renowned scholar” who “tended to schedule advising meetings during walks to his car to feed the meter.” (Presumably she meant to say that these meetings occurred while he walked to his car, not that he scheduled them as he walked.)

Although Schultheiss doesn’t specifically say so, she implies that Professor Famous was her first adviser. Her “new adviser” after Professor Famous was Professor Prominent, a “well regarded” man “but not a superstar like Professor Famous.” Unfortunately, Professor Prominent disappointed her, failing to comment substantively and promptly on her dissertation.

So she turned to a junior faculty member, a female, for help. This professor (Schultheiss doesn’t give her a playful moniker) diligently and thoughtfully commented on the dissertation, in effect completing the work that Professor Prominent should have done.

Professor Prominent’s nonfeasance has a name: “ghost advising.”

Ghost advising is probably common. I’ve heard similar anecdotes before. They reflect poorly on the professoriate, which already suffers, in some circles, from a reputation for laziness. Stories like these reinforce the stereotype that the university is not “the real world.”

As bad as this story is, however, Schultheiss’s extrapolation from it is unwarranted. She draws from her undeserved mistreatment, and presumably that of others, a grand inference about gender politics. “It has taken me two and a half decades,” she writes, “to recognize that my experience of having a senior male nominal adviser and a female (usually more junior) actual adviser is common throughout academe.”

Rather than use empirical methods to research gender disparities and conditions involving mentorships, rather than derive verifiable statistics and measurable data, Schultheiss disseminated a mass email to an unspecified number of female historians asking “whether they had ever served as a ghost adviser for the students of a male colleague.” She claims to have received over 100 affirmative responses to this unscientific poll.

Just how many people were on her email list? Were they selected at random? Did she know them personally? Or were they strangers? Did they inhabit different regions, types of schools, and stages in their career? Did she employ statistical models? Why did she write to historians but no faculty in other disciplines?

Schultheiss alleges an anecdotal pattern: senior male faculty members attract female graduate students to their department only to later ignore them or inadequately respond to their work. Without the male mentor, this narrative runs, the young female graduate student finds a female substitute who performs the role of the absent male. The accusation is that female faculty, by helping female graduate students, enable senior male faculty to gain prestige on the labor of females. Schultheiss suggests that female faculty systemically assist female graduate students while male faculty get credit for the results.

“I certainly don’t mean to essentialize here,” Schultheiss says as if to temper her rhetoric. “Women can be as arrogant, self-regarding, and oblivious as men.” She adds, “We all know women who neglect their graduate students after fighting to add them to their stable of advisees just as we all know senior men who are diligent and conscientious advisers.”

Then why spend most of her article complaining about male advisers? Instead of an angry-seeming op-ed, why not undertake a careful study to determine whether her hunch about male exploitation of female faculty bears out factually?

Without any hard-earned data or empirical methods to control for variables, she concludes:

Every aspect of the ghost-advising cycle is a product of the gendered behavior norms that are ubiquitous in our society generally. All the players in what might be called the family drama of ghost advising are complicit in perpetuating norms of masculine ambition and feminine helpfulness; of masculine genius and feminine drudgery; of masculine self-promotion and feminine self-effacement. We are participating in a system that values and rewards a very particular, masculine-coded model of professional and scholarly success, a model that is perpetuated and strengthened by feminine-coded behaviors such as empathy for a wronged student and a reluctance to appear selfish or ambitious.

Does this sweeping, expansive, unqualified complaint (every aspect, all players) have merit? Is it true that academic women “are expected to play the role of nurturing mother to a struggling student or supportive wife to a brilliant and ambitious male colleague”? (Schultheiss states that “too many academic women are painfully aware that they are expected to play the role of nurturing mother to a struggling student or supportive wife to a brilliant and ambitious male colleague,” but I suspect, in light of context, she means to say that too many women play that role, not that too many women are aware of that role.)

I chose an adviser for my dissertation early in my doctoral studies. I’m male. My adviser was female. Our relationship broke down, necessitating the intervention of the university ombudsperson and administration. In my opinion, my youngish adviser abused her power due to hostility toward my political beliefs. I have plenty of evidence to back up this view but have pledged confidentiality regarding the conflict that transpired between us. She was my adviser for almost three years and I made no progress towards my dissertation (although the entire manuscript had been drafted) under her direction. When the university aided me in replacing my adviser with a new one, a senior male faculty member, my dissertation was finished less than a year later.

Schultheiss may be correct about systemic gender bias and male-dominated mentorship dynamics. We don’t know for sure, in part because she didn’t do the requisite research before sounding off. Her charged rhetoric about how the system is “deeply rooted in gendered professional norms” is unnecessarily divisive and provocative because she has not attempted to gather numbers to verify her broad charges. She therefore comes across as hostile to men and unwilling to consider the viewpoint of male colleagues, many of whom likely could have corroborated her argument about “power structures” or at least provided her with different perspectives to consider.

The fact that she emailed no males for her polling opens her up to the accusation, or impression, that she has a chip on her shoulder, an axe to grind, that she doesn’t believe figures are needed to substantiate her indictment of the adviser system that purportedly enables heedless, powerful males to exploit young females. Had she asked around, perhaps approached some males about their experiences, she might have heard stories like mine. Learning that a prominent historian was seeking information about bad advisers, young males like me might have reached out to her to share their experiences and thereby diversify her samplings. Of course, those stories might have threatened to undermine the narrative she wanted to tell.

The role of the academic is, among other things, to contribute to the sum of knowledge, to advance scholarly conversations, to teach and employ reliable methods for deepening our understanding of a subject. This cannot be accomplished if one does not address pressing issues civilly and constructively through good-faith dialogue, if one seeks to inflame passions rather than ascertain facts and cultivate trust.

Scholars search for viable answers to concrete problems, or should. Schultheiss’s piece presupposes a problem without offering much in the way of a resolution. With its rousing language, mocking labels for male figures, and strong allegations of systemic impropriety, it may appeal to those already in-the-fold, or those bent on stirring up quick action, but it will alienate those who value civility, collegiality, and moderation. It may even complicate the problem, driving apart with its contentious tone those who are open to practical solutions.

What is Conservatism?

In Arts & Letters, Conservatism, Humanities, liberal arts, Philosophy, Politics, Western Philosophy on March 14, 2018 at 6:45 am

Conservatism in the sense in which I use the term refers to an attitude or disposition that rejects ideology (all-encompassing systems of normative theory and institutionalized practices that drive policy towards idealized or utopian ends) and radicalism or extremism (the quality of holding fanatical, severe, or drastic views).

Conservatives so styled are neither doctrinaire nor absolutist. They tend to be spiritual, or at least recognize in humans a need and desire for spiritual fulfillment and religious order. Change, they believe, is inevitable; it should occur prudentially, gradually, and naturally through civil debate, prescribed political processes, and nonviolence.

Conservatism predicates the necessity for moral order on the imperfectability of human nature and the limitations of human intelligence; its normative values are embedded, historical, local, contextual, and rooted in immemorial usage.

Conservatism views the past as a fund of wisdom and knowledge, not as a brooding evil to be discarded, erased, or escaped. It therefore respects cultural continuities.

Russell Kirk’s various iterations of conservative principles in different versions of The Conservative Mind are, in my mind, the surest expressions of conservatism to date.

Session Nineteen: Richard Bulliet on the History of the World

In Arts & Letters, Eastern Civilizaton, Historicism, History, Humanities, liberal arts, Pedagogy, Western Civilization on March 7, 2018 at 6:45 am

Here, in the nineteenth lecture of his course, The History of the World, Richard Bulliet discusses the History of the World to 1500 CE:

What Is Pragmatism?

In Arts & Letters, Humanities, liberal arts, Philosophy, Pragmatism, Western Philosophy on February 28, 2018 at 6:45 am

Pragmatism is difficult to define because it refers to a wide-ranging philosophical tradition.  Figures with little in common, such as W. E. B. Du Bois, Isaac Levi, Reinhold Niebuhr, and George Herbert Mead, have been associated with pragmatism.

C.S. Peirce is credited as the wellspring of pragmatism, in part because he used the term “pragmatism” to refer to his writings and teachings. Yet when his friend William James began identifying as a pragmatist, Peirce sought to rename his mode of thinking “pragmaticism” to distinguish his ideas from James’s.

More recently, Richard Rorty garnered a reputation as a pragmatist despite his deep misgivings about Peirce. James himself claimed to have learned pragmatism from reading John Stuart Mill. He called pragmatism a new name for old ways of thinking. Pragmatism, in this sense, has no fixed origin and is not confined to a single philosophical discipline attributable to any one thinker. It is, rather, a plastic concept describing an instrumental approach to solving concrete problems.

Descriptions of pragmatism are fluid and wide-ranging because of its various iterations by multiple thinkers with disparate interests and backgrounds. Pragmatism is nevertheless identifiable by certain features and qualities.

Pragmatists tend to avoid claims to unqualified certainty or universalism; they resist abstractions, closed schools of thought, and dogma that purport to have all the answers. They are searchers and seekers, never comfortable that the knowledge they have attained is complete or comprehensive.

Pragmatists seek to generate inquiry by systematically and intentionally testing ideas in the material world through practical application and sustained observation, by modifying or adapting ideas when errors are found, by subjecting ideas to a community of minds for verification (rather than leaving them to individuals in isolation), and by examining the habits and tendencies of nature and behavior for recurring, lasting themes or traits. Although pragmatists tend to be tolerant of views that have not been discounted, or open to ideas that have not been disproven, they are also prudently skeptical of ideas that have not won out in the course of history, i.e., that are unrepresented in custom or tradition.

Pragmatism is neither liberal nor conservative in the political sense, but represents a mode of knowing and understanding based on lived experience and confirmed hypotheses. Pragmatism is a constantly modified methodology for acquiring knowledge; it’s not a doctrine. It looks to ascertainable outcomes and proven results as indicia of the truth and workability of ideas.

Session Eighteen: Richard Bulliet on the History of the World

In Academia, Arts & Letters, Historicism, History, Humanities, liberal arts, Pedagogy, Philosophy, Western Civilization on February 21, 2018 at 6:45 am

Here, in the eighteenth lecture of his course, The History of the World, Richard Bulliet discusses Inner and East Asia (400-1200 C.E.):

How Much Legislative Power Do Judges Really Have?

In America, Arts & Letters, History, Humanities, Jurisprudence, Law, liberal arts, Philosophy, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy on February 14, 2018 at 6:45 am

This article originally appeared here in The Intercollegiate Review.

During his confirmation hearing last year, Justice Neil Gorsuch told Senator Dick Durbin that Roe v. Wade was “the law of the land.” A recent Washington Post headline declared, in light of Obergefell v. Hodges, “Same-sex marriage is the law of the land.”

What does it mean that opinions of the United States Supreme Court are the law of the land? Is an opinion of the Supreme Court a law? If so, do judges make law? If judges make law, thereby exercising legislative powers, wouldn’t they be legislators, not judges?

If Supreme Court opinions are laws, how can they be overturned by later justices? Were the overruled decisions never actually law to begin with? Were they temporary laws? Were the American people simply bound for years by erroneous rules or judgments?

Ask these vexing questions of ten experts in constitutional law and you’ll hear ten different responses.

Why so complicated? Perhaps because the framework of American government is at stake. Centuries of political theory, moreover, cannot be condensed or expressed in concise opinions involving particular issues about fact-specific conflicts. Judges and justices are not positioned to delineate philosophical principles with nuance and sophistication. Yet they are tasked with administering the legal system and are guided by deeply held convictions or inchoate feelings about the nature and sources of law.

When we debate the role of judges vis-à-vis the legislative or executive branch, we’re invoking the separation-of-powers doctrine enshrined in the U.S. Constitution. That doctrine derives principally from the theories of Locke (1632–1704) and Montesquieu (1689–1755).

In his Second Treatise of Government, Locke claimed that the preservation of society was “the first and fundamental natural law.” Today we worry about the corruption and incompetence of members of Congress, but in Locke’s era, when the monarch exercised extraordinary powers, the legislature was a bulwark against tyranny. It represented the will of “the people.” The preservation of society thus required robust legislative authority.

“This legislative is not only the supreme power of the commonwealth,” Locke intoned, “but sacred and unalterable in the hands where the community have once placed it; nor can any edict of anybody else, in what form soever conceived or by what power soever backed, have the force and obligation of a law which has not its sanction from that legislative which the public has chosen and appointed.”

Why must the law emanate from the legislature? Because the legislature, in his view, embodied “the consent of the society over whom nobody can have a power to make laws.” Locke’s paradigm holds, accordingly, that the legislature speaks for the people, from whom legitimate government obtains its limited authority; legislation reflects a general consensus among the people about controlling norms, beliefs, and values. The judiciary is curiously absent from this paradigm.

Montesquieu articulated a tripartite model of governance, adding the judiciary to Locke’s calculus. He argued that a state of political liberty would not exist if any of the three branches of government—executive, legislative, or judicial—arrogated to itself powers belonging to another branch. The branches competed, effectively offsetting their respective powers through checks and balances.

Montesquieu and Locke were among the most cited thinkers during the American Founding. They were indispensable sources for the framers of the U.S. Constitution. The first three articles of the Constitution establish our three branches of government.

Concerns about the scope and function of judicial power have begun to divide legal scholars on the right. On one side are proponents of judicial restraint as practiced by Robert Bork, William Rehnquist, and Antonin Scalia; on the other side are advocates of judicial engagement, which calls for a more active judiciary that strictly enforces restrictions on government action.

The judicial-restraint camp contends that the judicial-engagement camp would have the judiciary infringe on legislative authority in violation of the separation-of-powers mandate. The judicial-engagement camp contends that judges deferring to political branches often abdicate their duties to enforce not only the constitutional text but also unenumerated rights allegedly inherent in that text.

The view that judges cannot make law is increasingly unpopular. “The dubious aspect of separation-of-powers thinking,” Richard Posner says, “is the idea that judges are not to make law (that being the legislator’s prerogative) but merely to apply it.” Posner submits that “judges make up much of the law that they are purporting to be merely applying,” adding that “while the judiciary is institutionally and procedurally distinct from the other branches of government, it shares lawmaking power with the legislative branch.”

If Posner is right, then Montesquieu’s trifurcated paradigm collapses. That, or our current system is not maximally amenable to liberty as conceived by Montesquieu.

Parties to a case generally recognize judges’ rulings as binding. Courts and institutions generally accept Supreme Court decisions as compulsory. Even individuals who defy judicial rulings or opinions understand the risk they’re taking, i.e., the probable consequences that will visit them. Judicial rulings and opinions would seem, then, to be law: they announce governing rules that most people respect as binding and enforceable by penalty. If rulings and opinions are law, then judges enjoy legislative functions.

Yet the natural law tradition holds that law is antecedent to government promulgation—that indissoluble principles exist independently of, and prior to, pronouncements of a sovereign or official. On this view, the positive law may contradict the natural law. Which, then, controls? Which is the law, the one you’ll follow when push comes to shove?

Your answer might just reveal how much legislative power you believe judges really have.

Session Seventeen: Richard Bulliet on the History of the World

In Academia, Arts & Letters, Eastern Civilizaton, Historicism, History, Humanities on February 7, 2018 at 6:45 am

Here, in the seventeenth lecture of his course, The History of the World, Richard Bulliet discusses Inner and East Asia (400-1200 C.E.):

Session Sixteen: Richard Bulliet on the History of the World

In Academia, Arts & Letters, Christianity, Historicism, History, Humanities, liberal arts, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy on January 31, 2018 at 6:45 am

Here, in the sixteenth lecture of his course, The History of the World, Richard Bulliet discusses the Emergence of Christian Europe (600-1200 C.E.):

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