Rubbishy Reductionism; Sovereign’s Superiority; Tolstoy’s Tension

Having an hour or two between meetings today, I popped by the National Library to read Isaiah Berlin’s The Hedgehog and The Fox (amazon). The copy was well-kept and had once belonged to Lee Kuan Yew. I wondered, if he’d read it, and if he’d agreed with Berlin’s take on Tolstoy’s philosophy of history. After all, even while he lived, many sought his advice on replicating the (economic) success of Singapore in their own countries. But advice can only be properly given if the causes that effected such prosperity can be adequately identified (and, indeed, repeated to similar efficacy).

National Library of SingaporeAccording to Berlin, Tolstoy was uniquely tormented by ultimate problems – of good and evil, origin and purpose of the universe and its inhabitants, causes of all that happens: what is to be done? How should one live? Why are we here? What must we be and do?

The answers provided by the theologians and metaphysicans struck him as absurd, says Berlin.

History was only the sum of the concrete events in time and space – the sum of actual experience of actual men and women in their relation to one another and to an actual three-dimensional, empirically experienced, physical environment. This alone contained the truth.

Metaphysical philosophy and history:

  • pretends to be something it is not – a science capable of arriving at conclusions which are certain. As if it must be possible to discover and formulate a set of true laws of history which, in conjunction with data of empirical observation, would make prediction of the future (and “retrodiction” of the past) as feasible as it had become say, in geology or astronomy;
  • is arbitrarily selective in deciding which factors determine the life of mankind. These are various, but historians select from them only some single aspect;
  • represent only “political” public events, while the spiritual inner events are largely forgotten. Yet prima facie, they are most real, the most immediate experience of human beings.

First Thai, 23 Purvis Street, Bugis, SingaporeTherefore Tolstoy set himself to:

  • do what historians were failing to do – to describe the ultimate data of subjective experience – personal lives lived by men, the thoughts, knowledge, poetry, music, love, friendship, hates, passions of real life. For only the individual’s experience is genuine – of colours, smells, tastes, sounds and movements, jealousies, loves, hatreds, passions, rare flashes of insight, transforming moments, the ordinary day-to-day succession of private data that constitutes all there is to reality;
  • expose the great illusion that (great) individuals can, by the use of their own resources, understand and control the course of events. This self-deception affects almost all mankind. Men are unable to bear the fact that their lives are no less than what natural law has determined. They seek to represent it as a succession of free choices, and seek to fix responsibility for what occurs upon persons endowed by them with heroic virtues or vices – the “great men”. But this is hollow, self-deluded, and fraudulent – an elaborate machinery for concealing the spectacle of human impotence and irrelevance and blindness;
  • reject the notion that any historical movement is directly connected to the “power” exercised by some men over others. Or that these events were under the dominant influence or “force” of great men or ideas. What occurs is the result of a thick, opaque, inextricably complex web of events, objects, characteristics, connected, and divided by literally innumerable unidentifiable links, and gaps, and sudden discontinuities, visible and invisible;
  • demonstrate that while man’s freedom is real and there is free will and responsibility and the real experience of a private life, we are all victims of inexorable historical determinism. Omniscience belongs only to God. Our historical reasoning is an effort to substitute our own arbitrary rules for divine wisdom.

In other words, not much different from what God had already caused Nebuchadnezzar to realise in Daniel 4.
pad thai, thai iced milk tea. First Thai, 23 Purvis Street, Bugis, Singapore*so it was with some bemusement that I spotted Project South East Asia‘s Thum Ping Tjin at the back of SG Magazine with some mention of his The History of Singapore podcast.

**of course, there was also time for a quick pad thai at First Thai (23 Purvis Street). Wok hei, infused fish sauce, a little on the sweet side.

Selfish Gene Cafe (40 Craig Road, Duxton) and Ronald Dworkin’s “Justice for Hedgehogs”

We were working at Selfish Gene Cafe the other day.

Selfish Gene Cafe, 40 Craig Road, Duxton, Singapore
Selfish Gene Cafe, 40 Craig Road, Duxton, SingaporeX joined us at lunchtime – she wanted to know more about Jesus so we looked at John 20:20-31, and John 1. Like the other Gospel writers, John had written his Gospel for the specific purpose that his readers would know who Jesus is/was – his claims, and the evidence that backed up his claims, and in so knowing, believe and have life in him.

No pressure of course, but it is important that everyone considers Jesus’ claims seriously since they aren’t frivolous – he claims to have created the entire universe, to be God, to give life to all, to give enlightenment (or light) to mankind. And since he’s the only one who has ever seen God, he alone knows the truth and speaks the truth. Very very bold and seemingly-arrogant claims!

In the coming weeks, we will see if the rest of John’s Gospel is able to demonstrate evidence that these claims are true.

Selfish Gene Cafe, 40 Craig Road, Duxton, Singapore
Selfish Gene Cafe, 40 Craig Road, Duxton, Singapore Selfish Gene Cafe, 40 Craig Road, Duxton, Singapore

This being a renovated shophouse, the high ceiling and hard cement walls meant lots of echoing and harsh sounds, so it was sometimes a struggle to hear each other over the lunch crowd. X was remarkably patient about that!

The coffee beans were from Highlander Coffee. My flat white (S$4 after 3p.m. for now) was well-executed.

Selfish Gene Cafe, 40 Craig Road, Duxton, Singapore
Selfish Gene Cafe, 40 Craig Road, Duxton, SingaporeThe pasta (spaghetti with sous vide egg, extra virgin olive oil, parmesan, smoked bacon bits, garlic & parsley) was tasty enough, just probably not quite value-for-money (S$13). But I did choose to order it, so no complaints there! S struggled a bit with her delicious-looking beef sandwich (low temperature roast angus beef, arugula, onion jam, dijion mustard, mayo in a sundried tomato bread) saying that her teeth was no match for it.

Spent the next happy few hours being amused by the development of Ronald Dworkin’s thought in Justice for Hedgehogs, which has the distinction of having the cutest cover animal in the history of legal theory and political philosophy.

I’m glad some big guy has articulated, not-so-succinctly, the need for coherence in political and ethical (and philosophical) thinking. Most philosophical discussions annoy me because their blinkered-ness results in much needless tail-chasing. But I fear that Mr. Dworkin himself has made far too many unwarranted assumptions. To be discussed another time.

banana cake, Selfish Gene Cafe, 40 Craig Road, Duxton, Singapore

Views from High Places and the “Proofs” of the Existence of God

View from skygarden of Utown Graduate Residence, National University of SingaporeThe view from the skygarden of Utown Graduate Residence was lovely, in the way that views from high places are always said to be.

View from 21st floor of Utown Graduate Residence, National University of SingaporeAnd from the end of the corridor on the 21st floor, we could see all the way to Jurong Island.

Why do we pay good money to go up to the top of the Empire State Building and its successor skyscrapers in different cities? Why can restaurants on top of Marina Bay Sands or Level 33 in Singapore charge extra for their “stunning views”. Do we pay for the feeling of power, looking down at the human ants on the ground? Or is it the celebration of Babel-like human prowess that wows us?

N, who had been kind enough to send me to the Philosiology blog (specifically, “Surviving a Philosopher Attack” as sufficient warning) before our meet-up, mentioned having to teach proofs for the existence of God, the golden C.O.T.arguments – cosmological, ontological, teleological, next semester.

As I’ve mentioned previously, I usually find arguments of this sort rather tiresome because of what to me are illegitimate presuppositions about, inter alia:

  • the definition/concept of God;
  • valid epistemological bases.

And obviously, these issues are irretrievably linked. Theories about how I can know things would include theories about how I can know God, and v.v. So most philosophers rely wholly on rationalistic epistemological assumptions to narrowly define God and so, to their own satisfaction, manage to come up with proofs for such a “God”.

Also, it’s all unbearably circular:

“Why do you presuppose reason as the ultimate epistemological authority?”

“Because I reason that it must be so.”

BBQ stingray dinner at West Coast Hawker CentreOf course, the same accusation may be levelled against the Christian view:

“How do you know that revelation from God is the ultimate authority about all reality?”

“Because God told me so in his word, the Bible.”

Because of the meta-ness of arguments about ultimate authority, circularity is unavoidable. However, what the Christian view has over the other “proofs for God” is that it is inherently consistent. It does not contradict itself by attempting to prove God by non-theistic means. Additionally, the Christian view sits happily with historical evidence.

This is not to say that Christians ignore reason or empirical evidence (as the use of historical veracity shows), but they do not trust reason as the final arbiter of truth. Why would human reasoning be flawed? Because it refuses to acknowledge God, from whom all wisdom comes, because he alone as Creator and, well, God, defines all things:

18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. 19 For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20 For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. 21 For although they knew God, they did not honour him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools, 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things. (Romans 1)

18 No one has ever seen God; the only God [Jesus], who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known. (John 1)

(On a only very slightly related note, it was interesting to note that tycoon Stephen Riady of the eponymous building-in-Utown fame is widely reported to be a devout evangelical Christian.)

The Christian Philosopher

At supper the other night, as we were starting on the usual supper fare of maggi mee goreng and satay and carrot cake, I asked N how he resolved his philosophical work with his Christian faith.

His first reaction was that it was a baseless assumption that philosophy and Christianity are incompatible. I thought they were because:

(1) conflict with respect to assumption of source of ultimate authority

The general epistemological justifications are tradition, empiricism, reason, emotion, revelation.

The assumption of a conflict between faith and science, or Christianity and philosophy, isn’t invalid ab initio, since the science and philosophy each popularly claim the priority of their respective fundamental epistemological foundations in determining reality/truth.

Christians of course rely on revelation from God in the Bible as ultimate authority.

On the other hand, the common assumption within the world of science is that the empirical scientific method is the main/sole arbiter of truth*, and therefore, questions of morality etc should submit to the greater authority of scientific studies. For example, if a gene has been identified that allegedly causes with the people in which it is present to be attracted to members of the same sex, the science world would argue that on this basis, homosexuality must be right.

And I suppose reason is what philosophy holds to be the foundation of all truth, contra the revelation of God.

(*Hmm, actually, not even all popular science theories are supported by empirical data – eg. Stephen Hawking’s M-theory. But anyway…)

supper in Bishan after David Cook's talk at the Project Timothy Evening Expositions at Zion Bible-Presbyterian Church

(2) conflict with respect to procedures and processes

N had replied to my previous query about the flimsy basis for the theories of a certain philosopher (John Rawls, I think) that “we cannot always be starting from first principles”.

Indeed, each subject would historically have developed assumptions and presuppositions consequent upon (1). These would then form the bases for procedures and processes within each discipline that will determine if a particular person’s work will be accepted/respected within that discipline. Has the student founded his work on approved presuppositions? Has the student demonstrated his knowledge/findings via an approved methodology? And has he come to a conclusion in a manner that is determined to be satisfactory within the contemporary culture of that discipline?

Such procedures and processes would not be truth value-neutral. For example, the Christian would presuppose the existence of a God who determines what is right and wrong and the definition of justice, whereas Rawls would not.

To Christian would then have the task of attempting to fit what he knows from Scripture into these approval structures. And so therein might lie the conflict of subordinating the word of God himself into theories dreamed up by mortal men.

This is not to say that anything extra-biblical is absolutely wrong. There are many things the Bible does not talk about – things we discover about God’s creation in our scientific and mathematical studies for example. And even in other fields, humans may observe certain things about this universe quite accurately.

In Redeeming Philosophy (pdf), Vern S. Poythress writes:

The good products from non-Christians are sometimes called products from common grace. The products come from grace be- cause all of us are guilty of sin and rebellion, and we do not deserve the good things that we receive from God. The word common is used to indicate that God distributes these gifts both to believers and to unbelievers: For he [God] makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. (Matt. 5:45) Yet he [God] did not leave himself without witness, for he did good by giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness. (Acts 14:17) We can see that God’s common grace includes in principle not only physical gifts like sending rain, but also intellectual gifts. God has given to some people keen insights about the world. So unbelieving philosophy contains good insights. Conversely, philosophers who are Christians produce reflections that are inevitably mixed, because Christians are not yet sinless.

Believers think that the present state of affairs, including the state of human minds, is abnormal. It is ruined by the fall into sin, and the effects of sin. Unbelievers, by contrast, think that the present state of the human mind is normal.

These differences affect philosophy. It has become virtually a ground rule for the practice of philosophy in the Western world that one must not appeal to the Bible—or any other religious source, for that matter—for authority. One must appeal only to reason. In my opinion, that ground rule exhibits disastrous rebellion against the God of the universe. God’s will is that we should use the Bible. We are already rebelling if we imply that we know better and refuse to use his guidance.

Suppose a Christian wants to participate in a philosophical dialogue in a modern context. He needs to consider two issues. First, he needs to ask whether the ground rules of the discussion in philosophy forbid him from reasoning the way he is committed to reasoning, that is, with God speaking in Scripture as his instructor and guide. Second, he should ask whether he ought not first to take some time and use the Bible to find answers to the big questions that the philosophers raise. Only after he has attained some clarity in his own mind—and purity of thinking in communion with the purity of God—is he in a reasonable position to engage in dialogue without compromising his beliefs by falling into the same pattern of autonomous reasoning that the ground rules try to force upon him.

Good Faith and Context – John Rawls

Just like the context (historical, social, political etc) of the erection of a building is key in understanding and appreciating a piece of architecture, so it is with reading philosophy.

"Rawls" by Samuel FreemanReading Samuel Freeman’s (such a lovely family name!) Introduction to his book on Rawls, made one get rather fond of Rawls even before he began to speak:

Of his teaching Rawls said:

“[One] thing I tried to do was to present each writer’s thought in what I took to be its strongest form. I took to heart Mill’s remark in his review of [Adam] Sedgwick: “A doctrine is not judged at all until it is judged in its best form”…So I tried to do just that. yet I didn’t say, not intentionally anyway, what to my mind they should have said, but what they did say, supported by what I viewed as the most reasonable interpretation of their text. The text had to be known and respected, and the doctrine presented it in its best form. Leaving aside the text seemed offensive, a kind of pretending. If I departed from it – no harm in that – I had to say so. Lecturing that way, I believed that a writer’s views became stronger and more convincing, and would be for students a more worthy object of study.

Several maxims guided me in doing this. I always assumed, for example, that the writers we were studying were always much smarter than I was. If they were not, why was I wasting my time and the students’ time by studying them? If I saw a mistake in their arguments, I supposed they saw it too and must have dealt with it, but where? So I looked for their way out, not mine. Sometimes their way out was historical: in their day the question need not be raised; or wouldn’t arise or be fruitfully discussed. Or there was a part of the text I had overlooked, or hadn’t read.

We learn moral and political philosophy, and indeed any other part of philosophy by studying the exemplars – those noted figures who have made cherished attempts – and we try to learn from them, and if we are lucky, to find a way to go beyond them. My task was to explain Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau, or Hume, Leibniz and Kant as clearly and forcefully as I could, always attending carefully to what they actually said.

The result was that I was loath to raise objections to the exemplars – that’s too easy and misses what is essential – though it was important to point out objections that those coming later in the same tradition sought to correct, or to point to views those in another tradition thought were mistaken. (I think here of the social contract view and ultilitarianism as two traditions.) Otherwise philosophical thought can’t progress and it would be mysterious why later writers made the criticisms they did.” [from Rawls’ Lectures on the History of Political Philosophy]

In his lectures Rawls emphasized the importance of reading the preface to any philosophical work, to gain and understanding of a philosopher’s reasons for writing the book.

I think this demonstrates good faith in wanting to further the discussion for the general good of humanity, rather than trying to score political points or win the applause of the masses with some new! fresh! extreme! ideas or even to gain tenure. It is also a refreshing breath of humility.

Modernity and Alienation. Nanning, Guangxi, China

London -> Harwich -> Hoek of Holland -> Amsterdam (Holland) -> Copenhagen (Denmark) -> Stockholm (Sweden) -> Riga (Latvia) -> Moscow (Russia) -> [Trans-siberian or Trans-mongolian Express] -> Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia) -> [Trans-mongolian Express] -> Beijing (China) -> Hong Kong (SAR, China) -> Guangzhou (China) -> Nanning (Guangxi, China)

Some photos of Nanning, Guangxi while looking at the next chapter of The Authenticity Hoax, where Andrew Potter theorises about the circumstances leading to the emergence of the cult of authenticity.

The Authenticity Hoax: The Malaise of Modernity:

Nanning, Guangxi, China
fishing beside a river, Nanning, Guangxi, China“Here, I am concerned with modernity less as a specific historical epoch than as a worldview. to be modern is to be part of a culture that has a distinctive outlook or attitude…”

“The rise of the modern worldview is marked by three major developments: the disenchantment of the world, the rise of liberal individualism, and the emergence of the market economy, also known as capitalism.”

“Between 1500 and 1800, these three developments ushered in profound changes in people’s attitudes toward everything from science, technology and art, to religion, politics, and personal identity. Put together, they gave rise to the idea of progress, which…does not necessarily mean “things are getting better all the time.” More than anything, progress means constant change, something that many people find unpleasant and even alienating.”

drum, Nanning, Guangxi, China
Nanning Provincial Museum, Guangxi, China

Disenchantment of the world

“Once upon a time, humans experienced the world as a “cosmos,” from a Greek word meaning “order” or “orderly arrangement.” The order in this world operated on three levels. First, all of creation was itself one big cosmos, at the center of which was Earth…Second, life on Earth was a sort of enchanted garden, a living whole in which each being or element had its proper place. And finally, human society was itself properly ordered, with people naturally slotted…into predetermined castes, classes, or social roles” [Comment: this is rather generalised (superficial, ha!) summary of all of human history. But let’s see where he’s going with this.]

“The work of Jane Austen is so important precisely because it marks the transition from that world to a more modern sensibility – most of her stories hinge on her characters’ nascent individualism straining against the given roles of the old social order.”

“The disenchantment of the world occurs when appeals to ultimate ends or purposes or roles being built into the very fabric of the universe come to be seen as illegitimate or nonsensical.” [Potter then discusses how the Catholic Church was adept “at accommodating the truths of divine revelation to those discovered through scientific inquiry”. To be looked into at another time.]

Nanning, Guangxi, China
Nanning, Guangxi, China“…what gives Thales his well-deserved reputation as the first true philosopher is a conceptual innovation we can call the generality of reason…Once we have the idea of the generality of reason, we are armed with a tremendously powerful cognitive tool, since the notion that the world operates according to predictable general laws is what gives us logic, science, and technology, as well as the principles of impartiality and equality in the ethical and moral realms.” [Comment: this didn’t start with philosophy, this would have started with the genesis of humankind so people could interact, know what to eat, how to farm, etc.]

“For [Max] Weber, the commitment to science

means that principally there are no mysterious incalculable forces that come into play, but rather that one can, in principle, master all things by calculation. This means that the world is disenchanted. One need no longer have recourse to magical means in order to master or implore the spirits, as did the savage, for whom such mysterious powers existed. Technical means and calculations perform the service.

…Weber’s final repudiation of magical thinking represents a genuine paradigm shift in our outlook on the world, and is a giant step toward becoming fully modern.” [Comment: first, the conflation of all religions without examining their truth claims, with magic in unfortunate. Second, the assumption that scientific theories can explain everything is erroneous because its presupposition is that the material world is all there is (and therefore the whole world can be examined and subject to “the scientific method”)]

“…disenchantment transformed our understanding of the self, it privileged a utilitarian philosophy that saw the maximizing of happiness as the ultimate goal, and it encouraged an instrumental and exploitative approach to nature through the use of technology. A key effect of disenchantment, though, was its action as a social solvent, helping break up the old bonds in which individuals and groups found their place within larger class-based divisions or hierarchies…They are free to make their own way, find their own path.”

Nanning, Guangxi, China

Rise of individual liberalism

“Thus, the disenchantment of the world leads directly to the second major characteristic of modernity, the rise of the individual as the relevant unit of political concern.”

The rise of the modern state and the emergence of the individual] “are actually just two aspects of the same process, and it is no coincidence that the individual became the focus of political concern just as the centralised state was beginning to consolidate its power in the sixteenth century.”

“…most of us find it difficult to imagine any other way of carving up the world, so much so that we habitually describe territories that employ other forms of government…as “failed states.” It was not always so.”

Nanning, Guangxi, China[Comment: I’d been thinking about this in relation to China. Of course, it is not a coalition of feudal lords but it does not subscribe to the idea of democracy (whatever that is), and has patronisingly told to “modernise” by Western commentators. But surely, its long history, its prevailing culture, and furthermore, the size of its population and land, would require a different form of political structure and ethos.]

“With the idea of the state comes the notion of sovereignty…the paired ideas here are supremacy and territoriality; together, they embody the form of government we know as the sovereign state.”

“As…Larry Siedentop puts it, the modern state is a Trojan horse, carrying with it an implicit promise of equality before the law.”

“…the state is first and foremost a collection of individuals…Individuality is now the primary social role, shared equally by all.”

“A second, related distinction is between…laws, which are the explicit and obligatory commands of the sovereign backed up by a sanction, and customs, which might be enforced through social pressure but which have no legitimate legal backing.”

“[Thomas] Hobbes was quite certain that the citizens of a commonwealth would prefer an absolute sovereign to the nasty and brutish condition of the state of nature (the “war of all against all”), but [John] Locke…proposed that the state be divided into separate branches, where the citizens have a right to appeal to one branch against another…the beginning of constitutionalism, or the idea of the limited state…The main principles of constitutionalism are that the state is governed according to the rule of law; that everyone is equally subject to the law; and that the scope of what is legitimate law is limited by a charter of individual rights and liberties.” [Comment: sounds good, but what grounds are there for equal rights, and who defines individual rights and liberties and adjudicates between competing individual rights and liberties?]

new army recruits, Nanning, Guangxi, China“This puts the question of individual rights onto the agenda: as philosopher Ronald Dworkin has argued,”Rights are best understood as trumps over some background justification for political decisions that states a goal for the community as a whole.””

“Locke summarized things with the declaration that everyone had the right to life, liberty, and property, the ultimate consequence of which was a group-up rethink of the appropriate relationship between the state, morality, and the good life.”

pork seller, market, Nanning, Guangxi, China
shoes for sale in a market, Nanning, Guangxi, ChinaEmergence of the market economy (aka. capitalism)

“An essential part of this system of individual liberty that emerges from the Hobbes-to-Locke trajectory is a species of economic individualism, also known as a market economy, also known, to its critics anyway, as capitalism.”

“…the term capitalism puts a misleading emphasis on material forces, while neglecting the powerful ideals motivating this new economic individualism. In particular, focusing on material relations (and even the class struggle) obscures the role of individual autonomy, the rise of the private sphere, and the importance of contract in conceiving a fundamentally new approach to the morality of economic production and consumption.”

“On the economic side of things, the most important consequence of Locke’s liberalism was the idea that the public good could be served by individuals pursuing their private interest. With the “privatization of virtue”, ostensible vices such as greed, lust, ambition, and vanity were held to be morally praiseworthy as long as their consequences were socially beneficial.” [See Bernard de Mandeville’s Fable of the Bees – Private Vices, Publick Benefits, and Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations.]

“This is clearly at odds with almost all popular moralities, including Christianity, which emphasize the importance to public order and to the common good of individual sentiments of benevolence and public-mindedness. But it is no great leap from Locke’s economic individualism to the idea that what matters to morality are not intentions, but outcomes…The theory that best served this new morality was utilitarianism, summarised by…Jeremy Bentham as the principle of the greatest good for the greatest number.”

men playing chess, Nanning, Guangxi, China
men playing chess, Nanning, Guangxi, China
“What ultimately validated the utilitarian pursuit of happiness – that is, hedonism – as morally acceptable end in itself was the great consumer revolution, which began in the second half of the eighteenth century, in which both leisure and consumption ceased to be purely aristocratic indulgences. Not only did consumerism become accessible to the middle classes, it became an acceptable pursuit; buying stuff, even buying into the spiritual promise of goods, came to be seen as a virtue.”

“In order for there to be a consumer revolution, there had to be a corresponding revolution in production.”

“The Industrial Revolution affected almost every aspect of the economy, but there were two main aspects to the growth in innovation: first, the substitution of work done by machines for skilled human labour, and second, the replacement of work done by unskilled humans and animals with inanimate sources of work, especially steampower…This marked the death of the cottage industry and the birth of the factory, where power, machines, and relatively unskilled workers were brought together under common managerial supervision.” [Comment: so it was an exchange of one supreme authority for another, only the second expressed a vested self-interest?]

“…the most remarkable aspect of the Industrial Revolution is that it was powered almost entirely by the private, household consumption desires of the middle classes. In their pursuit of personal happiness and self-fulfilment through economic development and consumption, the British nation of shoppers and shopkeepers unleashed a force unlike anything the world had ever seen.”

“Yet capitalism proved to be a universal solvent, eating away at the social bonds between people in a given society as well as cultural barriers that formerly served to separate one society from another. In place of the family or feudal ties, of religiosity, of codes of conduct like chivalry and honour, there is now nothing left but the pitiless demands of the cash nexus…”

“A capitalist society puts tremendous pressure on people to constantly innovate and upgrade, to keep on their toes. They must be willing to move anywhere and do anything, and “anyone who does not actively change on his own will become a passive victim of changes draconically imposed by those who dominate the market.””

“[Modernity] gave us a new kind of society and, inevitably, a new kind of person, one who has learned to thrive in a milieu in which freedom is equated with progress, and where progress is nothing more than constant competition, mobility, renewal, and change…[Karl Marx] writes,

Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real condition of life and his relations with his kind.”

Chinese opera singers? practising in a park in Nanning, Guangxi, China“We have replaced the injustices of fixed social relations with consumer-driven obsession with status and the esteem of others, and where we once saw intrinsic meaning and value we now find only the nihilism of market exchange. Critics have found it useful to gather all of these problems and objections to modernity under the term alienation.”

“For many people, alienation is like victimhood: if you feel alienated, then you are…Regardless of [whether we are talking about psychological alienation or social alienation], it is vital to keep in mind the following: just because you are alienated, it does not mean that there is a problem and that something ought to be done about it.

“Alienation theory tries to bridge the [Hume’s guillotine] is-ought gap by treating alienation like a disease: it not only describes a state of affairs, it also considers that state of affairs as abnormal or unnatural…It needs a theory of human nature or of self-fulfilment that is not just relative to a given place or culture, or relative to an individual’s desires at a certain time. It needs an account of human flourishing that is in some sense natural or essential…for a theory of alienation to do any work, it needs a corresponding theory of authenticity.”

“This, in a nutshell, was the burden of Romanticism.”
Nanning, Guangxi, China

*part of a read-through of Andrew Potter’s The Authenticity Hoax
**also part of a photo-journal of my journey overland from London to Singapore