Thomas Hobbes writes famously in chapter 13 of his Leviathan that human life under natural conditions is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” In order to live a social rather than a solitary life, a comfortable rather than a poor one, in order to live in a pleasantly civilized way rather than a nasty and brutish one, and in order to be long-lived rather than cut short in years, Hobbes argues, humans need to overcome their natural condition and create an artificial world, a second nature, a state, a commonwealth. Fortunately, they have “reason” which “suggesteth convenient Articles of Peace, upon which men may be drawn to agreement.” These “laws of nature” allow them to create the desired “commonwealth” with its “commodious living.” But it is not inevitable that they will succeed in this undertaking. Hobbes writes in De Cive: “Men come together … not because naturally it could happen no otherwise, but by accident.”
On January 4, 2021, 1,000 Hong Kong police went out to arrest fifty-three democratic lawmakers, politicians, and activists. The event was as much a demonstration of unrestrained police power as an actual police operation. The arrested were, moreover, charged with a strange crime, namely “trying to use strategic voting to secure a legislative majority, with an ultimate goal of shutting down the government.” They had organized a primary election to produce a slate of democratic candidates for the then upcoming election to Hong Kong’s legislature. 600,000 Hong Kongers had cast their vote on that occasion. The democrats had also expressed hope that their united front might gain a majority of the seats in the new legislature. Benny Tai, one of the initiators of the event, had, moreover, suggested in a newspaper op-ed that such a majority might eventually be able to veto the city’s budget and, perhaps, even push its unloved Chief Executive to resign.
John Dunn's "Breaking Democracy's Spell" offers a withering but timely critique of the way we have come to think about democracy. The book argues that we need to rethink our understanding of democracy, if we are to to deal with the existential threats that face our species.
Our singular preoccupation with justice is a testimony to the poverty of our social reality.
Power is constantly transferred in political system. What happens when the transfer of power changes the political system?
Part 2 of my memoir
How I left England and went to teach in Berkeley.
Let us be frank and admit that there is no such thing as power – just as there is no such thing as “the elephant” or “the rhinoceros.” It pays to be nominalist in all these cases and avoid a metaphysics of power just as much as a metaphysics of biological kinds. A noun makes us look for a corresponding object and an abstract noun for an abstract entity. Wittgenstein has shown how that misleads us. So, no power, but no harm will be done with the term, if we take it in the right way. Let us say, then, that there exists a field of relations of something affecting (bearing on, controlling, shaping, transforming, destroying, etc.) something in some way or other. Like Foucault, we can call this the field of relations of mobile inequality. It is from this field that we usually pick a subset we call relations of power. But the choice is wide open. Thus, we end up with disputes about the nature of power, disagreements about how power is to be defined. These arise only from an ill-conceived essentialism and should be relegated to the metaphysical dustbin.
Let me say right away that I don’t know how one becomes a philosopher. I can only speak about this in personal terms. Having studied philosophy for a lifetime, I suppose I can call myself a philosopher in the way others call themselves physicists or plumbers. Even then I hesitate to use the word. I generally avoid it when I am asked what I do for a living. Experience has taught me that there will be two possible responses. The first is: “Let me tell you my philosophy.” And the second: “So, what is your philosophy?” I find that I can only stammer in reply. After all these years I don’t know what “my philosophy” is. I certainly don’t want to pin some label on myself, saying that I am a realist, a materialist, a historicist, or whatever. And I certainly also don’t want to hear a catalogue of someone else’s dearest convictions.
Democracy in China. The Coming Crisis is a tightly argued new book by Ci Jiwei that sets itself the dual task of analyzing China's democratic deficit while doing so in a genuinely philosophical manner.
What follows is a short first stab at an assessment of this book.
Ludwig Wittgenstein, the philosopher, and Adolf Hitler, the dictator, were born just six days apart in the Spring of 1889 – Wittgenstein into golden luxury in the capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Hitler into a modest family and a provincial town at the Empire’s border to Germany. Different as those backgrounds were, Wittgenstein’s and Hitler’s life-paths came to parallel each other at certain points and occasionally even to intersect. I am concerned in this essay with Wittgenstein’s pessimism about his time but have found it useful to look also at Adolf Hitler as an antithetical figure propelled by another kind of pessimism. The contrast between the two men may help to illuminate questions about their and our age, about technology and technological thinking, and, possibly, about pessimism itself.
My graduate seminar this semester was dedicated to reading Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations once again. My motto were three sentences from On Certainty which say: “It is so difficult to find the beginning. Or better it is difficult to begin at the beginning. And not to try to go further back.” (471) I found this relevant to the question how to begin another reading of the Investigations; but the remarks also puzzled me. One would expect Wittgenstein to say that in philosophy we never go back far enough. What could he mean by telling us not to go too far back?
A month ago I attended the fourth International Wittgenstein Symposium in Xi’an. I gave a lecture on the beginning of the Philosophical Investigations and a talk at Northwest University on “Wittgenstein and the Decline of the West.”
Almost everyone in Berkeley said: “Xi’an. Where is that?” It tells you how ignorant we are about the country. It is a city of some 7 million people (and perhaps unofficially even of 10 million). The first capital of China lone before Beijing and as such full of antiquities. It was also the end of the Silk Road, the place where Buddhism entered China and it has, till today, a thriving Muslim quarter. A modern city but one with a history.
I have been reading all summer – right across the field, whatever has come into my hands. My seminar last semester on Foucault’s “The Order of Things” stimulated my interest in French literature and because of Foucault’s well-known hostility to Sartre I decided to have another look at that philosopher. So I took up Sartre’s autobiographical work “Les Mots” which had been on my bookshelf for quite a while.
Certainly an intriguing and disturbing book. Intriguing as a description how Sartre leaned to read and began to write. But disturbing also because Sartre speaks about himself in the starkest terms. We read, for instance: “My long hair got on my grandfather’s nerve. ‘He’s a boy,’ he would say. ‘You’re going to make a girl of him. I don’t want my grandson to be a sissy!’ One day – I was seven years old – my grandfather could no longer stand it. He took me by the hand, saying that we were gong for a walk. But no sooner had we got around the corner than he rushed me into a barber shop, saying: ‘We’re going to give your mother a surprise.’ I returned home shorn and glorious. There were shrieks, but no hugging and kissing, and my mother locked herself in her room to cry. Her little girl had been exchanged for a little boy. But that wasn’t the worst of it. As long as my ringlets fluttered about my ears, they made it possible to deny my obvious ugliness. Yet my right eye was already entering the twilight. She had to admit the truth to herself. My grandfather himself seemed nonplussed. He had been entrusted with her little wonder and had brought back a toad.”
A few weeks ago, I met up with a number of local activists in Hong Kong. I wanted to know how much support they still had from the general public and what their chances were for asserting any political influence, given that their leaders were under attack and their elected representatives had been disbarred.
When I arrived in Hong Kong a month ago it was already clear that a political crisis was brewing. The HK administration had tabled a new extradition law and opposition to it was growing by the day. Now the issue has come to a boil.
“Fully 99.5 per cent of human existence was spent in the Palaeolithic era, which began about 3 million years ago when humans began using primitive tools. That era ended about 12.000 years ago with the last ice age. During this long twilight period, people noticed almost no cultural change at all, ‘The human world that individuals entered at birth was the same as the one they left at death’.” (Jamie Susskind, Future Politics, p. 4)
“During the extended period of agricultural society, China was an economic power in the world … but it later missed out on the industrial revolution … and it gradually slipped into a position where it was passively subjected to abuse,” the Chinese scholar Zhi Zhenfeng wrote in 2018. But, he added, there was now “the historical opportunity of the millennium” to catch up with the West and possibly overtake it. The project to bring this about had been announced in 2015 by the Chinese leader, Xi Jinping under the name “One Belt, One Road.”
A week ago, I saw Bi Gan’s movie The End of Eternity (《地球最后的夜晚》)-- called In English Long Day’s Journey into the Night -- on a Cathay Pacific flight. I came away thinking that this must be one of the great movies of all times. The next day I discovered that it was also playing at a neighboring movie house and so went to see it again. I couldn’t sleep after that as the images, words, and sounds of the movie were hauntingly coming back to me again and again in the middle of the night. Dark, mysterious, and melancholy, Bi Gan’s work is, in fact, a piece of the most sublime Chinese poetry and utterly captivating as this poetry can be.