Monday, January 25, 2021

Review: The Realist Turn: Repositioning Liberalism

The Realist Turn: Repositioning Liberalism (Palgrave Studies in Classical Liberalism)The Realist Turn: Repositioning Liberalism by Douglas B. Rasmussen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In Norms of Liberty: A Perfectionist Basis for Non-Perfectionist Politics, Douglas Rasmussen and Douglas Den Uyl argued that the liberal order is best defended by grounding it on a neo-Aristotelian perfectionist ethics. In The Perfectionist Turn: From Metanorms to Metaethics, they defended that perfectionist ethics and its meta-ethical basis. In their latest work, they shift their defense of liberty, natural rights, and the liberal social order to metaphysics and epistemology. In particular, a defense of metaphysical realism, which in basic terms is the view that (1) there are real things that have natures independent of and apart from any cognition of these things; and (2) we are capable of knowing these things and their natures.

The authors argue that natural rights, since they rest on an appeal to human nature, is best grounded in metaphysical realism. And, further, since the individualist perfectionist ethics they defend also rests on an appeal to human nature, human flourishing, and natural goodness, they need to defend the case for metaphysical realism and how it supports those concepts.

As they defend their neo-Aristotelian-Thomistic account of realism, their primary target is Hilary Putnam and what they call neo-pragmatist accounts of ethical and epistemological constructivism which reject aspects of or all of metaphysical realism. They are also targeting other classical liberal and libertarian thinkers who have shied away from or rejected natural rights and natural goodness as the best ground for the liberal order.

The first half of the book is restatement of their arguments for natural rights and natural goodness, with an eye towards why metaphysical realism undergirds these arguments. The second half of the book is a defense of metaphysical realism along with the critique of Putnam and the pragmatist constructivist views.

I’m largely in agreement with Rasmussen and Den Uyl; whatever criticisms or disagreements I might have are largely nitpicks and rhetorical. I certainly see the value of using Putnam as a foil for their own view and the value in showing why those pragmatist, constructivist views fail (especially in terms of engaging with those with hold more to those ideas than Dougs’ views). But at the same time, I personally found those sections of the book the least interesting and engaging. Nevertheless, they are valuable as critiques of popular contemporary views in philosophy.

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Saturday, January 23, 2021

Review: Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything About Race, Gender, and Identity - and Why This Harms Everybody

Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything About Race, Gender, and Identity - and Why This Harms EverybodyCynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything About Race, Gender, and Identity - and Why This Harms Everybody by Helen Pluckrose
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay have done a lot of the hard and dirty work for those of us who cannot stomach wading through the incoherent works of Critical Theory. Stephen Hicks’ Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault did this for Postmodernism: showing how the ideas of the Counter-Enlightenment (starting with Rousseau) evolved into the Postmodernism of the mid-twentieth century. Pluckrose and Lindsay pick up the baton and carry the analysis forward showing how Postmodernism evolved into Critical Theory and Social Justice Theory – what they aptly call Applied Postmodernism.

They start by presenting the foundations of Postmodernism in the 1960s with a lot of attention on Foucalt, Lyotard, and Derrida. They lay out the essential principles and themes of Postmodernism. Then they discuss how several new approaches emerged out of this intellectual funhouse. These new approaches, postcolonialism, queer theory, and critical race theory, where more activist that the earlier postmodernisms: they were on a mission to end social injustice and rebuild a new, more just order.

Pluckrose and Lindsay move through each iteration of these theories. They identify the main intellectual roots of these approaches and how they currently manifest themselves. They also persuasively argue that these are theoretically hollow, incoherent, and have pernicious effects – often the very opposite of their self-proclaimed social justice mission.

They discuss the philosophical roots of this hollowness and incoherence. Most of these theories build on postmodernism’s rejection of objectivity in metaphysics and epistemology. Once objective reason and reality are thrown out, everything is up for grabs. (Personally, I think they could have done more here, but that becomes a different book. Moreover, Hicks book, Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault, does this for Postmodernism and the same criticisms would apply).

They close with discussion on how best to challenge and beat these theories in the marketplace of ideas. The two main themes here: demands for theoretical and scholarly rigor and openness to challenge and critique.

Throughout the work, Pluckrose and Lindsay do a good job of explaining and exposing the ideas behind these theories. Though their disdain for the ideas is evident, they take them seriously and do not engage in straw man arguments.

By appealing to a broad-based, reasonable liberalism, they are able to show how we can be against sexism, racism, oppression (little s, social injustice) without having to be in league with Social Justice Theory. We can acknowledge the many social problems that we have and work to fix them without all this fashionable nonsense. Indeed, the authors make a strong case that we have to reject these theories and their supposed solutions in order to make progress.

The world has made tremendous progress against all forms of injustice and oppression in the last few hundred years because of Enlightenment liberalism and humanism. To continue that progress we need to affirm and strength these ideas, not reject them. It is, as Pluckrose and Lindsay argue, this applied postmodernism, beyond being incapable of making further progress, has started to reverse some of that progress. These theories have reintroduced and reinforced identity stereotypes and categories. Instead of appealing to common humanity and reason, they make differences more salient inviting hostility and antagonism among members of different identity groups. The intolerance for critique or challenge (branding those who offer intellectual critiques as racist for example) has tended to silence the moderate voices, leaving only the extremes on the left and right to be vocal. And because these theories tend to reject objective reason, all that is left is force.

I think the authors are correct that if exposed to sunlight, these ideas would largely wither and die on their own. That is why they suggest making sure the marketplace of ideas is kept free and open; that ideas need to be open to challenge and criticism without punishment. And they recognize that we need good, reasonable ideas, theories, and methods that can tackle the issues. That is, in rejecting Social Justice we cannot reject the need to work towards more justice and freedom for all individuals. And we need good theories to do this. Their broadly construed Enlightenment liberalism is a good start.

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Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Review: Someone to Watch Over Me

Someone to Watch Over Me (Spencer, #48)Someone to Watch Over Me by Ace Atkins
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I have enjoyed all of Atkins' Spenser novels, but this might be my favorite. (Though I admit recency bias is probably in effect). It has all the right beats of a Spenser novel and Atkins is very nearly able to capture Parker's style. I like the way he integrates his plots with past books--both his and Parker's (and this one more than most). Atkins is also quite funny. Parker was witty, but Atkins gets me to laugh out loud at times.

As I write in all my Atkins Spenser reviews: Atkins gets about 80-90% there, but there is something ineffable that is off. I can almost forget at times that this isn't Parker, but there is something, always, that subtly reminds me that it is not. Maybe it's just the voice in my head as I read; it is slightly different than when I read Parker. In any case, I still love it. Atkins has allowed us to continue live in Spenser's world and I am grateful for that.

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Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Review: Shōgun: The Epic Novel of Japan

Shōgun: The Epic Novel of Japan (The Asian Saga #1)Shōgun: The Epic Novel of Japan by James Clavell
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

James Clavell's classic epic novel Shogun lives up to its reputation. Though only spanning 6 months or so, it truly is epic. The book tells a fictionalized version of the rise of the long ruling Tokugawa shogunate through the eyes (at least in part) of a English pilot who shipwrecks in Japan (and is the first English person to get to Japan--based on the real life account of William Adams). Clavell switches the point of view through out the book, allowing the reader to get different perspectives on the events and motivations of the characters. In particular, by shifting from Blackthorne (the Englishman) to various Japanese characters, one can see how each saw the other. This is especially true early on in the novel, where Blackthorne saw the Japanese as uncaring about life and all too willing to kill, and the Japanese regarded Blackthorne as a barbarian and uncivilized. Through the novel, they grow to appreciate and respect each other's strengths and reconceive what they initially saw as barbaric until more understandable differences of worldview. One of the main themes of the book it the interplay of these differences/oppositions, be it more explicitly religious (between various versions of Catholic, Protestantism, Shintoism, and Buddhism), cultural (food, sexual mores, etc), or views of life and death (seppuku plays a prominent role through out the novel).

The novel shows a lot of how feudal Japan worked, what the values and ideals of the ruling classes where, and how they viewed the rest of the world. I often found myself leaving the book to read up aspects (a battle, a city, a historic individual, etc).

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