Sunday, August 14, 2005

Three Important Writers For Me

Only three times in my life since I started reading seriously have I become a devotee of a particular writer. In October of 1982 I became captivated by Noam Chomsky's political writings. I had always been confused about how people chose between being a Republican or a Democrat and why the US, which wanted to promote democracy, overthrew and undermined a number of democracies. I couldn’t understand it until I read Chomsky. Basically, although it is a subtle view despite the attacks against Chomsky in the mainstream press, democracy, liberty and morality are not factors in leaders’ decision-making. Power, control and economic advantage are the real motivators. Ideological rhetoric is just an overlay for the real motivations. Chomsky’s view of things has mostly been mine since I first started reading him. I’ve sought out criticisms of him, but I think his view still stands.

In the mid-80s the philosopher Richard Rorty's writings had a significant impact. I had always yearned to know the Truth and gain certainty, but Rorty’s writings made me see the limits of reason and how the Truth and certainty could not be gained, at least by Reason. He was an Analytic philosopher undermining Analytic philosophy. He argued that there is no way in which we determine whether language – our medium for knowing things - gets the world right because we can never step outside of language and compare it to the world. The world is always language-infused for us.

For the last three months the philosopher Stanley Cavell has captured my attention. The difference this time though is that I’m not sure how or if Cavell will fundamentally change my beliefs the way that Chomsky and Rorty did. While I love reading Cavell, I keep wondering what am I getting out of this and is it changing my beliefs? Reading Cavell is a kind of practice, in the way meditation is a practice. I set aside a time for it and become entranced. Particular observations of his reverberate through me and have an experiential affect. They seem to illuminate a way to go in life, but never quite give explicit directions.

But it’s not as if after reading him I now believe this rather than that, or that I can neatly formulate his view of things. But one formulation is that Cavell is countering the specialization and technicality of the dominant form of philosophy in American and British universities called Analytic Philosophy. One way he counters the dominant philosophy is by describing an alternative philosophical history which includes Emerson and Thoreau, people not considered philosophers by the academic establishment. Much of his writing is in the form of interpretations of other writers, but the best essays contain startling and moving insights about understanding and leading a life.


Joe Pietromonaco said...

Were Emerson and Thoreau happy people?

Jeff Meyerhoff said...

I'm not sure. Emerson suffered a number of personal losses. I'd have to read biographies of them.

It is good to compare peoples' rhetoric about life and how to live with how they were able to live.

Zetetic_chick said...


Can you give us the titles of the best books of these three writers? I'm not familiar with them (I've read some articles of Chomsky, but not his books)

I mean, what books would you recommend to any person who wants to read the above writers?

My favorite philosophers/writers and their books are:

1)Ludwig von Mises (specially his books "theory and history", "socialism" and "human action")

2)Arthur Schopenhauer ("The world as will and representation" and "parerga and paralipomena")

There are others, but the above 2 philosophers and their books are the most important to me.

Jeff Meyerhoff said...


Thanks for your comments. I know Chomsky's political stuff. The newly published "The Essential Chomsky" has his linguistics, philosophy and political writings in separate essays. I liked "Towards a New Cold War" but you might want something about current issues. Hugo Chavez liked the recent "Hegemony or Survival". It might be best to pick the subject matter you are interested in first. Chomsky writes on the Middle East, Central America, U.S. foreign policy in general, East Timor, The Vietnam War, Kosovo, the media, etc. "Manufacturing Consent" is his analysis/critique of the mass media written with Edward Herman.

Rorty is an excellent writer, very clear. His "Consequences of Pragmatism" might be a good place to start, but again the subject matter that interests you may guide you. He writes on both analytic and continental philosophy focusing on the history of philosophy, epistemology, morality, politics and language.

Cavell is tougher to understand, he has a very unique style. His book on Thoreau "The Senses of Walden" is powerful and his essays on Ralph Waldo Emerson collected in "Emerson's Transcendental Etudes" are great. A recent collection of essays is called "Philosophy the Day After Tomorrow."

I don't know much about Von Mises but I'm suspicious of him because I think he's a critic of socialism and I like good socialism. But I realize my knowledge of him is practically non-existent. I'll look him up.

I read a good biography of Schopenhauer by Rudiger Safransky.

What do you like about these two?

I have to think about your other two posts so it will take me longer to reply.


Jeff Meyerhoff said...

I just read some of von Mises. Yes, my politics and economics are different than his. I don't like the strict libertarianism and defense of the free market economy. It's fine of criticize soviet-style communism as he does, but there is great value to Marx's analysis of capitalism and a whole tradition of Western, anti-soviet, anti-totalitarian Marxism to read.

Chomsky describes himself as a libertarian socialist, so he has one part of von Mises' beliefs and is a strong critic of all authoritarian regimes. But he would probably support some kind of small-scale, face-to-face, economic democracy where people had more control over the production and distribution of goods.

I wonder what von Mises would say about the mixed economies of Europe and especially Scandinavia that combine free markets with government intervention to remedy the problems caused by capitalism.

Zetetic_chick said...

Hi Jeff,

I'll get some of the books you cited. Specially, "The essential Chomsky". It can be useful as a introduction to his philosophical thoughts. I'll see if that book is translated to spanish.

Also, I'll buy the book of Rorty "Consequences of pragatism". Of pragmatism, I've only read William James' book and some article of Pierce.

On von Mises, I agree with him in the following aspects:

1)The critical analysis of dialectical materialism. In other post of your blog, I put a link with von Mises' book "Marxism unmasked". But you'd like to read the chapter "dialectical materialism" in his book "theory and history". You can read that full chapter here:

As you can see, Mises critized the basic thesis of Marx and Engels (class struggles, etc.) not only the soviet communism (Mises wrote that book in 1957, when many people had
hopes in soviet communism...)

2)His critique of socialism. Mises' basic postulate against socialism is: in a socialist regime, it's not possible the economic calculus. Mises wrote in 1920 a famous paper titled "Economic Calculation In The Socialist
Commonwealth" arguing for thesis.

This is the economic argument of Mises against socialism. It isn't an philosophical argument.

That paper was debated by marxists and libertarian economists, and, as far I kwow, some marxists accepted Mises' thesis. Some months ago I read about a well-known economic historian and socialist (and critic of Mises) who said "It seems that Mises was right regarding socialism after all".

In later years, Mises wrote the book "socialism" for a more in depth critical examination of socialist arguments. Supposedly, that book "converted" former socialist Hayek in libertarian (Hayek was marxist in his youth).

Mises also wrote critical essays and books against fascism and other totalitarian philosophies.

3)His critique of positivism applied to social sciences. Mises formulated the "praxeology", a theory of human action as an alternative to positivism applied in the sciences of human action (social sciences). It's explained in his book "human action".

In my view, Mises' praxeology is hard to grasp at first glance. It has very deep implications to epistemology and scientific methodology.

Currently some social philosophers are discussing their epistemological value of praxeology for social sciences and economics. In fact, if you read some "austrian economics" websites, you'll see most discussion are around philosophical and epistemological topics.

I agree with you about libertarianism. Also, I think some marxist postulates can be useful to understand social phenomena.

But I don't think that basic thesis of marxism (labor theory of value, class struggle, evolution of productive forces as the primal social determinant, etc.) are correct. I think they have been refuted.

Mises was a strict defender of free market economy. He didn't liked mixed economies. In that view, I don't agree with him.

On Schopenhauer, I admire his clarity of exposition (some philosophers, like Heidegger or Foucault are very oscure and hard to grasp) and clever arguments. Specially, his corrections to Kantian philosophy were very good.

Also, I think Schopenhauer's thesis about the "will of live" is very original one.

Also, Schopenhauer's observations about different topics are very clever. As an example, his views on controversies as a usefulness tool to find out the truth is correct (most people debate to win the argument, not to find out the truth.). It's not an absolute postulate, but it's true as a rule.

Or his recommendation of read first hand sources, to avoid the often misrepretations and interpretations of second hand sources.

These are some of the things I admire of Schopenhauer. (I don't agree with his pessimistic view...)

Jeff Meyerhoff said...

I would still like to use the concept of class struggle where useful, but von Mises was right that the type of soviet-style socialism in which you have a so-called command economy where most economic decisions about supply and demand are made centrally is unworkable. The capitalist market is much more efficient.

But this doesn't mean that the market allocates naturally or fairly. This is where an analysis of the power relations among classes and groups comes in. Who decides what the market rules are? In the US as in other countries the wealthy and powerful have a much bigger influence in setting the rules of economic conduct.

I guess I'd have to read von Mises to comment. Not sure I'd be able to.

I didn't know Schopenhauer was a clear writer. I've read and enjoyed Heidegger and Foucault, but you're right they're tough going.

That's an interesting distinction between arguing to win versus arguing to find the truth. Rorty questions this distinction suggesting that truth doesn't have an independent existence apart from argumentation. That we call the best arguments at the time, the truth. There is no non-human adjudicator of truth that we can positively say we (and not our opponents) are in touch with.

Yet, in practice it does have a different quality when someone is trying to win an argument at all costs versus wanting to be open to counterargument and the other person's view.

It's interesting how Schopenhauer is commonly described as a pessimist. A very emotion-laden term since it's a very quick jump from pessimism to depression, sadness, hopelessness and tragedy. It suggests the emotional basis of the intellectual viewpoint.