Only in Dreams

If you need a break from the Coronavirus Diary for some comic absurdity, then you probably want to hear about this dream I had last night. It featured Irfan Khawaja.

In the dream, Irfan lived in a small but comfortable one bedroom apartment somewhere in urban New Jersey. I happened to be in the neighborhood, so I was headed to his place, but some kids stopped me on the way. They figured I looked like the sort of middle aged guy who wandered through their neighborhood looking to buy drugs, and they told me that this dude Irfan had good drugs to sell. Knowing Irfan, I had two thoughts: first, he is probably not selling drugs out of his apartment (but maybe he’s that desperate?); second, with his history of interaction with the police, the rumor that he’s selling drugs out of his apartment might get him into some serious trouble. So I thanked the boys and proceeded to Irfan’s apartment to ask him about this rumor. I figured that he’d want to know that his neighbor kids were telling random strangers that he sells drugs, whether it was true or not.

When I got there, Irfan wasn’t home. The situation seemed pretty urgent, though, so I thought I had to act fast. I knew that the lock on his door wasn’t particularly strong, and that if I just leaned into it pretty heavily at the right spot, it’d pop open without breaking anything. So I bumped into the door, and sure enough, it opened up. I found some paper and a pencil to write him a note, but I figured I shouldn’t leave any evidence that would incriminate him, whether the charges were true or not. So I wrote the note in Latin. That way only he’d know what I’d written.

Before I left, though, Irfan returned. He was furious to find me in his apartment and proceeded to lecture me on property rights and boundary transgressions. Soon enough, more serious matters arose. I didn’t even have time to tell him about the rumor that he was selling drugs, because he didn’t have time to listen to it. He was, he now revealed to me, leading a team that was fighting Michael Myers — yes, that Michael Myers:

In fact, he was surprised and a bit irritated that I hadn’t already figured out that he was part of the fight against Michael Myers. He had, after all, starred alongside Jamie Lee Curtis in the most recent installment of the Halloween franchise, so it wouldn’t have been hard for me to infer that he was in the process of a career shift. He gathered some weapons from his closet and told me to lock the door behind me and not to break into his place again.

I have vivid and strange dreams pretty regularly. Usually, though, they star people that I’ve interacted with personally in recent days. Maybe because school has moved entirely on-line with the Coronavirus lockdown, er, stay-at-home order, and I’m no longer interacting with the same few dozen teenagers for 40 hours a week, my mind has had to get more creative and work with more distant material. I haven’t even been keeping up with Policy of Truth, I’m sorry to say. So there’s really no apparent explanation for Irfan’s showing up in my dreams.

The rest of the elements in the dream make a great deal of sense to me, but explaining them all might get a bit too personal. I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t a bit sad that Irfan doesn’t actually have a side job hunting supernatural killers, though.

I hope this dream amuses you half as much as it’s amused me.

Terrae Transmarinae

Not all readers of this blog share my (deep, if complex) admiration for St. Augustine, nor indeed my more general interests in the ancient Mediterranean world. Yet even those without much time for Platonizing Christianity or the intercultural dynamics of the Roman empire in ancient north Africa might at least enjoy the photos on this new blog, Terrae Transmarinae, focusing on ancient, and especially late antique, North Africa. I’m often met with perplexed looks when I tell people that St. Augustine was African; Roman North Africa is generally understudied and underappreciated. The interactions between Roman, Carthaginian, and Numidian cultures in antiquity are even less well understood. This site is associated with a project in development that will produce interactive digital maps of social networks in late antique North Africa. But it also has some pretty nifty pictures and some informative descriptions of what was going on in late antique North Africa. Enjoy!


Nemo autem securus est in iis bonis quae potest invitus amittere. Veritatem autem atque sapientiam nemo amittit invitus: non enim locis separari ab ea quisquam potest; sed ea quae dicitur a veritate atque sapientia separatio, perversa voluntas est, qua inferiora diliguntur. Nemo autem vult aliquid nolens. Habemus igitur qua fruamur omnes aequaliter atque communiter: nullae sunt angustiae, nullus in ea defectus. Omnes amatores suos nullo modo sibi invidos recipit, et omnibus communis est, et singulis casta est. Nemo alicui dicit: Recede, ut etiam ego accedam; remove manus, ut etiam ego amplectar. Omnes inhaerent, idipsum omnes tangunt. Cibus eius nulla ex parte discerpitur; nihil de ipsa bibis quod ego non possim. Non enim ab eius communione in privatum tuum mutas aliquid; sed quod tu de illa capis, et mihi manet integrum. Quod te inspirat non exspecto ut reddatur abs te, et sic ego inspirer ex eo: non enim aliquid eius aliquando fit cuiusquam unius aut quorumdam proprium, sed simul omnibus tota est communis…

At illa veritatis et sapientiae pulchritudo, tantum adsit perseverans voluntas fruendi, nec multitudine audientium constipata secludit venientes, nec peragitur tempore, nec migrat locis, nec nocte intercipitur, nec umbra intercluditur, nec sensibus corporis subiacet. De toto mundo ad se conversis qui diligunt eam, omnibus proxima est, omnibus sempiterna; nullo loco est, nusquam deest; foris admonet, intus docet; cernentes se commutat omnes in melius, a nullo in deterius commutatur; nullus de illa iudicat, nullus sine illa iudicat bene. Ac per hoc eam manifestum est mentibus nostris, quae ab ipsa una fiunt singulae sapientes, et non de ipsa, sed per ipsam de caeteris iudices, sine dubitatione esse potiorem.

Now no one is secure in enjoying goods that can be lost against his will. But no one can lose truth and wisdom against his will, for no one can be separated from the place where they are. What we called separation from truth and wisdom is really just a perverse will that loves inferior things, and no one wills something unwillingly. We can all enjoy it equally and in common; there is ample room, and it lacks for nothing. It welcomes all of its lovers without envy; it belongs to them all but is faithful to each. No one says to another ‘Step back so that I too can get close; let go of it so that I too can embrace it.’ They all cleave to it; they all touch it. No one tears off a piece as his own good; you drink nothing from it that I cannot also drink. For what you gain from that communion does not become your own private property; it remains intact for me. When you breathe it in, I need not wait for you to give it back so that I can breathe it too. No part of it ever becomes the private property of any one person; it is always wholly present to everyone…

But to the will that steadfastly desires to enjoy it, the beauty of truth and wisdom is not obscured by the crowds of eager listeners. It is not used up in the course of time, it does not move from place to place. Night does not cover it, and no shadow hides it. The bodily senses do not perceive it. It is near to those in all the world who turn themselves toward it and love it. It is eternally present with them all. It is not in any place, but it is present everywhere. It warns outwardly and teaches inwardly. It changes for the better all who see it, and no one changes it for the worse. No one judges it, but apart from it no one judges rightly. And so it is clear beyond any doubt that this one truth, by which people become wise, and which makes them judges, not of it, but of other things, is better than our minds.

— Augustine, De Libero Arbitrio II.14 (trans. Thomas Williams)

Justice, Equality, and Democracy

This post will not be nearly so interesting as its title would suggest.

This review will also not be quite so interesting as its title suggests, but it will be more interesting than this post (I hope): in it I review Georgios Anagnostopoulos and Gerasimos Santas’ Democracy, Justice, and Equality in Ancient Greece: Historical and Philosophical Perspectives for Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews. Enjoy.

(and yes, I can’t help but thinking that justice comes first)

Disagreeing with Plato at Medium

I have a piece over at Medium, On Disagreeing with Plato: Reflections on Plato, Popper, and Mill. I suspect it will meet with disapproval from the libertarian-leaning readers of this blog, but you might find it of interest anyway. I discuss a recent article by classicist James Kierstead, who offers a qualified defense of Popper and takes classical liberals like Popper to task for their limited commitments to democracy as genuine popular rule.

In the meantime, I have been and will continue to be scarce in these parts for a few weeks, but I’ll make my way back to pester you all in the comments section soon enough.

Pedagogical Failures

A dialogue, paraphrased from reality:

Me: Ok, so we agree that this character was in part causally responsible for the death. But should we think that he bears some moral responsibility, too? Isn’t he in part to blame for it?

Student 1: Wait, what do we mean by ‘morally responsible’?

Me: I intended it as equivalent to blameworthy, at least in this context; maybe if he were morally responsible for a good thing, he’d be praiseworthy, so they’re not equivalent, but they come to the same in this case. But maybe we should distinguish them?

Student 2: Well, wait, I don’t think it makes sense to think of ‘responsibility’ as anything other than that. Like, to be responsible is to be morally responsible. It’s weird and confusing to say that someone is responsible when they just helped cause a thing but can’t be blamed for it.

Me: Ok, what if we describe him instead as a ‘causal contributor’? Can we agree that being a causal contributor might or might not be necessary for being morally responsible or blameworthy, but it isn’t sufficient?

Student 2: Yeah, I just think it’s weird to talk about ‘causal responsibility.’

Me: I think I agree with you; it’s a bit odd to call it a kind of responsibility when you aren’t really answerable for the outcome because you can’t be blamed for it.

Student 2: Well then why did you write the term ‘morally responsible’ on the board? Phhbbbbt.

Me: Oh, because that’s the terminology that people often use in philosophical and legal contexts.

Student 2: Hrmp. That’s stupid.

I’m not sure my students understand that part of what I try to do with them is help them understand the language and concepts that educated people actually use. Come to think of it, I’m not sure Student 2 thinks of her participation in class as aimed at learning anything. Nor am I at all sure that she differs wildly from her classmates in this respect.

But hey, at least sometimes we talk seriously about serious things, occasionally even the things I have assigned for them to read.

Philosophical Vices

Philosophers who are aware of the systematic character of their enterprise may always fall in love with their own system to such an extent that they gloss over what they ought to recognize as intractable difficulties or unanswerable questions. Love of that particular system displaces the love of truth. If the vice of reducing philosophy to a set of piecemeal, apparently unconnected set of enquiries is the characteristic analytical vice, this vice of system-lovers may perhaps be called the idealist vice.

Both these vices have their representatives in present-day academic philosophy. Yet neither they nor the condition of academic philosophy more generally is sufficient to explain the radical marginalization of philosophical concerns in our culture. This marginalization has several aspects. In part it is a matter of the relegation of philosophy in the vast majority of colleges and universities to a subordinate position in the curriculum, an inessential elective for those who happen to like that sort of thing. But this itself is a symptom of a more general malaise. For to a remarkable extent the norms of our secularized culture not only exclude any serious and systematic questioning of oneself and others about the nature of the human good and the order of things, but they also exclude questioning those dominant cultural norms that make it so difficult to pose these philosophical questions outside academic contexts in any serious and systematic way. We have within our social order few, if any milieus within which reflective and critical enquiry concerning the central issues of human life can be sustained and the education to which we subject our young is not well-designed to develop the habits of thought necessary for such questioning. This tends to be a culture of answers, not of questions, and those answers, whether secular or religious, liberal or conservative, are generally delivered as though meant to put an end to questioning. So it is not just that the philosophy of the academic philosopher has been marginalized in the college curriculum. It is also and more importantly that, when plain persons do try to ask those questions about the human good and the nature of things in which the philosophical enterprise is rooted, the culture immediately invites them to think about something else and to forget those questions.

– Alasdair MacIntyre, ‘Philosophy Recalled to Its Tasks’

A Dilemma for Reasonable Acceptability?

Estlund’s Democratic Authority makes much of the idea of acceptability requirements for political justification. Acceptability requirements come in different versions, and one respect in which those versions can differ is what they are requirements for. They might be requirements for laws, policies, procedures, constitutional structures, the kinds of reasons that citizens or certain officials can give in certain public fora, and so on; they might also require acceptability as a condition for justification quite broadly, for political or legal authority more narrowly, or for political legitimacy — i.e., the moral permissibility of a government’s enforcement of its laws by coercive or punitive means. For Estlund, as for many, the most important application of acceptability requirements is to legitimacy, since coercion raises peculiarly urgent questions of justification. The rough idea of an acceptability requirement on legitimacy is that laws backed by coercion must be acceptable to the citizens that they purport to govern, and must be acceptable to them despite their deep moral, religious, and philosophical disagreements.

Discussing the views of Joshua Cohen, Estlund writes:

For Cohen the fundamental tenet of a deliberative account of democratic legitimacy is the principle that coercive political arrangements and decisions are morally illegitimate unless they can be justified in terms that can be accepted by citizens with the wide range of reasonable moral, religious, and philosophical views likely to emerge in any free society. (Democratic Authority, 91)

Earlier in the book, Estlund cites Rawls describing what he calls the “liberal principle of legitimacy”:
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When Belief Makes Reality

Scott Aikin and Robert Talisse, both philosophers at Vanderbilt, recently published a piece about “Our Polarization Problem”. They distinguish between political polarization — a measure of distance between political groups, whether in terms of policy or groups’ attitudes toward each other — and belief polarization, wherein members of a group of shared belief talk mainly with other members of that group and thereby come to embrace more extreme versions of those beliefs. Political polarization waxes or wanes as rival political groups move further apart or closer to one another in their views, whereas belief polarization waxes or wanes within a group. I have some misgivings about their categorization, but the phenomena in question are familiar and well studied. Aikin and Talisse think that what we less often fail to appreciate is how belief polarization not only changes us, but changes our views of others:

One feature of belief polarization that is not frequently commented on is that as we become more extreme versions of ourselves, our beliefs about those with whom we disagree also shift. Again, repeated interactions with our fellow partisans transforms us into more extreme advocates of our partisan views, but it in addition makes nonpartisans look more alien to us. As we belief-polarize, we begin to regard those with whom we disagree as increasingly inscrutable, irrational, ignorant, and unreliable. We also lose the capacity to recognize nuance in their views; that is, belief polarization leads us to regard our opponents’ views as monolithic, brute, and extreme. We moreover come to regard larger and larger portions of their behavior as explicable by their political commitments; in other words, as belief polarization takes effect, we come to see more and more of what our opponents do – their shopping habits, what they eat, their profession, where they live, how they spend their weekends – as expressing their misguided political beliefs.

This other-regarding dimension of the belief polarization phenomenon provides the connection between belief and political polarization. As belief polarization leads us to regard our political rivals as increasingly benighted, irrational, and unreasonable, we become more and more inclined to distrust, dislike, and resent those who we regard as our opponents. We thus isolate ourselves increasingly among our political allies, and this in turn contributes further to belief polarization. Our political alliances thereby become more tightly knit and exclusionary; and consequently political parties and their leaders are incentivized to punctuate (and overstate) their policy and platform differences. All of this occurs within a self-perpetuating, spiraling dynamic that intensifies civic divisions and inter-partisan animosity. That is, belief polarization sets in motion a broader dynamic that not only codifies political polarization, but also erodes our capacity for proper democracy.

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