Tuesday, May 7, 2024

Trying out Substack

This is how my latest Substack post begins. If you would like to read on, here is a link:

If this new site (called Parsing the Parade) gets some traction I may put my main focus there and put other sites on the back burner. At this stage, however, it is just an experiment.

Submit your email address and new posts (maybe one every few weeks?) will be sent to your email inbox. It's free, and it's easy to unsubscribe at any time.

Here is a general link to Parsing the Parade:

Sunday, February 18, 2024

L.L. Zamenhof and Zionism

The other day, walking through a small park in the district of Pietà on my way to Valletta, I was surprised to see a bust of L.L. Zamenhof, the creator of the international auxiliary language known as Esperanto. My first thought was, I didn't know he had a connection with Malta. And, as it happens, he didn't!

Zamenhof was born in what was then the Russian Empire and spent most of his life in the city of Warsaw. For reasons I have yet to fathom (but which probably relate to Malta's somewhat fraught linguistic ecology) Zamenhof's ideas took root here and some five decades ago the local Esperanto Society saw fit to devote funds to the creation of a public monument.

It's not a great work of art and the awkwardly-truncated arms are a little distracting. But this memorial is not bad as such projects go, and certainly a good deal less ugly than many of the official commemorative sculptures and monuments I have seen on this island.

Despite my lack of interest in Esperanto (the very notion of a constructed international auxiliary language is ill-conceived, in my opinion), I quite like the monument. Its scale and proportions are perfect and there is no nonsense or pomposity about it.

Zamenhof was a physician by profession, specialising in ophthalmology, and not an academic linguist. His main linguistic project was inspired by the naive belief that, if the peoples of the world shared a common language, peace would reign. Basically Zamenhof was a religious rather than a political thinker; his social philosophy was based on Rabbinic Judaism, specifically on the ideas of Hillel the Elder and his school.

Responding to the rise of violence against Jews within the Russian Empire which followed the assassination of the Tsar (Alexander II) in 1881, Zamenhof became involved with proto-Zionist groups, founding the Warsaw chapter of Hibbat Zion. He soon had doubts, however, and withdrew from the movement.

Zamenhof was convinced that Zionism, as he saw it developing in the later years of the 19th century and into the 20th, was fatally flawed and would not serve the true interests of the Jewish people.

In a work published in Russian in 1901, Zamenhof gave three reasons why Zionism was unrealizable: "firstly, because the Hebrew language is not alive, and if the Jewish religion did not exist, it would have died a long time ago; secondly, Zionism is wrong in its conception of Jewish nationalistic feeling: the Jews of various countries have no common ground apart from the religious one; thirdly, Palestine is too small – it will contain approximately only two million – so the whole Jewish question will not be solved."

Note his emphasis on the Jewish religion as the key driver of Jewish identity. This makes sense to me. His views on nationalism, on the other hand, I have reservations about.

In 1914 he wrote: "I am deeply convinced that all nationalism represents only the greatest misfortune for humanity, and that the aim of all people should be: to create a harmonious humanity. It is true that the nationalism of oppressed nations – as a natural self-defense reaction – is much more forgivable than the nationalism of oppressing nations; but, if the nationalism of the strong is ignoble, the nationalism of the weak is imprudent; both give birth to and support each other, and present a vicious circle of misfortunes, from which mankind will never emerge, if each of us will not sacrifice his group self-love and will not try to stand on completely neutral ground."

There is real insight here; the logic is consistent and, within limits, compelling. The problem, as I see it, is with Zamenhof's assumptions: his Enlightenment-inspired, "blank slate" view of human nature; and his implicit conflation of nation and nation-state.

Zamenhof ignores the fact that "group self-love" is a perennial human reality. Certainly it can get out of hand and generate xenophobia and violence, but it also plays a positive – in fact an essential – role in encouraging cooperative behaviour within groups.

The Zionist movement understood this and rejected Zamenhof's dogmatic and naive internationalism. So far, so good.

What the Zionists didn't grasp, however, is that combining their views on the importance of group identity with a perspective on nationhood shaped by Romantic political myths would only lead to trouble. Given the complexities of ethnic and cultural divides, seeing the nation-state as a universal solution, as the only way to satisfy ethnically-based yearnings and feelings of group identity is both confused and dangerous.

Such an approach leads inevitably to "a vicious circle of misfortunes" (as Zamenhof put it), to an unending cycle of conflict and violence.

Language policies in Malta

I am posting here the language-related paragraphs of a short piece entitled "Maltese culture and language" which appeared earlier this month at Conservative Tendency and also on my WordPress site:

Maltese is a very unusual language. Its grammatical structure and morphology derive from an old form of Arabic (Siculo-Arabic) while much of its lexicon derives from Italian and other European languages (including English). Since independence in 1964, the Maltese language has been strongly promoted and supported by the government and official bodies (with a bit of help from the European Union since 2004).

In general, I am not a supporter of keeping languages alive via legislation and regulation. Language change and death is a natural process and individuals should as far as possible be free to choose what language or languages they want to speak and what language or languages their children should speak and be educated in. I recognize, however, that language policies of one kind or another are necessary in multilingual jurisdictions and decisions must be made. The way I see it, something is gained and something is lost either way when it comes to a choice between promoting a local language (or dialect) as against a more widely-spoken and professionally useful one.

As I understand it, the policy during British colonial times was to promote the use of English and standard Italian rather than Maltese. Italian is still spoken, though it is less prevalent than it was.

English remains an official language and is taught in schools but proficiency varies greatly and most locals (including young professionals) are more comfortable speaking Maltese than English. The situation is slowly changing however. Survey results indicate that Maltese under-20s are more likely to favour English and identify English as their first language than other age groups.

Sunday, February 4, 2024

Shorelines

There is something universal about seas and oceans and even standing on the shore you can sense it. Last year on a beach on a Greek island I was vividly reminded of childhood holidays by the sea on the other side of the world. More recently I have been living in the district of Msida in Malta and have been spending a lot of time wandering the shorelines of Ta' Xbiex, Gżira and Sliema. Again, that sense of familiarity  despite the unfamiliar (primary) language and culture of the island.

Over time inhabited lands are necessarily designated, defined and shaped by cultures of one kind or another. Seas and oceans have names and are often affected (negatively!) by human activities but generally speaking they are not marked or "owned" by particular cultures.

There was once a culture of seafarers which incorporated not only practical and technical knowledge and norms of behaviour  as today's somewhat attenuated version still does  but also folk wisdom and fanciful myths. This culture was essentially reactive: it was a coping culture, not a building culture. It was also essentially universal in that  for the most part at any rate  it transcended national and local preoccupations. (The life and works of the Polish sea captain-turned-writer, Joseph Conrad, provide ample evidence to support this last claim, I think.)

As I see it, then, the shoreline's fascination is enhanced by the fact that it lies between two worlds: the culturally-bounded and the culturally-unbounded (or universal).

Is some kind of deep memory at work here also? It wouldn't be surprising, given the central role that seaside (and lakeside) environments played in shaping the evolutionary development of our species.

Going much further back, rock pools, warmed by the sun, constituted a crucially important environment for the development of some of the earliest lifeforms on this planet. The first photosynthesizing organisms (cyanobacteria) appeared about 2.7 billion years ago in such environments.

This takes us well beyond any plausible "deep memory" hypothesis, of course, but a fascination with rock pools, and intertidal zones more generally, needs no such explanation. Factors such as natural  and perhaps intellectual  curiosity are at play here.

My own aesthetic preference for rocky (as distinct from sandy) shorelines is easily explained in such terms  in terms, that is, of general cast of mind, combined (in my case) with extensive childhood exposure to such environments and memories thereof.

Sunday, December 18, 2022

AI, work and human dignity

Speculations about the impact of AI and imagined technological utopias or dystopias necessarily draw on – and reveal a lot about – our fundamental assumptions about human nature. Robert Gressis recently wrote a piece on these themes.

Though his approach is open and undogmatic, his basically metaphysical (and indeed Kantian) assumptions show through. In my opinion, they are counterproductive and create unnecessary problems and confusions.

“I tell myself,” he writes, “that we are not mere playthings of nature, but are instead rational beings who can and should conduct themselves in a certain way, lest we dishonor our dignity.”

Our dignity lies, as he sees it, “in rising above nature.” This just doesn’t make sense to me.

Nor does any notion of “free will” which goes beyond the ordinary (and legal) sense of acting freely (i.e. being of sound mind and not being coerced).

What’s more, ideas like “rising above nature” – and the (originally religious) notion of free will – are quite unnecessary. In fact, I would go so far as to say that only in their absence can we maintain a robust and reasonable conception of human dignity.

The only dignity that counts – or indeed makes sense – is that which is exemplified in behaviour. It relates to how we conduct ourselves (given all the constraints etc. which inevitably apply in specific situations).

Do we behave like egomaniacs or spoilt brats? Or do we apply a modicum of intelligence to our activities, exercising appropriate restraint, self-discipline etc.? Are we sensitive to the needs of others? Are we responsible and trustworthy? These are the sorts of factors which determine whether or not human dignity is being exemplified.

And – significantly – AI does not challenge us in these sorts of matters. Morality and other value-related matters are distinctively human – and will remain so.

Gressis makes a comparison – and contrast – between between future redundant humans and pets.

“[...] I think the utopia-worriers—the people who fear that an AI-fueled paradise will be unsatisfying—are fearful because they think it should be unsatisfying. But should it be unsatisfying? Pets have guided my thinking on this question. I look at my cat, and I joke, “you get paid way too much.” The point of the joke is that I’m expecting more from my cat than he can give. Sure, he’s cute and I like petting him, but he doesn’t do anything useful, like killing bugs. Instead, he just lies around, gets some scritches, and licks his genitals.”

The analogy is amusing. But the crucial point here, I think, is that pets are quite different from us. They don’t have our range of freedom. They are more hard-wired than we are. And, of course, they don’t have language.

Gressis writes: “If the AI-optimists are right ([…] big if, but it doesn’t seem impossible), then there will come a time when humans will be as useful as pets. Our use-value will consist almost entirely in our ability to entertain each other.”

Not just to entertain but to communicate and interact in multiple ways. To challenge, to love, to annoy, to betray… Again, it’s the moral realm (broadly conceived) that counts – and always will count – for us. And it cannot be usurped by any technology.

AI taking over various jobs is obviously threatening from a financial and psychological point of view for those who earn their living and/or derive their self-esteem from jobs which AI threatens to replace. But this is simply an extension of a familiar pattern which is evident throughout history – at least during periods of rapid technological progress. The only difference now is that it is not just manual and low-level office workers who are being made redundant but also professionals.

I think that Gressis sees AI as being more problematic than I do partly because of his metaphysical presuppositions and partly because he sees work as being more morally and psychologically central and important than I see it to be.

For me work is just another unfortunate necessity; something one has to do to earn a living, support a family, build up savings. Most of my – rather patchy – working life was spent teaching in universities. It was (much of the time, at any rate) reasonably congenial and pleasant. But, even when things were going well, professionally speaking, my sense is that I generally only experienced happiness during idle moments and via not-directly work-related interactions rather than through my actual work or (admittedly modest) professional achievements.

Monday, September 12, 2022

Against ideology



As we watch economies fail and societies move into the more advanced stages of dysfunction and dissolution, there is a lot of political finger-pointing going on. Blame is typically assigned in such a way as not to upset one’s preferred political or economic narratives.

Targeting ideological enemies necessarily entails a labeling process. The terms used are normally vague and abstract but loaded with emotional content – positive for terms designating “us”, strongly negative for terms designating “them”. Though the abstractness of the terms in question may confer a veneer of intellectual seriousness, the communicational dynamic remains purely rhetorical. Meaning is reduced to connotation, the various “isms” and so on merely providing convenient ways of encapsulating ill-defined sets of attachments on the one hand and aversions on the other.

Political ideologies are real is the sense that they affect the way people interpret history and current events and motivate action but, incorporating as they inevitably do political myths and simplifying abstractions, they are quite useless as analytical tools. This is not to say, of course, that terms like fascism, corporatism, socialism, capitalism, etc. – qualified to distinguish different forms where necessary – cannot be a useful shorthand when they are used descriptively and in historically informed ways.

The trouble is, such terms are rarely used like this. More often than not they are used rhetorically: as tribal markers, as weapons of ideological combat.

I do not have a particular ideological position to which I am committed or which I am promoting. This is not for want of trying to discover or build one. After much study and thought, I have come to the conclusion that this desire to choose or construct a preferred ideology is ill-conceived.

It is quite unnecessary to have some kind of explicit social blueprint in mind. Better not to, in fact (for all sorts of reasons, most of them relating to the contingent and context-dependent nature of social and cultural interactions).

Part of my Ph.D. thesis was focused on the revival in the 1930s of the principles of economic liberalism and their development and application during the post-WW2 era. The broad aim of the self-styled “neoliberals” – mainly European thinkers – whose work I was writing about was to offer an alternative to totalitarianisms of the left and the right. This is a goal with which I was (and still am) sympathetic. But, as I say, I have come to believe that no abstract system or ideology is adequate to deal either with questions of ends (which involve crucial moral choices) or means. How is an abstract system supposed to mesh with the complexities of an historically evolved and evolving social structure? The old joke has the Irishman telling the stranger who asked for directions, “Well, if I were you, I wouldn’t start from here.” It matters – a lot – where you happen to be.

Liberal institutions developed within – and were dependent on for their proper functioning – cultures which had certain common features. A certain kind of culture and a certain level of trust and moral attainment are prerequisites for liberal values and institutions to thrive. Those conditions no longer apply in the societies with which I am most familiar.

Tuesday, August 9, 2022

Remarks on culture and religion

I want to recapitulate here and expand on some points I made elsewhere in partial response to a piece written by Daniel Kaufman entitled "Remarks on religion".

First of all, I should explain that I am not much interested in talking about religion in religious or strictly philosophical terms. Philosophical discussions about the existence of God, free will, etc. strike me as fundamentally theological in nature even if an atheistic line is being pursued (as it often is). I have the same feeling about much of philosophical ethics. It has its roots in (moral) theology and religious disputation – and it shows!

It is worth noting that many religious people – including intelligent ones – have been hostile to theology and the ready application of philosophical methods to religious questions. Blaise Pascal, for example, distinguished between the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (his God) and "the God of the philosophers" (as he scornfully put it). He satirized the casuistry of the Jesuits of his day and the trivialization of morality and the hypocrisy which it entailed.

I am sympathetic to Pascal's point of view but, since I am not religious, my rejection of theology is based on different grounds from his and is more thoroughgoing. I simply do not see theology as a serious or viable area of study.

In earlier times, of course, theology (or divinity) was widely seen as a high-status discipline: the queen of the sciences, no less. And, in the Christian West, philosophy derived its scholarly status from theology of which it was seen to be an integral part, as well as from ancient Greek and Roman thinkers many of whose ideas had been incorporated into medieval and Renaissance thought. Plato, Aristotle and the Stoics were especially influential.

Two broad areas which developed within this theological matrix did become viable secular fields of study: natural philosophy (or what we now generally call science); and logic. Mathematics had regressed in Roman and medieval times and only began to flourish again in the 17th century with the rise of modern science.

I realize all this is broad-brush and oversimplified but it should help explain my general attitude to philosophy and religion and, with respect to the latter, my tendency to focus on the historical, cultural and psychological side of things.

Dan had contrasted the evangelical and Pentecostal Christians of the Bible Belt with two Jewish Hasidic sects:

"When I first moved to the Bible Belt, I was surprised by the level of confidence people had in their particular brand of evangelical or Pentecostal Christianity (some of them brands I’d never even heard of until that point) and used to think that the best thing for them would be to live in a Lubavitch or Satmar community for a few weeks, where it would become quickly evident that there were people far more religiously committed and more rigorous in their religious lifestyles than they are."

Unlike these Jewish groups, evangelicals and Pentecostals profess and proclaim (in Kaufman’s words) their own “extraordinary and intense religious faith” whilst behaving in other respects “pretty much like everyone else.”

The main criticism here is being directed at a particular group of Christians and I can't really comment on its appropriateness. I do have the sense, however, that the tenor of these passages may betray a lack awareness of the standard Christian view of what religious commitment is at its core and what it entails. Whatever it is, it is decidedly not about outward forms and observances; and it is not in the least competitive. The very notion of "religious lifestyle" is alien to the standard Christian view as I understand it.

I have no direct knowledge of "Bible Belt" Christians, nor of the Jewish groups mentioned. Regarding the latter, Chabad-Lubavitch and Satmar are rival, Brooklyn-based Hasidic sects originating in Russia and Hungary respectively. They differ, amongst other things, in terms of their attitudes to outreach and proselytizing within the wider Jewish community [Chabad is active in such activity but Satmar is not]; and in terms of their attitudes to Zionism and the state of Israel [Satmar remains staunchly anti-Zionist].

Dan talks about the “self-deception” or “psychic indolence” involved in seeing ancient religious texts as embodying eternal truths “about the nature and operation of the universe and everything and everyone in it” rather than in more realistic terms. He characterizes sacred texts as “fascinating and often lurid elements from the eclectic, messy, often ugly history of human development.” Fair comment.

I would have thought that one way US evangelical Christians differ from, say, Jewish ultra-Orthodox or extremist Islamic groups, is in their relative openness to the modern world, to ordinary life.

Mixing faith-based and modern views necessarily involves inconsistencies. But compartmentalization of one kind or another is a universal feature of our brains. Some of the greatest scientists bracketed out their religious beliefs in rather crude ways or aligned themselves with extreme and anti-rational ideologies or political movements. Though most of us manage to avoid such extremes, the logical aspect of our thinking is always in an awkward or ambiguous relationship with more emotional aspects of thought – including those that relate to existential anxieties, to attachments and aversions, to religion, politics, self-image and identity.

The final issue I raised was that of cultural and religious identity. In the course of his discussion, Dan explicitly acknowledged his Jewish lineage as well as the essentially secular Jewish culture in which he was raised. For his parents – and for himself, apparently – ancestral religious practices continued to be meaningful in the absence of belief.

For me there is a tension here, a potential problem. I realize that Judaism is not creed-based or doctrinal in the way many Christian groupings are, but beliefs are still important. It seems to me that if a member of a religious (or even a political) group stops believing the central doctrines of the group, he or she ceases to be, in a real and fundamental sense, a part of that group, even if there is little change in outward behaviour. What was deeply motivated is now merely "going through the motions." This phrase says it all.

I see that people brought up within a particular religious group or sect or denomination will continue to share a common cultural background but if they have left the sect or ceased believing its fundamental tenets their sense of themselves – and of their relationship to the group – changes. Their sense of identification with the group is necessarily reduced and qualified. This is why defining Jewishness largely in terms of the religious tradition (in terms, that is, of Judaism) is obviously a problem for non-religious Jews. When scriptures lose their special status and come to be seen solely in historical or literary terms, when prayers and rituals are no longer expressions of religious experience but mere nostalgic forms or reassuring customs, they gradually but inexorably lose their power to command attention and motivate religious practice. They become museum pieces. They die.

Religious Jews, of course, are committed to maintaining not just the rituals and practices but also the beliefs that shaped and motivated these practices. So the tension I speak of here does not apply to them. (The problems of inconsistency and compartmentalization alluded to above may apply, however.)

My preference is to see group affiliations in personal and individual terms, simply in terms of sets of shared and overlapping cultural elements and personal values. And, to the extent that Jewishness is seen in this way (i.e. as an evolving element within various disparate cultures rather than in terms of direct links with an ancient, Hebrew-speaking population and the religious practices and beliefs of that population), existential questions about cultural survival simply will not arise.