The Structure of Scientific Revolutions

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This is a landmark piece of intellectual history; the sort of work which is must referenced, but rarely read outright. The sort of book that is referenced in textbooks and deployed in master’s dissertations.

Published in the early 1960’s, this book marks an important watershed in the way we think about science as belief and practice; even the way scientists think about science. In this sense, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions assumes a critical, lynch-pin position in both the ongoing debate between logical positivism/analytic philosohpy and the ‘continental’ philosophical tradition, as well as the idea of modernism and postmodernism. This is a whole lot to chew on, so please go easy on me in advance.

Logical Positivism is the position that science, the more quantifiable the better, is the only  route to facts and knowledge. Call it scientific absolutism. This view clashed with more “metaphysical” philosophies, which felt that this “hard” approach ignored its own philosophical underpinnings. Meanwhile, the logical positivists felt that these other philosophies where unverifiable, and therefore dangerous nonsense.

Now there is a difference between the logical positivists – who in the light of some discoveries in quantum mechanics have not had much staying power – must be separated from more mainline analytic philosophy proponents, Karl Popper and Bertrand Russell being the best known of these. Thomas Kuhn fits in here. A serious proponent of hard science; he would be deeply sceptical of less verifiable ways of seeing the world, but in his book, he nonetheless is able to step back and make many powerful observations.

The Structure of Scientific Revolutions revolves around the idea of the paradigm. When somebody throws an apple up into the air and that apple falls to the ground, do you see gravity at work?  Or do you see the mutual sympathy of matter as opposed to ether? Seeing gravity is a paradigm; the most famous paradigm shift is the shift from an geo-centric universe to a solar one. You know, Galileo, Kepler, etc. It’s the mental and intellectual framework that allows individuals to organise,  make sense of and interpret phenomena.

The best part of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions is watching Kuhn work out the implications of his idea of paradigms: there is not hard, ultimate scientific truth, just succeeded paradigms, which probably will never fully describe or capture all phenomena. Thus this analytic philosopher winds up dealing with a morass of what feels like relativism; one is tempted to draw out the experience of shifting from a Modernist perspective to a postmodern one. I admit that may be “a bit much,” in terms of the nature of the book; maybe reasonable self-critical might be a better term. Either way, Kuhn wrestles with the idea that science-with a capital S-may not be an absolute accumulation of facts, but merely an other human attempt make sense of the world.

This book is concise and insightful, disciplined yet epic in scope. And surprisingly short, yet full of interesting anecdotes about the process of scientific discovery.

 

President Orange, Part III

I am aware – oh so aware – of Godwin’s Law. You know: the longer an argument takes place on the internet, the greater the likelihood that something or somebody will be compared to Hitler. Hitler is our Great Cliche, Nazis our Great Bad Guy. WWII is our lodestone; our orientation place. It was bound to come up.

But you know the old favourite of McCarthyites: “If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck…”

Look, Trump bares little resemblance to Hitler. The GOP alt-right Twitter squad will never swear a personal loyalty oath to der Furher, like the Nazis and the Brown Shirts. Trump’s gewgaw world of gold-paint chandeliers, Reality TV production, and scuzzy casinos is a world apart from an alienated struggling artist in 1920s Bavaria. I can make any number of statements about ostensible differences.

But Trump has everything to do with fascism. I’m not making a ‘Duck Test’ Argument here, I’m making a direct parallel between Trump’s America in 2017 and Hitler’s Germany in 1933: the alignment of social forces are identical. Fascism is the alliance of Big Business with, well, exactly the sort of people who voted for Trump: the lower middle classes (white working class) and that curious group of angry blowhards (Jeremy Clarkson’s type) who’s fragile egos and brittle intelligences are threatened by a messy, changing, complicated world.

Let there be no mistake: Trump was never going to resemble Hitler and the Nazis. All too often we assume fascism means “Swastika armband, hating Jews, silly little moustache.” The Nazis really are only the best example of what fascism is: the alliance of the angry and ignorant with the supremely greedy and powerful. That is simply the alignment of social forces: the psychological essence of facsism  is best seen in contemporary politics of Pizzagate. People believe in Pizzagate – that Hilary Clinton is running a child sex ring out of a Washington DC Pizzerias’ basement (even though it doesn’t even have a basement) – because they intuitively understand that that is what their “side” is supposed to believe. People believe in Pizziagate the same way that they have faith that Trump is actually a brilliant businessman, or the way children come to believe in Santa Claus.

Fascism, then, is a social alignment of the lower class and the corporate interest, but also a complex psychological phenomenon. This explains why so many people are drawn to it: it’s appeal is emotional.

American Fascism was always going to come wrapped differently: it was always going to be the Cowboy Hats or some sort of showbiz billionaire (as in our case!) Our fascism was always going have more glitz and glam. We will have a family-values, gimcrack-disco-ball deregulated and pro-small government totalitarian future of ecological destruction and societal collapse.

It doesn’t matter that Donald Trump does not want to be fascist. It does not matter that Trump genuinely wants to bring jobs back to the Midwest or get better trade deals for the US. His very outlook – that thuggish authoritarianism – combined with powerful corporate interest (Rex Tillerson to name merely the most prominent example) combined with a ignorant and angry political base, and all the contradictions contained within conservative ideology is fascism.

This is how things are going to play out. The corporate interest wants tax breaks and profits; it wants regulations to go away: it wants profit and only profit. The angry political base not only wants contradictory things, like libertarianism that restricts women’s rights or wants to kick protester’s teeth in, or fiscal conservatism that will expand the military (already comically, criminally bloated) and rebuild America’s infrastructure and build The Great Wall of Trump, but what they really vote for is a psychological, emotional satisfaction.

The only thing they will agree on is destroying the things they both hate (for differing reasons). You know: Planned Parenthood, the welfare state, national parks, NPR, the environment, protesters, the education system, etc. In a world what is most likely to come under attack is civil society and our notion of the public good. This cannot be too strongly emphasised. Hitler’s economic miracle for Germany came most directly at the cost of destroying civil society, followed eventually by the total destruction of Germany.

Keep in mind that Hitler, like Trump, are idiots, who genuinely have no idea what they are doing. They have certain talents that they know how to use; they are demagogues, and they have the benefit of having an audience who is psychologically vulnerable (they are idiots alongside the leader). Remember, the easiest person to fool is yourself.

The grim, gritty reality in both cases is that the system of profit-for-profit’s sake, weather it is called monopoly capitalism (as in Hitler’s time) or neoliberalism (our version) had eaten away at people lives; at society at large. Faced with a situation where profits would either be sacrificed for the good of society or vice versa, these powerful entities have sided with twisted social forces beyond the pale. Greed leads the very destruction of society, which consumes itself in ignorance, anger and violence.

The fact that Trump badly lost the popular vote and is already the most corrupt, disliked man to ever take office and he actually hasn’t quite gotten their yet, combined with the long-term demographic weaknesses of the conservative movement and the GOP, means that the kakistocracy in power will be pulling out all of the authoritarian stops to “Make America Great Again.” Let me put it this way: there is a great conservative bubble, that due to how well funded it is, has been wildly successful. But now that the wing-nut’s have their fantasy Cabinet – and they will actually have to govern in this messy, complicated world – their only real option will be the radical and truely fascist leap into locking down our advanced technological society into the Great White Christian State (with a pussy-grabbing casino-capitalist twist).

Our constitution was built on the humanistic idea of the republic: an institution of civil society and the concept of the greater, public good. This idea is radically under attck both from corporate greed from one side and from a conservative subset of Americans who see this country in religious terms.

If you believe in democracy, and if you believe that this Great Republic is truely the last best great hope of mankind, then now is the time to make your voice heard. Now is the time to act.

 

 

 

 

 

Grand Hotel Abyss

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Grand Hotel Abyss is mix of biographical vignettes,  sorties into philosophical and historical explanations, and a skeptical overview of the entire arc of the Frankfurt School, all written in the tone and style of either a newspaper article or Wikipedia.

I should mention that I wrote my master’s dissertation on a member of the Frankfurt School, Franz Neumann (who comes across quite well in this book), and am therefore prone to be a bit defensive about these very important and impressive thinkers. Jeffries is prone to gambol in the foibles, hypocrisies, egos, and little tantrums of the Frankfurt School luminaries. And that grates a little. Walter Benjamin, Adorno, Marcuse, and Horkheimer  – where, yes, human – but they where also brilliant men navigating the treacherous waters of fascism, communism and capitalism and pouring out a brilliant school of thought.

The Frankfurt School was a creature of the 30’s, 40’s, 50’s but remained high profile through Marcuse and Habermas into the 60’s and 70’s. Composed mostly of German Jews (assimilated) from either comfortable or plush backgrounds, Jefferies never ceases to to draw parallels between their relationships with their (often wealthy) parents. Perhaps the sweetest irony is that the organisation itself owes its existences to a wealthy donor achieved through grain imports. This sense of generation irony and tension remains a theme through the book.

Starting out as an institute to study Marxism (and explain why the German Revolution of 1918-20 failed), the Institute for Social Research quickly found a trajectory that would take them very far away from strict “Marxism” or even “Leninism.” By mixing Freudian insights with the Hegelian understanding of dialectics, the Frankfurt School was both the hottest thing going intellectual and the implicit enemy of all the major blocs battling for control of the world at the time. The Frankfurt thinkers valued independence and purest truth over “picking a side” when everyone was screaming for them to pick a side. Thus much light has been made about ivory tower intellectuals or the irony of calling the USA totalitarian even while it was at war with the Nazis.

Such criticism is valid, but largely misses the point of what the Frankfurt School was trying to do. It’s a little like making fun of Trump because of his hair: ultimately this is beside the point. The Frankfurters where making fundamental insights into the nature of human psychology and the very functioning of our societies. No school of thought has been more vindicated then with the emergence of the internet in a surreal, fake enslaver of the mind. Put another way, if these guys where alive today they would simply say “I told you so.” And they would be completely right.

There is a seriousness of the Frankfurt School that I think people miss. They asked Big Questions and gave Big Answers. And both are even more relevant now then ever.

The Invisible Bridge

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The Invisible Bridge charts the rise of Reagan to the top of the Republican Party in 1976, overshadowing Gerald Ford’s nomination of that year. Comprising a cultural history of the mid-’70s, the Watergate Scandal, Ford’s presidency, and political-junkie detail, this book dovetails nicely with Nixonland, Rick Perlstein’s second book. In fact, The Invisible Bridge simply takes up where Nixonland left off.

The “invisible bridge” refers to the survival – the changing of the guard – of conservative politics from the disgraced Nixon to smiling, metal-rowboat-dragged-across-gravel shallowness of Reagan. And it is fascinating. And necessary. Perlstein’s books are required reading if you want to understand contemporary American politics.

Reagan – his appeal, his outlook, his legacy – are extremely important.  You can’t have Trump without Reagan. Think of it like this: our Presidents are a bit like Roman Emperors and their dynasties. While our Presidents are determined by birth, I think you can group them ideologically, akin to the dynasties of the ancients. For example: the Emperors Augustus and Tiberius preside over a very different situation than, say, the Emperor Diocletian, who stabilises the Empire, but only at the cost of orientalizing and splitting the Empire. I think similar groupings can be made with Presidents: Grant to Roosevelt, Wilson to Harding, FDR to Ford, and Reagan to Obama. Trump is a key transitional figure, akin to a Diocletian or a Lincoln (only in the sense of a major transitional, paradigm-shift kinda of way.

Reagan is critical because his presidency establishes the “neoliberal dynasty” if you will. You know: privatisation for privatisation’s sake, profit is freedom, any sort of regulation or government policy is un-American. It’s this ideology which caused the decline of the American middle class, the stripping away of our democracy and society in the name of ever-more profit. To understand this, we have to understand Reagan’s appeal.

And this is where Perlstein comes in: he is the absolute master at taking a given individual’s background and childhood and then applying these formative experiences into a prism for the reader to understand that person and his/her actions through. Reagan – never very bright (ask anyone) – was a natural actor; he played a Hollywood hero since he was ten years old. Perlstein paints the picture of a third child, son to an alcoholic who sold ladies shoes and a vivacious do-gooder who could fix anyone except her own husband.  Psychologically speaking, little Reagan was becoming the “child that disappears” until he discovered adventure books, apparently The Jungle Book and the Horatio Alger stories.

Reagan chose to be the hero in his own story and lived it until the day he died. And it explains so much. Reagan was the president that really nailed down much of the conservative/tea party/GOP rhetoric that you hear; conservative radio and Fox News is properly speaking Reagan’s true legacy. Where Nixon relied on (class) resentment and dog whistle racism, Reagan’s message was one of folksy, innocent, anti-tax fantasy where there was clear and comforting Good Guys and clear Bad Guys. In the wake of Vietnam and Watergate, it’s really no wonder that filled a deep psychological need.

I could go on for ages about America’s “pilgrims,” my label for Americans who cannot fathom, for one reason or another (but primarily psychological and emotional factors) that the world is a messy, complicated place. They swallow conservative propaganda because they want to believe. They need to believe. It’s a craving for an innocence that we never really had.

One last remark: Reagan was a B-list actor until he was essentially groomed as a conservative pundit. Did the right-wing ideology fit his personality? Absolutely, yes. But we often forget “where the money comes from.” Every step in Reagan’s journey Hollywood pretty-boy to President is created by rich conservatives who step in with prodigious amounts of money or stupendous opportunities at the right moment.

These two messages – the essential shallowness of Reagan and his “message” and the role of rich men who choose to spend their wealth on politics is probably the most important take aways of this book.

Not as focused as Nixonland, it is still an excellent work in American political history.