Monday, August 08, 2005

Links and Musings

* An interesting article on the politics of stem cell research. I'm glad that they did make some effort to point out why Germany has such restrictive regulations on this sort of research, even if only in a throw-away sentence. It seems to me that here are, in fact, good social reasons for Germany to be very cautious about any research in this direction, whatever the potential benefits, and whatever anyone else may be doing.

* Terence Penelhum has an interesting essay on Hume and paranormal research, in which he suggests, rather intriguingly, that Hume's reasoning, even if sound, can't be used against parapsychology. I'm not so sure; but then, Hume's reasoning is difficult to pin down, and no two people have quite the same view about what it is. It's an interesting application of the essay on miracles. I'm not sure it's been applied that way before (perhaps Price or Broad say something somewhere?). Worth thinking about.

* Philosopher's Carnival is up at "Tiberius and Gaius Speaking." There's a great selection this time around.

* A good post by Stephen Carlson at "Hypotyposeis" on what to start out with if you're thinking of building a library on the historical Jesus and Paul. See also Mark Goodacre's related post at "NT Gateway Weblog".

* In Shylock's Rhinoplasty at "The Rhine River" raises the question of the role of the body in Jewish Studies.

* The Human Adaptation for Culture (PDF) by Michael Tomasello (HT: Mixing Memory). Chris is putting together a cog. sci. reading group, and they will be reading Tomasello's The Cultural Origins of Human Cognition. I haven't signed up because I'm not sure yet if I'll actually have the time to do any real participation. Something like blogging I can keep to breaks while I'm doing other things; reading groups tend to eat up my time. I like online reading groups, though, so when I go to the Kelly Library later this week I might see if their copy of the book is in the stacks, and browse to see whether I can handle it in addition to other things I'll be doing as September approaches. There is a Yahoo! Group for the discussion, if anyone's interested.

* There's a Cliopatria symposium on Empires. The Symposium brings up the interesting and recently popular question of why Americans don't consider the U.S. to be an Empire. I confess that Ferguson's arguments always irritate me; it seems to me that they involve an equivocation on what people mean by 'empire' (there's a fairly obvious sense in which any sovereign nation has empire, and any influential nation has empire, and there are other senses that are rather different; although I should say that I haven't rigorously examined Ferguson's arguments to be sure that Ferguson does equivocate in this way). In any case, the more important issue seems to me to be that the question misses a fundamental point about our conceptions of American identity: they are not constitutive but regulative. That is, we don't survey the evidence, and then conclude that the U.S. is not an empire; we begin with the principle, as a basic principle of policy, that the U.S. is not an empire, and then ask what practical results such a principle should have. While they can recognize the disparity, Americans don't primarily think of the U.S. in terms of what the U.S. is in practice; they think of the U.S. in terms of what it is in principle. We are very principle-oriented in our self-regard; a legacy of our forebears. I find the following speech, given in the Virginia debates on the ratification of the Constitution interesting in this regard:

An opinion has gone forth, we find, that we are contemptible people: the time has been when we were thought otherwise. Under the same despised government, we commanded the respect of all Europe: wherefore are we now reckoned otherwise? The American spirit has fled from hence: it has gone to regions where it has never been expected; it has gone to the people of France, in search of a splendid government — a strong, energetic government. Shall we imitate the example of those nations who have gone from a simple to a splendid government? Are those nations more worthy of our imitation? What can make an adequate satisfaction to them for the loss they have suffered in attaining such a government — for the loss of their liberty? If we admit this consolidated government, it will be because we like a great, splendid one. Some way or other we must be a great and mighty empire; we must have an army, and a navy, and a number of things. When the American spirit was in its youth, the language of America was different: liberty, sir, was then the primary object. We are descended from a people whose government was founded on liberty: our glorious forefathers of Great Britain made liberty the foundation of every thing. That country is become a great, mighty, and splendid nation; not because their government is strong and energetic, but, sir, because liberty is its direct end and foundation. We drew the spirit of liberty from our British ancestors: by that spirit we have triumphed over every difficulty. But now, sir, the American spirit, assisted by the ropes and chains of consolidation, is about to convert this country into a powerful and mighty empire. If you make the citizens of this country agree to become the subjects of one great consolidated empire of America, your government will not have sufficient energy to keep them together. Such a government is incompatible with the genius of republicanism. There will be no checks, no real balances, in this government.

The speaker was no less than Patrick Henry (who voted against ratification). I think this line of thought actually captures a great deal of what people mean when they talk about 'empire'; they think of it not in terms of dominion or power but in terms of need. People don't make Henry's exact argument anymore, except for the occasional libertarian, since we've largely accepted the federal system; our conception of empire is not quite the same. But I think we largely tend to take a Henry-like view of what we do think of as empire. (We think of empire not in terms of power and influence, but in terms of organization and goal.) Empires are hungry things, they need to devour; their principle is not liberty but powerful government. And we can't be that without becoming something we are not trying to be. We can become a great, splendid nation through liberty; we cannot get liberty through the attempt to be a great, splendid nation. In that sense, the United States is not an Empire in Denial; it is an Experiment in an Ideal. The result, we bet (and have always bet), will be true power and splendor, beyond what any ordinary Empire could have, precisely because we have, at least in principle, given up the imperial search for splendor and power. The splendor and power are on this view entirely incidental. It is not who we are, but an effect of our good fortune and our stubborn insistence on principles (even if our practice of those principles is extremely uneven). Some people may live and die for Empire; but Americans have been very good at living and dying not for what America is in practice, but for what America can be in principle. Our denial that we are an Empire is not based on illusion; it is based on a conviction. It is not a conclusion of research but a principle of life. And that is the real point: Americans don't consider themselves an Empire because they consider themselves a new thing on the earth; however imperial we may seem, however much we may succomb to empire-like temptations, we must be something different or the American experiment has already failed. It is a postulate of the American practical reason; and postulates of practical reason are things we hope to be true, upon which we act because we cannot reasonably do anything else. In trying to make it otherwise people like Ferguson are not actually pointing out a fact (that our non-imperial principles of policy are intermingled with an empire-like influence) but attacking who we are, because he is not really criticizing a conclusion (after all, what American would actually deny that we are very powerful, and that our influence extends throughout the world?) but a principle many of us think is at our foundation, namely, that we cannot in our self-understanding regard ourselves as imperial or we have lost the game we originally set out to win. This is perhaps not the only possible view we can have of ourselves; and at least some people have considered our whole point to be a Splendid Nation. But I think we can safely say that the American insistence is typically that it is just not our way to take up the burdens of empire; it is our way to become great by way of a different set of responsibilities. This is not denial; it is genius, or at least the attempt to do something different and new, even if we fail. Only a very silly person will then point out the responsibilities of empire and demand that we take them up; we are doing something different, with different responsibilities. And no one has the right to demand that we shirk those responsibilities in favor of more stereotypically imperial ones.

(Incidentally, this seems to me a peculiarity of Ferguson-like arguments: they are always claiming that we are obviously an empire, and then immediately go on to insist that we are not acting like an empire acts. But surely that means that in some very straightforward sense we are missing something that a real empire has, namely, a sense of empire motivating us to imperial action. On the one hand, the claim is that we are imperial; on the other, the claim is that we are not. This is why I suspect there is an equivocation in the argument; this line of reasoning is unlikely to work unless we are essentially imperial and only incidentally non-imperial, despite the continual American insistence, recognized by everyone, that the reverse is true. It's not impossible to run an argument along these lines; but there are quite a few potential pitfalls that would have to be avoided, and from what I've read and heard, there's no effort made to avoid them: the arguments put forward to show that we are an empire at best only go so far as to prove that we are in some ways at least incidentally imperial. Further, the argument can only work if a sense of empire is not essential to being a real empire; but I suspect - and here again I only have a suspicion, not having tried such an argument myself - one could argue that it is, in fact, essential. It does seem a little implausible that Americans are going around just happening to be a real empire despite their intense certainty they are not. There may be a special providence for idiots, madmen, and Americans, but it seems a little much to say that we have been dragged by world events into being an empire contrary to our own general will, as if we could really be expected to wake up one day and say with a start of surprise, "Oh, look at that; we're an empire." It's not impossible, if being an empire, like speaking in prose, is something independent of self-reflection. But surely we at least have to consider the possibility that a nation that does not have a sense of itself as an empire is in a perfectly straightforward sense not an empire at all?)

** ->Almost forgot, I'm in the process of putting up a sermon by Laurence Sterne (of Tristram Shandy fame). There's still a bit of fixing (of typoes etc.), but let me know what you think.

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