Indispensable Goods

I’m going to move discussion of the book Indispensable Goods to a fixed page, so that it will be accessible as my blog posts move on to my next project.  I’ll post links about the book here as they become available, and also entertain questions, objections, or disagreements—and, if I’m lucky, perhaps some suggestions about how to extend the arguments I’ve made.

I’ve been asked about a Kindle version of the book, but it is my plan that there will never be one.  Let me explain.  It seems to be sufficiently well established that reading online or on devices leads to far less retention and comprehension than reading a physical printed text.  Even so-called “digital natives” retain far less of what they read, and are less able to follow complex arguments, when reading a book on Kindle.  So, much as I love my Kindle for reading detective and horror novels, I don’t think it’s of much use for reading an extended philosophical argument, particularly one in which later chapters require recall of earlier chapters.

My goal here is to shift the way we think.  Skimming for the “conclusions” will be of no use—because the real function is in following the kinds of argument that led to those conclusions.  The form of argument is more important, and the goal is to make readers into the kinds of subject who can reason and argue in this way.

So I plan for there only ever to be a print version of the book.

Here are some links to the Amazon sites where you can order the book:

In the UK

In the US

Looking forward to your feedback!  And remember—this is a great book to give those graduating from college this year!  (Or, perhaps, those recent graduates stuck in neutral and facing an economic depression like we haven’t sent in generations.)


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  1. thesonoranghost

     /  October 28, 2020

    “Hey, it’s not a problem for me—but as you said, if you have any kinds of security clearance you might need to worry about having a conversation with an avowed marxist.”

    No worries here. Whatever happens, happens.

    I’ve been taking time to respond as to a better response to the reductionism chapter. It’s been making me go back and reacquaint myself with my epistemological positions, which I haven’t really re-evaluated in a good 15-20yrs.

    The short version is that I think it’s not ‘reductionism’ as the process you’re not liking, it’s the ad nauseum application of atomism. In the chapters on mind/sociality the case makes much more sense using that word, and the thing that Dawkins is really doing is again, applying atomistic thought at precisely the level where it tends to break down. This is why–for me–your discussion of mind-dependent and mind-independent phenomenon radically cleaned up my own house… well, not all the way, I’m still in the process of assimilating that chapter, and its been a couple weeks since I read it.

    Some of this has to do with the fact that most people who practice science now are really reborn positivists, because NO ONE TEACHES THE PHILOSOPHY AND HISTORY OF SCIENCE to future scientists.

    At any rate, the napkin sketch is I have is that we are continuing to see a tendency to apply the problem solving that worked very well for chemistry, physics, and biochemistry into realms of the mind, but because we also don’t really teach that distinction between mind dependent and mind-independent phenomena it gets *really* easy to start making leaps because there is a strong tendency to say “all this complex stuff we learned in these ‘hard’ sciences should be applicable because–as I said in an earlier post–we *know* for a fact that life came from inert matter, and we know that all life’s processes follow the rules of chemistry, so despite not having a working theory of the mind, we can take some big swings and…

  2. Yes, reductionism is not all bad reductionism. When we “reduce” the phenomenon of an illness to the biological causes, so long as we include all of those causes, it doesn’t present a problem. What I am concerned with primarily is the attempt to “reduce” mind-dependent things to mind-independent causes.

    I would suggest that even at the mind-independent level there are emergent properties, so that tracing everything back to the moment of the Big Bang would not be possible—at least, not unless we include those emergent properties. But that’s not my primary concern. What I think causes the most difficulty in understanding and reducing the causes of human suffering is the tendency to ontological collapse, in particular in the form of reduction of “mind” to some biological level (brain, genes, etc.).

  3. thesonoranghost

     /  October 31, 2020

    “What I think causes the most difficulty in understanding and reducing the causes of human suffering is the tendency to ontological collapse, in particular in the form of reduction of “mind” to some biological level (brain, genes, etc.).”

    That’s part of why I’m doing some heavy lifting before hitting your reductionism section again. For me, the use of the word “ontology” is typically loaded. There’s been two times in my life where that word gets used, the first is the general “Ontological Argument” for God specifically from St. Anselm and of course Decartes. The other is in the branch of ethics ‘deontology.’ Both of which in my life I’ve spent considerable energy learning about and fighting with.

    ‘Reductionism’ itself as I’ve said before is usually an epithet that anyone whose engaged in an online debate where the word is used will generally categorize as ‘anti-science.’ I know its written for your daughters, but the largest social movement I’m aware of that tends towards many of the ideas we share is secularism, which unfortunately also leads to Dawkins and Dennett.

    This is why I started re-reading on epistemology to get a broader attempt to get my own house in order. I’m essentially an applied mathematician, so I also have a slight disadvantage that my discipline is considered ‘pure’ which also, because of how wonderfully mathematics describes the world can lead to a defacto Platonism. Despite the fact that I’ve often reminded my colleagues that “Mathematics is a language for building models. Should we be shocked that a language designed to be precise should model reality precisely?”

    When you combine that with the fact that the primary enemy of science in 2020 is still religion, I think I could make a strong case that while I can’t discount capitalism as a contributing ideology to some of Dawkins preconceptions, I think less fundamental ideologies are really at play with some of his arguments.

    I’ve identified that epistemologically I’ve been a pretty strict foundationalist, and that results in a strong tendency to discount the mind-dependent outright, simply due to the fact that science is a posteriori almost exclusively. I’m still working through some of the basic problems and challenges presented here, and will be learning coherence theory after that.

    Once I’m here, I’m going to give the reductionism section another critical shot, and try to better explain what makes (made?) it difficult for me.

  4. I’m encouraged (and more than a little surprised) that my book would have inspired this degree of investigation. This is my goal, after all. My hope was never to settle all the questions, to provide “final answers” but instead to destabilize our common-sense assumption about things. What I’m ultimately after, in discussing Dawkins, is not so much a critique of Dawkins (I sincerely believe by the time my daughters are my age Dawkins will be considered an idiot, and his book a mere embarrassing artifact, sort of like Herbert Spencer or something). My interest is in shifting out of our common-sense assumptions, which are what make Dawkins seem so convincing to so many people. A kind of vulgar reductivism is one of those assumptions, as is the ontological collapse.

    Just to clarify, deontology is not connected to ontology. The root is different. “Deont” comes from the Greek word for duty or obligation, while “ontology” comes from the Greek word for being. What I mean by the term is just our thoughts about what exists, what is “really real.” About this, we are generally, in our everyday thought, the worst kind of naive reductionists. We assume, even at the level of our language, that everything that exists must exist in exactly the same way. For instance, I heard just a week ago the claim, once again, that a table or a steel beam doesn’t “really” exist, because all that is “really” there is a swirling bunch of subatomic particles, the volume of which are a minute fraction of the volume of the steel beam. We think that only concrete “matter” is ultimately “really real.” Of course, real science doesn’t assume this, but it is part of our common-sense ontology. For instance, when I wrote that essay on Thich Nhat Hahn you mentioned, I was repeatedly ridiculed for my naive belief that things that are not permanent are somehow real. This struck most readers as impossible and absurd. (I can only hope it did not strike scientists as absurd)

    And Anselm? I’ve never known anyone to take Anselm very seriously, especially Catholic theologians (who, in my personal experience, are the only people who even know his name, so I’m impressed that you’ve heard of him). But no, I don’t mean ontology in the sense of a claim about what is ultimately real, of origins, but only as a consideration of what actually does exist right now.

  5. Nicky

     /  October 31, 2020

    Just a thought.
    I suddently wondered again – why is it so important that we acknowledge ideology, that we don`t assume we can refer to some rationalist universal law (that would be cleaned of ideological content) – apart from the fact that it is true – we have a specific historical view of things and not some truth hovering above our actual conditions and circumstances. After reading Jamesons “The Hegel Variations”, I thought maybe that is why (also touching on your concept of agency?): in my words – finally the individual – in its morality – reconciles with the universal, because it does, it (in an almost Fichtean way) posits the moral law itself, it is not like it obeys something outside of her, but something that is part of her – BECAUSE she created it herself. If I understand that our perception is structured ideologically and ideology is something that we can consciously build, I acknowledge my potential for agency, not just being left with a passive surrendering to an already existing (outer) law. (Also, in this context the dominant theme of “surrender” in contemporary spirituality could be problematized). I realize that this is a very abbreviated form to describe the phenomenology and the link to ideology and agency, but it really was just the idea that the point of creation of ideology, the possibility of it, was why it it is so important, that ideology is acknowledged as ideology and in a positive light so.

  6. Nicky

     /  October 31, 2020

    (I see the relativist danger here but my point was not about what we are creating but that we are able to create our own world, that we remember, that we actually can – I don`t think that a lot of people people really believe that anymore after such massive powerlessness and capitalist realism.)

  7. Nicky

     /  November 1, 2020

    Just remembered the other big thing about ideology: the sociality, the collectivity – once it is admitted that the spirit is understood as collectivity, the individual gets another status and with it its blameworthiness. The endless victim blaming since Thatchers “there is no such thing as society, there are only individual men and women…”. Although a homogenous state of the Zeitgeist ist also suspicous, there are at least different big minds…

  8. thesonoranghost

     /  November 1, 2020

    Hi Nicky! I’m sorry I’ve ignored you in most of my prior posts, but I was focused on making sure I was getting things right and finally feel able to take a crack at this.

    “I suddently wondered again – why is it so important that we acknowledge ideology, that we don`t assume we can refer to some rationalist universal law (that would be cleaned of ideological content) – apart from the fact that it is true – we have a specific historical view of things and not some truth hovering above our actual conditions and circumstances.”

    Firstly, ideologies (note the plural) run furrows in our minds. They create habits and patterns of thinking, that cause us to automatically rule out possibilities. If you’ll forgive a crude thought experiment, if two children are raised, one that theft is okay as long as you don’t get caught, and the other that stealing is always wrong, even if it’s to help people, contrast the differences they would both encounter if they were placed in a society that also predominated those differing values; in other words, pretend society A mapped with Child A’s upbringing, and then imagine the ‘mental boxes’ that each child would play with in that world as they would meet peers of same and different ideologies. Then imagine those same children in society B. We tend to do what our social peers do, so it’s generally easier in either case, to ‘do what everyone else is doing.’ In both children’s cases, there will almost always be a ‘buttressing’ ideology that comes into play ON TOP of this, to try and provide the energy necessary to maintain the non-predominant societal view. (Say, Religion A, and Religion B)

    I didn’t do that to muddy things or by accident:

    How would you begin to question whether or not society B was on the wrong path, if you didn’t have another ideology to funnel your thought towards? The theory of ideology, though while taught by Althusser in a context of criticizing capitalist society, is more general than that focus: It’s a theory of how individuals integrate into a complex society… why is ‘Western Civilization’ the zenith of all civilizations? That’s a strong and deep rut in the road. But consider how unquestioned that rut is, and you have part of your answers as to why you can’t ignore ideology. (I mean we CAN, but that’s not precisely what we’re both here for?)

    Equally important: it isn’t possible to have a ‘rationalist universal law’ that is “devoid of ideology.” Ideology isn’t *just* a framework of views that society uses to subconsciously prewrite beliefs, it’s a framework of views that we humans use to ‘just go’ in whatever society we happen to find ourselves living in. Our brains are prewired to lock into these frames possibly so we can can contribute to the collective good more quickly, sort of how gazelles can stand up within minutes of being born. Tom might jump on me for being a little quick with the ‘prewired’ comment, but otherwise I hope I’m presenting this in my own words effectively.

  9. thesonoranghost

     /  November 2, 2020

    “I’m encouraged (and more than a little surprised) that my book would have inspired this degree of investigation. This is my goal, after all. My hope was never to settle all the questions, to provide “final answers” but instead to destabilize our common-sense assumption about things.”

    You shouldn’t be. Surprised I mean. It takes some discipline. I’m looking forward to working on the assumption mining suggested in the “reason” chapter, and I’m looking longingly at “Against the Grain.” Epistemology first. Then Althusser. The money as God book is high on my list too, but I limited myself this month to the books I could find used and cheap. I’m planning on asking for THAT one for Christmas. [That irony cake might be Tiramisu…]

    “What I’m ultimately after, in discussing Dawkins, is not so much a critique of Dawkins (I sincerely believe by the time my daughters are my age Dawkins will be considered an idiot, and his book a mere embarrassing artifact, sort of like Herbert Spencer or something).”

    Dawkins: that ties in with some of what I talked about that some of this is outright wrong just based on the science. When I was still a medchem major, and I took a class on microbiology, while we did discuss the central dogma of molecular biology, do you know who never came up? Dawkins or the selfish gene. Did we even discuss him in my genetics work? No! Given that his book was written in what, 1983? I more or less never read it because I was already under the impression that whatever good he might have had to say, we’d since moved beyond whatever it was that he was saying in the first place. There’s enough complexity going on below the gene that it seems perfunctory to place the gene as the central mechanism. Abiogenesis is another science that gets no support, yet the evolution of life is now largely considered to be starting with RNA or even virii depending on who you ask. I’ll stick to my guns here: Natural selection applies at almost every conceivable level. The gene might be important in that it’s the central unit of storing information, but ALSO since the early 2000s we’ve been learning that the “non-coding” regions of DNA are absolutely essential to life including phenotypical expression: A gene-centric picture is unthinkable to me in 2020, based on that fact alone.

  10. Nicky

     /  November 2, 2020

    Thank you for your responding, thesonoranghost!
    I still try to find out precisely why I suddently didn`t know anymore what the big deal of ideology was, so as if after somewhat, overshooting the mark, not knowing why I ended up in this position in the first place…not that ideology theory did not make sense, but as if there was something, a deeper reason I was missing or forgot…
    You suggested, according to my interpretation, to use the theory of ideology almost like a sociological psychoanalysis – and I like that, I also think my confusion indeed circled around the problem of “Wirklichkeit”/real life versus the philosophy about it and how you can criticize something that you are a part of, that you are deeply conditioned by…
    so for now..I think…
    the other important point about ideology is – immanence! Ideology refers us to the real of life, how we grow into it, become it and therefore cannot really critizice/philosophize from outside of it – but maybe more important, we don`t need to be (outside of it), we don`t need to exit Platon`s cave to get to the truth but can wander inside the cave passages, resembling more a detective or a psychoanalyst than a meditating sage in the mountains…didn`t Marx break up with Hegel by turning to the real lives, the real suffering of people and get the philosophy (also) from there: philosophy from below and not above…like becoming philosophical detectives of the very specific reality and understand what is actually happening HERE, how suffering is created – to therefore indeed change it.

  11. Sonoran: Yes, I’m not at all worried that real scientists are still thinking as poorly as Dawkins about how evolution works. Although he was given some made up appointment at Oxford, as Professor of Public Understanding of Science, or some such thing—which I imagine must have exasperated real scientists, since Dawkins was himself unable to understand the science he was supposed to be explaining to the public.

    Rather, my point is that Dawkins is very popular outside of serious science, because his way of thinking is so thoroughly aligned with the general common-sense way of thinking about how the world works. Sort of the way no serious philosopher bothers to discuss Ayn Rand, but she is enormously popular with young men in America even today.

    And I think we need to follow Darwin all the way, and realize that it is possible for other forces to emerge that will prevent the ordinary operation of evolution—he presents this, in The Descent of Man, as a kind of “fall” from an ideal stat, but we could also see it as what enables our freedom from determinism.

    Nicky: Yes, sociality is important here. We need to realize that we cannot INDIVIDUALLY dictate a moral law, or even commit to one, because every moral law involves all of us. But I also think that it is part of our human conatus to need to be involved in determining what social formation we will inhabit—to take part in deciding how we will produce and distribute indispensable goods. I think if we don’t get to do this, if we are tricked into thinking this has been decided for us (by genes, or God, or whatever), then we are always going to be denied the use of part of our natural human capacity, and will always be suffering.

    I’m trying to work out a draft of an initial post, a sort of call for papers, for Imaginary Relations. I’m not quite sure I trust my intellectual judgment right now, so it may not be great, but I’ll try posting it as a draft here sometime today or tomorrow.

  12. Oh, and yes, I’m eager to read Philip Goodchild’s latest book, “Credit and Faith”, but being out of work for a year, I’m trying to stick to a book budget! (I generally exceed it, though).

  13. thesonoranghost

     /  November 2, 2020

    Yeah Nicky,

    After reading the “call for papers,” I totally missed the “practices” part of ideology. I’m going to have to work to embed this into my thinking.

  14. thesonoranghost

     /  November 2, 2020

    “And Anselm? I’ve never known anyone to take Anselm very seriously, especially Catholic theologians (who, in my personal experience, are the only people who even know his name, so I’m impressed that you’ve heard of him). But no, I don’t mean ontology in the sense of a claim about what is ultimately real, of origins, but only as a consideration of what actually does exist right now.”

    I meant to respond to that part. Don’t give me too much credit on Anselm. Quite a bit of the more theological stuff I’ve learned I learned due to a novel I started creating back in about 2007. It currently exists as a skeletal outline with dozens of notes, but in order for me to capture what I wanted I had to start doing a ton of reading. (If you’re going to write a novel depicting modern Christianity as an abomination of morality and ethics, you’d better make sure you truly understand the thing from its roots.) So I’m not intimate with Anselm, but incredibly intimate with parts of Christian history related to the construction of the Bible, as well as many texts that are considered “deuterocanonical” and/or outright “heretical.” Two books I plan on rereading now after getting better acquainted with ideology and some of the tools you’ve opened my eyes to are “Constantine’s Bible” and “The First Seven Ecumenical Councils.”

    The pattern of dialectical materialism points out to me multiple places in human history where I might be able to play on some of these themes. The part I just haven’t figured out yet is how to convincingly write a strong female character that is human yet can play alongside the almost superheroic cast I’ve assembled. (I began it before reading American Gods, but I’ve managed to have character sketches of several mythological traditions so that I hope… just about everyone finds something.)

    I haven’t had a chance to talk about it here, but the end of YOUR book has had my imagination firing trying to solve some of the really hard problems. A world without money seems impossible but my brain is trying. I like the idea of leaving behind… foundation stones for the future to build on. That’s gotta make its way into the novel too.

    Sorry. I’m about to go totally off topic here.

  15. Nicky

     /  November 3, 2020

    Yes maybe the missing thing was “particiaption”. Participation links collectivity with the individual, to creation of a world, immanence anyway. But some irony to say this on election day. What choice do you have?

  16. thesonoranghost

     /  November 4, 2020

    In my re-discovery of epistemology, I’ve stumbled into some items I didn’t really contemplate back when I half read this book for the first time. (Problems of Knowledge by Michael Williams) ‘Naturalized epistemology’ is something that I took for granted. I had to backtrack back to the earlier chapters to make sure I had a chain of arguments right, and its a good thing I did so.

    Early in chapter 2, we’re presented with Gettier’s analysis, which demonstrates how the traditional “standard analysis” of “justified true belief” creates some rather interesting scenarios where intuition leads us quickly to “that’s not knowledge.” (Essentially, if the belief is ‘accidently true’ few of us would grant we have knowledge of something.)

    What I wasn’t aware of is that naturalistic thinking in regards to knowledge takes an extreme view: Justification is unnecessary. I sense some danger here, some of which you’ve discussed. Because ‘knowledge’ is shifted away from plain truths about experience into a radical externalism. And I don’t think I’ve really realized this before, but a mental framework that pushes knowledge out to be *radically* external–such that, to be *knowledge* it can only be about Mind-Independent things verifiable by other people seems to ironically eradicate the ‘self’ as an object worth of study in the first place. We value knowledge as something more than raw fact, but by placing it so far away this perspective distorts experience. It’s ironic because we also absorb that Romantic idea of “go find yourself” whilst being told that someone else actually is the keeper of the keys of knowledge. (Cognitive psychology?)

    This then creates an interesting dilemma that I wasn’t expecting to leap out at me from the page. “Philosophical naturalists are anti-supernaturalists: their thought is that, because the natural world is the only world there is, there is no inquiry other than natural-scientific inquiry. However, epistemology does not resist ‘naturalization because it deals with the supernatural but because it is irreducibly normative.”

    This has me come back around the other side of some of my original inquiries: Morality and Ethical systems equally too resist naturalization for the *exact same reason.* This then creates, and this is maybe more your words than mine Tom: It creates a lattice of thought where knowledge is shifted away from the self, and our internal systems of thought then become little playgrounds of relativism where just about everything at the level of everyday experience becomes that Romantic playground of ‘finding yourself.’ Or ‘writing your own life.’ It then allows others to become the caretakers of ‘knowledge’ deemed only of knowledge of the external world. Internal experience is denied as ‘real’ by definition.

    This wasn’t exactly prompted by the section, but I found it weird that at first Williams was describing what sounded like naturalism as “radical externalism.” It took a few minutes of chewing to realize exactly what is lost by a conception of knowledge that is approached like this.

    I’m not sure if I didn’t swallow some magic mushrooms this morning.

  17. Gettier problems fascinate me. It is odd that until Gettier published his famous essay supposedly disproving the “justified true belief” theory of epistemology, almost nobody would ever have supported that theory. It was the attempt to criticize a theory that nobody actually held (or almost nobody) which in fact made the JTB theory the “standard” theory of knowledge. What a bizarre moment in academic history.

    The real problem has usually been how do we know something is “true”. To say that knowledge is a “true belief” just avoid the real problem—if we know what is true, then we wouldn’t be puzzled by epistemology at all!

    Anyway, my concern remains getting people to be willing to think about such things. I have no original answer to these problems. In fact, despite frequent claims on the internet that I “use postmodern philosophy” (a thing I’ve never seen, myself) or that I am “one of those postmodernists” (as bad, to me, as being called “one of those QAnon followers”), most of my ideas are fairly Aristotelian. As Aristotle (on my reading) would argue, what is most important, to being fully human, is that we think through the beliefs we hold rigorously. If we could become a less anti-intellectual country, we might not be in the mess we are in right now. The common concept of “epistemology” today is that it is somehow shameful to change one’s opinion merely to fit facts and logical argument. Anyone who changes their belief/attitude/intention ever is considered a hypocrite and viciously attacked and ridiculed. I suspect Aristotle would have been mystified and appalled by this situation; I know I am.

    Just spending some time thinking about how we actually know what we think we know would make the world a better place.

  18. thesonoranghost

     /  November 14, 2020

    I figured I’d check in since its been a few days.

    I haven’t even made it to the formal discussion on Reduction/Inference just yet, but Michael Williams has scorched alot of earth. As someone who was more or less a textbook Russelian foundationalist I find quite a bit here to ponder. The main attack that’s landing so well is what Williams terms “The Problem of the Basis.” In short–and you will find this familiar Mr. Pepper–that the philosophical pressure for atomism forces the foundationalist into a position where the basis for knowledge is non-propositional, however we’ve already agreed that knowledge must be something that is falsifiable… so something has to give.

    My initial objection is this: We don’t need to have language to say, look at the curtains and then look at my fresh papercut to deduce that even without the word ‘red’ that there’s both a similarity and difference between the shades.

    But then… it’s a falsifiable claim. “These shades are different.” And even if we went to the scientific realm, that there’s a difference in the spectrum of light reflected… the ‘truthiness’ here is that the foundationalist wants a language-independent means of extracting “true” or “false.” “True” and “false” are… almost Platonic ideals in that they’re trying to attribute language-dependent reality into the mind-independent world.

    In the past I would have regarded that entire exercise as pointless intellectualizing. Math starts from tautology too. And the world obeys mathematical laws yes? When we look at the periodic table, sure, maybe atoms aren’t particles really, but their true nature doesn’t detract from what we’re able to accomplish based on *everything else* we discovered. Like other theories in math, sometimes it’s perfectly fine to assume something is true simply because it lets you advance a particular line of questioning. In other words, the objection “But you don’t *know* atoms are actually particles!” is besides the point if I add Sodium into heavily chlorinated water and then boil the water to extract table salt.

    I would be intrigued by a Marxist analysis here, as again, peering from within the scientific scope I can see several internal pressures. The only offhand thing I can think of when trying to “meta-analyze” this is that science post WWII would have been under intense ideological pressure to try and explain reality by trying to evade Marxist social connections. The atomism here also makes sense as there was more pressure to think of *everythings* (plural intended) as individuals.

    At any rate, Williams is about to school me on reduction and inference. It might be that after this I could return to your reductionism section. It could just be that the area was difficult because I’d never spent much time reflecting on sets of ideas that were simply “baked in” to my thinking. But then I also recall cautiously saying that It could well be that my own baggage is what was making that section difficult.

  19. thesonoranghost

     /  November 23, 2020

    I’m almost done in my remedial study in epistemology. What I wanted to turn to is that I’ve also just completed Althusser’s work, “On the Reproduction of Capitalism,” whose Chapter 12 is the Essay on Ideology that seems to form a pretty large structure of the gentle argument you make here in Indispensible Goods (IG).

    Two questions immediately spring to mind. The first, you seem incredibly cautious in how you (we) in IG approach Althusser’s concept of ideology. Once the entire book has been read, but specifically chapters 5 and 11 if we’re being incredibly short, we seem to have a pretty concrete picture of what Althusser means in regards to ideology–in his own words. Admitting perhaps that this might well be due to having read IG first with almost 2 months now for that to settle in, it still strikes me as odd that you’d be so cautious. Perhaps there’s some intellectual history here that I’m simply not aware of?

    The second question is much more specific. There’s a section with a VERY interesting footnote where Althusser discusses something in particular to do with the fact that customs have more power than law, and that specifically this seems to be understood well by Montesquieu (a right dissident) and Rousseau (a left dissident.) I’m personally intrigued that it seems that it seems it took “extremists” to see this. I’m interested to discover more here but wanted to ask you if this is something that has already been studied well or if this is something that I would have to go and do some syntopical research of my own to discover? Not that I would be afraid to tackle this of course, but with the reading list I’ve encountered just from IG I’m not keen to go that deep on Rousseau and Montesquieu as I already lack a ridiculous amount of historical background. I’m hoping you have something at the ready here?

  20. Yes, I am “cautious” about this. Mostly because almost everyone who discusses Althusser fails to grasp his central point. I used Zizek as an example of this misunderstanding, because his inability to comprehend Althusser is sort of paradigmatic of most common problem. That is, it is universally assumed that the problem with Althusser’s theory of ideology is that he fails to account for, or allow for the “freedom” of, the independent and unconstructed subject that exists prior to its oppressive indoctrination by the false consciousness of ideology. It is sort of like saying to Galileo “sure, I see your proof that the Earth moves around the Sun. But you fail to account for why it appears that way despite the Earth being the center of the universe.”

    Althusser assumes that we are only subjects in an ideology, and there just is not subjectivity outside of some ideology—so the idea that we can be “free” subjects by escaping ideology is a serious error. This idea is shared by many thinkers throughout history, from Aristotle to Hegel to Lacan, all of whom are also considered to be particularly “difficult” because most of us, today, cannot grasp this point.

    It is because of this almost universal inability to grasp Althusser’s theory of ideology that I try to present it very carefully and methodically. I made a decision early on not to try to go through and debate all the incorrect understandings of ideology, much less all the incorrect readings of Althusser—that would have taken a much longer book, and one that was tediously contentious.

    One the second question: in the note you mention, I take Althusser’s point to be that practices, not “ideas” in the abstract, are the locus of our ideology. This is why we cannot just “decide” to change our minds, but need to change our practices as well. And why it is difficult to legislate change, without putting new practices in place over time. I take this to be the lesson we should learn from the devastating error of the Cultural Revolution, which I see as a failure to grasp the nature and importance of ideology.

    Althusser discusses his readings of Montesquieu and Rousseau in a couple of essays first published in the 50s. I have copies of them in a book called “Montesquieu, Rousseau, Marx: Politics and History,” translated by Ben Brewster and published by Verso in the 80s. He does a marxist reading of these philosophers, trying to point out what is new in their thought along with what is a product of their ideological positions. This is the usual marxist attempt to think dialectically, seeing the positive along with the negative.

    It also seems to be a standard marxist position that those somehow at the fringe, outside the mainstream of an ideology, are most likely to produce some radical insight or force some change. In marxist literary theory, for example, it is commonly argued that the “great” writers come from conflicted class backgrounds or inhabit troubled ideological positions.

  21. Matthias Mauderer

     /  January 7, 2021

    Dear Tom,

    I will begin my engagement here with your book with the chapter on free will. At first I have to say that I fully agree with Strawson and you that the kind of freedom in terms of an ability to act otherwise under the same external circumstances and internal knowledge and dispositions makes no sense. We do not have and cannot have such a freedom.

    Having said this, I will move on to the concept of freedom you unroll in your book. In a nutshell, it goes like this:

    (1) We start from a particular situation we find ourselves in the world.

    (2) By using reason, a capacity we humans have like a bird has the capacity to fly, we are able to gain knowledge about this situation (reality) and the causal powers at work in this situation.

    (3) In the sequel, this knowledge motivates certain actions.

    I think it is important to remember that in this process, nothing like an up-to-usness in the ultimate sense (the ability to act otherwise under the same external circumstances and internal knowledge and dispositions) is at work. This means that when we find ourselves in a certain situation (1), it is not up-to-us what we will do. It will depend on all the circumstances at work in this situation.

    Now as a human animal, the use of reason is one of these circumstances (2). It is an ability we humans have to gain knowledge about the situation. But, remembering Strawson, which kind of knowledge we gain is not up-to-us. So the process of using reason to gain knowledge of the situation is not up-to-us. It is rather something that happens to us due to our ability to reason.

    When this has happened, this newly acquired knowledge will have an effect on our intentions and in turn on our actions.

    I think the important point is the following:

    Looking at point (2), the situation where we use our reason-based capacity to gain knowledge about our situation is a particular situation with particular circumstances. This means that even here Strawson’s rule is effective. So reason gives us not back the ability to do otherwise under the same circumstances.

    Having said this, I am left with the impression that despite our capacity of reason, we are always in a situation where what will happen is not in our hands. Of course, newly gained knowledge changes our intentions and in turn our actions, but it may not be the knowledge we should have to change a situation to the better.

    I fear these may be confusing thoughts. But I am confused and so are my thoughts. Maybe an example will help:

    A person realizes that her living standard is enabled only by the exploitation of a large part of humanity as well as natural resources. This person has not decided to learn this. She learned this because the capacity of reason is at work. This may change her intentions and behavior. Or it may not. This in turn also depends on the circumstances.

    Or think of a person who realizes that our capitalist mode of production leads to enormous suffering worldwide. Why does this person realize this? Why do others not? Why do some realize it and do nothing about it?

    Isn’t it in some sense accidental what humans will do despite their capacity of reason? Yes, we have heated houses in winter and cures for once deadly diseases. But we also have many people who freeze to death in winter, or refuse to be vaccinated.

    So reason can be of help for the better, but there is no safeguard that it always will.

    I have hoped to express myself more clearly. But it is obvious that I failed.

  22. Yes, exactly, there is no safeguard that we will always use reason for what some of us would consider “better” outcomes. Reason, and a generally correct perception of the world, can be used to accomplish many ends. So, most people in American would say that those people who freeze to death or die of starvation ought to freeze or starve, this is the rule of social Darwinism and they just get what they deserve. They would not use their reason to relieve the situation, because their intentions are such that oppression of the majority for the benefit of the minority is seen as a good thing. Still, they do have the capacity for reason, and use it to accomplish their intended ends (getting richer and oppressing others). This capacity, not something called “will”, is the only source of our agency, whatever we might use it for.

    The question of how we might persuade people that it is better not to oppress others is a separate one. My position is that it might not be possible. That is, we might just need to persuade those being oppressed to take different actions, using their own agency.

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