Saturday, May 31, 2014

Liberalism is a Tradition

Joan Robinson’s Economic Philosophy (1962) is a witty and concise polemic, the great theme of which is the seemingly unconscious way in which economists mistake their prior ideological and metaphysical commitments for scientific “discoveries” in the field.  Like most critiques of ideology, however, the book is better when it is tearing others down than when it offers its preferred alternative.  Robinson was a left-wing Keynesian of the middle years of the last century, and when she gets to modern macroeconomics and theories of development – the obsessions of her own career, era, and cohort – she suddenly adopts the same “As we now know…” tone that she finds grating among the Neoclassicals.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Some Recent Thoughts on Morality: A Summing Up

For those who saw my last post on Wittgenstein, it will not require especially keen vision to read some autobiography between its lines – particularly in the passages having to do with Wittgenstein’s tortured relationship to his own discipline.  Wittgenstein, on my reading, did philosophy because he was looking for a way to stop philosophizing, which is something I can relate to.  Whatever things in life Wittgenstein found “intrinsically interesting” were not the things he wrote and thought about.  A persistent theme of Ray Monk’s biography is Wittgenstein’s perpetual attempts to flee into the real world, to really enter into the “stream of life” (a romantic phrase that appears frequently in the biography and in W.'s written output).  Wittgenstein often expressed an urge to do something with his life that would be more "helpful" to people—curing their ailments or their psyches, for instance.  To him, the philosopher was a strange and parasitic excrescence on society-- one who created non-problems in realms that other people seemed to inhabit without the least trouble.  A passage from one of Wittgenstein’s lectures reads: “Suppose people are playing chess.  I see queer problems when I look into the rules […] But Smith and Brown play chess with no difficulty.  Do they understand the game?  Well, they play it.” (Quoted in Monk, 356).  Monk hypothesizes that in this passage, Wittgenstein was attempting to persuade himself of something as much as he was his students:  it is “redolent of Wittgenstein’s own doubts about his status as a philosopher, his weariness of ‘seeing queer problems,’ and his desire to start playing the game rather than scrutinizing its rules,” says Monk (Ibid.)

Friday, May 23, 2014

Wittgenstein: Thinker, Saint, and Self

Many young people with introverted and bookish tendencies have probably nourished a Wittgenstein fantasy before -- or will do so when confronted with an outline of his life (I very much include myself here).  Wittgenstein led the ideal type of the life of the intellectual saint, after all.  Born into an exceedingly wealthy Austrian family, he renounced his entire inheritance and spent much of his adult career fleeing from the work that seemed laid out for him to do as a professional academic, in the pursuit of perfect solitude.  This pursuit led him to such romantic settings as the fjords of Norway and to a village in rural Austria where he worked as a schoolmaster, in every case seeming to end up against his own inclinations back at Cambridge, as if pulled by elastic.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Review of JFK (1991)

Oliver Stone's JFK is a very impressive film if you are a 15-year-old self-described "anarcho-communist" who is convinced, mostly with justice, that everything you thought you knew about the U.S.government is wrong.  See it after that point, however, and you will find the film has dramatically overstayed its welcome.  This was the mistake I made recently in attempting to introduce a friend to this classic of conspiracy-mongering Americana.  I was prepared this time, as I had not been at age 15, to show greater skepticism toward the charges the film levels against every branch of the U.S. government and too many private actors to count.  What I was not prepared for was how dramatically inept -- how terribly boring -- it is.  I went in with the expectation that the pseudo-history in the script wouldn't withstand much scrutiny, but that the movie would still bear up somehow as entertainment.  Well, yes to the first, and no to the second.  The movie is in fact three hours of Kevin Costner speaking rapidly to nameless characters who will never appear again about arcane details of Kennediana that only the initiated conspiracy buff will understand.  How did I ever watch this? I wondered.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Devil's Advocate

Satan came to Cambridge, MA yesterday, and thus far, the people of this city have not been smitten, blasted, transformed into pillars of salt, or driven into the sea like so many possessed swine.  I presume this means the devil and his minions were successfully vanquished.  For this we must thank the Holy Alliance composed of President Drew Faust, the mysterious entities who hold the purse strings of Harvard's endowment (who, whatever else they may be, are evidently anti-Satan), the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, Fox and Friends, Greta Van Susteren, and internet swarms of the ever-vigilant and easily perturbed.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Poetry and Rebellion

One of the more thankless tasks which fall on the shoulders of the UU ministry student is that of obtaining a growing arsenal of "readings" for all occasions -- poems, anecdotes, inspiring quotations and more, which one might be called upon at any moment to enlist to provide peace of mind to oneself and one's hearers.  The trouble in my case is that I like exactly two kinds of poetry, neither of which belongs in this sort of arsenal -- poetry which beats one over the head with an ethical or political or theological message, and poetry which is grotesque and disturbing and morose. I have been chagrined to find before that these are not the universal parameters of taste.  More significantly, the ministerial situation calls for some words of comfort, and the only words that I ever find memorable in poetry are those of affliction.