The Porter Zone

Philosophical musings and more

Monthly Archives: February 2011

Patronising nonsense

1 Introduction

Something that vexes me – one of the many things that vex me – is that so often those who take it on themselves to speak out on behalf of various oppressed or minority groups often seem to espouse positions that, had they been expressed by one of the oppressors or majority they would have instantly labelled (and rightly) as being part of the problem.  And yet when they express them, they are the solution.  How can this be?

Think about it.  We have anti-racists who inform us that those of non-European heritage should not be expected to comprehend, say, higher mathematics because it is not part of their culture.  We have self-proclaimed anti-fascists who announce that, in the interests of liberal values, everything they disapprove of should be banned.  And – and this is my subject – we have feminists who assert that women are built to be nurturing mothers, not senior executives, and who don’t seem to appreciate that it is highly unlikely that any male chauvinist pig would disagree with them.

Now, I’ve written a fair amount in these pages on the ‘Male Gaze’, but so far I have chipped away at the foundations of the theory rather than confronting the theory itself.  It is time to do so, for it is awe-inspiring in its combination of inanity, logical incoherence and offensiveness.  To women, that is.  And moreover, examining what it is about it that is so patronising, so offensive, leads on to one of the favourite notions of all the theorists I have grouped together, but especially feminist intellectuals, that is to say the notion of power relations between in-groups and out-groups.  Which also, on inspection, turns out to be quite offensive to the out-group it claims to defend.

So, what I’m going to do is talk about male gaze theory, dissect it, broaden the discussion to other favourite feminist theories and end up showing that though the language may have changed, the sentiments are those of a Victorian patriarch.  Now, this isn’t very satisfactory, as it seems that women are being told by their self-proclaimed leaders that they should get back to the nursery, which offends against my idea of feminism, if not theirs.  So I’ll conclude by making some only slightly tongue-in-cheek suggestions for appropriate modern roles for women, based on that fount of all knowledge, The Powerpuff Girls

2 Feminist neo-Victorianism

2.1 Male gaze theory

Stated baldly, it’s hard to see why anyone cares about male gaze theory.  The idea is as follows: men like to look at women; womanly beauty is defined in terms of what men like to look at; the idea that womanly bodies are inherently more beautiful than manly bodies is a consequence of the fact that, until very recently, men dominated the marketplace of ideas.  Now, this rests on a number of extremely questionable assumptions (as I have discussed in my piece The Gendered Gaze), but if we set definitional worries aside for one moment, the actual thesis as stated here is trivial beyond belief.

It begins to get more interesting when we see what Laura Mulvey (who came up with the idea) does with it next.  She says that ‘gaze’ as defined has the effect of objectifying that which is gazed upon.  So when I gaze, awestruck, at (say) Carole Lombard, I am not actually thinking about Carole Lombard, but am turning her into a depersonalised body.  Well, I think that’s questionable, but it’s not too contentious as assertions go.  Unlike what comes next.  Mulvey then says that only men are capable of expressing gaze, therefore women cannot objectify men, therefore gaze establishes a power relationship, because men make women into objects, but women cannot reciprocate. 

This extraordinary statement is, of course, unsupported, as it must be, because it is unsupportable.  The idea that women are somehow prevented from forming their own notions of male beauty, and from objectifying men is simply ludicrous.  Looking at Mulvey’s own field of film, the otherwise entirely inexplicable career of Keanu Reeves is testament not only to the existence of the female gaze, but of its acknowledged power and commercial significance. 

It gets better.  In some variants of the theory, women can gaze, but they do so only by sacrificing their female nature and acting as men.  Or, in other words, a woman cannot have feelings, sexual or purely aesthetic, about the image of a man, that is if she is being true to herself.  She can only have such feelings if she compromises herself by somehow becoming like a man.  And thus, she gives in to the power of the patriarchy, by accepting their notion of having feelings based on images of others (presumably we should have feelings only for specific individuals of our acquaintance, and the whole eyes meeting across a crowded room thing is an invention of the maleocracy).

2.2 The ‘power’ theory

Now, that may have seemed pretty barking mad, but we’ve only just started.  I mentioned several times the idea that the gaze is an expression of power, so if I see a woman in the street and think ‘she looks sexy’ then I am somehow asserting my power over her (one would have thought it was the other way round, but no matter).  This concept of everyday acts carrying hidden messages of power and oppression is not unique to gaze theory.

Now, it is entirely true that unspoken, and even unthought-of, assumptions about the world can influence the way we act.  However, there is a long way from that trivial observation (notice once again, as with male gaze theory, we start from a statement of the obvious and end somewhere quite startling) to some of the assertions that we see, such as, for example, that any sexual coupling of man and woman is an expression of the power of the man over the woman (woman-on-top strikes me as a fairly strong expression of the opposite, but perhaps I’m just unusual).  This seems somewhat implausible.

In fact, this theory can metastasise in some surprising ways.  For example, in many accounts of animal homosexuality (from dolphins to ducks) commentators fall over themselves saying that these couplings are assertions of power and are not (heaven forfend) the consequences of animals other than humans finding pleasure in sexual acts with others of their own sex.  And yet these writers are often impeccably liberal.  It is all most strange.

2.3 The nurturing woman

So, as my final deduction from gaze theory, note that it follows from what I have said that a ‘natural’ woman could never, walking in the street, see a man and think ‘he looks a bit of all right’.  So woman’s sexual feelings can only be expressed, if at all, in appropriate, hallowed relationships.  But then again, if every sexual act is an assertion of power, presumably not even then.  Sexual feelings are the sole prerogative of the male, and are used by him as a means of controlling the female.

So what is the ‘natural’ woman’s lot, then?  Well the idea that by doing X women give in to male power and act as pseudo-males instead of as women, that was used in gaze theory, is actually quite popular with feminist theorists.  And somewhere the original goal of feminism – that there should be no male roles or female roles, but only people roles – has been lost and replaced with the idea that for a woman to take on a traditionally male role is to give in to the patriarchy’s expectations.  Instead she should seek out a uniquely female space.

This in itself sounds faintly worrying, and more than a little regressive, but it gets better.  For what is this uniquely female space?  Well, apparently women don’t think like men, and are more concerned with states of being rather than arguments and goals (I once heard this earnestly asserted by the composer Nicola Lefanu, whose mother, the infinitely greater composer Elizabeth Machonchy, wrote some of the most aggressive and goal-directed music I have ever heard).  And their key role, the one that truly expresses their female nature, is nurturing.

So being a woman, in this new sense, involves retreating from the world of the intellect and argument and embracing nurturing and motherhood as one’s defining features.  Am I alone in finding this faintly worrying? 

2.4 How is this different from Victorian views of womanliness?

So, what have we learned that women are incapable of having objectifying feelings (sexual or aesthetic) about men.  In fact, sexual feelings are an exclusively male thing, used to establish power over women.  And it seems that there is nothing a woman can do to establish power over men, unless she sacrifices her natural womanhood.  In addition to this, there are quite a lot of things that women are naturally incapable of.  These include most, if not all, traditionally male roles.  In particular, women, naturally, think in terms of states of being rather than rational argument, and their natural domain is that of mother and nurturer.

Okay.  Let me restate that in slightly different language.  Women are weak things, unfitted for the male world, illogical and unreasonable by nature.  Their forte is to be the wife and mother, naturally submissive to their husbands and nurturing their children.  And, of course, sexually they are a blank: sexual pleasure is for the boys.  Any woman who attempts to overturn these truths is an unnatural freak who has ceased to be truly feminine.

Right, so that re-statement was putting the ideas from the first paragraph into the mind-set of a Victorian man.  The fit is frighteningly good.  It seems that these feminist thinkers have managed to recreate the Victorian model of the pure woman, and yet convince themselves that in doing so they are striking a blow for liberation from the patriarchy.  All while saying implicitly that the patriarchy is necessary, because without it women would be, essentially, helpless.

This is pernicious nonsense.  Thus we must conclude that if the goal of feminist theorists is to establish the right of women to freedom from gender-oppression, they have failed.  If, however, their goal was to establish a theoretical framework justifying male chauvinism, they have succeeded admirably.

3 What feminism should be saying

3.1 Roles for modern women

So, let’s assume, just for the sake of argument, that the original goal of feminism, to obliterate gender-based prejudice, is a worthy one.  Clearly the path of the women’s studies theorists is a dead end, so where should we look for guidance on what modern women ought to expect of society?

Now, obviously this is my opinion, that of a man who proclaims himself a feminist of the old school, before theorists discovered the narrative of victimhood and started progressively to paint women back into the corner from whence they had come.  I’m not going to say up front what my ideal for the place of women in society is; instead I’m going to let it emerge from an analysis of some archetypal female roles in search of a type for modern women.

3.2 ‘The Powerpuff Girls’ – source of all truth

And what better place to look for modern archetypes than in the doings of superheroes?  But not those tedious superheroes that are all about jiggle and joggle and making men feel warm inside.  I will look at a superhero saga where men and their opinions are largely irrelevant: The Powerpuff Girls.  And no, this isn’t a joke.  The truth is that The Powerpuff Girls presents us with a number of interesting female archetypes, and looking at them lets us see what our type should be like.

3.2.1 Not so keen on Miss Keane

Miss Keane is the teacher at the kindergarten that the Powerpuff Girls attend.  She is almost always seen in that context.  In the one episode where she actually develops a life outside of teaching, that is seen as a bad thing, and it is quickly corrected.  So, she has a strong nurturing function.  Things are not looking good.

They get worse.  In one episode we learn that she does actually have a powerful intellect, but having briefly given it free rein she quickly, and with some embarrassment, suppresses it again, and returns to her role as the good mother.  And just to make her even more a caricature of the feminist theorists’ ideal, whenever anything goes wrong she always tries to find a peaceful way out that involves everyone being nice, and preventing the Powerpuff Girls from doing the right thing (i.e. kicking butt).

Finally she is almost exaggeratedly sexless.  She is shaped like a bowling pin and always wears ill-fitting, shapeless clothes.  Almost always.  In the one episode where she acquires a life outside of her stereotypical nurturing role, it involves her (all too briefly) developing a sex-life and the change is dramatic: even her body shape changes!  But order is restored, sexuality is banished and she returns to her nurturing.

So, all in all, Miss Keane is the perfect feminist theorist woman.  She has her little space of being everyone’s mother and only very seldom ventures out of it, always retreating again as soon as possible.  Though she clearly could compete in the ‘masculine’ world of the intellect, or the complexities of realpolitik, where being nice is not always the answer, she chooses not to.  In other words, she is the perfect neo-Victorian woman, and hence is the anti-type for the truly liberated modern woman.  

3.2.2 A near miss with Miss Bellum

Miss Bellum, the Mayor of Townsville’s aide, is at first sight the total antithesis to Miss Keane.  For a start, and rather obviously, she isn’t shaped like a bowling pin, but has curves and then some.  And she is sufficiently confident about herself and her body that she positively invites the male gaze; indeed, in a neat reversal of Mulvey’s concept she objectifies men by forcing them to become mute worshippers of her splendour.

But here’s the thing: she’s not a vamp (we get to see what a successful vamp she could have been in one episode where Seduca impersonates her).  She effectively runs Townsville (the Mayor being a pickle-obsessed moron), but she doesn’t do it by seducing people into obeying her.  She does it through immense competence and efficiency.  That doesn’t mean she isn’t prepared to use sexuality as a weapon when it’s appropriate to do so, but she does it when her intelligence dictates that it is the correct approach to use.  She rules Townsville by being effective, not by being a sex-bomb.

So, have we found the desired type?  Unfortunately, not quite.  Sure, Miss Bellum is easy within her body, and confident in her sexuality, and sure she can take on men at their own game and win without sacrificing her essential self.  But there’s one problem: she is content to remain in the Mayor’s shadow.  Why is she the Mayor’s aide and not the Mayor herself?  So in spite of all the confidence and the other positives, she still falls somewhat into the traditional feminine role of subservience to a man.  Which means that she is a near miss; almost the type for women, but lacking in just that final degree of confidence that allows her to do entirely without male authority. 

As an interesting footnote, when it comes to over-sexed fan art (my old bête noire), there is, somewhat to my surprise, considerably more relating to Miss Keane than Miss Bellum.  This seems counter-intuitive, given that Miss Keane is sexless, while Miss Bellum is a goddess, but it is entirely plausible that the male ego finds Miss Bellum’s confident sexuality somewhat threatening.  Which means that in viewing Miss Keane as the anti-type and Miss Bellum as the starting-point for a type, we must be on to something.

3.2.3 The girls themselves

There are three Powerpuff Girls, which is an interestingly magical number, given that goddesses tend to come in threes.  Though each has her own personality – Blossom, the leader, is analytical, thoughtful and sometimes rather bossy; Bubbles, the airhead, is, well, an airhead, and wishes everything were nice with no need for argument, though she can be remarkably violent when roused; Buttercup, the tomboy, sees violence as the solution to everything and is, unsurprisingly, somewhat fiery-tempered – they don’t really function as individuals.  They are an eternally linked trio representing, dare I say, aspects of the type that goes to make the perfect, in their case, little girl, in our case, woman.

Looking at the girls and how they behave, one thing is immediate.  They may have been created by a man, and they may technically speaking work for a man (that pickle-obsessed Mayor again), but they  make their own decisions about what to do with the various threats that menace Townsville, and they take responsibility for the consequences of their actions.  They do not need anyone else to tell them what to do or whether it was done well.  So they represent woman as independent, self-determining individual.

And they are anything but limited.  When a group of superheroes of the traditional mould refuse to let women into their club, the girls’ response is so overwhelming that the superheroes end up asking to join their club.  Rather then avoiding the male domain as being somehow something that negates their womanhood, they effortlessly encompass it, but without, at any moment, ceasing to be women.  Because that is the thing.  They are neither jiggle-merchants nor boys in drag; they are clearly girls, quite capable of using their feminine wiles to trap unwary prey, and enjoying their femininity, while also being amazingly powerful superheroes who kick wrong-doers’ butts.

It seems that we have found our type.  One final point: the combination of analytical leader / brain  Blossom, gentle air-head / heart Bubbles and tempestuous fighter / body Buttercup creates a perfectly rounded assemblage not of feminine traits, but of human traits.   They are truly everywoman, a primal type for woman able to stand on her own two feet.

3.3 So now what?

So, what have we done?  We’ve seen that feminist theorists, seemingly without realising it, in their haste to divorce themselves from the patriarchy actually end up ceding to it all of the space that it traditionally denied women anyway, and so end up worse off than pre-feminist women, who at least didn’t have their own supposed leaders telling them that they could hope for nothing better.  

The idea that lies at the root of this catastrophic retreat is that terribly tempting, but terribly dangerous notion: the narrative of victimhood.  If one makes oneself a victim, then one automatically cedes ground to the victimiser, and so, even if one does not realise it, ends up doing his work for him.  But it is, of course, easier to submit, and loudly complain about having to do so, than to take the only positive approach to being a victim and resist, intent on achieving a relationship with no victor or victim.

So, if women are not to simply re-live the Victorian hell, it is necessary to say farewell to the narrative of victimhood, comforting though it may be.  Miss Keane is a victim pure and simple.  Miss Bellum has fought back, but gave way in the crucial final battle.  The Powerpuff Girls seemingly didn’t even realise that there was a battle to be fought, and blithely treat the world as their own.  And that is the role model, I humbly suggest, that women today should try to emulate, and not Mulvey’s cringing, unempowered, sexless objects of male desire. 

 

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The Gendered Gaze

Fifty years ago I put on pants and walked the middle road

Katharine Hepburn

Introduction

This essay is by way of being a reaction to MaryAnn Johanson’s definition of a female gaze analogous to the ‘male gaze‘ of film theory.  Johanson’s approach is a valuable step towards a more generally applicable theory, but her current definition inherits from  ‘male gaze’ theory a somewhat essentialist view of human gender. The problem lies in the implicit assumption that people can be categorised as being ‘male’ or ‘female’. Indeed, it is not even clear what those terms mean. I will argue that there are at least two independent factors that contribute to a person’s appreciation of images of other people, and that both of these are insusceptible to rigid categorisation.  This means that in addition to the ‘male gaze’ and ‘female gaze’ (both of which are now approximations) there is an ‘in-between gaze’.

It could be argument that my approach (which takes in Jungian depth psychology, probability theory, epistemology and some deftly hidden analytic topology) is using an intellectual sledgehammer to smash a nut whose contents are well-known.  Maybe so.  But I, at least, find it satisfying to understand precisely what are the assumptions on which such obvious conclusions rest, and to see the steps in the argument leading to them set out with great care.

Note that my purpose in this essay is to examine the definitional issues relating to gendered gaze theories.  I do not discuss the function of the gaze in defining gender roles, partly because that is a very complex topic, partly because until we actually know what the gendered gaze is such a discussion is pointless.  Therefore this essay attempts to place the concept of ‘gaze’ on a sound footing, as a preliminary to an analysis of its wider cultural ramifications.

Conclusions

I state my conclusions here, for those who are prepared to take the argument on trust.

  1. When treating people en masse, we can speak only of instinctive preferences, as opposed to intellectually motivated preferences. So I might really be homosexual, but pretend to be heterosexual because of societal pressure. Intellectually motivated preferences are too complex for our discussion, as they have to be treated on a case-by-case basis, whereas instinctive preferences, being simpler, are susceptible to generalised arguments.

  2. Gender and sexuality cannot be treated as simple dichotomies. People are predominantly-homosexual, predominantly-heterosexual or of mixed orientation, while being predominantly-masculine, predominantly-feminine or of mixed gender. No combination of gender and sexuality is forbidden (though not all  need be equally likely).

  3. Sexual attraction is based on an individual’s gender and sexuality, but not their sex. This is, on consideration, obvious, because what matters is not what sex one is, but what sex one thinks one is. It leads to some rather startling conclusions, such as that a feminine homosexual man will prefer women as sex-partners, and so appear like a masculine heterosexual man.

  4. We can derive a precise quantitative probabilistic model for an individual’s sexual preference, based on their gender and sexuality. In terms of qualitative models, we can choose between a nine-fold typology, a five-fold typology or a three-fold typology, depending on how much detail we want to capture from the underlying quantitative model. Again, classification into a simple ‘male’ / ‘female’ dichotomy is impossible.

  5. For our purposes the three-fold typology is sufficient: predominantly man-preferring (which includes, but is not limited to, the traditional ‘female’ category), predominantly woman-preferring (which includes, but is not limited to, the traditional ‘male’ category) and mixed-preference (which is new). The sexual reaction to images of other people will be reasonably predictable for individuals in the first two classes (so if I was predominantly woman-preferring, I would respond appreciatively to images of beautiful women and only minimally to images of beautiful men). The interesting class is mixed-preference: the reactions of people in this class are essentially unpredictable.

  6. Aesthetic preferences may be more or less correlated with sexual preferences, but remain distinct because they are influenced by culture and learned taste rather than instinctive reactions. Therefore there is little of a general nature to be about aesthetic preferences.

  7. Given that all of us (barring a vanishingly small number of extreme cases) are constituted of both male and female parts, though it is not true that one sex’s body is more desirable than the other’s, it is plausible that there should exist universal standards for what make a man or woman attractive (in Jungian terms, these would exist within the collective unconscious).

A note on terminology

Throughout this essay I shall use the words man and woman and their adjectival forms manly and womanly to denote the biological sexes. So I take ‘man’ to denote an individual with a Y-chromosome, and ‘woman’ to denote an individual without. I am aware that there are a small number of confusing cases where biological sex is unclear: double-X men, XY-women, hermaphrodites and other liminal cases; however, this is a complication that adds little to the argument, so let us make, for now, this simplifying assumption (which, after all, works over 90% of the time).

I shall use the words male and female and their adjectival forms masculine and feminine to denote genders, which reflect the psychology of the individual rather than their anatomy. I shall argue below that gender and sex are essentially independent, so it is perfectly possible to be a feminine man, for example (this is what I would expect to be the initial state of a man-to-woman transexual).

I shall use the words homosexual and heterosexual with their familiar formal meanings, with the attraction based on sex and not gender. So a homosexual is one who feels sexual desire for individuals of the same sex, while a heterosexual is one who feels sexual desire for individuals of the other sex. So sexuality is taken as being about attraction to types of body, not societal roles. I will (apart from within this sentence) not use the word bisexual, as part of my argument will render it essentially unnecessary.

In contexts where it is clear that some kind of sex/gender-related meaning is intended, but it is not clear what the explicit intention of the originator of the concept under discussion was, I shall use the words ‘male’ and ‘female’ with scare-quotes. I apologise if this becomes tedious, but unfortunately we have too few words with which to describe complex concepts (after all, the mere idea that sex and gender are not identical is relatively recent), and precision is a crucial part of my argument.

Finally, when I say two attributes of a collection of things are independent I mean that all possible combinations of values of the two attributes occur in the collection: there are no ‘forbidden’ combinations. This does not mean that there is no correlation between the attributes, in the sense that certain combinations may be more or less common. I am concerned not with how oftencombinations occur, but with whether they can occur at all.

Possibility and actuality

In the definition of independence I said I was concerned with whether states can occur, not how often they occur. In my analysis of sex, gender and sexuality I will be concerned with possibility: what combinations of these variables can occur and which are forbidden. So when I say that a particular value or combination can exist I am not saying I can point to a thing with that combination of attributes. I am saying that there is a non-zero probability of such a thing existing; its existence is not forbidden.

Thus, later on I will demonstrate that all possible gender mixes between the two extremes of pure masculinity and pure femininity can exist, and similarly for sexuality, and for combinations of gender and sexuality. This does not mean that there are living today, or have ever lived, exemplars of each possible mix or combination, but rather that there is no mechanism inherent in human biology or psychology that prevents such a mix or combination from being realised. This point is absolutely crucial, as it allows the use of thought experiments to consider possible cases that, so long as they are psychologically plausible, can be said to be realisable, if not realised.

Understanding the problem

Gendered gaze theory

The original theory of the ‘male gaze’ is an attempt to explain the over-representation of women in visual art. The thesis is that essentially this is because prior to the twentieth century the majority of art patrons and artists were men, and that though some of them may well have been homosexual, societal disapproval would force them to give the appearance of being heterosexual. Heterosexual men prefer looking at women it is asserted (though I question whether this is automatically true), so we see many beautiful women in visual art, but few beautiful men (the obvious exception is in Carravagio’s work, but he is unusual as an artist in so many ways that he does not constitute a significant counterexample). Such well-known women artists as Elizabeth Vigee Lebrun painted beautiful women because by the time a woman could actually make a living as a painter, the convention that beauty was a property of the womanly body alone was deeply ingrained.

And so art-theorists who argue that it is true that womanly bodies really are more beautiful than manly, or somehow have aesthetic properties that those of men do not are reflecting societal pressure. Indeed, it is rather startling that in so subjective a field as aesthetics anyone would even begin to think they could assert that any position taken was more than opinion: the mere fact that some appear to argue for the aesthetic primacy of the womanly body as some form of natural law should be a warning sign that something strange is happening. And similarly, women who allow themselves to be convinced that beauty is theirs alone are reflecting centuries of indoctrination by a heterosexual-man-dominated society.

Thus the basic ‘male gaze’ theory. Johanson’s proposal is that, as we no longer (at least ostensibly) have a heterosexual-man-dominated society, the time has come to reclaim the beauty of the manly body, and so in addition to the woman-preferring ‘male gaze’, there should be a man-preferring ‘female gaze‘.

Problems with the theory

I have placed scare-quotes around the expressions ‘male gaze’ and ‘female gaze’ as it is not clear what the words ‘male’ and ‘female’ mean within this context. Some obvious problems are as follows:

  • Is the ‘male gaze’ the property of heterosexual men or heterosexual males? Or both? (and mutatis mutandis for the ‘female gaze’)

  • Do homosexual women count as being ‘male’ for the purposes of the theory? (and mutatis mutandis for ‘female’)

  • Is it really the case that each of us find pleasure in contemplation of a particular sex’s body based on being ‘male’ or ‘female’?

  • Is it really possible to produce a simple classification of people as ‘male’ or ‘female’?

Technical background material

The sorites paradox

The sorites paradox has been a rich source of philosophical debate for millennia, so I do not pretend to give an exhaustive discussion (no such could be possible). I shall merely state what I need.

The paradox is most simply explained through an example. Say I have a rectangular strip which is red at one end and blue at the other with a continuous modulation from one colour to the other in between. It might look like this:

gradient

I now have three facts:

  1. One end is red.

  2. The other end is blue.

  3. If I start at any point on the strip and move a very small but non-zero distance in either direction, the colour does not change (in terms of what we call it).

So we get a paradox: start at the red end. Step along the strip using steps small enough for fact 3 to be true. Eventually you reach the other end, so red = blue. Contradiction. So at some point fact 3 must have failed, but the problem is that any attempt to define precisely where that is results in nonsense, because wouldn’t the points just to the left or right do equally well, in which case we are off again, and get another contradiction.

This example actually repays further study. At each of the two ends of the strip there is a region in which the colour is clear: close enough to the left-hand end it is clearly red, and close enough to the right-hand end it is clearly blue. It’s what happens in between that’s interesting, because about half-way along the strip is purple: neither red nor blue. So there is no systematic way of saying whether the colour is red or blue: there is no hard and fast dividing line (which this example makes happily self-evident).

There are many ways of resolving this paradox. I will present the one that I find most convincing, because (a) it is conceptually simple, (b) it is highly intuitive, and (c) it is consistent with what I believe to be the correct resolution, but as that requires three-valued logic it would take us too far afield (those interested in the details should see Understanding Truth by Scott Soames). However some philosophers (e.g. Roy Sorensen) reject this resolution’s consequence that a sorites problem inevitably leads to radical unknowability.

The resolution is as follows. Imagine a group of people looking at the strip independently. Each of them sees an indisputably red region and an indisputably blue region. Moreover each can assign some point they consider to be the best choice for the dividing line between blue and red (or at least a region within which they believe such a point should lie). Now consider the consensus view. They all agree that a region near one end is definitely red, and another region near the other end is definitely blue. They will not agree on the position of the dividing line (or region). So, on consensus, there is an indisputably red region, an indisputably blue region and a debatable region where there is no systematic way of assigning a colour.

So after this argument we want to take away two basic ideas:

The sorites problem

Say we have a collection (finite or infinite) of things (points on the strip in the example) such that:

  • The things can be assigned a property within some range (so in our example this property is colour).

  • A way of assigning one of two kinds to a value in the property’s range, such that values at one end of the range are of the first kind, while those at the other end are of the second (so in the example, this looks at the colour of a point and says whether it is red [at one end] or blue [at the other]).

  • Sufficiently close values have the same kind; so things with sufficiently similar properties have the same kind (this is just fact 3 from above).

Call this a sorites problem. Given a sorites problem, entities can be categorised as follows:

  • For each of the two kinds there is a region of certainty, consisting of things to which we can definitely assign that kind.

  • All other things belong to a region of uncertainty, where there is no systematic way of assigning a kind; the best one can do is to assign kinds on a case-by-case basis.

So in the example, the parts of strip near the two ends are the regions of certainty for red and blue, while the purplish area in the middle is the region of uncertainty.

The strong sorites argument

Now suppose we have a sorites problem, such that:

  • The things in the population have a population of things with a property, and a way of classifying them into one of two kinds based on that property,

  • It is provable that small changes in the value of the property never change the classification,

so fact 3 never breaks down, as we forced it to in the discussion of the paradox above. Then, based on our initial discussion of the sorites paradox, it is easy to see that:

  • If one thing in the population is of a kind, then all things in the population are of that kind.

I call this the strong sorites argument.  The crucial difference from the sorites paradox is that resolution of the paradox forces fact 3 to break down, whereas now we are forcing it to be universally true.

It can be quite hard to find categorisations into kinds for which fact 3 never breaks down. In fact we will only use one categorisation: ‘can exist’ and ‘cannot exist’. Unlike the kinds that leads to sorites paradoxes, this knows no middle ground (ignoring some rather complex epistemological issues that would enormously complicate the argument without noticeably adding to it), so we can be confident in asserting that, for it, fact 3 is true everywhere.

Jungian gender theory

Jung’s analytic psychology is interesting in that he does not take an essential view of gender. So rather than asserting that, for example, all women are purely feminine, he asserts that each of us has both masculine and feminine components, the balance of which determines our gender. This is in marked contrast to the essential quality of sex and gender asserted by other psychological theories.

To simplify the discussion of the theory, I will assume that my subject is a woman. So a woman’s conscious mind is dominated by a female component. However, there is a key aspect of her psyche which is her male component: her animus. This is part of her subconscious mind, but depending on its development it may have a greater or lesser influence on her conscious mind, thus creating a greater or lesser masculine component of her personality. So a woman can range from being almost purely female (undeveloped, and hence wholly unconscious animus) to being predominantly male (overdeveloped animus). This whole discussion goes through mutatis mutandis for men, with sex and gender terms interchanged and replacing animus with anima.

Finally, a quick note on individuation. Individuation is the process of psychological integration that the psyche undergoes through an individual’s life, resulting in a fully developed personality, resulting in a distinct and well-defined individual. The development of the unconscious gender component referred to above is one part of this process.

Analysis 1 : sex, gender, sexuality

In this section I start the analysis by examining the notions of sex, gender and sexuality and their relations to one another. The key results are:

  • That rather than the simple dichotomies used in popular discourse – male, female; homosexual, heterosexual – both gender and sexuality are continua (in the sense that no state lying between the two extremes is impossible to realise), with some individuals being clearly defined as being of one kind or the other, while others are simply a mixture. So there are three types: predominantly at one extreme, predominantly at the other and mixed.

  • That sex, gender and sexuality are independent (in the sense defined above), so no possible combination is forbidden.

Psychological variables are continuous

My argument depends critically on one hypothesis:

  • If I can find an individual for whom a psychological variable (e.g. gender, sexuality) takes a specific value, then nearby values of the variable can be realised by individuals in the population (albeit possibly with very low probability).

(Recall that can implies possibility – that it is not impossible – rather than that such individuals actually exist). Rephrasing the hypothesis less formally: the ranges of psychological variables are (in some sense) ‘smeared’.

To see why this is a plausible assumption, say it is not true. If I know an individual who is assigned the value 90%, what could happen is either:

  1. Values on either side of 90% can occur, which is consistent with the hypothesis.

  2. The variable can take values close to and greater than 90%, but none in a range just below 90%. This means that there is a hard edge at 90%, so the entire population exists either above 90% or some way below it.

  3. The value at 90% is isolated, so individuals are either assigned the value 90%, or a value some non-zero distance away from 90%.

Cases 2 and 3 are those incompatible with the hypothesis. Such hard edges and precise values do not occur in psychology, where behaviour is never hard-edged or precise. Small changes in the structure of the psyche are endemic. As a thought experiment, I can perturb an individual’s psyche slightly to achieve the required small change in the selected variable. As the result is a possible human psyche, there must be a non-zero probability of it existing in the population.

Looking at the specific cases I am interested in, it is intuitively obvious that if an individual can be homosexual 90% of the time, then it is not impossible for an individual to be homosexual 89.9% of the time, because that requires only a tiny change in the individual’s behaviour. Similarly, if my anima is so developed that I an 70% feminine, then at some point it must have been slightly less developed, meaning that I would have been 69.9% feminine, and if I developed it a bit more then I could be 70.1% feminine.

Therefore the contradictory scenario is extremely implausible, which means that my hypothesis is extremely plausible. Call it the continuity hypothesis. It allows us to apply sorites-type arguments to gender and sexuality.

Gender and sexuality are not simple dichotomies

The method of attack is to show that gender and sexuality are sorites problems, so each results in a classification into two predominantly pure types and a mixed type.

Gender

It follows from Jungian gender theory as described above that an individual’s gender falls within a range, with fully-male at one end and fully-female at the other. An individual’s position on the range is determined by the degree of development of the unconscious gender component (I write this being, as I am, a strongly feminine man). Assigning an individual a label male or female and using the continuity hypothesis gives rise to a sorites problem, and so by applying the sorites paradox we get three gender classes: predominantly-malepredominantly-female and mixed-gender.

Sexuality

Unfortunately, there is no good equivalent to Jungian gender theory for sexuality, so I shall have to use a longer elementary argument. The existence of people of homosexual and heterosexual inclination is a given. And, though there seem to be trends in certain circles to adopt the essentialist view that one is either homosexual or heterosexual, and there can be nothing between (see, for example, Mann’s biography of Katharine Hepburn, which seems to argue that as Hepburn had very strong loving relationships with women, her well-documented relationships with men were somehow not real; see also attempts to label Virginia Woolf as a pure lesbian, which end up having to deny that she loved Leonard Woolf, rather contrary to observed fact), it is not hard to think of examples, numerous examples, of people who inhabit the region in between: predominant heterosexuals who nonetheless have homosexual affairs, predominant homosexuals who nonetheless have heterosexual affairs, and individuals who take part, to a greater or lesser extent, in both orientations.

Having established that sexuality is not a binary opposition, but that there exist states in between, concluding that there is a continuum of possible states is relatively simple. It would be nonsensical to assume that all the individuals who spend most of the time in one orientation spend exactly the same amount of time in the other, so we have a blurred region starting at 0% which contains people, and another ending at 100% homosexual. Likewise it would be nonsensical to assume that all ‘in between’ individuals are precisely 50% homosexual, or even that they all share same value, so there is another blurred region around 50%. So we have something like this (where orientation changes from homosexual to heterosexual as one moves across the page):

Now, one could model human sexuality as consisting essentially of polar opposites, with a certain amount of deviation due to psychological factors (experimentation, deliberate transgressive acts, simple human cussedness, etc), but is hard to find any plausible model that allows two polar opposites and a mixed region in the middle but nothing in between.

So, let us set up a sorites problem. At one end we have 0% homosexual, a neighbourhood of which we know is populated. At the other end we have 100% homosexual, a neighbourhood of which we know is populated. Now let the categorisation into kinds be ‘can exist in the population’ and ‘cannot exist in the population’ as applied to points in between these extremes. By the continuity hypothesis, small changes in the value of the parameter ‘how homosexual is an individual’ do not change the property of existence, so we can apply the strong sorites argument to fill in the gaps. So I conclude that sexual orientation is a continuum.

Classifying people into kinds as homosexual or heterosexual and using the continuity hypothesis again gives rise to a sorites problem, and here the classification is not obviously always valid (which we know, because of the debatable middle region), so we end up with three regions: predominantly-homosexualpredominantly-heterosexual and mixed sexuality.

Sex, gender and sexuality are independent

I want to show that the three attributes sex, gender and sexuality are independent. To simplify the discussion I will start by showing that this is true of all three pairs of attributes, and then use this to deduce independence for the triad.

Sex and gender are independent

It follows from Jungian gender theory that gender is largely independent of sex, and may even change over time, as the individuation process proceeds. In many cases the subconscious gender component will be undeveloped, either through lack of self-awareness, or due to societal pressures to conform to stereotyped sex-specific behaviours. This is undoubtedly the reason why it took until the twentieth century for it to be fully understood that the gender that one thinks one is is not necessarily the same as ones sex. As examples consider people who decide to undergo gender reassignment (ignoring, as I said earlier, the small number of cases of people whose biological sex is confused): I would argue that these are individuals whose unconscious gender component (so the anima in a man) is so strongly developed that they simply cannot identify with their bodies, and so feel compelled to change their sex to the one that fits their self-identification.

Sex and sexuality are independent

That sexuality and sex are independent is trivial: homosexual preferences are not the prerogative of one sex, and neither are heterosexual preferences.

Gender and sexuality are independent

The independence of gender and sexuality, while non-trivial, is also relatively simple to prove from direct observation (so there is no need to rely on analytical psychology). At the homosexual end of the spectrum there are the well-known butch and femme gender roles. At the heterosexual end there are both masculine and feminine individuals. If we imagine gender and sexuality as being set out as the axes of a square, this gives us the four corners.

I want to apply the strong sorites argument with the categorisation into kinds ‘can exist in the population’ and ‘cannot exist in the population’. Using the continuity hypothesis, I can apply the strong sorites argument, so all combinations are possible.

Note, as a final critical point that the basis of this argument, i.e. the existence of male-ish and female-ish individuals near both ends of the sexuality spectrum is independent of sex. There are butch and femme lesbians and gay men, and there are masculine and feminine heterosexuals of either sex. Thus the whole gender / sexuality spectrum exists independently for each sex.

Sex, gender and sexuality and independent

Pick a sex. For that sex we have shown that all possible genders and sexualities can exist. Moreover, we have shown that all possible combinations of gender and sexuality can occur in that sex. Repeat the argument for the other sex. Independence is now demonstrated.

Analysis 2: sexual & aesthetic preferences

Finally we reach the core of the essay: the discussion of how sex, gender and sexuality effect aesthetic preferences in terms of to bodies of which sex(es) is an individual attracted aesthetically. The argument proceeds in two stages. First I tackle the (relatively) tractable problem of determining how these three variables influencesexual preferences, i.e. to bodies of which sex(es) is the individual attracted sexually. This done, second I turn to the much more complex question of aesthetic attraction; complex because (as I will show below), though many theorists (including those who formulated the original ‘male gaze’ theory) treat sexual and aesthetic attraction as if they are identical, they are not. They are very similar, but it is possible to have sexual feelings for a person one finds unattractive, and to find attractive a person towards whom one has no sexual feelings.

Throughout this discussion I deal with what one might call instinctive preferences, that is to say those determined by the structure of an individual’s psyche. There are, however, also conscious preferences: an individual may decide, consciously, to find a particular body beautiful despite not being naturally drawn to it (this, after all, is how fashion works), or that, for entirely rational reasons, they should make another individual their sex-partner (e.g. arranged marriages). As conscious preferences involve intellectual decisions, I cannot speak of them within my framework, which works in terms of the unconscious mind, and so, bearing Wittgenstein’s dictum in mind, of them I shall remain silent. Therefore, note that all of the following discussion relates only to instinctive preferences.

Sexual attraction

Which factors are relevant to sexual attraction?

Sexual attraction is an expression of desire to have sexual relations with an individual, and desire is a psychological state. Thus the sexes of the individuals to whom I am attracted will be determined by the structure of my psyche. As such it can depend directly on psychological variables, but only indirectly on physiological factors like sex. By which I mean that physiological factors may contribute to psychological variables (e.g. via the action of hormones on the brain), but these psychological variables will not be determined solely by physiological factors. As we see with even the most basic of physiologically driven psychological variables – pain – other psychological factors can modify and even over-ride the physiological factor. Thus rather than working with (potentially) relevant physiological factors, we should identify the relevant psychological variables. Therefore, provided we understand which relevant psychological variables it influences, we can remove sex from the equation (for the moment).

Start with the two variables discussed at length above. Obviously gender is influenced by sex: as an individual’s gender is how they themselves identify their sex, sex is bound to be a contributing factor, even though other factors can, and do, over-ride it. As for sexuality, there is some evidence that homosexuality is slightly more prevalent among men than women, but given that we have shown that any attempt to categorise people as either homosexual or heterosexual is doomed to fail, it is not clear how much credence would should place in this. However, using the principle of charity, let us accept that there is a weak dependency of sexuality on sex.

We leave for future study the question of whether any other psychological variables impact on sexual preference. A model based on gender and sexuality is sufficient for our purposes.

How is sexual attraction determined?

The naive answer to this is that sex plus sexuality determine the sex(es) to which an individual is attracted. This view is inherent in the ‘male gaze’ theory’s assertion that art disproportionately represents female bodies to cater to the desires of heterosexual men. However, we have seen that sexual desire is a psychological construct. Psychologically, an individual’s ‘sex’ is determined not by their actual physiological sex, but by the sex that they conceive of themselves as being, that is their gender. Thus it is surely more correct to say thatgender plus sexuality determine the sex(es) to which an individual is attracted.

Let us explore some consequences of this by looking at extreme cases (reintroducing sex as a factor to make the consequences of the hypothesis more concrete):

  1. A purely masculine heterosexual man.  This individual will be sexually attracted exclusively to women, and so forms the traditional ‘male’ stereotype, as per the ‘male gaze’.
  2. A purely feminine heterosexual man. This is more interesting, as the individual will be attracted exclusively to men despite being heterosexual. Two outcomes are possible: the individual is a transexual and reassigned as a femme straight woman, or the individual becomes a femme gay man.
  3. A purely masculine homosexual man. This individual will be sexually attracted exclusively to men, and so will be a stereotypical butch gay man.
  4. A purely feminine homosexual man. This individual will be sexually attracted exclusively to women, and so will appear, to all intents and purposes to be a femme straight man. However, as the conflict of body with gender will most likely lead to psychological unease, a more likely outcome is transgendering, with reassignment as a femme lesbian woman.

Examples are all for a man purely for reference (not because of any preference); for a woman interchange genders mutatis mutandis. It can be seen that as we look at both sexes, all eight combinations of butch / femme + straight / gay + man / woman occur. In particular, the treatment of transgender is very comprehensive.

This is rather interesting, as it implies that apparent sexuality need not always be the same as intrinsic sexuality: apparent sexuality is the result of a combination of intrinsic sexuality with gender. This is because sexuality is about attraction to bodies, i.e. sexes, whereas the thing that determines which bodies that sexually attracts one to is not one’s sex but one’s psychological sex, i.e. gender.

To reiterate, the reason this seems counter-intuitive, or even just plain wrong, is that we tend to assume that bodies attract bodies. But in fact, bodies attract minds, and minds need not necessarily consider themselves to be of the same ‘sex’ as the body they inhabit. Once this is accepted, the surprising, but, on a second look rather compelling, outcomes described above arise. And the more convincing seems my model:

preferred sexsexual orientation applied to gender

Classifying types of preference

A quantitative analysis of the influence of gender and sexuality on preference arrives at the following result. If an individual is masculine with probability g and homosexual with probability s, then the probability of their being attracted to the two sexes is:

Attracted to men with probability = 1 + 2gs – g – s

Attracted to women with probability = g + s – 2gs

The derivation of these results can be seen easily from the following figure:

Interpreting the mathematics, we deduce the following:

  • At the extremes of the ranges (so g and s are both equal to 0 or 1) we get ‘normal’, i.e. exclusive, homosexual or heterosexual behaviour.

  • Along the four edges (i.e. where one of the two variables is equal to 0 or 1) the formulae give probability of attraction equal to the other variable or 1 minus the other variable (this is to be expected, given our analysis or exclusive cases above, where we showed that flipping either sexuality or gender reversed preferences). So on the edges, preference is defined by only one variable.

  • If g is equal to one-half, then in both formulae the resulting probability is one-half, irrespective of sexuality. Similarly, ifs is one-half, then in both formulae the resulting probability is one-half, independent of gender. So if either gender or sexuality is (close to) evenly balanced, the individual’s preferences will be entirely unpredictable.

In the four ‘in-between’ regions the probabilities interpolate between these values, the interpolation taking the form of parabolic curves. This can all be visualised as follows (the graph shows the probability of attraction to women):

Thus we conclude that there are nine regions in total:

  • Four regions close to the corners, where both gender and sexuality are exclusive, so preference is exclusive. These can be labelled predominantly-man-preferring and predominantly-woman-preferring regions.

  • A region where one or both of gender and sexuality is close to being equally balanced between the two extremes. This is the region of mixed-preference, where we can say nothing at all about the preference of individuals falling within it.

  • Four regions of approximate-preference, where the preference is predominantly for one sex, but with an admixture of the other. They can be described as falling into two classes: approximately-man-preferring and approximately-woman-preferring.

So there is a five-fold typology:

  1. Predominantly-man-preferring
  2. Approximately-man-preferring
  3. Predominantly-woman-preferring
  4. Approximately-woman-preferring
  5. Mixed-preference

This is illustrated as follows:

So what do we do with all this? There seem to be three approaches:

  • Keep full generality and use the underlying quantitative model given by the probabilities. This is very useful for detailed studies, but not for the relatively coarse-grained work we are interested in: there is little point in defining a ‘43% male, 37% homosexual gaze’!

  • Adopt a five-fold typology: predominantly-man-preferring, predominantly-woman-preferring, approximately-man-preferring, approximately-woman-preferring and mixed-preference. This complicates things somewhat, but it has the merit of being the best qualitative representation of the underlying quantitativemodel.

  • Merge approximately-man-preferring with predominantly-man-preferring, merge approximately-woman-preferring with predominantly-woman-preferring, thus obtaining a three-fold typology: predominantly-man-preferringpredominantly-woman-preferringmixed-preference. This trades off accuracy against simplicity.

We adopt the third approach, as it is all that we need for gendered gaze theory. However, it is recommended that subsequent work investigate the full five-fold typology (or, better still, the underlying quantitative model).

Aesthetic attraction

As soon as we try to switch from looking at sexual attraction to aesthetic attraction problems arise. Naively one might believe the two to be strongly related, but that isn’t the case. Yes, there is a relationship, but a little thought can show that it is possible to be sexually attracted to individuals who one does not consider beautiful (the sexiest woman I have known was not remotely beautiful, and yet the sexual allure she generated was enormous) and to consider beautiful individuals who we do not consider sexually attractive is equally possible (I find Virginia Woolf beautiful but absolutely un-sexy). So what can we do?

This problem is symptomatic of the point I made above distinguishing instinctive and conscious preferences. Sexual preference is overwhelmingly instinctive: we know when we are attracted to an individual because our bodies respond without our appearing to tell them to do anything of the sort. Aesthetics, almost by their very nature involves conscious preferences. Aesthetic values are undoubtedly, at root, based on sexual preference (so if one could find a naive individual, who had had no cultural contact with other individuals they would desire those they found attractive and vice versa), but overlaid on that are the very powerful input of culture and deliberately learned taste. We even speak of things as ‘acquired tastes’, meaning that they are learned. So, for example, I find Francis Bacon’s horrifyingly distorted figures beautiful, because I have cultivated a taste that allows me to do so. Overall, this is perhaps not surprising in view of the much-commented-on fact that the current ‘desirable’ shape for women in western culture seems to be completely at odds with the kind of womanly shape that is sexually desirable.

What this means is that there is no way that the theory developed above can be extended from sexual to aesthetic preferences, as any model for the latter involves not just modelling the (relatively) simple unconscious mind, but potentially all of the conscious mind. The best we can do is to say that there is some (strength unknown) correlation between sexual and aesthetic preference. Therefore gendered gaze theory can be stated as follows:

Gendered gaze theory

Individuals can be categorised based on their sexual attraction to other individuals as follows:

 

  • Predominantly-man-preferring

  • Predominantly-woman-preferring

  • Mixed-preference

Which class an individual falls into depends on their gender and sexuality in a relatively complex, but understood, way. There is a statistical correlation between the sex of figures appearing in art-works created by an individual and which of these classes the individual falls into. The strength of the correlation will vary from individual to individual.

It is hardly surprising to find that this is a much more circumspect conclusion than that made by the theorists of the ‘male gaze’. This may seem like a defeat, but is cannot be entirely negative to replace an over-confident assertion with one that is more nuanced.

It came from beyond an epistemic barrier . . .

Epistemic Barriers – this time in English! 

1 Introduction

I admit it.  On Epistemic Barriers is (though I say it myself) a rather profound piece of work, containing some very important philosophical ideas.  Unfortunately, it is also profoundly hard to read.  I made the mistake of writing it in the impenetrable style of some of the philosophers I was critiquing.  Which was a mistake, in that complex ideas were made impossible by an overly academic style.

So this essay is an attempt to present the same ideas, but with a more transparent exposition.  That doesn’t mean that what I have to say will necessarily be easy to understand.  As I have already said, the ideas are quite deep, and as they deal with the bounds of knowledge (what is and is not knowable) they are inevitably going to be mentally stretching.  However, I will do my best to ease comprehension.  That means none of the quasi-mathematical language or excursions into Germanisms.

2 What is an epistemic barrier?

In this section I’ll introduce the concept of an epistemic barrier.  It’s quite a complex idea, so I shall approach it gently from, as it were, both directions.  So first I look at the facts relating to the mysterious mutual comprehensibility of all human languages, and then I look at those facts that limit mutual comprehensibility.

2.1 The enigma of mutual comprehensibility

If we look at our world, there is a certain very surprising fact that constantly stares us in the face, but is so commonplace that we don’t realise just how surprising it is.  What I refer to is the fact that, in spite of there being hundreds of languages spoken by people on this Earth, we have yet to find a language that is wholly incomprehensible (I am ignoring here certain dead languages, as the are special problems inherent in trying to decode a language with no native speakers and no obvious descendant languages).  

Why do I say this is surprising?  Well, if two languages have arisen from different sources, and are sufficiently isolated (say one in Europe, the other in Australia), then there is no obvious reason why it should be necessarily the case that speakers of the two languages should be able to establish communications with one another, let alone that it should be possible to translate between the two languages.   We take this for granted, but, in actuality, the fact that all human languages seem to be mutually comprehensible is something of a mystery requiring explanation.

Now there are a number of competing explanations.  I will list those most relevant to my eventual goal, which is not mutual comprehension, but mutual incomprehension.  So the theories are:

2.1.1 All languages are essentially the same

According to this theory, there is only one way that a natural language can be formed, and thus any two natural languages must be mutually comprehensible, because they are simply realisations of the same underlying structure.  

This implies that there is only one class of conceptual categories, and only one way of ontologising the world around us.  For if (say) multiple ontologies can exist, there is no guarantee that objects as described in a language using one ontology will correspond in any well-behaved way with objects as described in a language using another, and so mutual comprehension will be limited to non-existent.

Thus the theory imposes a very regimented view of reality and what is and is not permissible in terms of individual’s conceptual models of the world.  Indeed, it is almost Platonic, for the limitation to a single class of ideas and kinds of things is, in all but name, an acknowledgement of the existence of forms that all things (to a greater or lesser extent) realise.

Now, I do not consider this theory to be viable, for a number of reasons.  First, it is incredibly anthropocentric.  What reason do we have to believe that ours is the only viable way of anatomising the world and the world of ideas?  Surely, all human languages are mutually comprehensible, but what reason do we have to believe that ours are the only languages that exist?  Or that our planet is an exemplar for all those where language-using life may arise?

Second, consider the following thought experiment.  Say we discover a species of aliens who have evolved on or very near to a neutron star.  Due to the extreme nature of physics in such a neighbourhood, they sense quantum wave-functions directly.  So while we see (say) a stone as an isolated object, they sense a distribution spread across the whole of space-time.  In other words, our senses are local, while theirs are global.  Now, our entire world-view is predicated on objects being localised in space and clearly distinct from one another.  Indeed, the idea of predication, fundamental to all human languages, requires a clear concept of thing or things which clearly possess one or more definite properties.  But to our quantum creature none of this makes sense, as the world consists of an endlessly shifting mass of probabilities, with no clear barriers or delineations, and so their world-view, and therefore their language, must be alien to ours.  The only recourse, if we want to salvage the theory, is to say that language-possessing aliens cannot differ significantly from us in their physical environment and sensory apparatus, which is clearly absurd.

Third, the theory is logically circular.  For it argues that every language must take the form of something we recognise as a language.  Its evidence for that is that all the languages we know are recognisable as languages.  But we would expect nothing else; if a language were truly alien then we  could not necessarily recognise it as a language, so we would not know that it was there as a contradiction to our theory.  Thus the theory is unfalsifiable and, as such, worthless.  

Before you ask, the reason why I spent so long on attacking an obviously flawed theory is twofold.  Well, it may be obviously flawed, but that does not stop it from being deeply embedded in our culture.  Indeed, the whole effort to communicate with aliens, whether in the form of pictures on space probes, signals beamed into space, or attempts to ‘listen in’ on alien conversations, is based on the assumption that alien languages are similar to ours, and that certain linguistic facts that are obvious to us will likewise be obvious to aliens (and vice versa).  One of my conclusions is, in fact, that this belief is false, and that therefore the enterprise of SETI is futile. 

2.1.2 All human languages are essentially the same

This is a less ambitious version of the above theory, so it accepts that alien languages may differ wildly from ours, but still insists that human language is essentially wired-in, in the sense that it is inherent in being human.  So, though individual languages may be contingent things, there is a universal grammar that is built into our neural hardware, so to speak, and is specified by the blueprint for a human being (i.e. our genome).  This is the theory most closely associated with Noam Chomsky and his school.

I do not consider this theory to be viable, though it is harder to dismiss than the first theory, the argument against it depending on balance of probabilities rather than obvious flaws.  Though Chomsky and his followers point to the fact that we acquire rules about what is and is not grammatically correct without hearing (many) examples of incorrect usage, this argument has a number of flaws.  First it ignores the fact that, in fact, as children, though it is granted we do not usually hear solecisms, we are repeatedly corrected when we commit solecisms.  Second the phenomenon is more economically explained as being the result of our modelling the language we speak on the language we hear: this, after all is how we acquire dialect and accent, so why should it not be true for grammar?  Third, if, as Chomsky would like us to, we interpret this avoidance of grammatical solecisms as being evidence of hard-wired rules at work, how to account for the fact that said rules are strongly language dependent (so, for example, this sentence is perfectly correct in English, but, if translated literally into German, would be grossly incorrect)?  To posit that I am genetically an English speaker is nonsensical, but if we try to universalise the rules to the point where they apply to all known human languages, they become nearly vacuous.

This is the next point.  The universal grammar, as it is presented, exists at the very high level of specifying that verbs link noun phrases, and descriptions can be predicated of objects.  But are these really sufficient ideas to justify the theory?  And even if these facts are hard-wired into our brains, they are so minimal in their content that they do nothing at all to answer basic questions about language acquisition.  In other words, a universal grammar sufficiently general to account for all human languages is so vague as to be almost entirely without benefit to its owner, and as such it is more or less impossible to see how it could have evolved.

And finally, once again the theory is circular.  Say it is true that all the human languages we know follow a Chomskian universal grammar.  That could just be due to the fact that, used as we are to Chomskian languages, we cannot recognise non-Chomskian languages when we encounter them.  So the evidence that might falsify the theory is inaccessible to us, and thus the theory is unfalsifiable.   

Note that this is not to say that there is no hard-wired aspect to human languages.  For example, there does seem to be a fixed sequence of colours, such that if a language has a word for one colour on the list, it must also have words for all the preceding colours.  However, this tells us nothing about language, and is more a feature of the human sensory system.

2.1.3 All humans are essentially the same

This theory can be seen as a subtler version of the previous theory.  Rather than saying that any features of language are hard-wired into human brains, we observe that human language is intrinsically a property of humans.  And as humans, we are (to a reasonable approximation) identical.  Thus we have similar senses and similar minds, and so see the world in similar ways.  And this means that an idea formed in one human mind cannot be alien to another human mind.  That is not to say that we could swap thoughts and expect to understand one another; rather that my thoughts should not be such that your mind cannot accommodate them, and vice versa.  And thus, human languages are susceptible to translation into other human languages precisely because they have the common feature of being languages of humans.

This theory can withstand all the arguments we have made against the other theories.  It is anthropocentric, but in a different way to the first theory.  That theory made man the measure of the universe.  This theory makes it clear that human languages are a property of humanity, but makes no pretensions to speak of the properties of alien languages.  Moreover, it is clear that this theory can be generalised, so that quantum being languages are mutually comprehensible, but, due to the extremely different conceptual and sensory apparatus of humans and quantum being,s it is a corollary of the theory that human and quantum being languages are not mutually comprehensible, just as we concluded above.

Moving onto grammatical issues, one of the great strengths of the theory is that it makes no claims about the structure of language; it is concerned with the structure of ideas.  Thus, such hard-wired features of the human sensory system as exist (e.g. the colour sequence) can be found reflected in human language, and some of these may influence grammar (e.g. the notion of predication, which depends on a distinction between things and properties that is meaningful to us, but may not be to the quantum creature) but they do not dictate grammar.

Finally, the theory is clearly not circular, because it makes no pretension to give a universal theory as to what make a language, or even what makes a human language.   Therefore we shall accept this theory of language and see where it takes us. 

2.1.4 Epistemic barriers at last

In fact, it leads us on to our goal: the epistemic barrier.  As I have said, in my thought experiment with the quantum creature, there will be little or no conceptual common ground between me and it.  Because of this, there is no reason to believe that my mind could house its thoughts and vice versa.  So therefore, the theory of language says that with a very high probability, it should be impossible to translate between my language and its.  Or, to put it more simply, it will be impossible for me and the quantum creature to share ideas, not just because we speak different languages (as should be clear by now, language differences are a barrier easily overcome) but because of a fundamental difference in our conceptual worlds.

I will therefore say that in this case there is an epistemic barrier between me and the quantum creature.  More generally, I will say that two languages, or two conceptual realms are separated by an epistemic barrier if it is systemically impossible to set up a correspondence (e.g. translation) between them.  That is to say, the reason for a failure to translate is not (as with, say, undeciphered ancient human scripts) because we do not yet have the necessary key, but because it is fundamentally impossible that there ever should be such a key.

2.2 Barriers to mutual comprehension

Now let’s start from the other end, and look at the various barriers to perfect translation that exist.  It turns out that translation cannot be perfect, and there exist barriers of various kinds, ranging from those between individuals who share a language up to those between human languages.  But the common feature of all of these barriers is that we can still capture a predictable proportion of the original intent of a thought as it crosses the barrier.  This is abruptly lost when we hit an epistemic barrier, where something mysterious happens.  I shall discuss exactly what in the next section.

2.2.1 Barriers between me and you

In epistemology, the main reason for interest in translation theory is not because philosophers want to be able to translate their work into foreign languages.  The interest lies in the fact that the mere fact of human communication is an act of translation.  If you think about it, whenever you talk to someone, you assume that they will be able to interpret your words in the way you intended them, and similarly you expect that the intent you perceive in their words was the intended intent.  Thus, even if you are both speaking the same language, you are translating between two idiolects.

Now this is a potential source for loss of information and ambiguity.  For a start, languages do not all cut up the semantic space in the same way.  So, many languages do not distinguish ‘green’ and ‘blue’ as concepts, having instead a ‘grue’ colour concept.  So if you come from that background, your mind does not distinguish ‘green’ from ‘blue’, and even if you now speak English, you are likely (this seems to be what happens in practice) to use the words inconsistently, causing confusion for native English speakers.  Similarly, an English sentence that hinges on the distinction between ‘green’ and ‘blue’ may well be pretty meaningless to you.  Likewise, someone brought up speaking German who has learned English, may well find the way that native speakers treat snails and slugs as different kinds of animal somewhat strange.

But all this is quite cosmetic.  There is a more fundamental issue.  Consider the word ‘rabbit’.  Now, you and can talk quite happily about rabbits, and I can be absolutely certain that whenever you say ‘rabbit’ you are signifying a lop-eared rodent.  But do I know what ‘rabbit’ means to you?  The answer is ‘no’.  I can know precisely as much about your views on the word ‘rabbit’ as can be expressed using our mutual languages, but it is a truism that there are non-linguistic thoughts, and another truism that I can never learn your non-linguistic thoughts through the medium of language.  So what you take ‘rabbit’ as meaning, its emotional and other non-linguistic associations, are forever hidden from me.

So here is a (reasonably) small barrier.  That is to say, in conversation we use words, and we can be confident that whatever was the linguistic component of our intent when we framed them will be comprehensible to a competent colinguist.  But the non-linguistic part of our thought must remain private, or else be expressed in symbolic form, in which case we are actually inviting those who observe our symbols to substitute their own non-linguistic ideas for ours.  So ordinary, empirical statements translate absolutely, and as they form most of our discourse, that means that most of the time this person-to-person translation works perfectly.  But complex ideas with personal emotional connotations inevitably suffer some loss in translation: the loss of meaning, a loss that can only be rectified in a somewhat elliptic fashion through art. 

2.2.2 Barriers between human languages

Now consider translation as we normally think of it, between two human languages.  Here there is again some inevitable loss of information, largely due to the simple fact that, as noted above, different languages slice the cake of meaning in different ways.  As noted above, colour words are a perennial source of confusion: for example, the Russian words голубой and синий both translate into English as ‘blue’ and yet, to a Russian they signify entirely different colours.  Prepositions and conjunctions are a particular minefield, as it seems that even closely related languages divide shades of meaning up between words in different ways.  Idioms are another place where translation often fails entirely: there is no simple English equivalent for l’esprit d’escalier or schadenfreude and so these expressions are generally carried across unchanged, and have even entered common English usage.

What is, however, more interesting is cases where it is not so much meaning that is the problem as connotation.  Thus, Gut bürgerliche Küche translates literally as ‘good middle-class cooking’, but whereas the latter phrase would have distinctly negative, even satirical connotation to one accustomed to British culture, in Germany it is an indicator that one can expect a good meal.  So translation between languages also requires a translation between cultures, and, if done incautiously, loses meaning given by cultural context.  This is, in fact, the direct extension of the loss of personal meaning in person-to-person conversation: now we are translating between cultures and the private information that cannot be expressed purely linguistically is precisely the baggage that any culture carries with itself.

Even more interesting, however, is the first hint of an epistemic barrier, that is to say the fact that there are cases where a language can express concepts that are untranslatable. One such is the German word gemütlich.  One can try to translate this into English, but attempts to do so generally end up with half a dozen vague and inadequate phrases.  But that does not mean that just because your first language is English you can’t know what it means.  I am perfectly aware of what gemütlich means, and can use it correctly, and yet I have no idea how to render it in my mother tongue.  Another such word is kitsch (German seems to be good at this game).  

So what we have here is not quite an epistemic barrier, for I can form these untranslatable concepts in my mind.  This means that they are not systemically untranslatable, but rather simply that  over the centuries Britons have never felt the need to express the concept of kitsch, and by the time we did it was easier to borrow a loan word from German.  So this does not contradict our model of language; instead it shows that building vocabularies is not just a matter of slicing the cake, but also (sometimes) of accidentally missing parts of it (and lest it be thought that English is impoverished, English has distinct words dove and pigeon where German has Taube, snail and slug for Schnecke and so on).

Note finally, that much of my discussion has involved English and German, two extremely closely related languages.  The further apart two languages are, the more meaning is lost in translation (so English and German are both unable to express the Japanese system of honorifics without complex circumlocution).

2.2.3 Epistemic barriers again

So what have we learned about epistemic barriers from this discussion?  First, we see that language-to-language translation generalises person-to-person, and that the mechanism for information loss is the same.  Surely, more information is lost, increasingly so, as I have noted, as the languages and cultures move further apart, but essentially the information loss is controlled, and we can estimate (roughly) how much indeterminacy is introduced in the process of translation.

Second, we know what they are not, that is to say they are not just the consequence of gaps in vocabulary, or more or less complicated grammatical inflections.  If English speakers the world over were to decide that plof was the translation of gemütlich then that would be an end to that apparently untranslatable concept; the fact that we could not say succinctly what plof meant is neither here nor there: we happily and correctly use words like labile or liminal in spite of the fact that if asked what they meant we may well end up embarrassing ourselves. 

So, say gemütlich involved a genuine epistemic barrier.  That would mean that it would be impossible for a non Germanophone to even comprehend what it meant, which is a much stronger statement than simply that there is no word for it.  The concept of gemütlich, rather than being merely elusive should be actually unthinkable.  Now this is a really strong statement, so let me put it more formally: two languages are separated by an epistemic barrier if some or all of one of the languages is inconceivable by speakers of the other.  Or, to put it another way: there is an epistemic barrier between me and some idea not just if I can’t understand it, but precisely when I cannot even accommodate it within my mind.   This will have very strong implications as regards our ability to discover alien languages.

3 What can we say about epistemic barriers?

3.1 Can we prove that they exist?

The simple answer to this question is no.  Let me expand on that, as the reason why is rather interesting.  So, how could I prove that an epistemic barrier existed?  There are two possible approaches: one is to identify an actual, concrete epistemic barrier, i.e. to find one that I can point at, and the other is to use a general argument that shows, on theoretical grounds, that such things must exist.

3.1.1 Finding a barrier

I’ll discuss the details of finding a barrier, in particular locating how close the nearest one is, later.  For now let’s stick to the rather crude question of whether I can find any way of detecting the presence of such a beast.  Well, there’s really only one way of doing it, and that is to find a genuine bona fide language that we cannot comprehend (at least in part).   So how would I do that?

Well, there’s one approach, which is that it might just happen that one day a flying saucer lands in Trafalgar Square, an alien emerges, marches down Whitehall and into Downing Street, where it nails ninety-five theses to the door of Number Ten.  Assuming that the alien was not an interplanetary juvenile delinquent or performance artist, we could safely assume that the theses constituted language and, assuming (as seems overwhelmingly likely) that we could make no sense of them, we would again probably be safe in assuming that they were beyond our comprehension.  So we would then have, for what it was worth, a genuine example of language from the other side of an epistemic barrier.  We would know nothing about said language apart from this fact, but it would at least establish the existence of the barrier.

Now before you laugh and suggest that this scenario is a little crude, the problem is that barring such a clear act, pointing at some thing, as it were, with a large sign saying ‘alien language’ we are more or less stumped.  The problem is this.  To recognise a language from the other side of an epistemic barrier, we have to know something about what things are like on the other side.  But we can’t, because by definition, such things are inconceivable by us.  To argue that there ought to be features of any alien language that we can detect is simply to revive the universal language or universal grammar models for language that I dismissed in the previous section, which would have the amusing consequence that in order to find an epistemic barrier one has to assert that they don’t exist!

This fact has quite amazing consequences.  If the only way to be certain that something is a communication in an alien language is to, as it were, catch aliens in the act of communicating it, then that means that alien languages, when seen blind, with no prior knowledge, cannot be distinguished as such.  In fact, we can go further.  Even if we do catch the aliens in the act, as their language is systemically incomprehensible to us, most likely we will be unable to detect any of its grammatical features (if, indeed, it has any) and so we will not be able to learn anything about the language, and hence not be able to spot even further instances of the same language.  Even looking for repeats must be called into question, as there is no guarantee that the language will handle repeats in the same way that our languages do (where repeated ideas leads to repeated text).  

What this means is this: no matter how many hard instances of beyond the barrier language we may accumulate, we will never be able to learn anything about beyond the barrier language So whereas the bigger the corpus of a dead language, the higher the probability of decipherment, here a change in the size of the corpus has zero effect.  

We conclude that no test can detect the presence of an alien language.  It is, simply by virtue of being alien, indistinguishable from noise.  And therefore a language from the other side of an epistemic barrier is in principle undetectable by any means available to us, short of catching an alien in the act of communicating it.  And thus, as I said above, efforts, like that of SETI, to detect alien communications are futile.  Even to assume that alien radio signals are modulated in a way we can recognise is an anthropocentric assumption too far.

So, barring a sudden intervention from on high, we are not going to be able to find a barrier.

3.1.2 Postulating the existence of barriers

Failing that, I can motivate a belief in the existence of barriers as follows.  I can easily conceive of a being (e.g. the quantum creature from the last section) so dissimilar to us in sensory apparatus and world-view, that it inevitably will suffer from a complete failure to communicate with us.  And this will not be a result of failure to try hard enough, but will simply be because the models of how the universe works belonging to us and the creature will be so different from one another that there is no way of mapping between the ways we divide up the cake of knowledge.   Indeed, it is arguable that we have separate cakes.  In other words, the failure to communicate will be systemic, inherent in our humanness and the creature’s alienness, so there will be an epistemic barrier between us.

But now, though I chose my quantum creature as a deliberately extreme example of an alien obviously separated from us by an epistemic barrier, if we consider any alien creature, then it will have evolved not just with different culture, but within a completely different biological, geological and so on and so forth context.  It seems extremely unlikely that its way of thinking about the world will match with ours.  And, as I noted above, different world-views lead to radically different languages, so I can hypothesise that any alien creature must be separated from us by an epistemic barrier (that is unless something highly fishy, like a bunch of super-aliens going round seeding worlds, is going on).

And that is enough.  Though I believe it is overwhelmingly likely that alien creatures exist, I don’t need that for this argument.  The mere fact that the existence of such a creature is not impossible (for if it were, then why are we different?) motivates my claim, that in all probability epistemic barriers exist.  For even if there are no aliens, the possibility of aliens, and with it the possibility of knowledge that I cannot comprehend, exists.

3.1.3 Predicting the existence of barriers

So it is extremely likely that epistemic barriers exist.  Is there any argument that I can use to prove that they exist?  The answer to that is a bit tenuous.  I can develop an argument (and will, see below), but it is somewhat tendentious and relies on a large number of fairly questionable assumptions.

The argument is essentially a rehash of that old favourite, the ontological argument.  It goes like this.  Clearly it is unlikely in the extreme that the extent of the realm of possible languages should be coterminous with the class of languages that my mind can comprehend, for to assert otherwise would be to assert, essentially that all information is open to the human mind, which would seem to be a rather questionable assertion (after all, my thought experiment of the quantum creature shows that it is clearly possible that information not open to my mind should exist).  Thus the languages that I can comprehend must be strictly a subset of all possible languages, meaning that there exist languages that I cannot comprehend.

Let us examine this.  It is actually reasonably sound.  The only contentious patch is the assertion that if I could comprehend all possible languages then I could comprehend all possible information.  But what if there are chunks of the universe that are indescribable in any language?  That would allow me to comprehend all languages without having to lay claim to godlike powers.  There are two ways of dealing with this issue, one Platonic, the other consisting of a mixture of information theory and hand-waving.  

The Platonic approach asserts that if something is genuinely incomprehensible, in the sense that no mind exists, or ever has existed, or ever will exist, that can comprehend it, then it has no reality.  This is not as stupid as it sounds.  It is actually quite reasonable to say that given that (as Wittgenstein said) we must remain silent of that of which we cannot speak, and that (as observed above) not only must we remain silent, but we must also remain ignorant of its very existence, then for all our purposes it might as well not be there.  For if it had any effect we could detect then it would enter within the realm of things comprehensible by us.  This is a rather neat idea, but it has one flaw: once again we have proved that the barrier exists by asserting that nothing on the other side of a barrier can exist.  Back to the drawing board.

The second possible approach is as follows.  Let us assert that all that is can be expressed as information.  This is one of the basic assertions of information theory, and it isn’t too much of a stretch to assume that, even though its form may change, the basic principles of information theory are true throughout the universe.  But now, all information can be expressed as a code of some sort, and therefore we could, with a certain amount of hand-waving, construct a language, not necessarily comprehensible to us, that encoded this information.  Therefore all that is is comprehensible in some language (which may, admittedly, be a language that no-one actually speaks).  This approach is full of holes, but I believe it has some promise.

3.1.4 Constructing a trans-barrier language

That was the argument for the existence of barriers: suggestive, but, at present, inconclusive.   There is another constructive argument, in that I will try to present a recipe for building a language that we cannot comprehend.  Now, this is somewhat abstruse, in that it involves concepts such as meta-grammar, and it doesn’t add much to the overall argument, so those of a nervous disposition can happily jump ahead to the next section.

I aim, in a thought experiment, to construct an incomprehensible language.  But didn’t I say that we can know nothing of the grammar of a language on the other side of an epistemic barrier?  Indeed I did, but I said nothing about meta-grammar, that is to say the rules that the specification of the grammar must satisfy, or the grammar of the grammar.  It is entirely possible that all languages could share a meta-grammar, for the relationship between meta-grammar and grammar is a one-way street.  We know how to go from meta-grammar to grammar (though we can generate only grammars that we can comprehend), but there is no reason to assume that we can deduce the presence of the meta-grammar from a sample of incomprehensible grammatical language.

Say I define a meta-grammar (how I would set about doing this, I am not entirely sure, but this is, after all, a thought experiment).  So now I take a computer and I write a program that, given a meta-grammar, will use random decisions to build a grammar based on that meta-grammar (if I want to be really clever, I can actually write a program to write the program, thus introducing randomness into the grammar generating program itself).  And then I can use another program to generate ‘text’ in a random language conforming to that random grammar.  And then the programs delete themselves and all files used in the generation of the language, leaving only a corpus of ‘text’ in the language.

What I get is an entirely artificial language, which has a non-denoting vocabulary (so words have meaning relative to one another, but no meaning outside of the language itself; this is not a problem: the same is true, after all, of the languages of formal logic or of computer languages).  However, as it has been thoroughly randomised, I will assert that I will be unable to grasp the principles on which it works.  For, to continue the thought experiment, there is no particular reason why it should even conform to our notion of words.  Surely, it will have semantic units, but (say) a communication may be encoded so that the nth symbol is the sum of the nth semantic unit and all preceding symbols (such a language would have the property noted above of not repeating even if the content repeats).

This argument is incomplete, but it is, I believe, highly suggestive, and indicates a fruitful area for possible future research. 

3.2 Can we find where one is?

I have produced a shaky but interesting line of argument that barriers do, indeed exist.  The next question, then, is can we ever see a barrier?  That is, can we ever tell the point of linguistic or conceptual development at which we will run into a barrier?  The simple answer is (again) no, but the reason why not is rather interesting.

In fact, what we’ll see is that epistemic barriers are very strange beasts.  They almost certainly exist, but it is entirely possible that their location depends on who it is that is talking.  Moreover, the are undetectable, being always infinitely far from us (so they, by their very nature, exist at the very bounds of knowledge), but we may, if we are very lucky, be able to make an educated guess about their existence.  In other words, in a suitable irony, the bounds of knowledge are themselves unknowable.

3.2.1 Epistemic barriers are not fixed objects

Think, for a moment, about the statement ‘some or all of one of the languages is inconceivable’ in my definition of an epistemic barrier between two languages.  What would it mean for part of a language to be conceivable by me and part not?  First of all, is it possible?  Well, we can imagine a hierarchically organised language, where each tier in the hierarchy extends the tier below and adds additional structure.   As a concrete example of this, consider the relationship between the specification of what a computer program should do, high-level programming code, low-level programming code and machine code.  So it is entirely conceivable that if we encountered such a language, we could comprehend the bottom tier(s) but not the upper ones.  So, yes, this is possible.

Having established that such a barrier can exist, what does it mean?  From my point of view, there is a barrier down the middle of the language, dividing the accessible and inaccessible parts.  But from the point of view of a speaker of that language there can be no such barrier: obviously they can comprehend all of their language, else it wouldn’t be their language.  So where I see a barrier, they see none, but they may see a barrier (say) somewhere down the middle of my language, or it may even be that I can comprehend some of their language but they can comprehend none of mind (and before you say that that sounds silly, that is precisely the situation with Finnish and Estonian: Finns can understand Estonian but Estonians cannot understand Finnish).  So the key point is that the location of epistemic barriers depends on where you are standing.

3.2.2 Epistemic barriers are invisible

Let me revisit the Platonic observation from the attempt at a proof of the existence of barriers.  I claimed that if some concept exists on the other side of an epistemic barrier from us, then we cannot know even that it exists.  This sounds rather mystical, but is quite simple.  If I am mentally unequipped to  handle the concept, then  I cannot conceive of it, so no I cannot know about it.  

But what if, say, I could not conceive of the whole concept, but there was some part, or fragment, that I could conceive of?  In that case, I could be aware of the concept to the extent that my mind could house it, but I would have no way of telling that (as it were) higher forces were at play.  As with the language with a barrier down the middle, I may see holes in the ideas or communications, as I understand them, but I have no way of telling whether those holes are genuine or are caused by my inability to process that which is beyond my comprehension.   

As epistemic barriers bound what is, for us, the totality of knowledge, there is no way of telling whether they exist, and we are locked in an epistemic bubble of our own making, or they do not exist, and we just happen to be privileged with the key to all knowledge.  That there is no way of distinguishing between these two possibilities is the reason why my attempt to prove that epistemic barriers did exist was so fraught with vagueness and complexity.  In other words, epistemic barriers are invisible.

There is a very neat real-life example of this phenomenon.  Quantum mechanics has wasted more ink in its short history than many disciplines.  One of the principal problems with it seems to be that some aspects of the theory can be more or less understood, using appropriate mathematical models, but other simply make no sense.  And the manifold problems with the theory as it stands (from Schroedinger’s cat all the way up to the grotesque nonsense of Feynman integrals) comes from an attempt to force something that is simply other into a human conceptual framework.  I therefore propose (without proof) that we are seeing indirect evidence of an epistemic barrier, in that we are making touch with a level of knowledge that is only partially comprehensible, and so we fill the gaps in our understanding with more or less baroque imaginings.

This suggests a possible way of detecting a barrier indirectly, rather like a black hole, by spotting its side-effects.  I will return to this below.

3.2.3 Epistemic barriers cannot be located

I can’t point and say ‘look, an epistemic barrier.’  But even if I can’t actually see the barrier, can I at least get some idea of when I am getting close to the bounds of the knowable?  Putting it like that, the answer is, as you should be expecting by now, no.

Imagine, for the moment, that I can describe the realm of ideas as some sort of map, so I stand on the middle of a plane, and as you move away from me, the points on the plane correspond to more and more complex ideas.  Now, given what I’ve already said, an epistemic barrier corresponds to a gap, where the plane is interrupted, and I have no idea whether things are resumed on the other side of the gap.  Can I tell how far away the gap is?

Okay, let’s say I can understand the ideas corresponding to some point on the plane.  Then it stands to reason that similar ideas should be comprehensible.  So if I walk a little way in any direction I am in no risk of falling into the chasm.  So what does this mean?  There are two possibilities: the plane goes on forever, or it has an edge but I can never reach it because the farther I get from my starting point, the harder it is to move away.  So in either case, there is no way in which I can get to the edge and peer over it.  Rather than stopping sharply, the plane corresponding to my conceptual realm will, as it were, peter out.

What this means is that, no matter how far I get in my journey, no matter how complex my language or concepts get, I have no way of telling whether I am going to bump into a barrier.  Because I can’t ever reach one, and no matter how close I might get, it always seems that I have plenty of space to explore.  So epistemic barriers are always infinitely far away.

3.3 Can any information flow across one?

Thus far I have concluded that epistemic barriers almost certainly exist, but they are rather elusive, being invisible and always infinitely far away.  For the purposes of this section, let’s say that one exists, and there is a whole treasure trove of information on the other side of it.  What I want to know is, just how much can I tell about what there is on the other side?

Now, obviously, this question is only meaningful in cases where we have languages that partially cross a barrier, so we can see part, but not all, of a concept.  In the case where no concept crosses the barrier, it must, almost by definition, remain totally opaque and, like a black hole, with which the analogy is very apposite, invisible.  And so, again, like a black-hole, we must look at cases where the mysterious something behind the barrier interacts, at least indirectly, with things that are within our conceptual realm.

This is where the example of quantum mechanics introduced above comes into its own.  Let us say that my proposal that there is an epistemic barrier preventing us from acquiring complete comprehension of the quantum realm is correct, but that some of the concepts are partially accessible.  So what happens?

Well, if we look at quantum mechanics, and especially quantum field theory, we get quite a clear picture.  Some parts of the theory are very well understood, so we can solve the Schroedinger equation for simple systems.  Moreover, we can make rather accurate predictions about many things, from the behaviour of transistors, to what happens when you smash particles together in a supercollider.  

But what we do not have is any sound conceptual understanding of how we make these predictions.  The problem with quantum field theory is not just that the mathematics it is based on is sloppy.  The problem is that the mathematics simply doesn’t work, to an extent that you can actually make the theory produce whatever result you want it to.  The theory is based on a plethora of assumptions that seem to have no logical basis in physics, mathematics or anything, but which are required in order to get the ‘right’ answers.

Now this baroque complexity is, to my mind, rather reminiscent of the Ptolemaic description of the solar system, with its cycles and epicycles.  In other words, it is an attempt to describe that which cannot be described within the existing conceptual framework.  So, just like the epicycles, it can predict the right results, but that is not surprising given the rather large amount of fine-tuning that has gone into building the theory in the first place.

This leads me to another analogy, which is, I think the crucial one.  We humans are programmed to recognise faces, as recognising other people is a key survival skill.  And as such, whenever we look at any random-ish pattern, be it clouds, wallpaper or a carpet, we see faces.  We find patterns that are not really there.  Looking back at the example of quantum mechanics, it is hard not to conclude that the same is happening.  We have a collection of concepts that we can understand around the edges, but where understanding tails off into random noise when we approach the barrier.  And so the baroque complexities of quantum field theory are simply the equivalent of faces in the clouds: imaginary patterns that we trace in the randomness to fill in the gaps in our understanding.  We think that they tell us about the universe, but in fact they tell us about ourselves.

And this, I believe, is what will happen when we look at an epistemic barrier.  We will not see a barrier, but rather gibberish in which, being the pattern-seeking creatures we are, we will find patterns.  But we can expect such patterns to be unsatisfactory, and insusceptible to any deep understanding, because at best they are attenuated shadows of the the unknowable, and at worst they are nothing more than random nonsense dressed up with the trappings of reason, and as such our belief in them will eventually (as seems, regrettably, to be the case with quantum field theory) become a matter more of theology than epistemology, and so to derive its strength from faith and not reason.  

Now that idea opens up a whole new, and very tempting possibility for philosophical exploration, that is to say, an examination of the epistemological location of the deity, but I believe that now is the time to bring this essay to an end.  We have seen that there are bounds on knowledge, but that those bounds are themselves unknowable, and moreover that though information may leak across the boundary, we will never be able to tell whether it is true air from another planet, or just images drawn on the clouds by our imaginations.

 

 

 

Tucson and the idea of the state

1 Introduction

 On 28 January 2000, Nigel Jones, Member of Parliament for Cheltenham, was holding one his regular surgeries (sessions where constituents could bring their problems to him) when a member of the public (who turned out to be mentally ill) attacked him with a samurai sword.  The attacker severely injured Mr Jones and killed a local councillor.  This was a tragedy for those involved and their friends and families, and created a nine-days wonder in the local press.  Nationally it caused scarcely a ripple; life continued just as before.

On 8 January 2011, representative Gabrielle Gifford was holding a similar event in Tucson, AZ, and was attacked by a member of the public (also alleged to be mentally ill) wielding a gun.  The attacker severely wounded Ms Gifford and thirteen others and killed six more individuals.  Again, this was a tragedy for those involved and their friends and families.  What is different is the reaction.  The United States seemed to enter into a collective emotional melt-down.

From an outsider’s perspective, the reaction to this event seems excessive.  In what is one of the most violent societies in the developed world, surely it should be expected that sooner or later someone would empty a magazine in the direction of an elected representative?  And yet, what is even more unusual is the rhetoric that has emerged in the days since the shooting.  If we set aside the political point-scoring, then there has been a striking common thread in what has been said by all involved, from President Obama down.  There has been a general agreement that this event is the collective responsibility of the whole American people, that it belongs to all of them, and that they must (in some undefined way) purge themselves so as to make the United States into a better place, where this kind of event cannot happen again.

This speaks of politics at a far deeper level than the recriminations as to whether Mrs Palin did or did not stoke up hatred, or which party Mr Loughner supported.  It speaks even at a level deeper than the (necessary) debate over gun ownership and treatment of the mentally ill.  It suggests a strongly collectivist conception of nationhood, an idea of political perfectibility that is crucial to the idea of American Exceptionalism, which claims that the United States is, or should be, unique and best among nations.  It is this idea that I wish to discuss. 

As a final point before I get going, I should point out that though this piece is highly critical of the current establishment of the United States (both in government and opposition) it should not be seen as anti-American.  Americans stand proud among the world’s artists, scientists and thinkers.  Rather, by analysing and attempting to understand that which makes the United States see itself as unique, and which seems to hold back its development as a nation, it should be seen as a small means of helping the great American nation to find its equilibrium and so play its proper part as a leader among nations (rather than as an exception differing from other nations).

2 Source material

I am now going to quote a certain amount of commentary on the attack.  It comes from the US media and, primarily and most importantly, President Obama’s speech in Tucson.  That speech is critical, not only because it sets out the mythic framework within which discussion of the event exists, but also because of the extraordinary reaction to it by the US media.   

I am aware that the media sources I have picked come from the left end of the spectrum.  I picked them because they said most succinctly what was inherent in all of that part of the reaction that was not concerned solely with political infighting.  However, it is critically important to note that reaction to President Obama’s speech was uniformly positive; for example Glenn Beck observed (somewhat obtusely) that Mr Obama truly became President by virtue of making it.  Thus, though commentators may have differed in detail, there was general approval of and agreement with Mr Obama’s words.

Therefore, I shall treat Mr Obama’s speech as the key source, using it to derive my thesis.  The commentary material is used to bring out specific points from the speech and to examine the shape of the larger partisan debate, going beyond gun control, campaign propaganda or Mrs Palin’s bizarre rhetoric, turning instead into a debate on the nature of the United States. 

I present the material as a series of numbered quotations without commentary: that will follow in the next section.   Italics are mine. 

2.1 President Obama’s speech

(1) As Scripture tells us:

There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
the holy place where the Most High dwells.
God is within her, she will not fall;
God will help her at break of day.

(2) On Saturday morning, Gabby, her staff, and many of her constituents gathered outside a supermarket to exercise their right to peaceful assembly and free speech. They were fulfilling a central tenet of the democracy envisioned by our founders – representatives of the people answering to their constituents, so as to carry their concerns to our nation’s capital. Gabby called it “Congress on Your Corner” – just an updated version of government of and by and for the people.  That is the quintessentially American scene that was shattered by a gunman’s bullets. And the six people who lost their lives on Saturday – they too represented what is best in America.

(3) The loss of these wonderful people should make every one of us strive to be better in our private lives – to be better friends and neighbors, co-workers and parents. [ . . . ] It should be because we want to live up to the example of public servants like John Roll and Gabby Giffords, who knew first and foremost that we are all Americans, and that we can question each other’s ideas without questioning each other’s love of country, and that our task, working together, is to constantly widen the circle of our concern so that we bequeath the American dream to future generations.

(4) I believe we can be better. Those who died here, those who saved lives here – they help me believe. We may not be able to stop all evil in the world, but I know that how we treat one another is entirely up to us.

(5) That’s what I believe, in part because that’s what a child like Christina Taylor Green believed. [ . . . ] I want us to live up to her expectations. I want our democracy to be as good as she imagined it. All of us – we should do everything we can to make sure this country lives up to our children’s expectations [ . . . ] And here on Earth, we place our hands over our hearts, and commit ourselves as Americans to forging a country that is forever worthy of her gentle, happy spirit.

2.2 Media commentary on the speech

First from the Huffington Post:

(6) Judging from most news coverage, it appears we’ve failed to recognize the impossibility of separating the killer from the rest of us. If we just blame Jared Lee Loughner, we’re committing what psychologists call an “attribution error”. That’s when an incident is blamed on the individual instead of the situation — or the system. 

(7) Arizona is a laboratory of today’s USA, it has a large population that mixes politics, race, poverty, wealth, urban and rural lifestyles. It is probably the state with the most potential to create a new American myth. Or destroy it. Will Arizona succeed or fail? More precisely, will America become a modern and prosperous democracy?

(8) At the present moment, we all live in Tucson. Our country is the Arizona of the world: scared, tense, armed and not communicating well. Can our system integrate the vast pressures pulling it apart? Can we be present and powerful in a different way in the world? Our challenge on the road from Tucson is not just wither America?… but whether America.

Now from Religion Dispatches: 

(9) In this sentiment, the president accentuates the best of an American idealistic tradition that acknowledges the existence of evil while maintaining hope that the nation can find the collective will to gain a higher moral ground and eradicate it.

(10) For Palin and others on the right, there is an acknowledgement of the losses in Tucson, but these events are just minor blips on the radar that requires only that we carry on believing in the inherit goodness of individual liberty. No doubt this rhetoric appeals to the conservative ethos of freedom and individual responsibility, but it is a rhetoric that lacks any sense that some collective response is required of us—some sense of repentance. Although many conservatives praised Obama’s Tucson speech for not associating the violence of Tucson with the contemporary political climate, they missed the ways Obama attempted to set a penitent tone, calling Americans to a higher level of moral accountability.

(11) Some commentators on the left might be taking the argument too far when they lay the blame for the shootings on the politics of conservatives like Sarah Palin. Yet the angry responses of the Palins, Glenn Becks, Mike Huckabees, and Rush Limbaughs after such a tragedy accentuate a divide that goes beyond any particular political perspective—they reflect a moral worldview that makes no room for collective culpability or a language of national repentance.

 3 The theocratic state

3.1 The President’s speech

3.1.1 Quote 1: the city on the hill

Quote (1) is clearly critical for two reasons.  First, because it is the only explicitly religious reference in the entire speech (not counting some cursory mentions of heaven and the final invocation of God’s blessing) and certainly mention of scripture.  Second, because if its context: it doesn’t have one.  In the text of the full speech, it appears out of nowhere, being unrelated to the preceding paragraph, and the next paragraph does not depend on it in any way.  Thus it stands apart as a significant statement of some truth, backed by the authority of scripture.

For ease of reference, here it is again: 

There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
the holy place where the Most High dwells.
God is within her, she will not fall;
God will help her at break of day.

Why would President Obama quote these particular verses, which affirm that the city of God will not fall, but will be helped by God?  The only conclusion, given the context whereby he is speaking at a ceremony commemorating what he has turned from a local to a national event, is that he is identifying not Tucson but the United States with the city of God, the dwelling place of the Most High.

That this could be said by the leader of a modern state, and with no significant voices raised in opposition, may seem strange.  Certainly all countries have their own millenialists (e.g. Blake with ‘Jerusalem’) but they are seldom so firmly in the mainstream.  And the mainstream is what this is, for we have just tapped into a rich vein of American mythology, the idea of the city on the hill, that America is a shining idea for humanity, in a sense the ideal state.  This American Exceptionalism (as it is known) runs throughout the speech and the media response and will be critical to my argument.

3.1.2 Quote 2 : mythologisation of the state

I included quote (2) mostly for its humorous qualities, but it does have something valuable to say.  Humorous, for what else can you say when an ostensibly educated man speaks of the ‘democracy envisioned by our founders’, when it is a matter of historical record that the Founding Fathers feared democracy, or that he should believe that a scene of rulers meeting the ruled is ‘quintessentially American’.  But in fact we can draw some critical points even from this.  

First, there is mythologisation: Mr Obama does not refer to the real Founding Fathers, who were, in essence, oligarchs, but the Founding Fathers of myth, who set out to create the greatest democracy on Earth.  The mere fact that he speaks of ‘our founders’ involves the mythologisation of complex politics into a quasi-magical founding event, like the crossing of the Jordan.  So the American state is given a mythical status, with appropriate foundation myth, and hence set apart from mere ordinary states, subject to the vagaries of history.  

Second, note the way that he takes what is a rather humdrum part of politics – the petitioning of ruler by ruled – and turns it too into myth.  Ms Gifford meeting her constituents, it is clear, is nothing so mundane as what happened when Mr Jones met his.  Mr Jones was just doing his job, while Ms Gifford is made to play a role in what almost feels like a sacred drama.  Once again, American  Exceptionalism comes into play: events that to non-Americans seem everyday, are in the the United States given an almost numinous quality.  

Hence we can recast the often rather infuriating American habit of claiming that the United States is best at this that and the other (consider, for example, then Senator Obama’s frankly bizarre claim that his story could have happened in no other nation on Earth) as being the sacralisation of history; it does not matter if the claims are made are not historically accurate, for they have the truth of myth.

3.1.3 Quote 3: the American dream

In quote 3, the crucial words are these:

our task, working together, is to constantly widen the circle of our concern so that we bequeath the American dream to future generations. 

The idea of a national task or destiny was relatively widespread in the nineteenth century (‘the civilising mission’) but has rather gone out of fashion on this side of the Atlantic, and it is rather surprising to hear the head of state of a major modern nation using it today.  But think about what it means.  It means that the nation is not the servant of the people.  Rather the people are servants of some some undefined master that has set them a task, and they will be held accountable (again, by whom it is not clear) if they do not deliver accordingly.  And it seems that the master is the state, created by its Founders with a specific goal in mind, that is for its people to work to create a ‘more perfect union’.

Now, setting aside its ahistorical aspects, this is, when considered dispassionately, quite a strange idea.  Apart from anything else, it implies a strong belief in the concept of progress, a strong attachment to the rightly derided Whig view of history as a constant and purposive progression from worse to better.  It also means that when anything bad (like, say the Tucson shootings) happens, then it cannot be dismissed as being simply an unfortunate event of the kind that are bound to happen even in the best run societies, because to say that would be to admit that there is no progress, there are just events.  So the bad event must itself be purposive, a result of a failing of the people in their mighty task, to which they must therefore be rededicated, suitably chastened. 

So what is the task?  It is the protection of an idea: the American dream.  Now I do not want to get drawn into a discussion of the American dream, as reams of print have poured over it with little enlightenment emerging.  I will note merely some key points.  First, the American dream is a concept that seems to be meaningful to all Americans and largely incomprehensible to everyone else, which we should take as suggestive.  Second, it is clearly not a thing, but an idea, an article of faith; one that somehow has power to grant to believers some ill-defined benefit (that this is not always positive is trenchantly pointed out in Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins).  And third, it is somehow up to the people of the United States to ensure that it remains intact, which means that it is not an ordinary idea.  Putting all of this together, it is clear that what we have is a sacred task: to preserve the faith and pass it on.  And if the people do this then good things will happen to them. 

3.1.4 Quotes 4 & 5: belief in perfectibility

In quote 4, President Obama says that he believes that the American people can be better.  Now what does that mean?  Better than what?  Measured how?  And by whom?  This is not just an espousal of the Whig view of history, this is an outright statement of faith in its central tenet of  purposive progress.   There is no room here for doubt, or for the possibility, say, that sometimes bad things just happen, because to accept that would be to deny the American dream.

Then in quote 5, he speaks of forging a worthy country.  Once again we see the imagery around progress, and the task of the American people to build this uniquely special state, one worthy of children, and worthy of the American Dream.  

Thus again, the American people are set apart.  Other peoples labour in service to an idea, so it is necessary to distinguish why the American idea is right, while (say) an Islamic theocracy, is not.  American exceptionalism comes to the rescue again: the American idea is the right idea simply because it is American, and America is not like unto other nations.  It is therefore not surprising that events mundane in the rest of the world have special significance in the United States, and the idea of America is held so high.  For if the United States is not the city on the hill, is not the shining example that all else wish to emulate, then this whole cult of the state will come crashing down.

3.2 Underpinnings of the President’s speech

3.2.1 The United States as theocracy

Let me say immediately the word that was held back throughout the last section.  What we clearly have here is a secular religion, with the President as high priest, and the deity being represented by the great idea that the people must serve.  We do not have to look very far for sacred texts either.  The extraordinary reverence with which Americans treat their Constitution is always very noteworthy.  

Consider, for the example, the debate (if such it can be called) over gun control in the United States.  Sooner or later (generally much sooner) it comes down to this: person A makes the case for gun control, person B cites the Second Amendment and then person A either plays word games with the Amendment’s text (which, though they may be valid, is not a winning strategy) or gives up discomfited.  It never seems to occur to person A to make the riposte that perhaps the Founding Fathers got it wrong.  And yet that is such an obvious thing to say, or rather it is if you have not been indoctrinated to see the Founding Fathers as eternally wise guardians of truth and liberty, and the constitution as not an instrument of the state but as a perfect blueprint for the perfect state (apart from the bits about slavery, of course).  

This is not a normal attitude to constitutional law, but it is the normal attitude to scripture.  Realising this, so much makes sense.  The refusal to accept that the Second Amendment no longer works comes from viewing it as holy writ, rather than simply as a law which is hence infinitely malleable.  Similarly, the regular impasse over whether to legislate on such and such or so and so could easily be circumvented if only it were possible to accept that laws founding a small, predominantly agrarian and static society may no longer work for a huge, increasingly post-industrial and highly dynamic society.  Or if legislators could bring themselves to accept that gridlock is endemic not because their opponents are bad, but precisely because the Founding Fathers deliberately designed it into the Constitution in a bid to prevent change.  For that would require accepting that the Founding Fathers were men with their own political agenda (to ensure their own hegemony) and not demigods serving a higher purpose. 

3.2.2 The nature of the theocracy

In fact we can say more about the theocratic regime I have just described.  It is a very specific form of theocracy: that is to say, it follows the form of scriptural Judaism.  A group of people (usually the children of Jacob, here the people of the United States) are set apart from the rest of humanity by virtue of their being chosen as worthy of the beneficence of a god (usually JHVH, here the idea of the American Dream).  A group of mighty culture heroes (usually Moses and the early prophets, here the Founding Fathers) create the law (usually the Torah, here the Constitution) that the people must obey in order to continue to be smiled on by the god.  They are told that other peoples are lesser than them, and the world is theirs to exploit, but that they must keep the law.  And there is a covenant: so long as they keep the law, the god will give them good things, but so soon as any one of them breaks the law, then the wrath of the god shall be visited on (crucially) the whole people.  When this happens, what is required is an act of collective penance, and reaffirmation of the law.

If we look at the narrative of the historical books of Scripture, we see this pattern over and again.  The people of Judah or Israel do bad things in the eyes of the Lord (usually by worshipping foreign gods, which perhaps have as their analogue ‘un-American’ ideas), generally under the rule of a bad king.  Then the king is deposed, a good ruler appears, leads the people in penance and a return to primitive values, and the Lord’s blessing is restored.

Looking at the American model, and specifically at the events at Tucson, the parallel is disturbingly clear.  We clearly have the idea of the United States as different, set apart, special, better, a land in which concepts that work perfectly well in the rest of the world simply do not apply (e.g. the observation that more guns make more murders) or cannot possibly work (e.g. comprehensive tax-fuelled health-care).  In fact, they cannot work in the United States precisely because they do work so well in the rest of the world, for that marks them out as being un-American (just as anything non-Jacobite peoples did was bad in the eyes of the Lord and should be shunned).

And now, in Tucson we have an event that is clearly incompatible with the American Dream, which  obviously doesn’t involve guns bought over the counter from actually being used to, well, kill people.  And, exactly as we would expect, given the Scriptural analogy, the reaction was incomprehension followed by a national collapse.  The extraordinary national reaction to what should have been just a tragic local event follows because it cannot, within the Scriptural analogy, be seen as a random bad event, a sign that we live in an imperfect universe.  To accept that would be to deny the ultimate perfection of the universe, and hence deny the god / American Dream, which is unthinkable.  The shooting had to be of significance: it was a sign that the god had turned on the people, and that the people as a whole were being punished for some infraction of the law.

And so the people sinned and must make penance.  Now, this is what the right had been saying for some time (e.g. the touchingly naive claim that Obamacare is socialist, and hence un-American), and from them we heard the call for a return to the virtue of strict adherence to the Constitution (except for the bits about slavery).  This is little different from the perpetual plaint of the Prophets that children of Jacob must turn again to the Lord.   President Obama obviously had to make the case that he was the true prophet, and very cannily, in language reminiscent of a preacher, he, as we have seen above, recounted the founding myth of the United States and made a case that by following him in an act of mass repentance, the people could regain the blessing of the American Dream. 

So, the narrative underlying the Tucson shooting is that of a chosen people who see in a bad event the sign that the blessing of the idea they follow has been withdrawn, and who are seeking a way to regain it.  The centre and the right may disagree on what constitutes the best way forward (President Obama’s agenda of masterful inaction or the right’s constitutional fundamentalism), but they clearly agree on the covenantual American myth, and the need to renew the covenant through a collective act of the American people.

3.2.3 Implications of the model

It’s instructive to look at implications of the model of covenantual theocracy, to see if they match with what we know of the United States, both as a test for the theory, and as a way of explicating aspects of American culture that may seem baffling to outsiders.

Consider the mythologisation of virtually every aspect of American life, and the urge to ritualise everyday events.  For example, sporting events acquire a whole penumbra that makes no sense whatever if they are viewed just as sporting events, but which makes a lot of sense if they are instead to be seen as ritual actions.  So whereas in the rest of the world, on the whole teams are content to get on with playing the game, in the United States the players are only part of the team: there are the mascots and the cheer-leaders, and they have by now become an integral part of the event itself.  Sport, is, of course not the only ritualised aspect of society.  So apparently ordinary an event as the spring vacation has acquired a special cultural status and the life of a student consists of negotiating a succession of rites which are hallowed because, well because they are.

This makes perfect sense in terms of the model.  If a people is sacred, then all its acts must have significance, and its collective activities are essentially religious rites.  Also now explicable is the idealisation of certain aspects of American social history.  So we have the recurrent cultural image of the small town and Main Street, where everyone knows everyone else and no-one has any ambition for change.  This is one aspect of the curious strand of anti-modernism inherent in much American thinking, and most clearly expressed by Thoreau, which leads to another archetype: the self-supporting yeoman farmer, an ideal going back to Jefferson which is extremely important to the modern right.  

These archetypal ideals make no sense if the United States is an ordinary culture: they root it in an unreal past which can only hinder any attempt to accommodate to current reality.  However, in terms of the covenantual theocracy they are easily comprehensible.  Just as the inhabitants of Israel and Judah looked back to mythical times when things were better and the Lord smiled on them, the people of the United States mythologise the ideal society in which the American Dream is achieved.  Thus being anchored in the mythic past is precisely what is desired, and accommodation to current reality is shunned, as that would entail accepting that the law is other than perfect. There is even a clear parallel between the myth of the stout yeoman, who lives at peace with his neighbour and is unbeholden to government, and the myth of the time of the Judges, when Israel and Judah had no monarchy and the people lived in harmony. 

This line of thought chimes with a long-standing theme in American political culture which asserts that the state essentially has no business getting involved in the lives of individuals.  It firmly rejects the notion that the State acts as guarantor of their right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, seeing these rights as inherent in the individual, and seeing it as the individual’s duty to protect them.  As I said above, this idea enters American political discourse at the very outset of the Republic, with Jefferson’s vision of the yeoman farmer, and it continues to this day, as motivation for those groups that believe that the United States government is illegitimate, and has entered mainstream political discourse: an oft-cited justification for gun ownership is for protection of the individual from the overweening power of the state;  similarly, one argument put forward as to why universal free health-care is a bad thing is that it infringes the individual’s liberties.  

All this means that the state is seen as a bad thing, as it stands between the individual and the realisation of their rights as guaranteed by the Constitution.  And this is exactly paralleled by the attitude to the state found in the books of Judges and Samuel: the state takes upon itself the role of leadership that is the Lord’s alone, and so it is illegitimate (until the Lord specifically says otherwise); hence the divine anger at Saul.  The analogy extends even to the belief that individuals should protect themselves rather than rely on the state (police-forces or armies) to do so.  So once more there is an exact parallel between one of the (many) mystifying features of American culture and the scriptural theocracy, with JHVH replaced by the nebulous ‘American Way’, and the Constitution as the Law.  This renders any man-made law an abomination, for divine law – in the form of the Constitution – is the sole law, and human law-making is encroachment onto the prerogative of the divine, as expressed through the Founding Fathers / prophets.

Thus we see one of the deep paradoxes at the heart of American culture (and indeed, Biblical Judaism): a culture that emphasises the role of the collective, in that crimes against the law lead to collective retribution and require collective penance, and which emphasises that the people as a collective are set apart, also emphasises that any attempt by the people to define their own collective structures is trespass upon the prerogatives of the divine (and will itself be punished).  So the theocratic culture is at once deeply conformist (one must obey the law in all things) and strongly anti-statist.  In the case of the United States this paradox is only deepened by the fact that the role of the divine is filled by the American Dream, which is not a dream of social harmony, but one of individual fulfillment.   And so, just as the Old Testament praises those heroes who took the law into their own hands in defence of Israel and Judah, as we shall see below,  American society has always contained self-empowering defenders of the law, from the rough justice of the old West to the anti-statist terrorists of today.

Moving on,  American society’s deep-seated xenophobia coupled with the urge to say, as regards any topic, that the United States did it first, does it best, is better than the rest of the world and so on and so forth (even, indeed, especially when it is not true) is quite mysterious if the United States is viewed as a normal modern state.  But if it is a sacralised theocracy everything changes.  Foreigners then become not just other people, but those who deny the truth of the law and god.  And clearly no unbeliever can do anything better than the anointed people; in fact it is impossible that they could. 

This mind-set is set out clearly in the Old Testament, and is found in theocracies around the world today.  So it is not surprising that we have on our hands a state even whose most liberal thinkers seem unable to conceive of the fact that international law applies to them too.  Indeed, the universal horror at the idea of American soldiers being tried for war-crimes in a foreign court becomes much easier to understand within this context: for how can those who are doing the work of the god be held to account by the god’s enemies?  Similarly, there can be little benefit from working with foreigners, as is seen, depressingly clearly, in the pay-off phrase of President Obama’s recent State of the Union Address: ‘We need to out-innovate, out-educate, and out-build the world.’  Obviously the idea of mutually beneficial co-operation is unthinkable: what can unbelievers have of value to offer to the chosen people?  And equally obvious,  America must be first or nothing, for to not be first would mean that the favour of the god has been withdrawn. 

Which leads on to the most unpalatable consequence of the model.  Any act undertaken by one of the chosen people in the name of the god is justified if it serves the god’s purpose.  Thus the Old Testament repeatedly tells of atrocities committed by the children of Jacob as a whole or by individuals which, had they been committed by foreigners, would have been considered abominable.  And, very regrettably, we see only too clearly in the modern world, evidence of the belief that anything that an American does in defence of the American way of life is considered acceptable.  Thus indefinite internment without trial is acceptable if the individual interned is foreign (Guantanamo detainees) or has made himself an outcast (Bradley Manning).  

And, most pathological of all, the actions of Jared Loughner, the Tucson shooter, most if not all of those who have attempted or succeeded in political murder in the United States, and terrorists like Timothy McVeigh and the Unabomber, are based in precisely this belief coupled with the radical anti-statist strand of American thought noted above.  The state has rendered itself outcast by passing laws contrary to god’s law, and following false gods, and so it is the individual’s right and duty to strike against it.  Thus the myth of the upstanding individual and group casuistry result in the American polity devouring itself.

3.3 Reaction to the President’s speech

Looking at the reaction to President Obama’s speech from the left, we see that it conforms absolutely to the theocratic model.

3.3.1 Quotes 6, 7 and 8: collective penance

Quote 6 deserves to be reproduced again in full: 

Judging from most news coverage, it appears we’ve failed to recognize the impossibility of separating the killer from the rest of us. If we just blame Jared Lee Loughner, we’re committing what psychologists call an “attribution error”. That’s when an incident is blamed on the individual instead of the situation — or the system.

This can be read in several ways.  Surely, Loughner was influenced by the commons of ideas within which he existed, and, whatever the NRA may say to the contrary, such crimes as his would be much harder to commit if firearms were not so readily available.  And yet to deny him individual responsibility for the act, to (as this author seems to) ignore the fact that he suffers from severe mental illness and had of his own free will entered into that nexus of ideas that forms the extreme anti-statist part of American culture, is to convert him from a human being into an empty vessel into which one can pour ones own obsessions and beliefs about what is wrong with America.  In other words, it is to do to him precisely what he did to Ms Gifford. 

But we can read more from this quote, for its author clearly wants us to accept that guilt for Loughner’s act belongs to each and every American, and that ‘the system’ is responsible.  This is precisely covenantual thinking.  ‘The system’, which I take the author to be the state of affairs in the American polity today, and the people have sinned in deviating from the way things should be in America, and Loughner’s crime and the dead innocents are the punishment of heaven for this deviation.  And so America must do penance, reform and return to the true path.  

Quotes 7 and 8 make this quite clear: quote 7 says ‘More precisely, will America become a modern and prosperous democracy?’ and quote 8 says ‘Our challenge on the road from Tucson is not just wither America?… but whether America.’  In both cases the survival of the Republic as a whole is linked to a proper response to Tucson, and this precisely parallels the way that the Lord allows Judah and Israel to fall because they have turned from him, and only allows the restoration after a suitable period of penance. 

So, there is clear evidence here for a theocratic narrative.  It is the only way of making sense of what must otherwise seem wildly hyperbolic reactions to what, in a nation where there are tens or murders every day, was not a particularly unusual crime.  For to link the future of the republic to this shooting seems a gross over-reaction.  Unless, that is, it is seen not as the product of a deranged mind, but as a sign of divine anger.

3.3.2 Quote 9: the higher moral purpose

Quote 9 more or less spells out my thesis for us:  ‘the president accentuates the best of an American idealistic tradition that acknowledges the existence of evil while maintaining hope that the nation can find the collective will to gain a higher moral ground and eradicate it’.  If the nation acts properly as a collective then it can overcome evil.  This is simply extraordinary; this is no mere denial of theodicy, it is the assertion almost that it is America’s destiny to conquer sin.  And this gives an important pointer to the next stage in my argument: such a sentiment can only emerge from a world-view that believes that we humans are perfectible, that evil is not inherent in human nature, but rather an expungable stain upon it.

But for now the more interesting, and worrying, part of this statement is that relating to gaining the higher moral ground.  As we note above, the belief by many Americans that they do inhabit the higher moral ground, simply by virtue of being American, and that their higher morality does not need to coincide with non-American definitions, has led to more than one abomination.   We are not told what the higher moral ground consists of, or whether it involves Americans limiting their actions so that they will be moral.  Rather it seems that an act of collective will makes open a space where America is morally higher by default, and that anything Americans may do must conform to this higher morality.   We are back with group casuistry,  which maps precisely onto the Old Testament model.

3.3.3 Quotes 10 & 11: more collective penance

We now return to collective penance, but with a twist.  Quote 10 starts off by saying that ‘No doubt this rhetoric appeals to the conservative ethos of freedom and individual responsibility, but it is a rhetoric that lacks any sense that some collective response is required of us’.  This is interesting, because it shows an example in action of the tension I noted above between the individualist and collectivist sides of the American coin, which are falsely labelled ‘right’ and ‘left’, when in fact both are clearly extremely conservative, merely differing in what they consider to be the correct way of returning to primal purity.  Again, this is a key pointer to the next stage in the argument.

The quote continues: ‘they missed the ways Obama attempted to set a penitent tone, calling Americans to a higher level of moral accountability.’  And once again we get the mystifying assumption that all Americans should be held accountable for the actions of one individual.  Or rather, mystifying unless understood within the model of the theocratic state.  The people have sinned (presumably this writer would say by placing too much emphasis on ‘freedom and individual responsibility’) and have been punished, and now all must do penance.

Note, parenthetically, how extraordinary it is to find a commentator writing in what likes to believe itself to be the freest nation on Earth, where liberty is a prime virtue, and criticising an ethos of freedom and individual responsibility as if it is a bad thing.  But even here the theocratic model is of help: in the Old Testament it is repeatedly made clear that the children of Jacob are free only in so far as they do the Lord’s will, and there is repeated imagery which rams home the fact that the Lord takes responsibility: his people’s role is simply to passively do his bidding.

And finally, in quote 11 our author condemns the ‘right’ in what he seems to think are the strongest possible terms:  ‘they reflect a moral worldview that makes no room for collective culpability or a language of national repentance.’  Such a worldview would, of course, run counter to the entire theocratic enterprise.

3.4 Conclusion 

So, the conclusion from all this is that many of the features of American culture that make little or no sense to outsiders (especially the mystery that is the American Dream) make no sense because we are looking at the United States through the wrong conceptual scheme.  Viewed as a modern, open society, the United States is strange, even pathological, but when viewed as a secular recreation of the Old Testament theocracy, where every action becomes sacred and is therefore made into myth, it becomes explicable.  Clearly other nations should bear this in mind when dealing with the United States, for otherwise only confusion can result.

4 Ideas of the state

4.1 Introduction

Now, I am fairly certain that it was not the intention of the Founding Fathers to create a theocracy with a secular state religion.  However, it is clear that whatever was their intention, it provided a seed-bed in which theocracy could grow very successfully.  And it to the nature of this seed-bed that I want to turn next, for it turns out that some aspects of the theocracy do derive directly from the founders’ intentions (e.g. Jeffersonian anti-statist individualism) while others were enabled by them.  

In this section I therefore re-examine the theocracy by considering what kind of ideas about the nature of society had to be current in order for it to come into being and thrive as it has.  The conclusion highlights two very different models for society based on different views of human nature: the American or ‘optimistic’ model results in a collectivist illiberal state, while the European or ‘pessimistic’ model results in a communitarian liberal state; the separation seemingly arises out of very different conclusions drawn at the end of the second world war 

I should add a disclaimer at this point.  I personally espouse the pessimistic view and the concept of the liberal state, and as such I find it hard to be dispassionate when comparing and contrasting it with the optimistic model.  However, with this bias understood, and the reader forewarned, we can proceed to the analysis.

4.2 The United States and Rousseau’s natural man

4.2.1 Optimism in political philosophy

Let me start by making it clear that in the context of this discussion, ‘optimism’ does not have its normal informal meaning of having a generally positive outlook on life.  Rather, it is a specific technical term defining a particular school of moral and political philosophy, which believes that the tendency to commit bad acts is not inherent in human nature, but is rather a consequence of the perversion of our naturally good nature by the unnatural strictures imposed upon us by society.

Optimism is most commonly associated with Rousseau, who is perhaps its most notable proponent, but, as we shall see, it stretches back to antiquity.  Let me recount the basic thesis.  The theory sets up a basic antinomy between the good, which is natural, versus the bad, which is unnatural.  These implications are equivalences, so not only are bad things contrary to nature, but anything contrary to nature is bad, while good things are natural and all natural things are good. 

At first sight this merely looks like anti-modernist, if somewhat naive, conservatism, but now consider the status of humanity within this model.   People are, of their nature, natural things.  And thus, according to the model, should be naturally good.  This is manifestly untrue.  Rousseau solved this problem with his key insight: the theory of the natural man.  According to this, humans are naturally good, but the culture of existing societies is corrupt, and so corrupts that natural goodness.  Which leads to the interesting question of how corrupted societies could have come about as a result of the actions of naturally good humans.  The answer appears to be that for some reason or other, people were tempted to start to behave in an unnatural way, and so, because the unnatural is bad, were themselves corrupted, and then subsequent generations were corrupted by being born into an already corrupt society.

Therefore, Rousseau advocated overturning the established order and reverting to the state of the ‘noble savage’, where humanity’s natural goodness would once more come to the fore.  The political impact of this is epitomised by the famous statement ‘man was born free, and he is everywhere in chains.’  Humanity must return to primal freedom.  So, rather than a complex state, there should be a collection of free individuals.

This is where Rousseau runs into problems.  If the individuals are all free of any unnatural constraint, which means, amongst other things, free of law, then as they have free will, what is to prevent them from running riot?  Two answers to this have been given.  First, that the natural man has no inclination to do bad things.  But if that were so, how did corrupt, unnatural societies come to be in the first place?  Second that the individual is subjugated to the collective, in that the individual is free to do only that which the collective permits.  So there is no law, but there is a means of collective social control, and only by submitting to the collective will can people become truly free.

That this theory is singularly naive and bears no relationship to the world as we know it should be self-evident (it is hard to view the manifestly natural behaviour of our closest relatives as being very different from that of modern humans, which is, according to Rousseau, bad).  Two other points worth noting are as follows.  First, the ostensibly godless Rousseau has, in his theory of the natural man, simply recounted the Biblical narrative of the Fall.  Second, the paradoxical celebration of the individual’s freedom, coupled with that individual’s subjugation to the collective will is almost the defining feature of fascist regimes from Sparta to the twentieth century dictatorships and today’s pseudo-Islamic extremist hegemonism.

4.2.2 Optimism in the United States

Looking at this theory in the light of our discussion of the United States, it should come as no surprise that Rousseau was a major influence on the Founding Fathers.  The Jeffersonian yeoman farmer model clearly derives from Rousseau’s natural man, who makes his own law.  And we see in the theory precisely the tension we saw in American society between Jeffersonian individualism and collectivism.  Even the anti-modernism chimes with the idealisation of an unreal past that we have noted.

Thus it is clear that the United States is founded on a basis of an optimistic view of human nature.  This is, indeed, probably a necessary precondition for the theocratic state, for if the people were not naturally good, there could be no millenial hope of perfectability, and they would not obviously be set apart from the corrupted other.  Indeed, it is probably not surprising that it is particularly in the United States that we see evolutionary biologists who seriously claim that homo sapiens alone among species has no biologically determined aspect to its behaviour (for if it did, then that would imply first that the species is not perfectible, and second that its members are not naturally good). 

4.2.3 Other political optimists

What is surprising, and rather amusing, is to consider which other political groups espouse a similar optimistic philosophy.  The first, and most obvious, case is communists.  Rousseau’s influence on Marx is manifest, and the ideas of perfectibility and that the natural human is a tabula rasa are common in communist thought, as also is the paradox of promising individual rights while subordinating them to an all-powerful state.  The other group is the pseudo-Islamic extremists.  In classical Islam, jihad is waged based on a consensual decision of the members of the polity; the extremists replaced this communitarian approach with a Jeffersonian one: the individual has the right to decide for themselves what jihad should be waged, and then to do it.  Moreover, the lifecycle of an extremist (self-radicalise via Internet, break with conventional society, commit acts of terror) is startlingly similar whether they be pseudo-Islamists or home-grown American terrorists.  

Thus it seems that the very groups that successive American leaders have labelled the greatest threat to the American way of life (note: it is not the American polity that is at risk,  but a model for how to live) are precisely those with which America has most in common.  This is probably not surprising.

4.3 The alternative

4.3.1 Hobbesian pessimism 

Thomas Hobbes, the crucial modern pessimistic political philosopher, has received something of a bad press, largely because people like to think of themselves as being Rousseau’s naturally good individuals, and so like to formulate political and social opinions based on ideal cases, and so dislike the reminder that in reality ideal cases scarcely ever happen, and that it is better to be prepared for the worst than to be caught napping when the bad happens.  However, his philosophy is hugely important for, as I shall show, it is the basis of the modern liberal open society.  It is, as I have said in the introduction, an amusing apparent paradox that an optimistic view of human nature leads to fascism, while a pessimistic view leads to liberalism.

The basic difference between Rousseau and Hobbes is that Hobbes has no truck with the idea of the innate goodness of humankind.  He insists that we are all imperfect beings, largely motivated by self-interest, and that people doing bad things to one another is something inherent in human nature.  So for Hobbes there is such a thing as human nature, there is not the optimist’s blank slate.  This view is, of course, much more in accord with reality than the noble savage theory.  Again, our closest relatives have all of our foibles and readily commit violence, rape, murder and even (it seems) war.

The next observation is this.  Societies exist because people can co-operate to their mutual benefit.  That is obvious, but note mutual benefit: here we have no idea of action out of pure goodness.  But now, as soon as we have societies then there is the possibility for individuals to exploit others; they take but not give.  Exploitation is clearly beneficial to the exploiter, so there is an incentive to exploit, and so exploitation will spread until either the society becomes unstable and collapses (because a huge superstructure is dependent on exploitation of a tiny foundation) or else warfare breaks out.  Either way, an unregulated society will collapse into chaos, which negates the point of forming a society.

So, society must be regulated in order to maintain stability, which means that exploitative behaviours must be prevented.  But note an absolutely critical point, which underpins the distinction of this model from the optimistic model.  The purpose here is not to dictate what is good; it is to prevent that which inhibits people from making best use of their abilities for mutual benefit.  So whereas the optimist says: ‘People are inherently good, therefore the collective can determine that which is good and then everyone should follow that diktat’, the pessimist says: ‘People are inherently selfish, therefore to prevent selfishness from causing catastrophe we will limit specific selfish behaviours’.  The optimist defines a goal and then dictates that all must work towards it; the pessimist limits negative behaviours, but leaves individuals free to find their own goals. 

So we have the central paradox.  The optimist claims to speak for the individual noble savage, but shackles that individual to a collective agenda.  The pessimist speaks of the benefit of society, but leaves the individual free to act, so long as they do not exploit others.  Bluntly: the optimist is a fascist; the pessimist is a liberal.

4.3.2 Pessimistic states

What defines an open society has been clearly set out by Popper and Hayek.  There are four key points.  First, there is a clear and strictly-defined system of law which the state abides by, so any individual can tell in advance whether any proposed act is legal or extra-legal, and whether or not they risk state intervention.  This does not mean that the laws have to be ‘nice’ or ‘moderate’.  All that matters is that the individual knows that if they do not commit any explicitly outlawed act, then the state will have no interest in them.  Second, the system of law must be deterministic.  That is, two individuals accused of the same infraction will have the same standards of proof applied in the determination of guilt, and, if found guilty, will incur the same penalty.  The law does not care who you are, it cannot be bought off, and it cannot be swayed by external considerations.  Again, this does not mean that the justice system has to be particularly ‘liberal’, merely that it is impartial and not subject to political interference.  Third, outside of acts specifically outlawed by the system of law, the state has no interest in an individual’s actions.  That is, any act that is not illegal is permitted.  There is no concept of a ‘greater good’, or of a model of behaviour to which individuals should aspire.  Fourth, and most important of all, the state is held accountable for its compliance with the first three points.

Looking at the definition, it is clear that an open society is pessimistic.  A succinct way of expressing the fundamental principle underlying the pessimistic theory is that the state exists as a means to protect people from one another.  So, it is accepted that bad behaviour is inevitable, and that the state should intervene to limit certain disruptive behaviours.  and so it is determined which behaviours are injurious to the stability of society, these becoming the subject of the judicial system.  But now, as the state is concerned solely with maintaining social stability, once this list of injurious behaviours has been determined, any action not on the list has been deemed  uninjurious, and so is of no interest to the state.  As the purpose of any justice system is purely to maintain the stability of society, rather than to serve a higher goal, there is no purpose to it being anything other than deterministic, for there is no value in treating A differently to B when what concerns one is not the purity of an ideal, but the injurious act that (it is claimed) was committed.  And finally, the principle that the state must be held accountable follows automatically once one applies pessimism to the state itself: its behaviour must be limited just as must that of individuals. 

Now, I have observed that it is not the laws themselves that matter, but rather the way they are applied.  The same is true of the mode of government, for, contrary to common myth, there is no law of nature that states that in order to be liberal a society must be a democracy.  It is, after all, arguable that Rome was at its most liberal, in the sense of respecting the right of the individual to self-determination within the law, under the imperiates of Augustus and Vespasian; certainly the Republic was very close to being a closed society: indeed, one of the main charges made against Caesar by the likes of Cato was that he was ambitious!  On the other hand, the Athenian Republic, though in fact a democracy of a very pure kind, was the state which invented ostracism, which subjected ‘decent’ women to a regime equalling that of the Taleban in severity (though, strangely, allowing considerable freedom to prostitutes and hetaira), and which judicially murdered Socrates for corrupting youth and impiety – both crimes that can only exist in a society where that which is good has been defined. 

4.3.3 The United States as a closed society

Consider the United States as measured against the four principles defining an open society.  First, the system of laws is reasonably well codified, but in some places is now so complex that it is hard to determine what is lawful and what is not.   Second, the judicial system is notoriously non-deterministic, given (a) the undue preponderance of poor, black men in the prison population, (b) the system’s unusual habit of judicially murdering people for crimes that it has been proven they did not commit, (c) the clearly documented fact that money and influence talk, (d) whether something is or is not a crime, and what sentence will be applied if one is found guilty can vary depending on where one is tried (to the extent that prosecutors shop around for locations to hold a trial, so as to gain the maximum punishment), and (e) the lack of sub judice laws, which effectively allows cases to be pre-judged.  Third, indeterminate detention without charge means that the state can deprive an individual of liberty without having to give a reason.  Moreover, many ‘national security’ measures have the effect of reversing the presumption of innocence.  Thus the state can intervene whenever it wishes, and does not need to account for itself when it does so.  Finally, the system is (as we have just observed) unaccountable.  In one particularly interesting case, a group of convictions were called into question when it was discovered that they all derived from the work of one police officer, who stood accused of entrapment and falsification of evidence.  One or two of those imprisoned have been released, but there has been no general review of the convictions, and the individual in question still works in law-enforcement.  The United States is not an open society.

Looking at the world today, the pessimistic open society is most clearly realised in modern Europe (excluding, of course, Russia, and with the proviso that the Code Napoleon has optimistic tendencies), Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, India, Japan and South Korea, and it is the basic model for much of  South America and parts of Africa.  This range of examples shows quite clearly that open societies can cover quite a range of social models.  This is not, of course, to say that the open society is realised perfectly in any of those societies; however it is clear that the intention is for society to enable the individual rather than constrain them, so, in as far as an open society can be said to have aspirations, their aspiration is to become more open.  On the other hand, the bastions of the closed society are (former) communist states, Middle Eastern dictatorships (though that is changing) and the United States of America: all states which (to a greater or lesser extent) have a theocratic myth.

4.4 Optimisim and pessimism as systems 

It is safe to say that in Western Europe the second world war killed political optimism.  The abominations committed by the Third Reich stem from the fact that it too was an optimistic, secular theocracy, which set the ‘aryan’ people above all others and worshipped ‘racial purity’ as its god.  Indeed, the horrors of the Holocaust can be seen almost as a grotesque, modernistic rewriting of the early parts of the book of Joshua.  Thus, before the war there may have been talk of ‘manifest destiny’ and ‘the white man’s burden’, but that was all put to a very firm end as one of the many lessons learned from the war.

Strangely, this lesson was not learned in the United States.  It seems that there the lesson was seen as being that the horrors had happened because Europe was priest-ridden, king-ridden, class-ridden, undemocratic and basically un-American.  Thus, America could never suffer from its own horror, because it, by virtue of its ideal society, was set apart.  In other words, the myth of American Exceptionalism led to the belief that the United States was somehow inoculated against fascism, which in turn strengthened the Exceptionalist myth, as one does not react to the prevalence of a disease by reducing the dose of the antidote.

The theocratic exceptionalist myth is self-reinforcing.  The pessimistic world-view can accommodate bad events because it is predicated on their possible occurrence, so they are accepted as just something that happens and have little long-term effect.  However, in the optimist’s world such events should not occur, and so when they do there must be a cause or reason.  And as the only available reason is failure to properly serve the collective good (the god of the theocratic state), the only possible reaction is to redouble efforts at serving that good.  Now, optimism has no basis in reality, and so bad events will continue to occur, and each time the optimistic society will become that bit more extreme.  This means that the pessimist’s response to any crisis of trying to find a workable solution is impossible, as technocratic solutions constitute by their nature a denial of the notion of a right path.  And so the centre-ground is abandoned as factions move to greater and greater extremes. 

This is absolutely what we see in the United States today, with extremism on both ‘left’ and ‘right’, and any attempt at centrist compromise lambasted from both sides as a betrayal.  And so, in the end, all that America’s leaders can offer to their people is hope.  And that is the last thing any society needs, for hope, a promise, a dream, breeds only disappointment, dissatisfaction and despair.