Frederick Douglass and Adam Smith

Frederick Douglass’s connection to the British Enlightenment. Via David Henderson and David Beito, here is an excerpt from a letter Douglass wrote on November 17, 1864:

“The old doctrine that the slavery of the black, is essential to the freedom of the white race, can maintain itself only in the presence of slavery, where interest douglass_c1860s1and prejudice are the controlling powers, but it stands condemned equally by reason and experience. The statesmanship of to-day condemns and repudiates it as a shallow pretext for oppression. It belongs with the commercial fallacies long ago exposed by Adam Smith. It stands on a level with the contemptible notion, that every crumb of bread that goes into another man’s mouth, is just so much bread taken from mine. Whereas, the rule is in this country of abundant land, the more mouths you have, the more money you can put into your pocket, the more I can put into mine. As with political economy, so with civil and political rights.”

And the Online Library of Liberty reports: “The ex-slave Frederick Douglass reveals that reading speeches by English politicians produced in him a deep love of liberty and hatred of oppression (1882).”

On the surprising origin of the “dismal science.”
Frederick Douglass and Ayn Rand.
Frederick Douglass’s letter to his former master.

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Progress in postmodern art, Millie Brown edition

Some time ago, I wrote (despairingly) about human waste and the twentieth-century art world:

“The world is ready for the bold new artistic move. That can come only from those not content with spotting the latest trivial variation on current themes. It can come only from those whose idea of boldness is not — waiting to see what can be done with waste products that has never been done before.”

I was wrong to despair. For as this loving spread in Britain’s Daily Mail shows, Millie Brown has spewed new life into a played-out line of development:millie-brown

“Vomit Painter artist throws up on canvas to create Jackson Pollock-style splatter.”

Ms. Brown drinks colored milk and then throat-gags herself to induce regurgitation onto the prepared surface. The resulting multi-colored spreads do not quite speak for themselves, but they do speak volumes about just how far the art world has progressed in the sixty-plus years since Pollock’s first drips.

I feared that the pomo gross-outs were no longer grossing us out, but this is really gross! And that, by postmodern standards, is true progress.

Yet I suggest, gently, that perhaps Ms. Brown has only set the door ajar — and that the rest of us in the art world should boldly shove it open and stride through.

I bring up three possibilities: millie-brown-2

1. Authenticity — What Ms. Brown disgorges is not authentic vomit, like one would get from food poisoning or a night’s heavy drinking. It is only milk with food coloring. This suggests that her engagement with the theme of vomitus is less than fully sincere. So bring on the true spew.

(b) The Sickness-Health tension. Vomiting is symbol of sickness — yet the Daily Mail piece injects concern with health: “cleanse,” “healthy vegan lifestyle,” “recover properly,” and Brown herself works in a sterile studio of clean white walls and canvas. This tension all very pomo-dialectic, yet the contradiction is merely suggested in Ms. Brown’s ouevre and not sufficiently developed.

(iii) Feminism: Ms. Brown’s vomiting is a nod to J. Pollock, noted womanizer. But it could be an edgy, coded reference to bulimia, which is a plague among women victimized by society’s unrealistic beauty standards. Brown’s work indicates feminist mileage not yet traveled.

Related topics: Ear wax’s untapped potential. Menstrual blood. That greenish-yellow snot that may or may not mean one is getting a cold. Drool.

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Groundhog Phil’s badger cousin


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My speaking schedule March-June 2014

March 4, Ventura, CA, The Representational Art Conference. Topic: “Why Philosophy Matters to Representational Art.”

March 5, Thousand Oaks, CA, California Lutheran University. Topic: “Postmodernism and Its Discontents.”

March 13-15, Indianapolis, IN, Liberty Fund Socratic Seminar. Topic: David Rose’s The Moral Foundation of Economic Behavior. speaker-action-145

April 3, Stockholm, Sweden, Timbro. Topic: Release of Swedish translation of Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault (Swedish title: Postmodernismens Förklaring).

April 4, Stockholm, Sweden, The Sture Academy. Topic: TBD.

April 15, Las Vegas, NV. APEE Conference. Topic: “Is Freedom a Subjective Value?”

May 15, Toruń, Poland, Nicolas Copernicus University. Topic: “Two Narratives of Modernity.”

May 16, Bydgoszcz, Poland, University of Casimir the Great. Topic: “Philosophy and Educating for Entrepreneurship.”

May 19, Gdańsk, Poland, Gdańsk University. Topic: “Ethics and the Arguments for and against Liberalism.”

May 22: Lisbon, Portugal, Institute for Political Studies, Catholic University of Portugal. Topic: TBD.

June 19-22, Manchester, NH, Atlas Summit. Topic: “Corruption in Business—Does Regulation Lessen or Increase It?”

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Beethoven on the metaphysics of music

A fascinating passage, reported by a young woman named Elizabeth Brentano,[1] who was a friend of Goethe and who met Beethoven in 1810. Here are Beethoven’s own words, according to Brentano:

“When I open my eyes I must sigh, for what I see is contrary to my religion, and I must despise the world which does not know that music is a higher revelation than all wisdom and philosophy, the wine which inspires one to new generative processes, and I am the Bacchus who presses
out this glorious wine for mankind and makes them spiritually drunken. beethoven-ludwigWhen they are again become sober they have drawn from the sea all that they brought with them, all that they can bring with them to dry land. I have not a single friend, I must live alone. But well I know that God is nearer to me than to other artists; I associate with Him without fear; I have always recognized and understood Him and have no fear for my music — it can meet no evil fate. Those who understand it must be freed by it from all the miseries which the others drag about with themselves.”
“Music, verily, is the mediator between intellectual and sensuous life.
“Speak to Goethe about me. Tell him to hear my symphonies and he will say that I am right in saying that music is the one incorporeal entrance into the higher world of knowledge which comprehends mankind but which mankind cannot comprehend.”

That’s from J. W. N. Sullivan’s Beethoven: His Spiritual Development.[2] Sullivan reports that Brentano was intelligent and artistically sensitive but not known for her strict truthfulness, so how close the passage is to Beethoven’s actual views is unknown.

But it’s an important passage, Sullivan argues, because it “is almost the only evidence we have as to Beethoven’s conception of the function of music.”[3]

Sullivan’s own thesis about Beethoven is that “the development and transformation of Beethoven’s attitude towards life, the result of certain root experiences can, I believe, be traced in his music.” That is, Beethoven became a particular person as a result of his life experiences, experiences that “do not happen once for all” but “have a life of their own” and “continue to modify the man’s whole attitude towards life.” beethoven-bustBecoming the particular person that Ludwig van Beethoven was as a man was then integral to Beethoven the composer: “in his greatest music Beethoven was primarily concerned to express his personal vision of life.”[4]

The Beethoven passage seems to suggest that Beethoven sees himself as a sort of prophet revealing higher truths — that is, Beethoven’s music is a statement of truths drawn from a religious dimension, perhaps from God himself. Sullivan’s passage, by contrast, seems to suggest that Beethoven communicates Beethoven’s own philosophy — that is, his music is an expression of Beethoven’s view of life as he experienced it.

It’s the difference between (a) Beethoven’s being a reporter who gives creative expression to truths revealed to him by another source, and (b) Beethoven’s being a creator who expresses his own beliefs about what’s true.

An issue of emphasis, perhaps, and the passage from Beethoven is open to interpretation; but it takes us into the deep questions about music.

[1] Some have speculated that Elizabeth was Beethoven’s Immortal Beloved, e.g., Maynard Solomon, Beethoven (Schirmer Books, 1977), Chapter 15.
[2] J. W. N. Sullivan, Beethoven: His Spiritual Development (Alfred A. Knopf, 1927), pp. 3-4. A rough e-pub version is online here.
[3] Sullivan, p. 5.
[4] Sullivan, pp. vii-viii.

Related: “Beethoven’s romantic fatalism” and my other music-related posts.

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Robert Heilbroner on socialism’s mandatory labor

Robert Heilbroner was perhaps the most famous American socialist intellectual of the 20th century. His The Worldly Philosophers sold millions, making it the second-best-selling economics textbook of all time. In my Business and Economic Ethics course, we read and discuss one of his articles.

Here is a new-to-me quotation by Heilbroner, writing in 1980, about who owns what under socialism:

heilbroner“[T]he creation of socialism as a new mode of production can properly be compared to the moral equivalent of war — war against the old order, in this case — and will need to amass and apply the power commensurate with the requirements of a massive war. This need not entail the exercise of command in an arbitrary or dictatorial fashion, but certainly it requires the curtailment of the central economic freedom of bourgeois society, namely the right of individuals to own, and therefore to withhold if they wish, the means of production, including their own labor.”[1]

So: Under socialism, you do not have the right to withhold your labor. Your labor belongs to society. So compulsion may be used to ensure that individuals work for society. In other words, socialism is a kind of slavery.

Note Heilbroner’s “moral equivalent of war” phrase and that nations often use war as a rationale for conscription. The more general point for socialism is that, whether at war or not, individuals belong to society. They are seen as a product of society, as constituting society, and as the means of society’s continuance.

Twelve years later, Heilbroner did concede that as a matter of practical results, freedom has been superior to compulsion: “capitalism has been as unmistakable a success as socialism has been a failure.”[2] But I do not know that he ever changed his mind about the collectivized, altruistic ethic that underlay his commitment to socialism.

That, I think, is the more important issue of our generation. Socialism is widely recognized to have been a practical failure, but we still have a huge number of socialist-friendly individuals. Free-market capitalism, by contrast, is widely recognized to have been a practical success, but we still have a huge number of hostile-to-capitalism individuals. That indicates to me that beliefs about morality are driving the debate more than are beliefs about practicality.

[1] Robert Heilbroner, Marxism: For and Against (W.W. Norton, 1980), p. 157. Also quoted in David R. Henderson, The Joy of Freedom, p. 47.
[2] Heilbroner, quoted by David Boaz in “The Man Who Told the Truth: Robert Heilbroner fessed up to the failure of socialism”, Reason, January 21, 2005.

Posted in Ethics, Politics | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

The ancient quarrel — philosophy and poetry, Russian style

In Book 10 of The Republic, Plato remarks that there is an “ancient quarrel between philosophy and poetry”philosopher-drinkwith poets and philosophers battling for intellectual and moral superiority.

It seems that some contemporary Russians have turned Plato’s inter-disciplinary war into a pair of intra-disciplinary battles.

Datum 1 — poetry: “Russian ‘kills friend in argument over whether poetry or prose is better’ Investigators say drunken literary dispute led to 53-year-old former teacher, who preferred poetry, killing friend with knife.”

Datum 2 — philosophy: “Getting shot over a philosophical argument? You Kant be serious.”

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The Innovator’s DNA — and Montessori education

Hal Gregersen, co-author of The Innovator’s DNA (Harvard Business Review Press, 2011), innovators-dna identifies the often-shared traits of innovators, but then makes this striking point about how the innovative became innovative:

“‘It’s fascinating when we interview these famous entrepreneurs to realise that they grew up in worlds where adults paid attention to these innovation skills.’ Most often these adults were parents and grandparents, but in about one-third of the cases they were master teachers at Montessori or Montessori-like schools” [italics added].

Nicholas Bray, “The DNA of the World’s Most Innovative Companies.” INSEAD. July 21, 2011.
My Montessori Education page.
“What Makes Entrepreneurs Tick.” Part of CEE’s Entrepreneurship and Values series.

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