The Storm Centre: Pure Experience and the Indeterminate Self.

Introduction.

This is the fifth in a series of essays as part of The Daylight View: Investigations in the Nature of Experience, where, using the works of William James, I explore the problems related to experience.

The Storm Centre.

In the footnotes to lecture VI of his Essays in Radical Empiricism entitled The Experience of Activity, William James writes that ‘The individualized self, which I believe to be the only thing properly called self, is a part of the content of the world experienced. The world experienced (otherwise called the ‘field of consciousness’) comes at all times with our body as its centre, centre of vision, centre of action, centre of interest. Where the body is is ‘here’; when the body acts is ‘now’; what the body touches is ‘this’; all other things are ‘there’ and ‘then’ and ‘that.’ These words of emphasized position imply a systematization of things with reference to a focus of action and interest which lies in the body; and the systematization is now so instinctive (was it ever not so?) that no developed or active experience exists for us at all except in that ordered form. So far as ‘thoughts’ and ‘feelings’ can be active, their activity terminates in the activity of the body, and only through first arousing its activities can they begin to change those of the rest of the world….The body is the storm centre, the origin of co-ordinates, the constant place of stress in all that experience-train. Everything circles round it. and is felt from its point of view.’ (ERE, p64).

Interpreting James phenomenologically, the body composes a sensorimotor locus of perspective for our engagement and experience in the environment. The body is a storm centre around which the chaos of the world is organised into a meaningful arrangement for the self. As a focus of action and interest, the body’s interaction with the environment permits a systematization of things and structures the immanent field of consciousness in a meaningful manner pregnant with potentiality.

For James, the body exceeds its physiological restrictions by integrating external aspects of its environment as part of its being. As he writes in The Place of Affectional Facts; ‘Our body itself is the palmary instance of the ambiguous. Sometimes I treat my body purely as a part of outer nature. Sometimes, again, I think of it as ‘mine,’ I sort it with the ‘me,’ and then certain local changes and determinations in it pass for spiritual happenings. Its breathing is my ‘thinking,’ its sensorial adjustments are my ‘attention,’ its kinesthetic alterations are my Worts,’ its visceral perturbations are my ’emotions.” (ERE,p52). It is through the immanent field of pure experience that James endeavours to express the body’s somatic versatility.

As James acknowledges, our body itself is the palmary instance of the ambiguous. Enabled by our sensorimotor pathways, selfhood is forged through the dynamic interplay of body, mind and environment. Primarily we experience ourselves subjectively in the first-person through the storm centre of the body in full recognition of its possibilities and limitations. However, we are only a stranger’s gaze, a stubbed toe or mirror’s glimpse away from experiencing our body as a part of outer nature. In such instances we become aware of ourselves from the third-person perspective as an object among objects with which we interact causally. The genius of selfhood is to integrate these contradictory modes of being in a complimentary manner.

Although selfhood is a cumulative production of brain, body and environment, they are abstractions that emerge from the undifferentiated field of pure experience. Our somatic fluidity is reflective of the infinite liquidity of pure experience. In emphasizing the undifferentiated nature of our primordial sensorimotor interaction with the world that is betrayed by our conceptual reconstructions, James can be seen to anticipate the work of Merleau-Ponty. As the latter writers in The Structure of Behaviour (1942); ‘The subject does not live in a world of states of consciousness or representations from which he would believe himself able to act on and know external things by a sort of miracle. He lives in a universe of experience, in a milieu which is neutral with regard to the substantial distinctions between the organism, thought and extension; he lives in a direct commerce with beings, things and his own body. The ego as a center from which his intentions radiate, the body which carries them and the beings and things to which they are addressed are not confused: but they are only three sectors of a unique field. Things are things, that is, transcendent with respect to all that I know of them and accessible to other perceiving subjects, but intended precisely as things; as such they are the indispensable moment of the lived dialectic which embraces them…Thus certain phenomena of which it is the seat must be the necessary and sufficient condition for perception; the body must be the necessary intermediary between the real world and perception which are henceforth disassociated from each other. Perception can no longer be a taking-possession of things which finds them in their proper place; it must be an event internal to the body and one which results from their action on it. The world is doubled: there will be the real world as it is outside my body and the world as it is for me, numerically distinct from the first; the external cause of perception and the internal object which it contemplates will have to be separated. The body proper has become a material mass and, correlatively, the subject withdraws from it to contemplate its representations within himself.’ (SB, p189-190).

Beyond the Skin.

Through our sensorimotor pathways that present the body to itself as both subject and object, our somatic indetermination permits the transcendence of the epidermis and the extension of the self into the world with the ability to incorporate aspects of our environment into our being, eliminating the circumscriptive dichotomies that pervade conceptual reality. In our quotidian practical interaction with our environment; driving a forklift, playing rugby or cricket, typing on a computer and so on, through our automatic synergy of perception and performance, we extend our selves into the world as an object. Technology, language and culture provide a variety of platforms for extending our body, and subsequently consciousness, into the environment. As James writes; ‘We must not forget, namely, in talking of the ultimate character of our activity-experiences, that each of them is but a portion of a wider world, one link in the vast chain of processes of experience out of which history is made. Each partial process, to him who lives through it, defines itself by its origin and its goal; but to an observer with a wider mindspan who should live outside of it, that goal would appear but as a provisional halting-place, and the subjectively felt activity would be seen to continue into objective activities that led far beyond. We thus acquire a habit, in discussing activity-experiences, of defining them by their relation to something more.’ (ERE, p57). This something more, through its incorporation into the sensorimotor pathways of our environmental interaction, extend the self beyond its cranial and epidermal limitations and into the blooming buzzing world of pure experience.

Sources.

~(ERE) Essays in Radical Empiricism (CreateSpace 2017) by William James.

~(ERE) The Structure of Behaviour (Beacon Press 2017) by Maurice Merleau-Ponty.

 

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The Seamless Garment: Pure Experience as the Interactivity of Body and Environment.

Introduction.

This is the fourth in a series of essays as part of The Daylight View: Investigations in the Nature of Experience, where, using the works of William James, I explore the problems related to experience.

Pure Experience as Plane of Immanence.

In his Encountering the Mystery:Understanding Orthodox Christianity Today, His All Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew describes humanity and the environment ‘as a seamless garment of God’s vast creation.’ (EM, p143). Similarly, in his Essays in Radical Empiricism William James declares that ‘Experience, I believe, has no such inner duplicity; and the separation of it into consciousness and content comes, not by way of subtraction, but by way of addition’ (ERE, p6). Later, he adds that ‘Experience in its immediacy seems perfectly fluent. The active sense of living which we all enjoy, before reflection shatters our instinctive world for us, is self-luminous and suggests no paradoxes. Its difficulties are disappointments and uncertainties. They are not intellectual contradictions.’ (ERE, p33). This in turn if followed by the affirmation that ‘Since the acquisition of conscious quality on the part of an experience depends upon a context coming to it, it follows that the sum total of all experiences, having no context, can not strictly be called conscious at all. It is a that, an Absolute, a ‘pure’ experience on an enormous scale, undifferentiated and undifferentiable into thought and thing.’ (ERE, p46).

For James, experience in its immediacy exceeds and precedes the subject-object dichotomy as a primordial field without substantial or constitutive division where the distinctions that pervade our world are collapsed into a plane of immanence, to use Gilles Deleuze’s terminology. As Deleuze states in his Pure Immanence ‘Immanence is not related to Some Thing as a unity superior to all things or a Subject as an act that brings about a synthesis of things: it is only when immanence is no longer immanent to anything other than itself that we can speak of a plane of immanence.’ (PI, p27). Pure experience as a plane of immanence is not a pseudo-mystical abstraction, but ‘A LIFE, and nothing else. It is not immanence to life, but the immanent that is in nothing is itself a life. A life is the immanence of immanence, absolute immanence: it is complete power, complete bliss…A life is everywhere, in all moments that a given living subject goes through and that are measured by given lived objects: an immanent life carrying with it the events and singularities that are merely actualized in subjects and objects’ (PI, p27-29).

Pure Experience and Handiness.

Through the immanence of pure experience we can explore and chart the primordial relations that are integral to our phenomenological interaction with the world. Our everyday lives are a life, a life permeated by pre-reflexive temporal relationships. As James states, ‘Knowledge of sensible realities thus comes to life inside the tissue of experience. It is made; and made by relations that unroll themselves in time.’ (ERE, p21). Here James anticipates Heidegger’s later development in Being and Time of zunhandenheit or Handiness. In our everyday life we encounter objects as beings with certain purposes; cars for travel, phones for communication, combs for styling, hammers for fixing and repairs, and so on. Our most primordial relationships to these objects are not forged in detached theoretical observation, but voluntary and skilful application. As Heidegger states, using the example of a carpenter’s hammer; ‘(T)he less we just stare at the thing called a hammer, the more we take hold of it and use it, the more original our relation to it becomes and the more undisguisedly it is encountered as what it is, as a useful thing. The act of hammering itself discovers the specific “handiness” (“Handlichkeit”) of the hammer. We shall call the useful thing’s kind of being in which it reveals itself by itself handiness (Zunhandenheit).’ (BT, S15, p69). Through our practical engagement in the world, we regularly become functionally integrated with the entities and beings in our environment to the extent that they become phenomenologically transparent to us, as well as, us to them; dissolving the subject-object dichotomy. For Heidegger, however, such behaviour is not automatic with an absence of awareness, but an awareness that the subject-object dichotomy is not operational. Thus, from a phenomenological perspective, the subject-object dichotomy is superseded by the task at hand.

Like James, Heidegger, denies that the subject-object dichotomy is representative of our primordial encounter with our environment. Insisting instead that it is merely a derivative form of approaching the world. When we place entities under the microscope of empirical observation, or engage in armchair contemplation, we do so by either extricating them from their lifeworld, or over-determining particular aspects of being. Or as Heideggers’s states ‘No matter how keenly we just look at the “outward appearance” of things constituted in one way or another, we cannot discover handiness. When we look at things “theoretically” we lack understanding of handiness’ (BT, S15, p69). This echoes James assessment that ‘When the reflective intellect gets at work, however, it discovers incomprehensibilities in the flowing process. Distinguishing its elements and parts, it gives them separate names, and what it thus disjoins it can not easily put together.’ (ERE, p33).

Similarly for James and Heidegger, when our practical activity is disturbed; our car gets a flat tire, our phone battery runs low, the comb snags in our hair, we hit our thumb with a hammer etc., the phenomenological transparency of our functional relationship with the environment terminates. In James words; ‘We have a most extremely delicate foreshadowing of sensory effects…Surprise can only come from getting a sensation which differs from the one we expect. But the truth is when we know the objects well, the very slightest difference from the expected weight will surprise us, or at least attract our notice.’ (PP2, p502, his italics). Or in Heidegger’s prose; ‘When we notice unhandiness, what is at hand enters the mode of obtrusivness. The more urgently we need what is missing and the more truly it is encountered in its unhandiness, all the more obtrusive does what is at hand become, such that it seems to loose the character of handiness.’ (BT, S16, p73). When our practical activity is disrupted we suddenly become aware of entities as disconnected from our perceptual and sensorimotor expectations. It is at this juncture that immanence of pure experience is fractured into the dichotomies of subject and object by the discriminative agency of consciousness. Or as James writes of consciousness; ‘It is always interested more in one part of its object than in another, and welcomes and rejects, or chooses, all the while it thinks’ (PP1, p284, his italics).

The Phenomenology of Pure Experience.

Pure experience can be interpreted phenomenologically as a primordially absolute and undifferentiated sensorimotor form of embodied perceptual interaction with the environment. As Maurice Merleau-Ponty writes in The Visible and Invisible; ‘between my body looked at and my body looking, my body touched and my body touching, there is overlapping or encroachment, so that we must say that the things pass into us as well as we into the things.’ (VI, p123). In quotidian encounters with the world our bodies are integrated functionally into the living environment in a seamless, sympathetic and reciprocal process. As a protean and undetermined nexus the body is entangled with the world in which acts and moves, much in the same that pairs or groups of particles of quantum physics are generated or interact in ways such that the quantum state of each particle cannot be described independently of the state of the other.

Having initially posited an ambiguously metaphysical presentation of pure experience in his Essays in Radical Empiricism, James subsequently elaborates a phenomenological interpretation with emphasis upon its primordially undifferentiated nature. In Does Consciousness Exist he states that ‘The instant field of the present is at all times what I call the ‘pure’ experience. It is only virtually or potentially either object or subject as yet. For the time being, it is plain, unqualified actuality, or existence, a simple that. In this naif immediacy it is of course valid; it is there, we act upon it; and the doubling of it in retrospection into a state of mind and a reality intended thereby, is just one of the acts.’ (ERE, p12, his italics). Later, in The Thing and its Relations, he adds that ”Pure experience’ is the name which I gave to the immediate flux of life which furnishes the material to our later reflection with its conceptual categories. Only new-born babes, or men in semi-coma from sleep, drugs, illnesses, or blows, may be assumed to have an experience pure in the literal sense of a that which is not yet any definite what, tho’ ready to be all sorts of whats; full both of oneness and of manyness, but in respects that don’t appear; changing throughout, yet so confusedly that its phases interpenetrate and no points, either of distinction or of identity, can be caught. Pure experience in this state is but another name for feeling or sensation.’ (ERE, p37).

Within the instant field of the present that is pure experience, the dichotomies and polarities of consciousness are extant merely as potentialities within the undifferentiated immediate flux of unqualified actuality. This is due to the fact that ‘no dualism of being represented and representing resides in the experience per se. In its pure state, or when isolated., there is no selfsplitting of it into consciousness and what the consciousness is ‘of.’ Its subjectivity and objectivity are functional attributes solely, realized only when the experience is ‘taken,’ i. e., talked-of, twice, considered along with its two differing contexts respectively, by a new retrospective experience, of which that whole past complication now forms the fresh content.’ (ERE, p12).

For James, the sensorimotor motor interactions of an embodied subject within its environment precede the conceptual activity of consciousness; somatic activity determines cognitive activity. Consciousness arises and is effective within the immanent sensorimotor interaction of the body with its environment, advancing and determining experience of the world. With its emphasis on the pre-conceptual intertwining of subject and object, pure experience expresses the reality of universe as a seamless garment of interactive creativity.

Sources.

~(EM) Encountering the Mystery: Understanding Orthodox Christianity Today (Doubleday 2008) by His All Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew.

~(ERE) Essays in Radical Empiricism (CreateSpace 2017) by William James.

~(PI) Pure Immanence:Essays on A Life (Zone 2005) by Gilles Deleuze.

~(BT) Being and Time (SUNY 2010) by Martin Heidegger.

~(VI) The Visible and Invisible (NUP 1968) by Maurice Merleau-Ponty.

Encountering the Mystery: Pure Experience as the Synergy of Perception and Performance.

Introduction.

This is the third in a series of essays as part of my The Daylight View: Investigations in the Nature of Experience, where, using the works of William James, I explore the problems related to experience.

From Theology to Phenomenology.

In his foreword Encountering the Mystery:Understanding Orthodox Christianity Today, the Most Reverend Doctor Kallistos Ware sums up William James’s concept of pure experience when he writes that ‘Constituting as we do a psychosomatic totality, through our corporeality we humans form part of the physical environment.’ (EM, xvii). We can see this sentiment reflected at a primordial phenomenological stratum through our sensorimotor dynamism where brain, body and world are integrated into a holistic network in which the subject-object dichotomy collapses. This holistic network is our primary means of worldly engagement. James applies pure experience like a cartographical instrument to explore the character and topography of our engagement with in the environment. Pure experience represents both the undifferentiated experiential integrity of phenomena and noumena, as well as, the sensorimotor integration of perception and performance in the body’s ability to acquire and apply knowledge and skills.

For James pure experience, in an ontological context, represents the reversibility and interdependence of the subject-object relationship as both the dynamic process and ingredients of consciousness are determined by the modes of its worldly interaction. The environment determines consciousness, but the dynamic process and ingredients of consciousness in turn determine the presentation of the world to consciousness. As James notes in What Pragmatism Means; ‘The trail of the human serpent is thus over everything.’ (P, p33). Experience, for James, is the dynamic interaction, extended in time, between mind and world. Just as the mind is not an isolated shadow theatre of impressions and ideas, neither is the world a desert of dead things and objects. Consciousness is a dynamic process reciprocally imbuing and imbued by the animate and meaningful universe in which it is embedded. The phenomenological magnitude of this proposition is divulged by examining the primordially pre-reflective activity of the body as it interacts with the environment. Within this ‘instant field of the present’ the universe is ‘virtually or potentially either object or subject as yet. For the time being, it is plain, unqualified actuality, or existence, a simple that’ (ERE, p10). In a phenomenological context, pure experience can be see as an anticipation of Merleau-Ponty’s concept of flesh. In the chapter The Intertwining-The Chiasm of The Visible and Invisible Merleau-Ponty speaks of the need for philosophy to ‘install itself in a locus where they (reflection and intuition) have not yet been distinguished, in experiences that have not yet been “worked over,” that offers us all at once, pell-mell, both “subject” and “object,” both existence and essence, and hence give philosophy resources to redefine them.'(VI, p130).

The Realisation of Consciousness in Action.

In Psychology:Briefer Course, James writes that ‘Mental facts cannot be studied apart from the physical environment of which they take cognizance…our inner faculties are adapted in advance to the features of the world in which we dwell, adapted, I mean, so as to secure our safety and prosperity in its midst’ (MB/PBC*,p121/p3, his Italics). For James, through the sensorimotor system, the body performs its role in the world both knowledgeably and skilfully, acknowledging its environment in voluntary and pertinent manner. With these attuned responses, perception and performance are cohered into a dynamic interaction of embodied consciousness and environment. Thus, we misinterpret the body’s understanding of the world when we disconnect perception from performance. Just as perception is not a passive recipient of sensations, neither is performance merely mechanical reaction. Sensorimotor knowledge precedes cognitive knowledge. Therefore, James’s concept of pure experience can be seen as an endeavour to capture the coherence of perception and performance within the process of the body’s knowledgeable and skilful pre-reflective sensorimotor engagement with the environment. Perception as experience, in James’s view, is a skill or activity. Experience is not something acting upon us, but something that we undertake. By constructing pure experience as perception and performance, James offers a perspective on consciousness as it is realised within the concrete flux of reality. To abstract consciousness from its sensorimotor embodiment and worldly embeddedness is to castrate its virility and confuse its nature. Only by examining the consciousness through its embodied and embedded relationship with the world can we truly encounter its mystery.

Sources.

~(EM) Encountering the Mystery: Understanding Orthodox Christianity Today (Doubleday 2008) by His All Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew.

~(P) Pragmatism and Other Writings (Penguin Classics 2000) by William James.

~(ERE) Essays in Radical Empiricism (CreateSpace 2017) by William James.

~(VI) The Visible and the Invisible: Followed by Working Notes (NUP 1968) by Maurice Merleau-Ponty.

~(MB/PCB*) The Meaning of the Body: Aesthetics of Human Understanding (UCP 2008) by Mark Johnson. Quote later sourced to Psychology: Briefer Course-The Works of William James (HUP 1985) by William James.

 

 

 

The True Landscape: Pure Experience within the context of Radical Empiricism.

Introduction.

This is the second in a series of essays as part of The Daylight View: Investigations in the Nature of Experience, where, using the works of William James, I explore the problems related to experience.

Consciousness as a Process.

In his essay Does Consciousness Exist? as part of his Essays in Radical Empiricism, William James states that ‘consciousness…is the name of a nonentity, and has no name of right among first principles…but insist most emphatically that it does stand for a function’ (ERE, p4-5). What he means by this is that consciousness is not some primordial or transcendent property standing outside and above experience and governing it, but is operative within experience. Consciousness is not durable substance, but a dynamic process through which we engage the world and is active within a holistic network of brain, body and environment. This holistic network is what James identifies as pure experience and thus consciousness must be comprehended as it materialises from the holistic network that is pure experience.

In A World of Pure Experience James states that ‘Relations are of different degrees of intimacy'(ERE, p18). As an instrument, pure experience is used by James cartographically to chart the ‘true landscape’ of the primordially and irreducibly concrete relationship between mind, body and world that is ‘less clipped, straight-edged and artificial’ than the prescribed conceptualisations offered by academia (ERE, p17). ‘Life is confused and superabundant’ and even ‘at some cost of logical rigor and of formal purity’ James wants to do ‘full justice to conjunctive relations’ by exploring our embodied phenomenological interaction with the universe which is ‘to a large extent chaotic’ (ERE, p17-18).

Unfortunately James does not articulate this embodied phenomenology well when he postulates somewhat metaphysically that ‘My thesis is that if we start with the supposition that there is only one primal stuff or material in the world, a stuff of which everything is composed, and if we call that stuff ‘pure experience,’ then knowing can easily be explained as a particular sort of relation towards one another into which portions of pure experience may enter. The relation itself is a part of pure experience; one of its ‘terms’ becomes the subject or bearer of the knowledge, the knower, the other becomes the object known. This will need much explanation before it can be understood.’ (ERE, p5).

In The Analysis of the Mind Bertrand Russell attempted to recruit James as a precursor to his theory of neutral monism, of which I am an agnostic proponent, by referring to the above paragraph and writing that ‘James’s view is that the raw material out of which the world is built up is not of two sorts, one matter and the other mind, but that it is arranged in different patterns by its inter-relations, and that some arrangements may be called mental, while others may be called physical’ (AM, p11)

However, as James later notes, by way of a fictional interlocutor, that he made this statement for ‘fluency’s sake I myself spoke early in this article of a stuff of pure experience, I have now to say that there is no general stuff of which experience at large is made. There are as many stuffs as there are ‘natures’ in the things experienced. If you ask what any one bit of pure experience is made of, the answer is always the same: “It is made of that, of just what appears, of space, of intensity, of flatness, brownness, heaviness, or what not”…Experience is only a collective name for all these sensible natures, and save for time and space (and, if you like, for ‘being’) there appears no universal element of which all things are made.'(ERE, p11).

James contra Russell.

From his above assertion that ‘I have now to say that there is no general stuff of which experience at large is made. There are as many stuffs as there are ‘natures’ in the things experienced.’ James clearly rejects Russellian Monism and later clarifies what is meant by pure experience when he states that ‘my central thesis that subjectivity and objectivity are affairs not of what an experience is aboriginally made of, but of its classification.’ (ERE, p49).

From the standpoint of experience, phenomenologically speaking, James’s focus is on the dichotomies applied by reflexive thinking, that is; conceptual and linguistic classification, that abstract from the relation intimacy of the dynamic network of embodied mind and world. Within the realm of pure experience a plurality of natures can be said to exist before they are divided and fixed retrospectively by conceptual analysis. James takes this claim of openness to possibility so far as to claim in The Varieties of Religious Experience that supernatural and paranormal phenomena may be included as potential ”natures’ in the things experienced’ when he writes of a ‘present reality more diffused and general than that which our special senses yield.’ (VRE, p63). It must be said however, that as much as I am committed to pluralism, the atheist and skeptic in me would not go to such extremes.

Contra Russell, James’s system is less metaphysical and more phenomenological. As embodied minds we are inexorably entangled, like the particles of physics, within our life-world. This precludes the impossibility of a stance above or outside the world. We are always beginning where we already are. There can be no view nowhere. Reality and life will always overwhelm and undermine reification and categorisation. Pure experience, in the hands of James, is a phenomenological utensil and hermeneutical instrument used to chart the confused and superabundant true landscape buzzing beneath the straight-edged and artificial conceptual frameworks and linguistic systems we have used to explain and organise a chaotic universe. Pure experience is an implement by which we can liberate the immanence of experience from the chains conceptualisation and return it to its own movement.

Sources.

~(ERE) Essays in Radical Empiricism (CreateSpace 2017) by William James.

~(AM) The Analysis of the Mind (Digireads 2008) by Bertrand Russell.

~(VRE) The Varieties of Religious Experience (Penguin Classics 1985) by William James.

Vanishing into Chaos: William James on Pure Experience.

Introduction.

This is the first in a series of essays as part of my The Daylight View: Investigations in the Nature of Experience, where, using the works of William James, I explore the problems related to experience.

James on Pure Experience.

In explicating his Radical Empiricism, which is a postulate, a statement of fact and a conclusion, William James states that ‘The postulate is that the only things that shall be debatable among philosophers shall be things definable in terms drawn from experience’ (MT, p3). It is through this postulate that James examined what he considered the undifferentiated experiential integrity beneath linguistic and conceptual expression.

Regarding the ‘logic of identity’, in Lecture:V of A Pluralistic Universe, James declares that ‘I have finally found myself compelled to give up the logic, fairly and squarely, and irrevocably. It has an imperishable use in human life, but that use is not to make us theoretically acquainted with the essential nature of reality. Reality, life, expedience, concreteness, immediacy, use what words you will, exceeds our logic, overflows and surrounds it’ (PU, LV). James’s quibble here is not with concepts and logic as such, but their application and efficacy. For him concepts and logic are but a ‘map which the mind frames out’ (SPP, p73), with their utility dependent upon their ability to describe and order our immediate environment. In his Principles of Psychology he writes that ‘the only meaning of essence is teleological, and that classification and conceptions are purely teleological weapons of the mind‘ (PP2, p335, his italics). Concepts are merely reflexive constructs of a given aspect of reality captured by our intentionality within space and time, though they are indispensable for the codifying and transmission of experience and information.

For James, concepts cannot encapsulate what they seek to describe in any absolute sense. There is always another means of scrutiny and categorisation, another way in which a thing can come to presence. As he himself states; ‘All ways of conceiving a concrete fact, if they are true ways at all, are equally true ways. There is no property ABSOLUTELY essential to any one thing. The same property which figures as the essence of a thing on one occasion becomes an very inessential feature upon another.’ (PP2, p333, his italics). Thus concepts ‘characterise us more than they characterise the thing (PP2, p334, his italics).

Furthermore, concepts are only established as retroactively posited reconstructions of past experience. Indeed, in Is Empiricism Solipsistic? (VRE, p80) James references Kierkegaard’s musing via Professor Hoffding, that ‘It is perfectly true, as philosophy says, that life must be understood backwards. But then one forgets the other principle: that it must be lived forwards’ (KPJ, p161). Such ‘Understanding backwards is, it must be confessed, a very frequent weakness of philosophers, both of a rationalistic and of the ordinary empiricist type’ (ERE, p80). Therefore, by focusing upon the ‘immediate flux of life’ (ERE, p33) of pure experience ‘Radical empiricism alone insists on understanding the world forwards also, and refuses to substitute static concepts of the understanding for transitions in our moving life’ (ERE, p80).

Philosophy for James, goes awry when we confuse our conceptual cartography for the actual topography of reality. As Alan Watts wrote in his Wisdom Of Insecurity: A Message for an Age of Anxiety; ‘We suffer from the delusion that the entire Universe is held in order by the categories of human thought, fearing that if we do not hold onto them with the utmost tenacity, everything will vanish into chaos.’ (WI, p100-101).
In The Thing and It’s Relations, while criticising the ‘ultra-rationalism’ of F.H Bradley, James contends that ‘When a common man analyzes certain whats from out the stream of experience, he understands their distinctness as thus isolated. But this does not prevent him from equally well understanding their combination with each other as originally experienced in the concrete, or their confluence with new sensible experiences in which they recur as ‘the same.’ Returning into the stream of sensible presentation, nouns and adjectives, and thats and abstract whats, grow confluent again, and the word ‘is’ names all these experiences of conjunction.’ (ERE, p39). More succinctly, conceptualisation fabricates disjunctive ‘whats’ from the primordially conjuctive ‘that’ of pure experience.

Concepts are not only deficient in apprehending the vividness of the world as it is experienced phenomenally. But also the individuality of each conscious state and the object of cognition. To paraphrase Marx in Capital; concepts are dead life, which vampire-like, live by sucking vitality from lived experience. As James writes in Some Problems of Philosophy; ‘novelty finds no representation in the conceptual method, for concepts are abstracted from experience already seen or given, and he who uses them to divine the new can never do so but in ready-made and ancient terms. Whatever actual novelty the future may contain (and the singularity and individuality of each moment makes it novel) escapes conceptual treatment altogether. Properly speaking, concepts are post-mortem preparations; and when we use them to define the universe prospectively we ought to realize that they can give only a bare abstract outline or approximate sketch, in the filling out of which perception must be invoked’ (SPP p98).

Conceptual analysis is deficient on two counts. In the first instance it can never portray the vividness of life and the world as-becoming. And in the second instance, as generalisations, concepts fail to account for the particularity and difference of individual things and affairs. For James, pure experience is a primordial, dynamic and embodied form of pre-reflexive engagement with the world and is a weapon against, to (mis)apply Wittgenstein’s expression ‘the bewitchment of our understanding by the resources of our language’ (PI, S109, p52).

Sources.

~(MT) The Meaning of Truth (CreateSpace 2017) by William James.

~(PU) A Pluralistic Universe (CreateSpace 2015) by William James.

~(SPP) Some Problems in Philosophy: A Beginning of an Introduction in Philosophy (UNP 1996).

~(PP2) Principles of Psychology: Volume 2 (Dover 2000) by William James.

~(KPJ) Papers and Journals: A Selection (Penguin 1996) by Soren Kierkegaard.

~(WI) Wisdom of Insecurity: A Message for an Age of Anxiety (Rider 1987) by Alan Watts.

~(PI) Philosophical Investigations (Wiley-Blackwell 2009) by Ludwig Wittgenstein.

 

Ten Questions with John McCone.

Introduction.

John McCone grew up in Ireland. He graduated at experimental Physics at trinity and went on to measure vortex flow and carbon impurity in fusion plasmas at CCFE in Oxfordshire. He then worked as principle spectroscopist at General Fusion, a technology company developing a magnetised target fusion reactor.

A man of many interests, John dabbled in politics and was senator of Europe United, a fellow of the prestigious Cambridge-based E3 foundation and has served on the board of Village Vancouver, a Transition Initiative aimed at building local resilient economies and self-reliant, caring communities.

Throughout his career he was concerned by the lack of direction in moral and political thought when compared with the boundless speed of scientific progress and has pondered why this was the case and how this issue could be systematically resolved. John currently writes political and moral philosophy while serving as ambassador for The Seasteading Institute.

John has written two books; The Philosophical Method: A Complete Synthesis of Knowledge, Ethics, Politics and Economics (Blurb 2017) and The Countryside Living Allowance (Blurb 2018).

If you wish to know more about John and his work you can visit his website at https://johnmccone.com/.

Ten Questions with John McCone: The Interview.

1) We’ll start with the books first. What is The Countryside Living Allowance and why do we need it?

The Countryside Living Allowance [ https://johnmccone.com/book/the-countryside-living-allowance/ ] is a per capita payment of £5,000 to anyone who lives in the countryside and agrees to pay Land Value Tax on all their UK land holdings. We need it to address rural poverty but also to take pressure off the housing market in the city by giving those who only live there because of work, the option to live on rural land instead. This effect of reduce rents in the city may enable the Countryside Living Allowance to pay for itself through reduced housing benefit payments. Furthermore, crowded city life is known to increase levels of stress and mental illness [https://lsecities.net/media/objects/articles/urban-stress-and-mental-health/en-gb] so promoting rural life could lead to positive health outcomes. There are also more opportunities to provide for yourself in the countryside, where land is cheap and enough of it can be purchased to grow food as well as just live. In this sense, it is the countryside where the purchasing power of money goes farthest (at least when it comes to buying land).

The effect of a basic income will be greatest in locations where cash is scarcest, so I thought: “what if we begin by just paying out an income to people that live in cash scarce regions?” this would reduce the budget of basic income but, at the same time, the mobility of the workforce would spread the benefits of the allowance in the form of higher wages and employment levels and lower rents, across the entire country. The countryside living allowance would have 90% of the benefit of a universal basic income while costing one fifth of the budget.

2) Post Nietzsche many different philosophers from various schools of thought have tried to overcome the nihilism of modernity. You take up the gauntlet in The Philosophical Method. Do you feel your background in physics and nuclear fusion has given insights that are maybe lost on academic philosophers and, if so, what makes your approach different from theirs?

I think my experience working with engineers in a tech start up was my greatest source of inspiration. As a physicist, my main concern was measuring and analysing plasmas in order to describe them accurately. I noticed that the engineers in the company were more interested in building than describing and wanted to know how my analyses related to the overall development of the product, which in this case was a fusion reactor.

When I started writing The Philosophical Method [ https://johnmccone.com/book/the-philosophical-method/ ] my initial idea was to apply a product development approach to establishing the definition, and meaning, of morality. I began by thinking “What underlying consumer need does morality address?” and “How could we adjust the meaning of morality to best serve that need?” I increasingly viewed morality as a social tool whose purpose was to keep the peace. This approach eventually led me to embrace pragmatism and preference utilitarianism as the one true morality. So my conclusion is not so different from that of many other philosophers. But I believe I have managed to justify the basic premises of utilitarianism within the context of a more fundamental methodology (which I call “The Philosophical Method”) while many utilitarian philosophers accept the premises of utilitarianism as a priori axioms – Jeremy Bentham certainly did and said as much. Additionally, I also managed to apply that same product development approach to establishing a definition for universal human rights, and I believe that The Philosophical Method [ https://johnmccone.com/book/the-philosophical-method/ ] manages to successfully incorporate human rights into the utilitarian tradition. This is a significant accomplishment as utilitarianism tend to be pretty wobbly when it comes to human rights.

3) Representative democracy has come under a lot of criticism from populists from both left and right of late. In Section 3 of The Philosophical Method you develop a programme for Constitutional Anarchy. What is Constitutional Anarchy and how can it solve our democratic impasse and is it of value to libertarians like myself?

Constitutional Anarchy is a form of government with eternal and unchanging laws. In a Constitutional anarchy, no one has the authority to change the laws of the state. There are no legislators, only enforcers and interpreters. It solves the democratic impasse by reducing the scope for disagreement by enforcing a consensus which no one has the power to change, within a given jurisdiction at least. I believe that, among other things, Constitutional Anarchy will increase the extent to which freedom of speech is tolerated through reducing its political ramifications. In a democracy – fascism, despotism, genocide and catastrophe are always just one ill-conceived vote away and the possibility of a sudden deterioration in politics always looms menacingly in the background. For this reason, it is understandable that many people feel nervous and threatened when they hear others expressing and promoting political views which they believe will influence voting choices for the worse. But in Constitutional Anarchy there are no voting choices and so all political discussions that dissident may engage in can only ever relate to starting a new political system somewhere else and, thus, are not a threat to others that are living alongside those dissidents. By reducing the damage that careless speech produces, constitutional anarchy will facilitate more freedom of speech.

Constitutional Anarchy is of value to anyone that believes that politics should be conducted in accordance with objective principles as opposed swaying to and fro with the whim of the populace – including libertarians. This is because once a group of people establish a new constitutional anarchy in accordance with a given set of principles – those principles will remain in force forever and no mechanism exists with which to undermine them.

Some politicians may be concerned with the idea that the laws they pass today could never be changed for the rest of eternity. But surely this indicates that they aren’t being sufficiently careful with the legislation they pass into law. I believe the knowledge that the laws you pass today will remain in effect forever would encourage law makers to take stock and try much harder to grasp the underlying eternal political and ethical truths that it is the purpose of the law to embody.

In order for constitutional anarchy to work each jurisdiction would need to be small and there would need to be a vigorous start up sector for new jurisdictions. Even then there might be any issue of needlessly wasting fixed infrastructure that was built in a jurisdiction with flawed, yet unamenable, regulations. Yet if the infrastructure was floating [ https://johnmccone.com/2018/10/15/floating-infrastructure-for-stable-governance/ ] and the jurisdiction was established on water, then this would no longer be a problem.

4) In Section 4, p258, of The Philosophical Method you state that ‘An incorrect explanation of a fact does not necessarily imply the underlying fact is incorrect’. In our post-religious secular world, do you think we have perhaps thrown the baby out with the bathwater when it comes to religion, particularly from an ethical perspective?

From the point of view of the ethics that relate to survival, I don’t see the rejection of religion causing much problems. There aren’t hordes of Atheists running around the place murdering people! But we do seem to be slipping towards a kind of “reproductive nihilism.” The idea that when it comes to sex and child-rearing, anything goes so long as it’s consensual. And there’s quite a lot of disagreement (at least philosophically) over where to draw the line with respect to what constitutes consenting sex – a considerable problem given that the difference between consent and non-consent is many years in prison. It is an undeniable fact that the decay of religious belief has produced a meteoric rise in single parent families and skyrocketing divorce rates. In the 19th century, the number of children born outside marriage was less than 2% and divorce rates were even lower. Today 25% of families with dependent children are single parent families [ https://www.gingerbread.org.uk/policy-campaigns/publications-index/statistics/ ] overall 40% of 12 year old children are not living with both birth parents [https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/223251/Children_both_parents_income_FINAL.pdf ] and 55% of children in low income households are not living with both birth parents.

Some single parents do a heroic job bringing up their children, but it cannot be denied that a disturbing chunk of the next generation are being reared by some really messed up people in really messed up conditions. Parents with mental illness and drug problems bringing new people back into the house to have sex with on a weekly basis. Some children have to live with this. There is also a 1 in 6 chance that women who grew up with a step father will have been abused by him at some point in their youth [ https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/6609753 ] – and the number of stepparents has skyrocketed.

Is this a problem? Will the next generation muddle through? Will they rebel against their parents and develop a more pious and strict sexual ethic? Or will the decay continue, and, perhaps, after a few generations of this, will people even lose sights of ethics that relate to survival such as “thou shalt not kill”? This explosion of single parent households is really too recent to say for sure whether it’s an issue of major concern or not – but I don’t think we can discount the possibility that the cumulative effects could be very serious indeed.

It seems to me that rearing children is a complicated business and that the correct way to do it requires extensive study and investigation. Perhaps, some day, we may develop a scientifically optimal child rearing strategy which is strongly supported by evidence. In the meanwhile, it seems safer to continue rearing children in the same way that previous generations did rather than to conduct a massive social experiment on the effect that radically different child rearing techniques have on society.

5) With capitalism increasingly desiring flexibility in the workplace and the rise of precarious employment, do you see Basic Income becoming a viable mainstream policy solution in the near future?

Basic Income was always viable. It has been proposed since the time of Thomas Paine. The future of basic income is deeply intertwined with the future of politics. Will the employers win and get a desperate workforce willing to work for virtually nothing, or will we get a basic income which, through facilitating the activity of self-provision, [ https://johnmccone.com/2018/09/17/basic-income-self-provision-and-full-employment/ ] will enable workers to negotiate a decent wage and do O.K. whenever their flexible work dries up?

I think flexible, precarious work is inevitable. I don’t see anything we can do in the long run to stop it. And something like basic income, combined with training people to provide for themselves, is the only way to ensure the workers will continue to be able to live in dignity when it happens.

6) The spectre haunting capitalism at the moment is that of automation and not a day goes by without a news article or economic report proclaiming we’re on the verge of an era of mass unemployment. Is this something that worries you, and if so, how can we manage it?

The big thing that automation does is render the existence of a workforce unnecessary. Before full automation, the asset value of a worker to someone with a large amount of power exceeded the liability of that worker’s existence. After automation, workers will have zero asset value, but will still represent a considerable liability. After automation, from the perspective of those in power, other people will be a useless, dangerous mass that they don’t need but which might rebel.

What automation does, is make the distribution of wealth purely political. When the Haves needed the Have-nots to work for them, the Haves had to distribute enough food and resources to enable the Have-nots to be of use to them, practical considerations demanded this. What we consider today to be a “good work ethic” is really just a slave mentality that been ingrained into us over the ages as those who were the most useful to those in power tended to be the ones who were kept alive and given the resources to breed and rear the next generation.

Unless we settle on a way to distribute the fruits of automation out in a manner that is acceptable to all, the battle over rival claims to those fruits could get really nasty as people will no longer be of use to each other and will merely be rival claimants.

If we take a Marxist view of industrial history being a battle between labour and capital, then every new technological advance increases the relative power of capital compared to labour.

In my view, the best way to manage automation, in the long term, is to move towards the principle of equal consumption. When nobody is responsible for the production of wealth, then all have an equal claim to it.

7) In 2017 the First International Conference on Floating Islands was held in Tahiti, country detrimentally affected by climate change. In your opinion, is seasteading a realistic and practical solution to accommodating the needs of humanity?

The seasteading institute [ https://www.seasteading.org/ ] aims to create a huge number of new nations on the high seas and, by doing so, provide people with an alternative to the existing governments on land.

I have written extensively about how a Basic Income or Countryside Living Allowance would, by facilitating the economic activity of self-provision, [ https://johnmccone.com/2018/09/17/basic-income-self-provision-and-full-employment/ ] give people an alternative to entering the labour force and, through doing so, would force employers to raise wages and improve their treatment of workers or risk haemorrhaging employees. I don’t seriously expect everyone to leave for the countryside, it may well be that only 5% of the population would go to live there, but the 5% that did exit the workforce would “set the standard” for how the remaining 95% of employees, that choose to stay, get treated at work.

In a similar way, I don’t expect everyone to suddenly rush into sea en-masse. I doubt that more than 5% of the population are likely to live on seasteads anytime soon. Indeed, seasteads will have to make a big effort to create legal systems that are sufficiently better than the one’s available on land in order to attract anyone to move onto them at all! Nevertheless, by providing a more just alternative to the existing governments on land, I believe that, much like basic income and self-provision will “set the standard” for treatment in the workforce, seasteads will rapidly “set the standard” for just governance everywhere. Bad governments will start haemorrhaging citizens and will scramble to improve their laws to stop people leaving.

So while I expect that only a small proportion of the world’s population will live at sea in the near future, I also believe that the effect that seasteads will have a profoundly positive effect on governance everywhere.

It is a known fact that all net new jobs are produced by start up companies [ https://www.kauffman.org/what-we-do/resources/entrepreneurship-policy-digest/the-importance-of-young-firms-for-economic-growth ] when you have no employees, that is when demand for employees is greatest. Similarly, new countries with no citizens will have the highest demand for new citizens and will be the easiest places to apply for citizenship. As such, it seems likely that seasteads will be a place of refuge for those who seek escape from the most troubled regions of the world.

Other advantages of floating infrastructure include immunity to floods and rising sea levels and reduced scope for rent-seekers to purchase land and hold the accumulated fixed capital on that land ransom. So, while the infrastructure required to live on the sea would probably be more expensive, the location value of seasteads would probably be less that a comparably fashionable location on land. So a particularly nice floating metropolis might actually be more affordable than a corresponding metropolis on land as its location value would be less due to the fluidity of the infrastructure.

There’s no doubt that it is technically possible to build floating cities. We already have them – they’re called cruise ships. They just cost more to build than land based cities. But I think that, for all the reasons I’ve mentioned, the potential benefits of floating cities are large enough to justify the larger costs – at least in some cases.

8) In a critique of my essay Soul of The World: Rethinking Nature and Consciousness in which I attempted to formulate a non-reductionist account of nature you stated that ‘all projects to revive vitalism are doomed to failure’. Would you agree with Ray Brassier’s in his Nihil Unbound that ‘Nihilism not an existential quandary but a speculative opportunity’, that is we should push the disenchantment of the enlightenment through to its logical conclusion?

Well, to clarify, I think there might be a difference between the animate and the inanimate, between different levels of structure and order (so rocks are distinctly different from people), but it’s a sliding scale and I don’t think we can draw a meaningful clear distinction between life and machines. Maybe you could define life as “an entity that exhibits directed behaviour whose construction arises from information that is stored as DNA” but that seems to be a pretty arbitrary definition, I don’t see what is profound or magical about DNA.

“Enchantment” is an interesting word. It suggests a strange mix of pleasure, deception and being under the control of something else. “Disenchantment” suggests a kind of disappointment with the truth along with a feeling of betrayal. I think we should certainly pursue the truth without compromise but I don’t think we have to feel disappointed about it. The knowledge that new scientific research reveals every day is quite amazing when you think about it.

The central problem with the enlightenment is that the process of scientific enquiry encourages emotional neutrality. This is so that when competing hypotheses are weighed against each other, there are no emotional associations that might distract the enquirer from dispassionately comparing each purely on the merits of supporting evidence. This emotional neutrality is a useful tool for avoiding feelings and attachments that might distract us from the evidence. The problem is that when our scientific understanding diffuses into the language of wider society, the emotional neutrality diffuses into society with it. It’s almost a form of semiotic pollution.

The psychological well-being of humanity depends on a healthy level of emotional stimulation, so all the emotionally neutral, analytical language pouring out of scientific institutes into wider society may exert a psychologically damaging disorienting influence on the people it affects.

But there’s no reason why we have to be emotional neutral about the truth. If you get emotional about something that is truth it won’t stop it from being true. So I think it is an important task to try and take the truths that emerge from scientific research institutions and clothe those truths with emotions. But we must do so in ways that don’t compromise the underlying truth – a difficult task indeed!

9) In 2016 the Institute for Cryptoanarchy held the 3rd Hackers Congress in Prague with a programme declaring that ‘The concept of the authoritative state is gradually becoming obsolete The rise of sharing economies with reputation models, digital contracts and cryptocurrencies makes the role of central government useless’. Do you think that crytoanarchy is a greater threat to the status quo than populism and is there anything we can do to counter it?

Actually, I think states have never had more authority. Think about the level of surveillance which everyone is under today. The spending of some Scandinavian governments exceeds 55% of GDP!!! Money isn’t important in itself. The important thing is property laws, and access to resources, money just represent claims to these things – and these claim will always be political.

Politics is horrible. Politics is messy. Politics involves arguments, character slurs, mud slinging and bad blood. Unfortunately, politics is also unavoidable.

I think cryptocurrency, local currencies, LETS, and the whole alternative currency community sings a siren song to people telling them “You can change politics without getting involved in politics. All you have to do is withdraw from the economy, hang out with us and we can exchange lots of monopoly money together that we’ve printed ourselves and then all feel rich!”

The underlying thing of value is land and capital (as in machinery, physical goods etc.,). You need these things for shelter medical services and to grow the food needed for survival. A group of people can choose to pass monopoly money around as much as they like but if they don’t have access to the factors of production they will starve to death.

At the end of the day, it is the police force that determines who can rightfully access which factor of production and the law that guides them. If you try to access a factor of production that the law says you are not entitled to access (such as by driving someone else’s car without permission) then you get thrown in prison. Hanging out with a small group of friends who exchange monopoly money with each other will not change your underlying access to the important factors of production.

Now it’s possible that rich powerful people might lobby the government to recognise cryptocurrencies, but this would be political engaging with the state – not disengaging. I don’t think that such engagement would ever be irrelevant. I could also see wealthy insiders, periodically lobbying governments to change the regulation over cryptocurrencies and then using their insider knowledge to trade on the crypto-exchanges and suck money out of less informed crypto-enthusiasts.

A simply land value tax only payable in the national currency would immediately link the national currency to a tangible factor of production and relegate cryptocurrencies to the realm of irrelevance.

One of the reasons that I take seasteading seriously is because the movement aims to claim and utilise something that real. A physical space on the oceans that is not yet claimed by any nation with real sunlight incident upon it, and the possibility of real activities – like fish farming. The only cryptocurrency that I’ve ever taken seriously was Varyon, and that was due to the fact that Blue Frontiers went to great lengths to link it to real factors of production.

I can’t take any political movement seriously that claims they can change things while ignoring brute force, politics and access to factors of production.

10) Finally, you’re brimming with ideas. What are your current and future projects?

The current project I’m working on is “The Perfect Economy”. The Philosophical Method [ https://johnmccone.com/book/the-philosophical-method/ ] deals with knowledge, ethics, politics and economics and tries to synthesise them into a coherent whole. About 25% of it deals with economics. In The Perfect Economy I intend to write an entire book on economics that elaborates on the economic ideas which I’ve laid out in the Philosophical Method. Another major goal of The Perfect Economy is to balance the budget for Georgism. Henry George believed that the only tax which the government collects should be a tax on the full rental value of land. Unfortunately the full rental value of land accounts for about 8-12% of GDP (depending on the nation) while the government budgets of most nations are typically 30-55% of GDP. That’s a big shortfall!

In The Perfect Economy I will try to plug that gap while staying as true to the basic principles of Henry George as possible and ironing out all the details as thoroughly as I can without resorting to the usual tactic adopted by Georgist fundamentalists of assuming that, the instant income tax and VAT is taken away, land values and LVT receipts will skyrocket 3 or 4 fold!

After that I intent to write A Pragmatic Theory of Knowledge a book dedicated to a more rigorous treatment of the epistemological arguments made in The Philosophical Method. Then I will write Harnessing The Technology Explosion which will be a detailed and thorough treatment of the existential risk (as well as non-existential threats) which trends in technological development will present to us in the future.

End of Interview.

Ten Questions with Alex J. Illingworth.

Introduction.

Alex J. Illingworth describes himself as British traditionalist and conservative moralist, political philosopher, student of Theology and Orthodox Christian. He is also co-founder of The Burkean blog and one half of the Traditional Discourse podcast along with Jacob Williams.

Following his The Conservation of Liberty: An Examination of the British Conservative Tradition in a Little Blue Book (CreateSpace 2016), in October this year (2018) Alex published Political Justice: A Traditional Conservative Case for an Alternative Society (Arktos 29/10/18). The premise of the book is described as the follows;

‘With a sound mixture of common sense and clear-sighted temperance Political Justice reconstructs classical philosophy through direct dialogue with modern liberalism, dismantling the fallacies and follies of the latter brick by brick, even while rediscovering the principles of a just political order. Neglecting neither our most cherished and deeper heritage, nor the best of classical liberalism, A. J. Illingworth guides the reader step by step through a lucid investigation of the political and social structure right for European peoples, culminating in a vision of a society which is capable as much of securing us in our liberties, as encouraging us in our virtue.’

In a review for Amazon entitled Move over Scruton I wrote that;

‘If, like me, you’re a liberal and looking to understand the honourable members to your right, this book is an excellent primer. Written by Alex J. Illingworth, co-founder of The Burkean political blog, the book is a concise exposition of British conservatism with the oak tree firmly rooted in Aristotelian soil. For those accustomed to, and after years of being bored by, the Kantian Toryism of Roger Scruton, this is a refreshing re-interpretation of conservatism that extends its thinking back beyond the Enlightenment to font of Western Civilisation.

The work is divided thematically into books with succinct chapters that reads like a practical guidebook for the little platoons of modern conservatism and for those who wish to understand them. Even if, like me, you don’t necessarily agree with the programme Illingworth proposes, you will certainly find yourself questioning your premises.’

To celebrate the books publication, and my return to writing after a summer of political and romantic distractions, I invited Alex to participate in the first, and hopefully not the last, Ten Questions interview.

Ten Questions: The Interview.

1) What inspired you to write the book?

I had long been planning to write a book on the subject of conservatism, and I suppose the influences can be traced back a long way to my first major philosophical readings, which were of Aristotle and Plato. In particular, I had always found Aristotle’s political theory to be superior to Plato’s, and I wanted to express the consequences of this to the modern world in an original way. The fact that the end result aligns with the like of Roger Scruton and the ‘traditionalist conservative’ school is no coincidence either.

In terms of the style, the methods of argumentation from Cicero, and Schopenhauer’s The Art of Controversy, rubbed off on me no end.

2) I found it amusing in the Preface that you once had a lecturer who described himself as ‘revisionist Godwinian’. Do you find it difficult being a conservative/traditionalist in a typically left-liberal academic environment?

I’ve been able to go through my studies relatively untouched in this regard, but that’s only because I go to a university which is more intellectually tolerant (on the whole), and because relatively speaking I am intellectual small fry. I’m by no means a tenured academic who has suddenly expressed a series of controversial opinions to his students, so there is no reason why the leftist mobs in the student body, or the established liberal orthodoxies in the academic body, should discover and execrate me. That being said, I can’t say there’s much in the book which the former sort would like…

3) The book reads a lot like a guidebook of conservative thinking. Was that your intention when writing it?

Perhaps not initially, but I’m not unhappy that it turned out that way. It began as a series of notes I made upon reading Godwin’s Enquiry at the nudge of that lecturer you mention. I was also acutely aware that a book solely on Godwin would not be something the general public would most likely wish to read. As such, the notes gradually expanded and evolved until they resembled something more like a traditional conservative primer contra leftism. These were the first fruits of Political Justice.

4) In Book I you discuss Political Institutions and in a review I described the book ‘as a concise exposition of British conservatism with the oak tree firmly rooted in Aristotelian soil’. Roger Scruton, the most prominent philosopher of British traditionalist conservatism, typically looks to Kant, Hegel and Burke to bolster his arguments. What made you reach back beyond the Enlightenment to Aristotle? Without sounding too much like Heidegger, is there something you feel we have lost in modernity, or maybe need to re-learn from the Greeks in how we build and structure our societies?

Scruton is very much a Kantian in his ethic. Now, there’s nothing explicitly wrong with that per se, but through Aristotle I arrived at the virtue ethicist’s position myself. A firm distinction between Kantian deontology and Aristotelian virtue ethics is not always possible to make, but I think what Aristotle gets right which Kant overlooks is that natural human behaviours will always have as much of a limiting as an exalting influence over ethical praxis. With Kant ethical judgements are very black and white – your actions are either oriented towards the summum bonum, and are therefore necessary, or away from it, and are therefore vicious. Aristotelianism strives to find a more natural path between extremes towards temperance. There are black and white virtues and vices in Aristotle too, of course, but Aristotle understands that our ethical choices are as much rooted in a kind of aesthetic as they are in brute terminology like ‘ought to’, ‘right’, and ‘wrong’. This idea also appears in Schopenhauer’s placement of ‘compassion’ at the centre of ethics. I wanted to rediscover ‘virtues’ and ‘vices’ and place them in their proper contexts. ‘Compassion’ is a word which is used a lot these days in the context of conservatism, and I wanted to dispel the myths about it: what is real ‘compassionate ethics’, and what sort of ethic will serve a political order best?

Another, not unrelated, consideration is the role of the transcendent, even in the use of language. The Greeks had abstract concepts, such as τὸ καλόν, ‘the noble and beautiful’ which English simply cannot exactly express. Kant accepts transcendence in a passing manner, but modernity has neglected God, and indeed any conception of transcendent moral order, and with this has also disappeared our ability to place a value-judgement on actions of all kinds. Malice, for example, once a cornerstone of legal theory, is now a dirty word. So long as you are a human being, it seems, you cannot be described in terms of your relationship to the moral order, because moral ‘truth’ does not exist. This is clearly an extremely harmful view to have. I’m with Elizabeth Anscombe on this one: it means that most ‘secularised’ approaches to ethics will fail.

5) In Book II you discuss the Principles of Society. Do you think it is possible to find a stable definition of virtue in a globalised and multicultural society?

Of course it is possible, all that needs to happen is that the members of a polity embrace some sort of common value-system. That said, you are right to suggest that globalisation and multiculturalism (at least in its current state) make this very difficult to achieve. If the overwhelming majority of people in a nation share a common religion, this is much easier to achieve, because no matter what personal differences in opinion or lifestyle might be present, they can agree on certain fundamental issues. For example, whilst a high church Anglican and a Baptist might differ on the theology of the Eucharist, both can agree that there are certain behaviours which constitute ‘good Christian virtue’.

6) In Chapter XVII you view Christianity, and in particular the figure of Jesus himself, as the basis of Western morality and progress. How important is Christ to you personally and what key values has he bequeathed to humanity?

The figure of Christ is inseparable from Western heritage, if for no other reason than the longevity of the presence of the Christian religion within Europe. More importantly, I think that Christianity is the truth. For me personally Jesus Christ is not only ‘my Lord and my God’ to quote St Thomas, but a moral exemplar for daily life.

In the West, we think we know Christianity, having lived with it for so long, but we don’t really, because for at least 100 years if not more, whilst we may well have lived with Christianity, we have not lived Christianity. The consequence of having had Christianity survive for much of the 19th and 20th centuries as a purely political and cultural institution, and its dramatic decline (at least in Britain) following the cultural revolution of the 1960’s, has been that people remember Christianity only in those terms. This is why I personally found Orthodoxy to be a more natural expression of ‘the ancient faith’. For me, Orthodoxy has more in common with Eastern practices such as Buddhism insofar as it places utmost importance upon the life of its central figure. To be an Orthodox Christian, therefore, is to strive to live the life of Christ. We all probably fall short of this, but the virtue lies in the striving.

As for key values that Christ left for humanity, I think the most important values are those expressed by his face in the famous icon of the ‘Sinai Christ’: redemption and judgement. On the one hand, he reminds us, particularly those of us passing through the vale of tears of this human existence, that God understands and cares for us in our suffering. On the other hand he reminds those in authority, and the wicked, that they will not escape judgement for their behaviour in the next life, even if they manage it in this one. Personally, I see there is no greater hope extended to mankind by any other Master.

7) Capitalism is under a lot of criticisms just now from left and right. In Chapter XXI you discuss economic theory. Do you feel capitalism can be reformed or is it beyond redemption? ‘What is to be done?’ as Tolstoy or Lenin would say?

This is a difficult question, and I’m not an accomplished economist. I’m with Scruton here, insofar as I can see no effective way to avoid market theory, and if that makes me a ‘reluctant capitalist’ then so be it. The models of ethical capitalism which I praise tend to be of two kinds: one being where the entrepreneur shows great respect towards, and rewards his workers so as to promote a benevolent relationship between the employee and the employer (as in the cases of Josiah Wedgwood and George Cadbury for example – both radical Christians in their own right). The other is that demonstrated by John Spedan Lewis, where every worker is to some extent a registered partner in the entire business enterprise.

Do I think the entire economic system can be reformed along these lines? Probably not. At the moment the particular form of capitalism we have in the West, which is little more than a series of centrally negotiated oligopolies, is too well entrenched to be seriously displaced. I think the financial system is of more importance here, because its very fundamentals are founded upon wickedness: lending at usury, irresponsible banking, and debt-valuated currency. This system weakens itself everyday, and I fear it is unsustainable with a view towards the future. A collapse of the system may be a good opportunity for restructuring along the lines of something resembling Catholic distributism or the Guild model, but I’m by no means in a position to judge how that might come about.

8) In Books III and IV you discuss the Principles of Government, Revolutions and Legislative and Executive Power. Do you think the current populist uprisings across the globe are an existential threat to the status quo, or merely a short term reaction in a longer term socio-economic and political reconfiguration? A ‘bone in the throat’ of liberal democratic capitalism as Hegel would say.

Most populist movement are as you say, little more than a distraction for the establishment, serving little purpose than to hammer at the gates of power. The events of the mid-20th century instilled (possibly quite a healthy) scepticism of populism in the minds of Europeans. The populist movements which you allude to today only become dangerous when they start to break down the gates. I am put in mind of the 2014 European Parliament elections in the UK where UKIP came out on top of the polls, and the panic with which established parties responded. There seemed to be a real sense of change in the air at that time. Distilling political ideas such as ‘conservative values’ into populism can be dangerous, but perhaps that is a case of picking one’s battles strategically; I am certainly no political strategist. If you look at something like Brexit, though, you will see what the problem is: a decent movement with good intentions for real changes that the country probably needs, but it has lost all of its momentum since the referendum. Herein lies the problem with populism: it can storm its way to success, but the fickle nature of popular will makes it difficult to sustain in the long-run.

9) You have also created the Traditional Discourse podcast along with Jacob Williams who is a recent convert to Islam. Do you find the interfaith discourse fruitful and what would you hope viewers will learn from it?

Britain is in need of some degree of interfaith dialogue at the moment, not least given our political and social anomie. I don’t think Islam is true myself, nor do I believe that an Islamic ‘religious revival’ is what Britain needs or deserves, but given that we do have so many Muslims in Britain, it seems a good policy to engage with them positively. I have long suspected, as I lightly suggest in my book (which is in no way theological), that many of the problems that have arisen in Britain surrounding tension and criminality within Muslim ‘communities’ is more a consequence of the failure of multiculturalism and the prevalence of moral dissolution amongst the youth than it is a failure of Islam. If British Muslims, especially converts to Islam, can find some way to express their faith in a culturally ‘British’ way, then they could prove to be great friends in reviving our national traditions.

10) Finally, I know from personal conversations that you are buzzing with ideas. What can we expect from you in the future?

I don’t want to give too much away! I’m trying to formulate a coherent philosophy of history of the French Revolution, but I suspect that may be a long-term project. For now my studies are focused on metaphysics and the philosophy of religion, which will, all being well, be the subject of my next book. At some point I should like to return to where my project in Political Justice left off, and continue my critique of men and morals. All I can say is, if you are interested in my work, be sure to stay tuned to my updates on twitter, and my publisher!