What Makes Humans Human?

Little, today, is as it was.

Anatomically modern humans have existed for about 200,000 years, but only since the end of the eighteenth century has artificial lighting been widely used. Gas lamps were introduced in European cities about that time, and electric lights came into use only in the twentieth century.

In other words, for most of human history, when night fell, it fell hard. Things got really, really dark,

and people gathered under the stars, which they could actually see, in those days before nighttime light pollution,

and under those stars, they told stories.

In EVERY culture around the globe, storytelling, in the form of narrative poetry, existed LONG before the invention of writing. We know this because the earliest manuscripts that we have from every culture record stories that were already ancient when they were finally written down. One of the earliest texts in English is that of the poem Beowulf. It reworks and retells, in a much distorted manner, much, much older stories—ones that predate the emergence of English as a distinct language. Stith Thompson, the great folklorist, did the literary world an enormous favor by compiling a massive index, today known as the Arne-Thompson Index, of motifs of ancient folktales worldwide. Name a story motif—three wishes, talking animals, the grateful dead, cruel stepsisters, golden apples, dragons, the fairy or demon lover, the instrument that plays itself –and you will find that the motif has an ancient pedigree and was already spread about the world long before historical times.

English is a Germanic language. All ancient Germanic societies had official storytellers whose job it was to entertain people in those days before modern entertainments like television and movies and the Internet and drones with laser-guided Hellfire missiles. In ancient Denmark, the storyteller was called a skaald. In Anglo-Saxon England, the storyteller was a scop (pronounced like MnE “shop”). The scop accompanied his stories on the Anglo-Saxon harp, a kind of lyre.

Of course, the telling of stories wasn’t the only entertainment around campfires. In most cultures, people danced and chanted and sang as well, and sometimes stories were told by the dancers or singers or chanters. All this was part of acting out the stories. (Want to know where the Christian devil, with his red body and horns, comes from? Well, in ancient Europe, people worshiped an Earth Mother and her consort, a Lord of the Forest, and they told stories of the hunt. When they acted these out around campfires, they held up to their heads animal horns, or branches in the shape of horns, and that’s how they pictured their Lord of the Forest, as a therianthrope, red from the campfire, with horns. When the Christians spread North across Europe, they made the god of the Old Religion into The Adversary. Grendel’s mother, the monster from the bog in Beowulf, is a demonized version, in a Christian story, of the ancient Anglo-Saxon fertility goddess Nerthus, to whom sacrifices were made by binding people, cutting their throats, and throwing them into a bog. You can see an ancient bas relief of the Lord of the Forest, btw, on the Gundestrup cauldron dating from 150 to 1 BCE. See the accompanying illustration.)

But where does this storytelling urge among humans come from, and why is it universal? Storytelling takes energy. And it doesn’t produce tangible results. It doesn’t mend bones or build houses or plant crops. So, why would it survive and be found among every people on Earth from the earliest times onward?

Contemporary cognitive scientists have learned that storytelling is an essential, built-in part of the human psyche, involved in every aspect of our lives, including our dreams, memories, and beliefs about ourselves and the world. Storytelling turns out to be one of the fundamental ways in which our brains are organized to make sense of our experience. Only in very recent years have we come to understand this. We are ESSENTIALLY storytelling creatures, in the Aristotelian sense of essentially. That is, it’s our storytelling that defines us. If that sounds like an overstatement, attend to what I am about to tell you. It’s amazing, and it may make you rethink a LOT of what you think you know.

At the back of each of your eyes are retinas containing rods and cones. These take in visual information from your environment. In each retina, there is a place where the optic nerve breaks through it. This is the nerve that carries visual signals to your brain. Because of this interruption of the retinas, there is a blind spot in each where NO INFORMATION AT ALL IS AVAILABLE. If what you saw was based on what signals actually hit your retina at a given moment, you would have two big black spots in your field of vision. Instead, you see a continuous visual field. Why? Because your brain automatically fills in the missing information for you, based on what was there when your eye saccaded over it a bit earlier. In other words, your brain makes up a story about what’s there. Spend some time studying optical illusions, and you will learn that this is only one example of many ways in which you don’t see the world as it is but, rather, as the story concocted by your brain says it is.

This sort of filling in of missing pieces also happens with our memories. Scientists have discovered that at any given moment, people attend to at most about seven bits of information from their immediate environment. There’s a well-known limitation of short-term memory to about seven items, give or take two, and that’s why telephone numbers are seven digits long. So, at any given moment, you are attending to only about seven items from, potentially, billions in your environment. When you remember an event, your brain FILLS IN WHAT YOU WERE NOT ATTENDING TO AT THE TIME based on general information you’ve gathered, on its predispositions, and on general beliefs that you have about the world. In short, based on very partial information, your brain makes up and tells you a STORY about that past time, and that is what you “see” in memory in your “mind’s eye.”

So, people tend to have a LOT of false memories because the brain CONFABULATES—it makes up a complete, whole story about what was PROBABLY the case and presents that whole memory to you, with the gaps filled in, for your conscious inspection. In short, memory is very, very, very faulty and is based upon the storytelling functions of the brain!!!! (And what are we except our memories? I am that boy in the Dr. Dentons, in my memory, sitting before the TV with the rabbit ears; I am that teenager in the car at the Drive-in with the girl whom I never thought in a million years would actually go out with me. But I’m getting ahead of myself.)

You can also see this storytelling function of the brain at work in dreaming. Years ago, I had a dream that I was flying into the island of Cuba on a little prop plane. Through the window, I could see the island below the plane. It looked like a big, white sheet cake, floating in an emerald sea. Next to me on the airplane sat a big, red orangutan smoking a cigar.

Weird, huh? So why did I have that dream? Well, in the days preceding the dream I had read a newspaper story about Fidel Castro, the leader of Cuba, being ill; I had flown on a small prop plane; I had attended a wedding where there was a big, white sheet cake; I had been to the zoo with my grandson, where we saw an orangutan; and I had played golf with some friends, and we had smoked cigars.

The neural circuits in my brain that had recorded these bits and pieces were firing randomly in my sleeping brain, and the part of the brain that does storytelling was working hard, trying to piece these random fragments together into a coherent, unified story. That’s the most plausible current explanation of why most dreams occur. The storytelling parts of the brain are responding to random inputs and tying them together—making sense of this random input by making a plausible story of them. This is akin to the process, pareidolia, that leads people see angels in cloud formations and pictures of Jesus on their toast.

So, those are three important reasons why the brain is set up as a storytelling device. Storytelling allows us to see a complete visual field; creates for us, from incomplete data, coherent memories; and ties together random neural firings in our brains to into the wholes that we call dreams.
But that’s not all that storytelling does for us. Storytelling about the future allows us to look ahead—for example, to determine what another creature is going to do. We often play scenarios in our minds that involve possible futures. What will she say if I ask her to the prom? What will the boss say if I ask for a raise? How will that go down? In other words, storytelling provides us with a THEORY OF MIND for predicting others’ behavior.

Stories also help people to connect to one another. When we tell others a story, we literally attune to them. We actually get “on the same wavelengths.” Uri Hasson, a neuroscientist at Princeton, recorded the brainwaves of people during rest and while listening to a story. During rest, their waves were all over the place. While listening to the same story, even at different times and places, those people had brainwaves that were in synch.

Storytelling also provides a mechanism for exploring and attempting to understand others generally. Our basic situation in life is that your mind is over there and mine is over here. We’re different, and we have to try to figure each other out—to have a theory of other people’s minds. By telling myself a story about you, I can attempt to bridge that ontological gap. Unfortunately, the stories we tell ourselves about others tend to be fairly unidimensional. You are simply this or that. I, on the other hand, am an international man of mystery. This is a tendency we need to guard against.

We also tell stories in order to influence others’ behavior–to get them to adopt the story we’re telling as their own. This is how advertising works, for example. The advertiser gets you to believe a story about how you will be sexier or smarter or prettier or more successful or of higher status if you just buy the product with the new, fresh lemony scent. And it’s not just advertisers who do this. Donald Trump sold working class Americans a fiction about how he could strike deals that would make America great again because he was such a great businessman, one who started with nothing and made billions. The coach tells a story in which her team envisions itself as the winners of the Big Game. The woo-er tells the woo-ee the story of the great life they will have together (“Come live with me and be my love/And we shall all the pleasures prove”). And so on. Successful cult leaders, coaches, lovers, entrepreneurs, attorneys, politicians, religious leaders, marketers, etc., all share this is common: they know that persuasion is storytelling. The best of them also understand that the most successful stories, in the long run, are ones that are true, even if they are fictional.

When we tell stories, we spin possible futures—we try things on, hypothetically. And that helps us to develop ideas about who we want to be and what we want to do. Gee, if I travel down that road, I may end up in this better place.

And that observation leads to one final, supremely important function of storytelling: Who you are—your very SELF—is a story that you tell yourself about yourself and your history and your relations to others—a story with you as the main character. The stories you tell yourself about yourself become the person you are. The word person, by the way, comes from the Latin persona, for a mask worn by an actor in the Roman theatre.

So, our very idea of ourselves, of our own personal identity, is dependent upon this storytelling capacity of the human brain, which takes place, for the most part, automatically. There is even a new form of psychotherapy called cognitive narrative therapy that is all about teaching people to tell themselves more life-enhancing, affirmative stories about themselves, about who they are.

Telling yourself the right kinds of stories about yourself and others can unlock your creative potential, improve your relationships, and help you to self create—to be the person you want to be.

So, to recapitulate, storytelling . . .

helps us to fill in the gaps so that we have coherent memories,

ties together random firings in the brain into coherent dreams,

enables us to sort and make sense of past experience,

gives us theories of what others think and how they will behave,

enables us to influence others’ behavior,

enables us to try on various futures, and

helps us to form a personal identity, a sense of who were are.

Kinda important, all that!

Storytelling, in fact, is key to being human. It’s our defining characteristic. It’s deeply embedded in our brains. It runs through every aspect of our lives. It makes us who we are.

It’s no wonder then, that people throughout history have told stories. People are made to construct stories—plausible and engaging accounts of things—the way a stapler is made to staple and a hammer is made to hammer. We are Homo relator, man the storyteller.

(BTW, the root *man, meaning “human being” in general, without a specific gender reference, is ancient. It goes all the way back to Proto-Indo-European, but there’s still good reason, today, to seek out gender-neutral alternatives, when possible, of course.)

Copyright 2015. Robert D. Shepherd. All rights reserved.

Art: Detail from the Gundestrup Cauldron. Nationalmuseet [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or CC BY-SA 2.5 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)]

For more pieces by Bob Shepherd on the topic of Education “Reform,” go here: https://bobshepherdonline.wordpress.com/category/ed-reform/

For more pieces on the teaching of literature and writing, go here: https://bobshepherdonline.wordpress.com/category/teaching-literature-and-writing/

Posted in Short Stories, Teaching Literature and Writing, Uncategorized | 17 Comments

It’s about Time (a Catena)



A brief tour of fascinating (and lunatic) notions that philosophers (and a few poets) have had about time. 

The Mystery of Time

“What then is time? If no one asks me, I know; if I wish to explain it to one who asks, I know not.”

–St. Augustine (345–430 CE), Confessions

PART 1: What Is Time? Types of Time

Albert_Einstein_at_the_age_of_three_(1882)Absolute or Scientific Newtonian Time

“Absolute, true and mathematical time, of itself, and from its own nature flows equably without regard to anything external, and by another name is called duration.”

–Sir Isaac Newton (1643–1727), Philosophiae naturalis principia mathematica (Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy)

The Specious (Nonexistent) Present

“The relation of experience to time has not been profoundly studied. Its objects are given as being of the present, but the part of time referred to by the datum is a very different thing from the conterminous of the past and future which philosophy denotes by the name Present. The present to which the datum refers is really a part of the past — a recent past — delusively given as being a time that intervenes between the past and the future. Let it be named the specious present, and let the past, that is given as being the past, be known as the obvious past. [Each of] all the notes of a bar of a song seem to the listener to be contained in the [specious] present. [Each of] all the changes of place of a meteor seem to the beholder to be contained in the [specious] present. At the instant of the termination of [each element in] such series, no part of the time measured by them seems to be [an obvious] past. Time, then, considered relatively to human apprehension, consists of four parts, viz., the obvious past, the specious present, the real present, and the future. Omitting the specious present, it consists of three . . . nonentities — the [obvious] past, which does not [really] exist, the future, which does not [yet] exist, and their conterminous, the [specious] present; the faculty from which it proceeds lies to us in the fiction of the specious present.”

–E. Robert Kelley, from The Alternative, a Study in Psychology (1882). Kelley’s concept of the specious present has been extremely influential in both Continental and Anglo-American philosophy despite the fact that Kelley was not a professional philosopher.

Albert_Einstein_as_a_childSubjective Time

“Oh, yeah. Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit. I never finished it, though I did spent about a year with it one evening.”

Experienced Time: The “Wide” Present

“In short, the practically cognized present is no knife-edge, but a saddle-back, with a certain breadth of its own on which we sit perched, and from which we look in two directions into time. The unit of composition of our perception of time is a duration, with a bow and a stern, as it were—a rearward- and a forward-looking end. It is only as parts of this duration-block that the relation or succession of one end to the other is perceived. We do not first feel one end and then feel the other after it, and forming the perception of the succession infer an interval of time between, but we seem to feel the interval of time as a whole, with its two ends embedded in it.”

–William James, “The Perception of Time,” from The Principles of Psychology, Book I

459px-Einstein_patentofficeA, B, and C Series Time (Three Ways of Looking at Time)

  • The A Series: Time as Past, Present, and Future
  • The B Series: Time as Earlier, Simultaneous, and Later
  • The C Series: Time as an Ordered Relation of Events (with the direction being irrelevant)

Influential distinctions made by John Ellis McTaggart in “The Unreality of Time.” Mind 17 (1908): 456-476. The three types are much discussed by philosophers in the Anglo-American analytic tradition.

See also The Unreality of Time 2: Block Time, below

PART 2: Does Time Exist?

No, It Doesn’t: Change Is a Self-Contradictory Idea

“For this view can never predominate, that that which IS NOT exists. You must debar your thought from this way of search. . . .There is only one other description of the way remaining, namely, that what IS, is. To this way there are very many signposts: that Being has no coming-into-being . . . . Nor shall I allow you to speak or think of it as springing from not-being; for it is neither expressive nor thinkable that what-is-not is. . . . How could Being perish? How could it come into being? If it came into being, it is not; and so too if it is about-to-be at some future time. . . .For nothing else either is or shall be except Being, since Fate has tied it down to be a whole and motionless; therefore all things that mortals have established, believing in their truth, are just a name: Becoming and Perishing, Being and Not-Being, and Change of position, and alteration of bright color.”

–Parmenides of Elea (c. 475 BCE), fragment from The Way of Truth, in Ancilla to the PreSocratic Philosophers, ed. Kathleen Freeman

Albert_Einstein_(Nobel)“Does the arrow move when the archer shoots it at the target? If there is a reality of space, the arrow must at all times occupy a particular position in space on its way to the target. But for an arrow to occupy a position in space that is equal to its length is precisely what is meant when one says that the arrow is at rest. Since the arrow must always occupy such a position on its trajectory which is equal to its length, the arrow must be always at rest. Therefore, motion is an illusion.”

–Zeno of Elea (c. 450 BCE), fragment from Epicheriemata (Attacks), in Ancilla to the PreSocratic Philosophers, ed. Kathleen Freeman

“One part of time has been [the past] and is not, while the other is going to be and is not yet [the future]. Yet time, both infinite time and any time you care to take, is made up of these. One would naturally suppose that what is made up of things which do not exist could have no share in reality.”

–Aristotle (384–322 BCE), Physics, IV, 10–14. 217b-244a.

462px-Einstein-formal_portrait-35Yes, It Does: Change Is the Fundamental Reality of Our Lives

“It is not possible to step twice into the same river.”

–Heraclitus, (c. 475 BCE), fragment from unnamed book, in Ancilla to the PreSocratic Philosophers, ed. Kathleen Freeman

[Heraclitus seems to have held this fact to be one of many indications of the essential unworthiness/irredeemability of this life; the other fragments of his writings that have survived suggest that Heraclitus was a kind of 5th century fundamentalist preacher, upset about the moral decay around him, who viewed the world as synonymous with decay, and who wanted to point his readers, instead, toward the eternal Logos. Plato inherited this view; the Christian church inherited Plato’s. Such contemptu mundi (contempt for the world) is often, in that tradition, expressed as contempt for that which exists “in time” and is not eternal.]

“Time is nature’s way of keeping everything from happening at once.”

–Woody Allen (1935–      )


No, It Doesn’t: Time is an Illusion Due to Vantage Point in an Eternal Space Time (the “Block Time” Hypothesis):

“Now Besso has departed from this strange world a little ahead of me. That means nothing, for we physicists believe the separation between past, present, and future is only an illusion, although a convincing one.”

–Albert Einstein (1879­–1955), in a letter written to the family of Michele Besso, on Besso’s death

“All time is all time. It does not change. It does not lend itself to warnings or explanations. It simply is. Take it moment by moment, and you will find that we are all, as I’ve said before, bugs in amber.”

462px-Einstein-formal_portrait-35–Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. (1922–2007), who is in heaven now, Slaughterhouse Five

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.

–T.S. Eliot (1888–1965), “Burt Norton,” from Four Quartets

No, It Doesn’t: The Now as Consequence of the Blindness of the Brain to Its Own Processing of Temporal Data (the “Blind Brain” Hypothesis)

“Nothing, I think, illustrates this forced magic quite like the experiential present, the Now. Recall what we discussed earlier regarding the visual field. Although it’s true that you can never explicitly ‘see the limits of seeing’–no matter how fast you move your head–those limits are nonetheless a central structural feature of seeing. The way your visual field simply ‘runs out’ without edge or demarcation is implicit in all seeing–and, I suspect, without the benefit of any ‘visual run off’ circuits. Your field of vision simply hangs in a kind of blindness you cannot see.

“This, the Blind Brain Hypothesis suggests, is what the now is: a temporal analogue to the edgelessness of vision, an implicit structural artifact of the way our ‘temporal field’–what James called the ‘specious present’–hangs in a kind temporal hyper-blindness. Time passes in experience, sure, but thanks to the information horizon of the thalamocortical system, experience itself stands still, and with nary a neural circuit to send a Christmas card to. There is time in experience, but no time of experience. The same way seeing relies on secondary systems to stitch our keyhole glimpses into a visual world, timing relies on things like narrative and long term memory to situate our present within a greater temporal context.

“Given the Blind Brain Hypothesis, you would expect the thalamocortical system to track time against a background of temporal oblivion. You would expect something like the Now. Perhaps this is why, no matter where we find ourselves on the line of history, we always stand at the beginning. Thus the paradoxical structure of sayings like, “Today is the first day of the rest of your life.” We’re not simply running on hamster wheels, we are hamster wheels, traveling lifetimes without moving at all.

“Which is to say that the Blind Brain Hypothesis offers possible theoretical purchase on the apparent absurdity of conscious existence, the way a life of differences can be crammed into a singular moment.”

–Scott Bakker, “The End of the World As We Knew It: Neuroscience and the Semantic Apocalypse”

PART 3: What Contemplation of Time Teaches Us about Living

Carpe Diem

“Such,” he said, “O King, seems to me the present life of men on Earth, in comparison with that time which to us is uncertain, as if when on a winter’s night, you sit feasting . . . and a simple sparrow should fly into the hall, and coming in at one door, instantly fly out through another. In that time in which it is indoors it is indeed not touched by the fury of winter; but yet, this smallest space of calmness being passed almost in a flash, from winter going into winter again, it is lost to our eyes.

“Something like this appears the life of man, but of what follows or what went before, we are utterly ignorant.”

–The Venerable Bede (c. 672–735), Ecclesiastical History of the English People, Book II


“Seize the day, trusting as little as possible in the future.”

–Horace (65–8 BCE), Odes 1.11

Oh, come with old Khayyam, and leave the Wise
To talk; one thing is certain, that Life flies;
One thing is certain, and the Rest is Lies;
The Flower that once has blown for ever dies.

Omar Khayyám (1048–1131), “Rubiyat,” trans. Edward FitzGerald

Gather ye rosebuds while ye may
Old time is still a-flying:
And this same flower that smiles to-day
To-morrow will be dying.

–Robert Herrick (1591–1674), “To the Virgins, to Make Use of Time”

459px-Einstein_patentofficeBut at my back I alwaies hear
Times winged Charriot hurrying near:
And yonder all before us lye
Desarts of vast Eternity.
Thy Beauty shall no more be found;
Nor, in thy marble Vault, shall sound
My ecchoing Song: then Worms shall try
That long preserv’d Virginity:
And your quaint Honour turn to durst;
And into ashes all my Lust.
The Grave’s a fine and private place,
But none I think do there embrace.
Now therefore, while the youthful hew
Sits on thy skin like morning glew,
And while thy willing Soul transpires
At every pore with instant Fires,
Now let us sport us while we may;
And now, like am’rous birds of prey,
Rather at once our Time devour,
Than languish in his slow-chapt pow’r.
Let us roll all our Strength, and all
Our sweetness, up into one Ball:
And tear our Pleasures with rough strife,
Thorough the Iron gates of Life.
Thus, though we cannot make our Sun
Stand still, yet we will make him run.

–Andrew Marvell (1621–1678), “To His Coy Mistress”

“Get it while you can.
Don’t you turn your back on love.”

–The American philosopher Janis Joplin (1943–1970)

Albert_Einstein_as_a_childGive Up/It’s All Futile Anyway

“A man finds himself, to his great astonishment, suddenly existing, after thousands of years of nonexistence: he lives for a little while; and then, again, comes an equally long period when he must exist no more. The heart rebels against this, and feels that it cannot be true.

“Of every event in our life we can say only for one moment that it is; for ever after, that it was. Every evening we are poorer by a day. It might, perhaps, make us mad to see how rapidly our short span of time ebbs away; if it were not that in the furthest depths of our being we are secretly conscious of our share in the exhaustible spring of eternity, so that we can always hope to find life in it again.

“Consideration of the kind, touched on above, might, indeed, lead us to embrace the belief that the greatest wisdom is to make the enjoyment of the present the supreme object of life; because that is the only reality, all else being merely the play of thought. On the other hand, such a course might just as well be called the greatest folly: for that which in the next moment exists no more, and vanishes utterly, like a dream, can never be worth a serious effort.”

–The ever-cheerful Arthur Schopenhauer (1788–1860), “The Vanity of Existence,” from Studies in Pessimism

Three Phenomenologist/Existentialist Views of Time

NB: the following are NOT quotations. I’ve summarized material that appears in much longer works. You’re welcome. I have included Husserl in this section, even though his work is just an attempted explanation of time, because the other two philosophers treated here are reacting to Husserl’s ideas.

Albert_Einstein_at_the_age_of_three_(1882)Husserl (very bright dude, this one): All our ideas about time spring from our conscious experience of the present. That experience is characterized by being intentional, by being toward something. We typically recognize three kinds of time: 1. scientific, objective, Newtonian time, which we think of as being independent of ourselves and as independently verifiable; 2. subjective time, in which events seem to move slower or faster; and 3. phenomenological or intentional time, which is the fundamental experience on which the other concepts of time are based, from which the other concepts derive because the phenomenological present includes not only awareness of present phenomena (the present), but retention (awareness of that which is not present because it no longer is—the past), and protention (awareness of that which is not present because it is about to be). The present is intentionality toward phenomena before us here, now. The past is present intentionality toward phenomena that are not present but are with us and so must be past (that’s where the definition of past comes from). The future is present intentionality toward phenomena that also are present but are not with us (as the past is) and so must be the future, which will be (that’s where the definition of future comes from). Therefore, in their origins in our phenomenological experiences, the future and the past are parts of the present, conceptual phenomena held in the present, alongside actual phenomena, as phenomena no longer present and not yet present.

Albert_Einstein_as_a_childHeidegger: Husserl had it all wrong. It’s the future, not the present, that is fundamental. We are future-oriented temporalities by nature, essentially so. Our particular type of being, Dasein, or being-there, is characterized by having care (about its projects, its current conditions, about other beings)—about matters as they relate to those projects. Our being is characterized by understanding, thrownness, and fallenness. Understanding, is the most fundamental of the three. It is projection toward the future, comportment toward the possibilities that present themselves, potentiality for being. Our understanding seizes upon projects, projecting itself on various possibilities. In its thrownness, Dasein always finds itself in a certain spiritual and material, historically conditioned environment that limits the space of those possibilities. As fallenness, Dasein finds itself among other beings, some of which are also Dasein and some of which (e.g., rocks) are not Dasein, and it has, generally respectively, “being-with” them or “being alongside” them, and these help to define what possibilities there are.  “Our sort of being (Dasein) is being for which being is an issue.” Why is it an issue? Well, we are finite. We know that we are going to die. This is the undercurrent that informs our essential being, which is care, concern. We are projections toward the future because undertaking these projects is an attempt, however quixotic, to distract ourselves from or even to cheat death. We care about our projects because, at some level, we care about not dying, having this projection toward the future for which we are living.

459px-Einstein_patentofficeSartre: The world is divided into two kinds of being: being-for-itself (the kind of being that you and I have) and being-in-itself (the kind of being that a rock or a refrigerator has). Let’s think a bit about our kind of being. Take away your perceptions, your body, your thoughts. Strip everything away, and you still have pure being, the being of the being-for-itself, but it is a being that is also nothing. (The Buddha thought this, too). Being-for-itself has intentional objects, but itself is no object (there’s no there there) and so is nothing, a nothingness. Time is like being in that respect. It consists entirely of the past (which doesn’t exist) and the future (which doesn’t exist) and the present (which is infinitesimally small and so doesn’t exist). So time, like being, is a nothingness. This being-for-itself is not just nothingness, however; it has some other bizarre, contradictory characteristics: Its being, though nothing, allows a world to be manifest (how this is so is unclear), a world that includes all this stuff, including others, for example, who want to objectify the being-for-itself, to make it into a something, a thing, a being-in-itself, like a rock. (“Oh, I know you. I’m wise to you. You’re . . . .” whatever.) The being-for-itself also has a present past (in Husserl’s sense) and is subject to certain conditions of material construction (the body) and material conditions (in an environment of things), and all these givens—the body, the environment, one’s own past, and other people seen from the outside in their thinginess—make up the being-for-itself’s facticity. The being-for-itself wants to be SOMETHING, and so lies to itself. It acts in bad faith, playing various roles (playing at being a waiter, for example) and creating for itself an ego (via self-deceptive, magical thinking). But in fact, being in reality nothing, being-for-itself (each of us) knows that that’s all a lie. We transcend our facticity and can be anything whatsoever, act in any way whatsoever. In other words, we are absolutely free and therefore absolutely responsible. This responsibility is absurd, because there is no reason for being/doing any particular thing. “Man is a meaningless passion.” But the absolute freedom that derives from our essential nothingness also allows for action to be truly authentic (as opposed to the play-acting) in addition to being responsible. Only in death does the being-for-itself succeed in becoming a being-in-itself, a completed thing, and then only if and in the manner in which he or she is remembered by others. A person who is not remembered never existed. Death is a time stamp or, if we are not remembered, an expiration date.

Albert_Einstein_(Nobel)The Eternal Return and the Weight of Being

“341. The Greatest Weight. What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: ‘This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unutterably small or great in your life will have to return to you, all in the same succession and sequence—even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned upside down again and again, and you with it, speck of dust!’

“Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: “You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine.” If this thought gained possession of you, it would change you as you are or perhaps crush you. The question in each and every thing, “Do you desire this once more and innumerable times more?” would lie upon your actions as the greatest weight. Or how well disposed would you have to become to yourself and to life to crave nothing more fervently than this ultimate eternal confirmation and seal?”

–Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900), The Gay Science

462px-Einstein-formal_portrait-35The Fleeting One-Offness of Everything and the Resulting Unbearable Lightness of Being

“But Nietzsche’s demon is, of course, wrong. There is no eternal return. Where does that leave us? Isn’t life ALWAYS a matter of I should have’s and I would have’s and if I had only knowns? “[W]hat happens but once, might as well not have happened at all. If we have only one life to live, we might as well not have lived at all. . . .

“The heaviest of burdens crushes us, we sink beneath it, it pins us to the ground. But in love poetry of every age, the woman longs to be weighed down by the man’s body. The heaviest of burdens is therefore simultaneously an image of life’s most intense fulfillment. The heavier the burden, the closer our lives come to the earth, the more real and truthful they become. Conversely, the absolute absence of burden causes man to be lighter than air, to soar into heights, take leave of the earth and his earthly being, and become only half real, his movements as free as they are insignificant. What then shall we choose? Weight or lightness?”

–Milan Kundera (1929­–     ), contra Nietzsche, from The Unbearable Lightness of Being

Albert_Einstein_HeadCopyright 2010, Robert D. Shepherd. All rights reserved.

Posted in Existentialism, Metaphysics, Philosophy, Philosophy of Mind, Time | Tagged , , | 5 Comments


State your name, please.

OK. I can do that. I mean, I can give you some names. But these are misleading.

You intend to give us false names?

I did not say this. But a name suggests a finitude entirely inappropriate to all that I am. “I contain worlds. There is that lot of me.” Whitman. However, if you insist. I used to be called Bobby Dale. That was a long time ago in human and dog years. To my high-school friends, I was Bobby Clean. To Joe the Body Builder, The Professor. My students called me Mr. Shepherd.

And where do you live, Mr. Shepherd?

Hmm. I dwell on the Earth. More proximately (though these are relative matters), in the skin that I’m in. Contentedly, I must say, especially when I hear about events like the Omaha student protests. Sometimes, though, ecstatically, when under the wide sky, in the presence of the gods.

So, you are a believer. What religion?

I am an omnitheist. I believe in all the gods. And some of the people. Especially in those students. May all the gods bless them. They are the future. DeStalin et al., the dead weight of an ugly past.

Are you going to answer our questions or not?

Yes. That, for example, is an answer.

OK. Look, enough of this. We’re just going to leave you here until you are more cooperative.

I take that seriously.

You had better.

No, I mean, I take seriously whom I cooperate with.

Copyright 2023. Robert D. Shepherd. All rights reserved.

Posted in Existentialism, Humor, Love, Philosophy, Poetry, Politics, Religion, Teaching Literature and Writing | Leave a comment

Lichtung, Midsummer, No Fairies

Where have you gone, fairies of my childhood?
Have I grown too blustering and blundering,
Too puffed up with knowledge and opinions?

I seek you in the clearing of the wood
And there find only the luminescence
You have left behind, hanging in the heavy
Midsummer’s air. Is this, then,
What is left me? This ripeness, this
Completedness, this disclosedness,
In the clearing, of the present at hand,
Naked and heavy as flesh?

I seek you by the margins of the lake,
And there find dragonflies and damselflies,
And the silver bodies of mullet jumping,
Breaking free of one world into another,
Again and again, as though they would
Break free for good or die trying.
And these are wonders, surely, but
They but intensify the longing you left,
With your mark upon my body,
When you returned me to the cradle.

How could I see those and not be reminded
Of the shimmering of your wings
By moonlight as we danced? I am wise to you.
This is what you do, is it not?
You return us, you leave us with the world
And the knowing that this richness beyond measure,
This clearing, for all its fullness, is not all,
Is not all at all, at all, at all.

It is a hard lesson, and I am, doubtless,
As slow a learner as the rest. But where have you gone?
I would ask the trees, for those of their
Gossiping, garrulous race would doubtless know,
And the wind is rising, and they are bending their heads,
One to another, on the opposite shore, and
Making a racket. Are they oblivious? Do they mock?
I cannot know, for I haven’t their language.

Perhaps one could learn it, in time.
Perhaps if I sat here and listened long enough,
I could figure it out, for surely the San tongue
Sounds equally incomprehensible to the anthropologist,
Hearing it spoken, at first,
Within the clearing that is their world, in all its fullness,
With its ways of disclosing and of shutting out.

Copyright 2011, Robert D. Shepherd. All rights reserved.

Posted in Existentialism, Metaphysics, Philosophy, Poetry | Leave a comment

Kant: Finding a Way In

OK. This is rough, and I’ll be revising it. But I just prepared this for a friend, and I thought I would share it.

for Brooke

Reading Kant is notoriously difficult. One reason for this difficulty is that he didn’t have a word processor. LOL. He almost, at one point, lost his professorship because for a period of eleven years, he barely published anything. At the beginning of this period, he wrote to a friend that he was about to give birth to a “Critique of Pure Reason,” by which he meant an examination of thinking that is pure in the sense of not being dependent upon perception (sensation). But it wasn’t until eleven years later that his Critique of Pure Reason, or CPR, (Kritik der reinen Vernunft) appeared. During this whole time, Kant took daily walks that were so regular that the citizens of Königsberg (now Russian Kaliningrad), where he lived and taught, set their watches by him. And he thought. And thought. And thought. And many of these thoughts he committed to paper. Then, when it looked as though he might lose his professorship because of his lack of productivity, he gathered his notes and threw them together quickly and without sufficient editing into a vast work. Then, a few years later, he revised this, again using various notes thrown together with minimal editing. As a result, the text, in its A and B versions, is repetitive, and terms are often used sloppily and in different senses. Those who are used to 20th– and 21st-century clarity of exposition will be frustrated. His first of his three Critiques, by far his most influential and important work, has a grand, impressive overall architecture, but when you get into the sections, they are often a repetitive, confusing and, on occasion, confused, pastiche of stuff thrown under headings because they sort of fit there. Kant was a great genius, but we all need editors.

However, that’s not the biggest problem with reading Kant. The biggest problem is that he uses terms in German (and in their corresponding translations into English) in ways that we no longer do. We’ve already seen one example of this: pure, in Kant’s title, does not mean “unsullied” (the usual meaning we give to this word). It means “not having to do with sense perceptions.” (Use of pure in the combined sense of “uncorrupted/unsullied by sensual matters” is an example of the infection of our language and other European languages by the Christian church’s antipathy for Earthly experience, its Contemptus Mundi, and its unfortunate cleaving of the universe into a “higher” spiritual world and a “lower” physical one). So, in Kant, one encounters a LOT of terms that are baffling. What does he mean by “pure” reason? Well, he means “those aspects of our thinking that don’t derive from, have their origins in, sense perceptions.” Such terms pile up, undefined or poorly defined and used in special senses, and readers are left utterly confused. So, I wrote this brief essay as an aid to those beginning their study of Kant, as a means for heading off at the start those confusions about terminology.

Here are two more examples of Kant’s confusing terminology. After his Prefaces (for the A and B versions) and Introductions (again for the A and B versions), Kant begins the CPR proper with something he calls The Transcendental Aesthetic. When we use the term transcendental, we usually have in mind something that goes beyond our ordinary sensory experience. So, for example, the American Transcendentalists–people like Channing and Emerson–thought that we could sense, in nature, an underlying and unifying spirit, the Oversoul. However, in encountering Kant, we should reserve the term transcendent, instead, for THAT meaning–“having to do with underlying, ultimate realities”–for by transcendental, Kant means something completely different. Kant, in fact, calls his philosophical system “Transcendental philosophy.” So, what does he mean by that? Well, some philosophers before Kant (Locke and Hume, most famously) thought that we got ALL our knowledge of the world from sense perception. Kant disagreed. He believed that while we cannot know the world as it is in itself (the noumenon) but only as it is perceived by us (phenomena), we depend upon certain features of our own minds, in addition to sense perceptions, in order to make sense of anything. Kant uses the term transcendental deduction to refer to his method, which is the procedure of figuring out what must be the case with regard to how our minds are structured, about how they work, in order for us to make sense of things in the ways that we actually (and necessarily) do. Let’s make sure we understand how Kant’s transcendental deductions work:

  1. We consider functions of the mind–things that our minds can do.
  2. We distinguish in the contents of our thinking that which comes to us via our sense perceptions from that which doesn’t exist in external phenomena but that are brought to, i.e., imposed upon, the understanding of phenomena by the mind itself. (Kant came to this way of thinking on his encounter with Hume, who had notoriously claimed that we could not prove the existence of causation, of cause and effect, but only what we actually encounter, which is events preceding or following other events. It was this in Hume, Kant wrote, in his Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics that “awakened” him:

    “I freely admit that it was the remembrance of David Hume which, many years ago, first interrupted my dogmatic slumber and gave my investigations in the field of speculative philosophy a completely different direction.”

    Kant’s insight was that if causation doesn’t exist outside the mind, in phenomena, it must be imposed upon phenomena by the mind, for humans see causation everywhere, and this was Kant’s first “transcendental deduction.”)
  3. By this means, via transcendental deduction, Kant argues, we can figure out the structures imposed upon sensory experience by the mind. In short, we have asked, “How must the mind be structured to function if it imposes on sensory experiences the characteristics that it does?”

Side note: many years after Kant, the GREAT American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce introduced the term abduction to describe such “what must be the case if” thinking. Deduction is when we decide what must be the case given x. So, from the premises that Socrates is a man and All men are mortal, we can deduce—it must be the case—that Socrates is mortal. Induction is when we generalize based on specific instances. This swan is white, that swan is white; therefore, we generalize to the proposition that all swans are white (which turns out to be false; induction is the primary means by which we understand the world, but it is notoriously fallible in this way). An example of abductive reasoning would be this: Hmm. It’s wet outside. Therefore, it must have rained. The term abduction wasn’t available to Kant. It hadn’t been invented yet, so he calls his procedure a Transcendental Deduction. It’s actually an abduction. It’s figuring out WHAT MUST BE THE CASE with regard to our minds given that we are able to do this and that with them.

Now, when we use the term aesthetic, we mean “having to be with beauty.” However, that’s not how Kant uses it in the CPR. He means, instead, “having to do with our senses.” This older use of the term aesthetic survives in our term anesthetized, which means, “not capable of sense perception because of sedation.” So, to recap, a transcendental aesthetic is, for Kant, a study of what must be the case with regard to our minds for them to make sense of sense perceptions. And in the Transcendental Aesthetic section of CPR, Kant argues that time and space do not exist in things outside ourselves—in sense perceptions themselves—but are IMPOSED UPON the blooming variety of perceptions (the manifold) BY THE MIND. Imagine that you had red glasses placed on you at birth and never saw the world except through these. You would not see things “as they are,’ whatever that means. You would see red things. The world would seem red to you. Similarly, Kant argues, the mind imposes upon whatever is actually the case, which is unknowable, these aspects or features that are not to be found in the perceptions themselves but, rather, in how the mind is structured to make sense of things—in space and in time. Now, initially, this conclusion of Kant’s Transcendental Aesthetic might sound a little crazy to you. Surely, space and time are absolute aspects of the world out there. But in the modern era, Einsteinian Relativity has shown us that time as we perceive it is an illusion. In fact, all times exist at all times. We only cognize time as passing, the past as gone, the future as not yet existing, and the present as the only reality because of how our minds are structured. At any moment, we happen to be limited to that moment in our perceptions, but just as Chicago doesn’t stop existing when we travel to Boston, so yesterday doesn’t stop existing when we travel to today. So, in light of what Einstein taught us, Kant’s notion, that space and time are IMPOSED UPON REALITY BY THE MIND, that these are matters of our own limited perspectives, doesn’t sound so crazy after all, does it? After Kant, anything but Perspectivism with regard to Metaphysics (the study of what is) became, clearly, obviously, impossible.

So, we have seen that one difficulty in reading Kant is that certain key terms that he uses, such as Pure, Transcendental, Aesthetic, and Deduction, mean different things now, to us, than they did as he used them. Another example is Kant’s use of the term judgment. To us, a judgment is an evaluation. We judge the quality of a particular bedsheet based on its thread count, its material, its softness, its durability, and so on. For Kant (and for many other philosophers), judgment is a much broader term. A judgment is any act of thinking, or reasoning, about objects. At one point in the CPR, Kant presents (extremely proudly) what he considers an exhaustive Table of Judgments, or types of reasoning, which he divides into four species, as follows:

Table of Judgments

 Quantity (e.g., number)
Universal (All x is A; Example: All grass is green.) Particular (Some x is A; Example: Some grass is green.) Singular (This a is A; Example: This grass is green.)
Quality (i.e., extension) Affirmative (For all x, it is the case that the x is A.) Negative (No x’s are A.) Infinite (For all x, it is not they case that x is A.) Relation (i.e., class membership) Categorical (x belongs to the category A.) Hypothetical (If x is A, then x is B.) Disjunctive (x is A or B.)
 Modality (i.e., possibility or necessity) Problematic (It is possible that an x is A.) Assertoric (It is the case that x is A.) Apodictic (x must be A.) 

According to Kant, the mind imposes, automatically, upon sense perceptions its structuring of perceptions in space and in time. It also automatically imposes upon its judgments about sense perceptions (see the table of types of judgments), concepts based on those judgments that are automatically performed by the mind in response to sense perceptions. By the way, Kant confusingly refers to sense perceptions as experienced by us as intuitions, whereas we use the term with a completely different meaning, to refer to hunches—to that which we think we know without being fully sure of the reasons why we suspect it to be the case. So, for us, an intuition might be, I don’t trust that guy; I think he might be a snake, whereas for Kant, an intuition is simply an experienced manifold of perception.

So, the mind automatically, according to Kant, imposes upon intuitions (experiences of sense perceptions) both structuring in space and time and what he calls Categories, or concepts derived from each of these types of judgments. Corresponding one-to-one to Kant’s Table of Judgments is a Table of Categories:

Table of Categories (concepts imposed by the mind on experiences)

 Quantity Unity
 Relation Inherence and Subsistence (Substance and Accident)
Causality and Dependence (Cause and Effect)
Community (Reciprocity or Coexistence/Simultaneity)
 Modality Possibility/impossibility Existence/nonexistence Necessity/Contingency 

The Categories are mind-born, mind-imposed concepts. It is important to note that in the normal course of events, the mind imposes these concepts on sensory experience automatically. But how does this happen? How does the mind impose the Categories on Intuitions (sense perceptions)? According to Kant, it does so by following built-in rules for how the mind works that he calls Schemata, and these schemata are all rules for making judgments, using the Categories, based on time. (It seems entirely possible that Kant meant to say that there are also rules based on space but didn’t work that out before publishing the CPR.) So, according to Kant, the mind comes up with the judgment that something is impossible by applying the Category, or concept, of impossibility using a time-based schema that at no time does this thing occur. It comes up with the judgment that something is possible by applying the Category, or concept, of possibility using a time-based schema that at some time, this thing could occur. It comes up with the judgment that one thing causes another by noting that the one follows the other, necessarily, in time, and there is no time in which one occurs without the other following it. It applies the Category of Substance to that aspect of a thing that persists despite accidental changes that occur to a thing over time. It applies the Category of Community to things that occur together at one or more times. And so on for all of the Categories. The mind automatically applies time-based rules (schemata) using the concepts that Kant refers to as Categories in order to form automatic judgments that are our means for “making sense,” for thinking about experience.

Whew. So there you have it. Your basic intro to Kant. Here’s why his thought so blows my mind: He anticipated by more than a couple hundred years the cognitive revolution in psychology, which is based on the idea that the mind is not a passive receptacle but, rather, imposes structures on experience. So, for example, we now know that much of the grammar of languages is built-in—is hard-wired into human brains—and those brains interpret speech sounds BASED UPON those internal, mental structures and the processing that brains do. Not having a computer ready to hand, Kant didn’t have available to him to concept of processing as an explanation for the structures that the mind imposes. But that the mind imposes structures he grokked.

Now, here’s a nifty takeaway from all this: Kant says we cannot know reality as it is in itself (the noumenon). We can’t know TRANSCENDENT STUFF with certainty, though we can know TRANSCENDENTAL STUFF by figuring out what must be the case about the mind if we do x and y. So, here’s an application: We look upon the world, and everything seems to be caused, to be determined. But we cannot live, cannot function, without the concept of our own freedom, and we necessarily act as though we were free agents. I decide to write this essay. You decide whether to read it or not. We hold people accountable when they attempt to overthrow an election, sometimes, because we think them responsible, for they did so of their own free will. How are we to reconcile the two–our observations of determinative causation in the world and our necessary de facto belief in our own free will, which we cannot live without? Well, here’s how, from a Kantian perspective. What we perceive is ruled by the mind-imposed Category of causation. But as with the fact that all times exist at all times despite the fact that we perceive it as flowing, it must be the case that free will is the underlying reality and that the determined nature of everything is illusory. So, even though we cannot, Kant tells us, KNOW about transcendent matters, we can speculate about them, and those speculations can be more or less warranted, as is the speculation that somehow, in some way that we do not understand because we are still too ignorant or will never understand because of our lack of access to ultimate reality, we are free. I mean really free. Not free to think like Ron DeSantis, which is the kind of freedom that is prized in Flor-uh-duh these days.

Posted in Epistemology, Metaphysics, Philosophy, Philosophy of Mind, Time | 3 Comments

The Future Fascists Fashion

“I try to imagine the world, our society, if the [school] privatizers get their way. Kids will be sorted by race, religion, and ethnicity, never interacting with anyone different from themselves. The homeschoolers will know only what their parents know. No professional teachers needed. A dumbed-down, divided society, where ignorance is widespread.”

–Historian of Education Diane Ravitch

Please share widely. Thank you.

Posted in Ed Reform, Politics, Teaching Literature and Writing | 32 Comments

Are Trump and His Supporters in Fact Fascists?

A few years back, a friend, someone whom I respect, challenged me on Facebook, saying that Trump might be a lot of things, but he wasn’t an actual Fascist. Well, I beg to differ. If it steps like a goose, . . .

Here are a few of the clear signs that, yes, Fascist is precisely the term to describe Trump, his supporters, and those who wish to assume the orange mantle:

Alliance with other Fascists/Authoritarians. D.T. allied himself with violent, extremist authoritarian nationalists around the globe—with, of course, his handler, Vladimir Putin, but also with Rodrigo Duterte, Narendra Modi, Jair Bolsonaro, Recep Erdoğan, Viktor Orbán and even, shockingly and weirdly, with Kim Jong-un. Hitler allied himself with extremist authoritarian nationalists around the globe—Mussolini of Italy, Hirohito of Japan, Tsar Boris III of Bulgaria, Horthy of Hungary, Antonescu of Romania, Tiso of Slovakia, and Pavelić‘of Croatia (see the Tripartite Pact signed in September of 1940 and joined later by other members of the Axis Powers).

Use of Violent Citizens’ Militias. D.T. supported and employed on numerous occasions armed, right-wing citizens’ militias, notably

a) at the March on Charlottesville by neo-Nazis who chanted “Jews will not replace us” and murdered an antifascist protestor;
b) when a group of these self-appointed militiamen invaded the Michigan Capitol and Legislature, armed, and plotted to kidnap and murder Michigan’s governor; AND
c) when several groups of these, including the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers, broke into and ransacked the U.S. Capital, beat police officers, caused injuries that led to deaths, called for hanging the Vice President, and tried to overthrow the incoming government of the United States by preventing its certification.

Trump approved of all these actions by Citizens’ Militias, saying in the first instance that there were “Good people on both sides”—the Nazis and those opposing them–and in the latter instances that these were “patriots.” And, of course, he planned and stoked the last–the January 6th insurrection. In addition, he called on his Attorney General, Secretary of Defense, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs to violate the Posse Comitatus Act and send federal troops to attack BLM protestors, which Barr sort of went along with his little green men (Esper and Milley, to their eternal credit, declined). Hitler, of course, infamously used citizens’ militias, the Sturmabteilung (the SA, or brownshirts), to provide protection at rallies, to attack enemies, and, with the SS, to carry out the infamous attacks on Jews during Kristallnacht. When asked to denounce white supremacy in a debate, Trump responded by saying, “Proud Boys—stand back and stand by.”

Monumentalism. D.T. loved monuments and monumental architecture and got a lot of political mileage out of riling up supporters of continuing to have on display in the public sphere commemorative statues of genocidal maniacs and enemies of the United States (Columbus; slave-owning men who led forces of insurrection during the Civil War). He organized a Republican Convention that was replete with monumental architecture and iconography. To do this, he violated the law by using the White House and its grounds as a political campaign/convention set. He called for absurdly expensive military parades of the kinds one sees in Communist China, North Korea. and Putin’s Russia. Trump called for building a massive “patriotic” sculpture garden. He held monumentalist nationalist events like the 4th of July military airshow at Mount Rushmore. Hitler, of course, employed Albert Speer to build monumentalist fascist architecture and devoted a great deal of his time to this.

The Cult of Personality. D.T. constantly referred to himself as “the best” or “the greatest” this or that and plastered his name on everything, from massive amounts of merch (Trump steaks, Trump straws, Trump flags) to buildings to letters accompanying Covid relief checks. He turned every discussion of every issue into one about himself and how great he is, even events that were supposed to be to honor Gold Star families or present information about how not to die from a virulent pandemic. Like a mob boss or any other Fascist leader, he required loyalty oaths and fired people who didn’t make them. At every cabinet meeting, cabinet members were expected to preface their remarks with long exhortations about the greatness of Trump (for an abject lesson in human self-abasement, go listen to a recording of one of these delivered by Mike Pence, to whom, of course, Trump showed no corresponding loyalty). He literally described himself as “the only” person who could solve the country’s problems. Clearly, Trump suffers from malignant narcissistic personality disorder. Conjure in your mind, if you have the stomach for it, a typical Trump rally. Trump created a cult of personality, just as all Fascist strongmen have done—Hitler, Mussolini, Franco, Mao, Pinochet, the Kim Dynasty of North Korea, etc. The difference, of course, is that Trump was merely a WANNABE Fascist strongman.

The Myth of the Return to Racial and National Greatness. D.T. constantly referred to a mythical Golden Age to which he would return the country and even made this his official slogan (“Make America Great Again,” or MAGA). This was, of course, precisely what Hitler did, calling for a return to a time of Aryan and German greatness–the major theme of his propaganda and writing and speeches.

The Racial Supremacy Myth/Use of Racism to Mobilize the Masses. D.T. constantly issued racist dog-whistles, from his ad attacking the innocent members of the Central Park Five to his Obama birtherism to his calling asylum seekers “caravans” and “hordes” of “rapists and murders” to his references to “s—thole countries” to his “Good people on both sides” to his planning of rallies at sites of racist violence (near the Alamo, Tulsa, etc.) to his suggestions that China purposefully engineered and released SARS-COV-2, which Trump variously referred to, in his racist way, as the “China flu,” the “Wuhan flu,” and so on. And, of course, Trump built his whole campaign, initially, on the racist idea that America was being taken over by immigrants and that in order to “have a country,” we would need to keep out the brown-skinned hordes. In fact, this is why Jeff Sessions, Steve Bannon, and Stephen Miller chose Trump to run in 2015 to begin with. See the Frontline documentary about this, Zero Tolerance (2019). Trump called for the Border Patrol to SHOOT innocent asylum seekers and screamed at his Secretary of Homeland Security for saying that she couldn’t do that. Hitler baked anti-Semitism into the Nazi ideology. Both leaders ran concentration camps targeting members of particular ethnic groups. Both committed horrific Crimes against Humanity (Hitler’s genocides; Trump’s kidnapping of immigrant children and separation of these from their parents).

Scapegoating and Call for the Elimination of Enemies Within. D.T. constantly referred and continues to refer to “enemies within” that have to be eliminated “or you’re not going to have a country anymore.” These he refers to as Socialists, the “Radical Left,” “Antifa,’ and so on. One of Trump’s favorite and most often used slurs is Enemy of the People, a phrase that goes all the way back to Roman times and was famously the title of a great play by Ibsen. Calling for the elimination of enemies within is, of course, exactly what Hitler did, blaming Germany’s troubles, such as its loss of World War I and its hyperinflation on “enemies within”—Jews and Socialists and Communists—who had “stabbed the country in the back.” But it was, of course, the extreme left-wing Fascist leaders in Russia and East Germany, during the Stalin Era, who made Enemy of the People a standard catchphrase in the 20th Century, but Trump is too ignorant to know this, to know that every time he calls Biden or Fauci or whomever an “Enemy of the People,” he is sounding just like the murderous Joseph Stalin. (And yes, you can have Fascists who come to it from the left.) And even if Trump did know this, it probably wouldn’t bother him in the least bit. Trump has expressly said that he was unhappy with “his” generals because they didn’t show him the deference that Hitler’s generals showed to Hitler. Of course, Trump doesn’t know, because he is profoundly ignorant, a bear of very little brain, that a number of those very generals tried to assassinate Hitler several times. LOL. Be careful what you wish for, Donnie!

The Fascist Rally. D.T.’s main method of communication with his base was the large-scale rally—precisely the sort of method used by Hitler, with Goebbels and Speer as organizers and Leni Riefenstahl to film these.

Indoctrination of the Young. Trump called for the creation of an overtly exceptionalist, nationalist curriculum. Hitler did the same (see, for example, the Nazi textbook on Aryan supremacy, Rasse und Seele) and also created his Hitler Youth, his League of German Girls, and his Lebensborn Program.

The National Supremacy Myth. Trump’s American Exceptionalism, Hitler’s Übermenschen and Deutschland über alles. Same diseased thought.

Eugenics and Genetic Determinism. D.T. constantly referred to his “good genes” and what he called his “racehorse theory” of what constituted a fine woman–one who was properly bred. Despite the fact of his almost total scientific ignorance, he was and is committed to a myths of Eugenics and genetic determinism–one of the central myths, of course, of Nazi ideology. And this myth, of course, supports the racial and national superiority myths.

The Erasure of the Concept of a Nation of Laws and Totalitarian Insistence That His Will Is the Law. Trump insisted, “I have an Article 2 that says I can do anything I like as President.” He seems to think that he could just magically wave his hand and declassify documents and that, at any rate, rules about preservation and secrecy didn’t apply to him because NO RULES apply to him. Trump treated agencies and departments of the government as HIS, insisting, for example, that “His” generals and “His” DOJ and “His” everything else be absolutely subservient, and he fired or attempted to fire anyone who disagreed with him about anything. Barr went along with basically turning the DOJ into Trump’s private law firm. Hitler, of course, had the Enabling Act, making his will and the law identical. This the Fascists like Trump and Hitler share with Absolute Monarchists, the idea that L’étatc’est moi. Belief in the absolute authority of the Glorious Leader (Trump thought his image should be carved onto Mount Rushmore) is what puts the “total” in Totalitarianism.

The Portrayal of Himself as the Ultra-Masculine Leader, the Archetype of the Masculine, the Strongman. Trump loves to talk about how tough he is and constantly made threats via Tweet, yelled at staff, tore up briefs, and actually threw things when he got mad. And he constantly degraded women, speaking of grabbing them by the genitals, bragging about being able to get away with sexual assault, yelling at his female Secretary of Homeland Security and calling her “Honey,” making disgusting remarks about female celebrities and reporters. He actually ran a freaking old school beauty pageant. He bragged about walking in on the women while they were dressing because as owner, he could get away with it. He was a big pal of Jeffrey Epstein’s. Of course, Trump didn’t have the physique to portray himself as a male sex symbol, so he tweeted out pictures of his face Photoshopped onto the body of fictional boxer Rocky Balboa and actually sold this image on his website. Over twenty-five women have accused him of sexual assault. He paid off a porn star and a Playboy bunny to keep quiet about affairs with him. And in these respects, Trump was in the mold of other Fascist leaders who promulgated hyper-masculinized images of themselves (along with a big dose of hyper-sexism)–think Mussolini and Pinochet and Berlusconi and of Hitler’s military garb and Putin’s shirtless, horseback photoshoots.

One could go on and on. In Trump one had and has ALMOST the complete Fascist package. The one element that was missing was the competence to pull it off. Trump is far too ignorant and stupid to have effected a Fascist revolution in America. The next guy will have all Trump’s Fascist tendencies but be smarter and more knowledgeable.

P.S.: It is extraordinarily important to call Fascism out when it rears its monstrous head, to call it what it is. Why? Because silence is complicity. It’s letting it happen again. It’s making the same mistake that Germans made back in 1932-33, expecting that it’s not going to be all that bad. That experience is behind us all now. We are supposed to know better. It CAN get that bad, that quickly. Been there, done that. In the middle of the last century, we fought a war to end this shit. Here we are seeing it again, right here, on our soil. Who would have imagined that we would have slid so far backward? These must be more than just words: Never again.

Posted in Politics, Trump (Don the Con) | 63 Comments

A Preliminary Inventory of Trump’s Lies about the Mar-a-Lago Search

Don the Con, how do I loathe thee? Let me count the ways from just the last few days.

Trump suggested that the FBI might have “planted” documents when he knew that he and his family members had watched the search live on Mar-a-lago’s closed-circuit television system. So, this was a lie.

Trump said that the FBI had raided his “beautiful home” after his having cooperated fully. But he hadn’t cooperated fully. He had retained, illegally, despite repeated requests that he turn them over, documents with the highest level of security classification. And he knew this. So, these were multiple lies, for he made them more than once. We now know that he illegally held onto hundreds of pages of documents, many with the highest levels of secrecy, and he did so after repeated attempts of the National Archives, the DOJ, and even former members of the Trump team to get him to turn them over willingly.

Trump and his son Eric have claimed that the raid was political motivated and have suggested that it was done at Biden’s bidding. Another lie. Trump doesn’t seem to get that the DOJ is not the president’s private police force, as much as Trump tried to turn it into one during his tenure.

Trump claimed that he had a “standing order” that any documents that he took from the Oval Office were automatically declassified. He knows that there is no such thing as a standing order declassification policy, especially not for top secret and SCI documents, which are so classified because revelation of them poses a grave threat to national security. Another lie.

Trump claimed that all presidents do this. A lie. All presidents are not lying, treasonous, moronic criminals.

Trump claimed that Obama did this with large numbers of documents. No, Obama followed official procedure and protocols for transfer of Obama administration documents from the National Archives to the Obama Presidential Library. There are established procedures for this to ensure security and limits on what can be done with what. The claim that Obama did this is another of a great many lies that Trump has told about Obama, dating back to the birth certificate lies.

Trump called on the DOJ to release, immediately, the warrant and property list for this search, knowing all the while that he had copies of these and could himself release them. So, another lie, and a particularly blatant one, on which Garland called his bluff.

I’m sure that this is not an exhaustive list. Trump lies so routinely that it’s difficult to keep up with them all. He also lies blatantly because his moronic base will believe anything and because his toadying supporters among elected Republicans, who long since gave over any principles they might have once had, will cravenly back him no matter how blatant and egregious and dangerous to the country’s security the lies are.

Update, 8/14: Trump or someone close to him released to rightwing media outlets the warrant with the unredacted names of FBI officials on it. Predictably, given this MAGA crowd, these FBI officials have received threats!!! Horrific. No low is too low for the MAGATs.

Trump told his former chief of staff, John Kelly, that he [Trump] didn’t “believe in” the classification system. Now, this statement is really, really revealing. First, Trump thinks that the verb “to believe” has the meaning of “approve of,” so that “I don’t believe in” and “I don’t approve of” mean the same thing. Second, this illustrates his stupidity, his inability to make crucial distinctions. Third, because he cannot make crucial distinctions, he can’t understand things, like why we have a classification system for secrets related to national security. Fourth, this particular lack of understanding of a distinction is an example of a general cognitive issue that Trump has: He cannot distinguish between reality and what he wishes were the case. Whatever he wants, right now, must be reality, to Trump, or he throws a childish fit. He is the Child-man in the Promised Land. Toddler Trump. If reality doesn’t fit his desires, he throws a fit and throws food at the wall. If the thing he doesn’t like is a rule or a law, he just breaks it. This is how the mind of a criminal sociopath works.

Posted in Politics, Trump (Don the Con) | 109 Comments

Trump 2024 Campaign Slogans

Please vote for me. Otherwise, I go to prison.

Why just documents in the toilet? Why not the whole country?

Making America Grate Again

TRUMP 2024: 20 for Obstruction of an Official Proceeding. 24 for Seditious Conspiracy

MAGA: Moscow’s Asset Governing America

The Man with No Plan and the Tan in the Can

Trump, the Relapse

Back to the Future! Way, way, way back!

Trump: For a Whiter House in 2025!

Vote for Trump or He’ll Stamp (or Stomp) His Foot, Hold His Breath, and Throw a Plate of Food

Grab ’em by the Ballot!

Cuckoo Coup Redo

If I Lose Again, Again, It’s Because It Was Rigged, Ha Ha

Because He Doesn’t Give a **** about You

No One Believes Any of This B***S*** I’m Saying, but People Vote for Me Anyway –Donald Trump

Posted in Humor, Politics, Trump (Don the Con) | 7 Comments

Honesty about Religion

I know that people are supposed to “show respect” to religious belief–that that’s a widely held position. But I don’t have any respect for it. I have precisely the opposite. It seems to me breathtakingly ironic that religions make claims to truth and characterize dishonesty as a sin and yet are fundamentally dishonest. They involve people lying to themselves and others about what they understand and know. Believers today no more know the ideas that they promulgate as truths than did folks living in ancient Norway when they spoke of Odin and Frigg, but at least those ancients had the excuse of living in a superstitious, prescientific time. Superstition is, of course, superstition no matter who believes it. It’s not made any more credible because it is believed by someone who is in other ways discerning and knowledgeable.

Yes, I know that giving up one’s invisible friends can be hard, but it’s long past time for that.

Here’s a tell: people are actually so unsure about this religious stuff that they pretend to certain about that they have to build walls around it, make it out of bounds, taboo, or impolite to criticize it. Suppose that I were to say to you that Chicago is the greatest city in Indiana. You would feel no compunction about pointing out to me that I’m wrong, that Chicago is in Illinois. That proposition about the world is false, and no one would think it wrong, at all, to say so. But if it’s a religious claim–prayers are answered, you can only be saved by grace, you go to heaven (or hell) when you die, a human sacrifice had to be carried out to erase people’s sins, Christ died and was resurrected after three days, a virgin gave birth two thousand years ago, wafers turn into God’s body, Joshua told the sun to stop in the sky and it did, Satan is at work in the world, there are witches, you shouldn’t suffer a witch to live, and so on–the claim, no matter how childish, how ludicrous, how like the other crazy things that people used to believe thousands of years ago in a credulous age, supposedly must be treated with respect. Why? Because if you treated any of any of these fundamentally silly and sometimes morally obtuse religious claims as you would treat any other claim about the universe, you would dismiss the stuff out of hand. Religious ideas can’t stand up to scrutiny, and that’s why questioning them in public is treated as taboo, as a faux pas.

Here’s another tell: When people talk about their religious ideas, they use the term belief. Even though they make the claim that their religious propositions are knowledge, are certainties, are things they know to be true, they use the term belief: I believe that Christ is my savior, I believe in the power of prayer, and so on. But consider this. If you think it true that there is beer in the fridge, if you consider it certainly to be so because you just put a six pack into the fridge, then you would NOT say, “I believe that there is beer in the fridge.” You would just say, “There is beer in the fridge.” People simultaneously claim that religious knowledge is the highest and surest type of knowledge AND use the term belief to describe it, a term we otherwise reserve for describing uncertainties. Why? Because we use the term belief when we are making claims that we are not actually sure about. What this shows is that people don’t actually know the things they claim to know via their religions. They are LYING about their certainty, to themselves and others. And ironically, the major religions all teach that lying is bad.

Here’s the thing: I take seriously the notion that you shouldn’t tell falsehoods and shouldn’t claim certainty about that which is at best totally fanciful and speculative, like a fairytale. I’ll go even further and say that perpetrating falsehood is really damaging, that it undermines people’s ability to think clearly. And I think that telling falsehoods to children as part of their training for adulthood is particularly egregious. It’s simply not acceptable.

Enough. Enough. It is far, far past time that we threw over these superstitions from the infancy of our culture before these become, again, via our fundamentalist Extreme Court and various state theocracies one of the primary vehicles for propping up murderous autocracy, which has been a major function of monotheistic religion since its inception in the ancient city-states.

We should stop, I think, pussy-footing around people’s religious “sensibilities.” Why? Because the truth actually matters.

Posted in Epistemology, Metaphysics, Religion | 6 Comments

The Second American Revolution Has Begun, and This New Trump Court Is Carrying It Out

Warning: read this only if you are actually willing to do the minimal work necessary to understand the revolution that the Extreme Court of the United States is effecting right now. It can happen here, folks. It is happening. And this court is preparing the way. What it is up to is equivalent to the German Enabling Act of 1932. I think all of this extreme and frightening.

Let me be as clear about this as I can be. My reading of what the Extreme Court has been up to is NOT that it means to do away with the doctrine of stare decisis, though you will read many pieces in the popular media that claim that this is so. No. This court means to establish, with Dobbs v Jackson Women’s Health and West Virginia v. EPA, in this term, and with Moore v. Harper, in the next term, a new set of precedents designed to prepare the legal ground for meeting the conservative goals of

a) shrinking the federal government down to a size at which it can be drowned in a bathtub and
b) turning over power to state governments, many of which will become de facto theocracies under the new legal order the Extreme Court seeks to establish.

Let’s look at the three cases and see how each reduces the federal government (and importantly, reduces or eliminates and prepares the ground for further reducing or eliminating previously federally protected human rights).

Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health provides a template or boilerplate for eliminating not only the federal right to abortion but a) whole bodies of federal law and regulation related to unenumerated rights and b) the primary functions of agencies and departments that do that regulation and enforcement to preserve those rights.

WV v. EPA is a template or boilerplate for eliminating government agencies or departments (or parts of these) that promulgate regulations in areas over which the Congress has, according to the Constitution, primary authority. This Court is arguing that Congress can’t turn over to Executive Branch agencies or departments decision-making about matters left to Congress by the Constitution if the decisions made by those agencies or departments deal with “major questions.” The idea is that Constitutionally, some matters belong SOLELY to the legislative fiefdom and cannot be delegated, in whole or in part. So, for example, in WV. V. EPA the court ruled that the EPA, being an administrative agency, cannot force utilities to move toward cleaner energy sources, that Congress would have to authorize the EPA, specifically, to do that (something that, of course, the current Senate, with a 50 + Manchin block, would never do). And as with Dobbs, the Court doubtless means to generalize this ruling, in future rulings, thereby shrinking dramatically the power and scope of the administrative/executive branch of the federal government. The Court means to strip administrative agencies and departments of powers in full knowledge of the fact that Congress, being divided, will not step in to carry out the work formerly done by the Executive Branch (will not, for example, agree on laws with real teeth related to matters like climate-friendly energy sources or food safety). And again, the effect of that will be, with the federal executive and legislature and courts all out of the picture, to turn all this power back to the states.

And, finally, Moore v. Harper will enable the court to rule that the feds cannot pass legislation to protect voting rights because determination of how voting is to be conducted is entirely up to state legislatures under this extremist reading of the Constitution. Again, the effect will be to eliminate federal power and agencies/departments and turn this all over to the states. This is really important to Republicans going forward because the only way that they can hold onto power is by restricting voting rights, and the troglodytes on the Extreme Court want to ensure that Republican state legislators can do that.

All this is revolutionary and is meant to be. It’s the fulfillment of a dream that conservatives in America have had for a long, long time. They have long believed in state’s rights and in the federal government being a monster not envisioned by the founders. This Extreme Court is simply finally making good on the conservative dream to enshrine those beliefs in law.

And, btw, as with the various parallel attempted coups undertaken by Trump and his team (there were several of these), this has all been discussed on Steve Bannon’s War Room Pandemic podcast (or whatever he is calling his show; I have read that he doesn’t like his podcast being called a podcast; perhaps the term doesn’t sufficiently match his delusions of grandeur). Bannon recently devoted much of whatever his program is (podcast? cuckoo coup lollapalooza?) to this very topic–the ways in which work is underway to completely “dismantle the administrative state.”

Again, conservatives have been making these arguments for a very, very long time. Now, after a century of arguing that our expansive federal government is illegitimate, they finally have a supermajority on the court that agrees with them. The nationalist, fundamentalist supermajority on the Court sees the current program to shrink and drown the federal government as returning government in the U.S. to its original principles after a long period in which it veered off into weirdness never conceived of by the founders. THAT’S NOT a new argument. The conservative legal scholar James Q. Wilson, for example, spent much of his life making it. Our Original Sin, politically, according to Conservatives, was the expansion of federal government via an over-generous interpretation of the Interstate Commerce clause, Article 1, Section 8, Clause 3 of the U.S. Constitution, which gives Congress the power “to regulate commerce with foreign nations, and among the several states, and with the Indian tribes.” Thus we find the feds involved in matters as diverse as regulation of tobacco and food and wetlands and emissions.

Know your enemy, folks. Understand what the conservative beef is. And don’t underestimate them or it.

In short, this Court is in the process of establishing precedents that amount to a legal revolution that returns U.S. government, they believe, to what as envisioned by the founders: independent state governments in loose federation. So, the Extreme Court will claim to be reaffirming precedents, but ones from long, long ago, before the courts derailed and created a huge federal government that can have its hands in everything, from marriage law to regulation of tobacco and wetlands.

Those of you old enough to remember the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s will understand what I mean when I say that this could most appropriately be designated The Nullification Court.

Again, and in summary, this court plans to reduce, dramatically, the scope and power of the federal government and place power over many matters back into the hands of state governments, many of which will function as small, independent theocratic states with the court’s imprimatur and blessing. The folks at The National Review and The Wall Street Journal and The American Enterprise Institute, who are hip to this, can barely contain their glee.

This is the disaster that Trump has wrought. But it’s too complicated for Americans to follow. They are too busy thinking about the next Spiderman movie or Elon Musk sex life tabloid release. So, the fascist revolution will happen here while no one was paying any attention.

Posted in Politics, Religion, Trump (Don the Con) | 40 Comments

What Fascism Looks Like

In the middle of the last century, the United States and its allies fought a world war to end fascism. What did fascism look like? Well, it looked like this:

Like Hilter or Mussolini, Donald Trump . . .

Has long been the object of a cult of personality

Has long called for an exceptionalist, nationalist curriculum

Supported armed citizens’ militias in the streets (for example, the folks who raided the Michigan capitol) and called on citizens’ militia groups to stand back and stand by

Continually scapegoats immigrants

Continually scapegoats enemies within, including Socialists

Continually uses racist dogwhistles

Continually promises a return to a mythical Golden Age (Make America Great Again)

Espouses a doctrine of national exceptionalism

Uses the massive rally as his primary means of communication with his base–rallies where there is lots of iconography and chanting

Attempted to use the military to quell protest and dissent (Trump was only stopped from doing this because Milley and Esper refused to go along)

Ordered mass murder (Trump ordered his head of Homeland Security to have Border Patrol Officers SHOOT unarmed asylum seekers and was only stopped from doing this because that head, Kirstjen Nielsen, refused to do so}

Arrogated to himself absolute power (Trump claimed in speeches that the Constitution gave him the power, as president, to do whatever he wanted)

Refused to accept election outcomes that did not favor him and attempted to effect a coup (Fascist Glorious Leaders never lose elections, or if they do, they effect a do-over)

Has a thing for monuments, for monumental architecture, and for military parades

Supports autocratic, fascist dictators around the globe

Wields such power in his party that almost no one will stand up to him on anything

In other words, Trump is a CLASSIC fascist, and the Trump cult is a fascist cult. One has to be incredibly blind not to see this.

The only differences between Trump and, say, Mussolini and Hitler, are that

a. Trump was too stupid and ignorant to realize his goals (The next guy, having assumed Trump’s mantle, won’t be; he will have the right yes men in place.) and that

b. Trump didn’t have the legal framework in place to implement fascism here (Our current Extreme Court is working on that).

Posted in Politics, Trump (Don the Con) | 1 Comment