June 9, 2018
Problems with Declinism (part 7)

Does Declinism Matter?

Rather than betting on declinism as an amorphous political force, we should take the hard route, the one that requires intellectual honesty. Perhaps, in the face of the huge challenges of climate change, or the various social injustices we’re still facing, it is useful to “scare straight” those who believe that nothing needs to change. But then, scaring straight has never been shown to be a particularly good strategy in law enforcement, either, and it might as well backfire.

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June 9, 2018
Problems with Declinism (part 6)

The Political Uses of Declinism

There are many reasons, then, to be sceptical of declinism. Independent from its truth, however, there are the political uses and abuses of declinism. (I return to declinism in its general, not merely cultural, form here.) Here I find myself torn, similar to when I wrote about relativism. Relativists, I suggested, are wrong about morality; still, culturally, socially and politically I normally find tolerant, open-minded relativists more sympathetic than dogmatic, close-minded realists. The world would probably be better if everyone was a relativist than if everyone was a realist.

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June 9, 2018
Problems with Declinism (part 5)

Specific Problems for Cultural Declinism

Let us move on to specific problems for cultural declinism. The following are, admittedly, a grab-bag of objections, some a bit experimental. Still, I have found, declinist attitudes more often than not run afoul of one or more of these various problems.

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June 9, 2018
Problems with Declinism (part 4)

History and Psychology

There are two straight-forward attempts to refute declinism, in its cultural form or otherwise. The first is historical, the second is psychological. The historical argument simply points at the long history of doomsayers. Cultural decline has been constantly predicted and proclaimed—so why believe it now? Once you place declinism in its historical context, the thought goes, we can see it for what it is: a reflection of the particular anxieties of the here and now, but little supported by the evidence.

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June 9, 2018
Problems with Declinism (part 3)

Understanding Cultural Declinism

The first problem is how we are to understand declinism. In particular, how should we formulate the central thesis of cultural declinism? And second, even more pressingly, how would we measure cultural decline? Outright numerical measurement is probably impossible, as it is unlikely that there is one commensurate scale on which we can assess the quality of cultural production and consumption.

Still, we would like there to be some way of determining cultural progress or decline, however rough. You do not need to suffer from the positivist misunderstanding that only what is measurable is real to think that an unclear notion of “cultural decline” undermines it as a thesis to be taken seriously. Here, however, cultural declinism—and mutatis mutandis, other forms of declinism—already encounter some important roadblocks. It’s useful to highlight some of them.

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June 9, 2018
Problems with Declinism (part 2)

Types of Declinism

To get started on declinism, it’s useful to distinguish different versions of it. Some forms of declinism are just outright silly, as you have to discount lots of evidence to the contrary. Modern societies are by far richer, healthier, more populous, more scientifically knowledgeable, more technologically advanced, more peaceful, and more socially liberal than almost all societies in the past. (If we choose the appropriate time span of comparison—more on this later.) This is true, in most cases, whether we focus on the progress of individual societies or the world as a whole.

In the face of all this—easily measurable—progress, the category in which our societies are declining must be some other dimension.  This should already give us some pause. If our lives are getting worse, this must be, on many form of declinism, a case of starving amidst abundance. This starvation must be one of the mind, or of culture, or of communal bonds, or some such.

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June 9, 2018
Problems with Declinism (part 1)

Introduction

Impressive fictional histories of American decline have been assembled. They are fictional because they never happened. They are the predictions of a wide arsenal of historians, writers, and others who predicted America’s immediate, or at least slow and embarrassing, decline. Just as unrelenting optimism seems a crucial part of the American psyche, so is an apocalyptic declinism.

Declinism is not uniquely American, however. Britain, with its stinging memory of falling from the heights of Empire, has its own elegiac form of declinism, in which well-clad dons mutter about Britain’s brighter past. 71% of British respondents think the world is getting worse, only 5% that it is getting better. France has a “booming”, declinist “industry”. In the face of Muslim immigration to Europe, German right-wing populists also predict the immediate downfall of the Abendland.

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May 7, 2018
The Difficulty of Defending the Humanities

There is a kind of embarrassing silence if one tries to state why philosophy, or the Humanities more generally, have intrinsic value – that is, value beyond the merely instrumental, like getting you into law school. One generally fumbles around in vague generalities that convince no one, speaking of the clarity of analytical thinking, the advantages of critical reflection, or the enjoyments of intellectual thought. But these phrases sound hollow, often even to those who utter them.

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April 21, 2018
Intuitions: Moral vs Political

There’s an industry in moral philosophy in the muddy business of digging out intuitions. Imagine, advocates of this industry say, that you hold this-or-that moral principle. Some principle which claims, for example, that you can kill people under these-and-those circumstances. But then there’s an important counterexample. In this-or-that scenario (which is almost always hypothetical), the principle gives the wrong result. The principle “violates our intuitions”. (It’s almost always some very unspecified “we” whose intuitions are violated.) Perhaps, however, if we moved to some slightly alternative moral principle, which slightly changed under which circumstances we can kill, we could explain this case away—the principle would “fit” our intuitions better. But here’s another counterexample which this principle cannot explain! And so the dialectical machinery runs on. Normally, a satisfyingly solution is found within around 20 pages, which happens to be the length of a publishable article.

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January 24, 2018
What Should Be The Preface To Any Writing Guide

I have recently finished another iteration of my undergraduate writing guide. It started as a two-page document born out of rage and disappointment with recurring essay failures. It has now ballooned into a nine-page document written in a slightly more relaxed tone. Still, the guide doesn’t even come close to saying everything I have to say! (I could include pages of ranting about layout alone…) So I have found myself working on a follow-up guide, cautiously titled “Details of Good Writing”. The rough idea was to provide a more hands-on, detailed guide to writing—one that looked at details such as how to use the words “subjective” and “objective” in philosophical writing, or the proper use of the semicolon. Such a guide would accompany the general advice of the first guide which often seemed to me too generic (“be precise!”, “structure your essay well!”, etc.).

I quickly encountered a problem though: that second guide started to look incredibly pedantic. Now I am a pedant, and being overly pedantic with undergraduates can be a plausible pedagogical strategy. Still, the authoritative know-it-all tone of the guide made me feel uncomfortable. After all, the one piece that has influenced my writing the most is actually a piece of anti-advice: Geoffrey Pullum’s withering critique of Strunk and White’s famous The Elements of Style, aptly titled “50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice”. Pullum has consistently attacked “zombie rules” in his and his co-authors’ excellent blog, Language Log. It is hard to read Pullum’s contributions without coming to think that almost all advice on writing is too dogmatically prescriptive. It insists on highly specific rules which are pointless at best, contradict the usage of even highly respect writers, are almost always simply made up, and sometimes even harmful to good writing.

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