Archives: October 2005
JLS 19.3: What Lies Within?
[cross-posted at Liberty & Power]
Issue 19.3 of the Journal of Libertarian Studies is now out. In this latest issue, Ellenita Hellmer critiques the standard libertarian attitude toward the anti-sweatshop movement, Piet-Hein van Eeghen critiques the legitimacy of the corporation, Enrico Colombatto critiques the Austrian theory of the business cycle, Walter Block critiques Randall Holcombe’s argument for the inevitability of government, and Jan Narveson critiques Colin Williams’ views on Lysander Spooner and the “virtue of obedience.” Also, J. C. Lester reviews Edward Feser’s book on Nozick, and Robert Bass reviews Wendy McElroy’s book on Benjamin Tucker and the individualist anarchists.
For more details, check out my fuller summary here.
Also, the contents of the previous issue, 19.2, are now online; see the summary here and the articles here.
For summaries of all the issues under my editorship, see here; for all online articles from all past issues see here.
Egalitarianism, Austro-Athenian Style
[cross-posted at Liberty & Power]
Few would describe Aristotle as an egalitarian philosopher; and few would describe libertarianism as an egalitarian political theory. In two newly published pieces I commit both these heresies.
The latest (October 2005) issue of The Freeman carries my article “Liberty: The Other Equality.” (This article is a companion piece to my 2001 lecture Equality: The Unknown Ideal.)
Mogens Herman Hansen’s The Imaginary Polis, the proceedings volume for the Copenhagen Polis Centre conference described here, has just been published; it contains my article “Aristotle’s Egalitarian Utopia.” So far the collection’s not available for purchase through any of the ordinary online venues, but those eager for a copy can go to this link, type the phrase “imaginary polis” (without quotation marks) in the “Title” field, hit the higher of the two “Search now” buttons, hit “Add to basket,” and then hit “Shopping list” on the left. (No, I can’t link directly to the title. Yes, the Royal Danish Academy’s website sucks.)
Both articles turn on the idea that equality in authority is a more fundamentally important kind of equality than either socioeconomic equality or equality before the law.
In other news, the Alabama Philosophical Society website, cui magister sum, has a revised schedule and updated location info for our conference this coming weekend. Be there or B2!
[cross-posted at Liberty & Power]
On September 21st I gave a talk to the Auburn University Libertarians on the subject “Rich and Poor in a Libertarian Society.”
On October 8th I gave a talk at the Mises Institute’s conference on fascism titled “They Saw it Coming: The 19th-Century Libertarian Critique of Fascism.” (An audio file of my talk is now online.)
On October 15th I’ll be giving a talk to the Advocates for Self-Government 20th Anniversary Celebration in Atlanta with the title “Fire the Rich! Why the Free Market Is the Proletarian Revolution.”
(So, that’s three plutocracy-bashing talks….)
Finally, on October 21st I’ll be giving a talk at the Alabama Philosophical Society meetings in Montevallo explaining “Why Libertarians Believe There Is Only One Right.”
(I say “finally,” but I have conferences coming up in November and December too….)
What Darwin Thought of Aristotle and Spencer
Two quotations to keep in mind the next time another Darwinian claims that the ideas of Aristotle and Spencer are unscientific and second-rate:
From quotations which I had seen I had a high notion of Aristotle’s merits, but I had not the most remote notion what a wonderful man he was. Linnaeus and Cuvier have been my two gods, though in very different ways, but they were mere school-boys to old Aristotle.
– Charles Darwin, Letter to William Ogle (translator of Aristotle’s De Partibus Animalium), 22 February 1882
Every one with eyes to see and ears to hear (the number, I fear, are not many) ought to bow their knee to you, and I for one do.
– Charles Darwin, Letter to Herbert Spencer, 10 June 1872
Pay No Attention to That Spaceship Behind the Curtain
After years of patronising dismissal, literary scholars are finally beginning to take Jules Verne seriously. That’s a good thing – but it has a downside, namely, that the number of plumb crazy things being said about Verne is on the rise.
Perhaps the most bizarre of these is the claim that Verne is not a science fiction writer. I’ve seen this claim put forward in several places recently; the most articulate version comes from William Butcher’s introduction to his translation of Journey to the Centre of the Earth:
In Verne’s case, if a genre classification really is necessary, he falls into that of travel and adventure. But in no case can he be considered a science fiction writer. One good reason is that only about a third of the Extraordinary Journeys really involve any science; and another, that despite his futuristic reputation the events recounted nearly always happen just before the present. What is more, the science is not generally innovative or designed to change society. A significant number of the works do depend on a novel form of transport, whether underground, under water, or in the air or beyond. But Verne prefers ‘intermediate technology’. [Butcher cites Verne’s use of balloons, dogsleds, and the like.] The real thrust of Verne’s works, their raison d’ętre, is to explore the globe.
Butcher’s case against Verne’s status as a science fiction writer is surreal. Let’s take his arguments in sequence.
1. Only about a third of the Extraordinary Journeys really involve any science. Even if this were true (and it isn’t – Butcher has science confused with technology), how on earth would it be relevant? Would one deny that Shakespeare is a tragedian, on the grounds only about a third of his plays were tragedies? Or deny that Arthur Conan Doyle was a mystery writer, on similar grounds? To be a science fiction writer what is required is that you write some science fiction, not that you write science fiction exclusively.
2. Despite his futuristic reputation the events recounted nearly always happen just before the present. Butcher has to say “nearly always” because of course some of Verne’s stories do take place in the future – most notably Paris in the Twentieth Century, which is set 97 years after the date it was written. (Verne also appears to have collaborated with his son on a story set a thousand years in the future.) But forget the stories with future settings; why on earth should a setting in the present or recent past be an objection to a story’s being classified as science fiction? Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and R. L. Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde had contemporary settings, as did most of H. G. Wells’ novels. And aren’t tv shows like X-Files, Stargate and Galactica 1980 science fiction?
3. The science is not generally innovative or designed to change society. It’s true that most of the technology in Verne’s novels is a plausible short-term extrapolation of existing technology – certainly a contrast with Wells’ time machines and invisibility formulae. But it’s not clear why that should count against Verne’s stories being science fiction. (“Hard sf” enthusiasts might even argue – though I wouldn’t – that such considerations cut the other way, i.e. that much of the science in Wells’ stories is so fanciful and so distant from existing science that his work should count as fantasy rather than science fiction.) And in any case Verne’s depictions of space travel in From the Earth to the Moon and Journey Through the Impossible; television in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea; a wide variety of futuristic gizmos in Paris in the Twentieth Century; and a device designed to knock the earth off its axis in Barbicane and Company are all surely a bit ahead of the curve? As for the effect of scientific advancement on society, the rigid engineering mentality that Verne sees as fostered by the progress of science is satirised gently in Around the World in Eighty Days and savagely in Paris in the Twentieth Century.
4. A significant number of the works do depend on a novel form of transport … but Verne prefers ‘intermediate technology’. In other words, yes, Verne’s characters gad about in submarines, helicopters, moon rockets, and even interstellar rockets – not to mention touring the solar system on the back of a comet – but since they even more often travel by such pedestrian means as railway or steamship, their more outlandish means of transport for some reason don’t count.
5. The real thrust of Verne’s works … is to explore the globe. Yes, exactly. Verne’s novels take us to the poles, over uncharted Africa, under the seas, and into the Earth’s interior – as well as to the moon, around our solar system, and to a binary solar system. But why does this count against his books being science fiction? Are geography, geology, and astronomy not sciences? Verne’s publisher described the aim of the Voyages Extraordinaires series of novels as: “to sum up all the geographical, geological, physical, and astronomical knowledge accumulated by modern science, and hence to rewrite, in the attractive and picturesque form which is his specialty, the history of the universe.” (quoted in the appendix to The Adventures of Captain Hatteras) This description is misleading insofar as it suggests that Verne is merely giving us science lessons in novelistic form; but it does a good job of identifying the sciences that are most central to Verne’s work. If “science fiction” is any fiction in which projected scientific advances (N.B. not necessarily technological advances, though Verne’s stories certainly have their share of these also) are crucial to the story, then Verne is most emphatically a science fiction writer. As one 1864 reviewer (likewise quoted in the above) remarked: “It is very difficult for science and fiction to come into contact, without one of them being weighed down or the other lowered; here the two work in a happy union.”
One might put Butcher’s insistence that Verne is not a science fiction writer down to literary snobbishness against genre fiction; but it’s hard to do so when this insistence comes swift on the heels of Butcher’s own critique of the “mistaken view” that “holds literature to be genre-free and genre fiction to be literature-free.” I suspect a likelier explanation is that Butcher simply hasn’t read much science fiction.
For me the most decisive argument for Verne’s work being science fiction is that Verne is one of the paradigm figures on which the science fiction tradition originally based itself; in other words, Verne’s novels are among the classics that define what the phrase “science fiction” refers to. One can’t boot either Verne or Wells out of the science fiction category without abandoning the entire concept of “science fiction.”
A less bizarre, but still annoying, development in Verne scholarship is the replacement of the simplistic older view that Verne was an optimistic champion of technological progress and can-do achievement, with the equally simplistic newer view that Verne was a thoroughgoing pessimist whose optimistic touches were all imposed on him by his publisher Jules Hetzel. The grain of truth in this interpretation is that Hetzel preferred optimistic to pessimistic stories, and so the stories Verne published with Hetzel tend to be more optimistic than the stories he published on his own when he could freely indulge his more pessimistic story ideas. But there are optimistic and pessimistic strands in all Verne’s work. Can anyone plausibly claim that the character of Phileas Fogg is meant to be either solely a positive or solely a negative portrait of the scientific and technocentric mindset? Or that the quasi-Randian celebration of human ingenuity and perseverance in the face of adverse nature that we find in The Mysterious Island – generally agreed to be one of Verne’s finest works – is sheer insincerity? The attempt to squeeze Verne into either an “optimistic” or a “pessimistic” category bespeaks a failure of imagination on the critics’ part; surely it is more plausible to say of Verne, mutatis mutandis, what Ursula Le Guin says of Wells in the introduction to her Wells anthology: that he “imagined both dark and bright futures because his creed allowed both while promising neither, and because the eighty years of his life were years of immense intellectual and technological accomplishment and appalling violence and destruction.”
Support the Army
I’ve changed the link for the hurricane relief banner at the top of this page from the Red Cross to the Salvation Army, which in my judgment is a more reliable relief organisation.
Radio Free Roderick
[cross-posted at Liberty & Power]
During the last Mises University I was interviewed by the dreaded MISEScreants – known by day as GMU economics grad students Adam Martin and (Molinari Institute Research Fellow) Dan D’Amico. Click here to hear my idle musings on Aristotle, Kant, Wittgenstein, Mises, Hayek, Herbert Spencer, Benjamin Tucker, Gustave de Molinari, the Molinari Institute, the Mises Institute, the Auburn Philosophy Department, apriorism, anarchism, feminism, libertarian factionalism, and free-market anti-capitalism. (I had a bad cold that week, so please bear with my frequent coughing and even-worse-than-usual voice.)
Audiofiles of some of my Mises U. talks from that week are also now online: Mises versus Friedman on Method, Apriorism and Positivism in the Social Sciences, and Ethical Assumptions of Economics.