Civics in Real Life: Women’s History Month

Good afternoon friends! As we approach Women’s History Month, be sure to check out the many different Civics in Real Life resources and grade level lesson plans we have that cover the impact that many different women have had on our civic life and history! Download the flier below to learn more, or visit Florida Citizen to explore the resources!

philosophy and self-help

I recommend Kieran Setiya’s article “Is Philosophy Self-Help?” in The Point. Setiya has written serious philosophy that I have found helpful psychologically, and he has looked at the self-help business, starting with Samuel Smiles’ 1859 bestseller, Self-Help: With Illustrations of Character and Conduct.

Based partly on his article, I would emphasize these differences:

  1. Self-help tries to meet the desires of the reader–usually but not invariably for happiness. In contrast, philosophy asks what the reader should desire. Personal happiness is one possible answer, but that is debatable in philosophy.
  2. Self-help tries to serve the reader, addressing that person’s specific needs, values, and tastes. Philosophy asks whether human beings in general should pursue certain values. Some philosophers have given pluralist responses, emphasizing that individuals or cultures may or should hold different values. But such pluralism is, again, controversial in philosophy and would require a defense. As Setiya notes, “For Aristotle, the nature you should perfect is not your individual potential, but an objective human nature whose ideal expression lies in theoretical contemplation of the cosmos.”
  3. Self-help influences individuals’ thoughts and choices. For some philosophers (e.g., Emerson) one’s self is the best topic, but for others, it’s essential to think about society and institutions, and possibly even to sacrifice oneself for them.

I’m in a reading group on Plato’s Republic, and all three differences between self-help and philosophy are already evident in the very first pages. Cephalus is presented as an old man who is happy. He has taken advice from Pindar and Simonides, whom he treats as self-help gurus. He has learned from them that he’s better off now that his appetites for sex and other desires have diminished. He derives serenity from reflecting on his own virtue.

Socrates is a threat to Cephalus’ happiness (and I am open to the possibility that Plato sees him as a menace). Socrates will not take Cephalus’ subjective beliefs for granted; he challenges the definition of justice that Cephalus has found in Simonides. He thereby demonstrates that Cephalus has drawn serenity from an unfounded belief in his own rightness.

Further, we know that Cephalus’ sons Polemarchus and Lysias (who are present in the dialogue) will later be selected to be two of the first ten victims of the Thirty Tyrants– Lysias narrowly escaping; Polemarchus suffering death. They will be singled out because, like Cephalus, they are wealthy resident aliens, not citizens. So we can see that Cephalus’ happiness is contingent on the accident that the city has chosen to treat him well. He should be thinking about how to secure justice for the community.

On the other hand, one might think that Cephalus is lucky not to get a full dose of Socrates. He leaves just before Socrates begins to critically analyze his beliefs, heading off to watch a civic/religious festival instead. I can read the portrait of Cephalus as elegiac: he fortunately lived a happy life to its conclusion before his happiness could be wrecked by either philosophy or politics.

See also: Pindar on hope; Cuttings version 2.0: a book about happiness; analytical moral philosophy as a way of life; Kieran Setiya on midlife: reviving philosophy as a way of life; etc.

Semantic Insatiability and Logophilic Etymologies

Most people know the experience of saying a word over and over again until it loses its meaning and becomes a sound: this experience is called “semantic satiation.”

But what about the opposite experience? Can you puzzle over a word until it gains meanings? Can we re-saturate meanings? Can we make words resilient against this kind of loss? Call this semantic insatiability: a technique for bolstering an idea against the exhaustion of its meaning.

Here’s a literal example: Gertrude Stein’s “Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose.” She liked to say that the goal of that line was to steal roses back for poets to use again, to strip all the semantic goop of romance off of the flower. “I think in that line the rose is red for the first time in English poetry for a hundred years.” To make it useable again merely as a flower, to accrue new meanings, connotations, and implications.

If you read her poem Sacred Emily where this line appears, her claim becomes a lot less plausible–like most of her poetry, it reads like logorrhea, and the phrase is lost in a sea of repetitive noise. (Her poetic explanations tend to confirm this view.) I don’t like the poetry, but I like the claim. It suits my purposes even if it seems both false in context and is certainly wrong as a matter of causality. (“Sacred Emily” was published in 1913 and in 2024 the Society of American Florists estimated that we’d send 250 million roses domestically. If the poet really tried to save roses from their cultural baggage, she failed.)

Some people who love stories also love poetry. Some don’t. I love both narratives and the words, sentences, and paragraphs that help to build them. And so I want to talk about how I, personally, try to reverse semantic satiation–how I re-saturate semantics at this level.

Contronyms Resist Semantic Saturation

Consider the contronym (a word that is also its antonym). “Fast” can mean both “stable” (hold fast!) and “quick,” “sanction” can mean both “punish” and “authorize.” And as you’re messing around with these words trying them out in different sentences, semantic satiation might set in–it all starts feeling like gibberish. If you spend some time with the Oxford English Dictionary (or the Online Etymology Dictionary for folks without academic library access) though, you’ll learn a lot about how the meanings diverged, and at least in my experience, the ordinary usage meanings and distinctions will re-emerge. “Fast” began in Old English as “constant, secure, or watertight.” We can still hear that sense in “steadfast” and similar terms. But then we don’t know precisely how we got to the speedy sense of the word: perhaps from Old Norse/Scandinavian: “fast” could mean firmly (unmoving) but that sense of “strength” gets applied as an adjective to standing and holding, and then from there to fighting, drinking, or even running. To run firmly (telja fast in Scandinavian) then implies quick movement. Other things are quick by analogy.

Is that how it happened? Or did it come “fast” meaning “nearby, to hand, immediate”? “Stay fast by my side!” Then somehow from “nearby” to “immediately” to “quickly”?

What I want to note is how we don’t tend to trip over semantic satiation as we explore contronyms. Puzzling this out doesn’t exhaust the word’s meaning the way ordinary repetition might. I suspect this is because we’re often contextually cluing the varied meanings: tracing the linguistic origins and carefully noting the different senses of the word in different contexts can actually restore what mere repetition has depleted. I think this is one of the secret gifts of studying the languages from which English is derived, as well: by learning Latin, French, or Spanish; Greek, German, or Sanskrit, you get a deeper sense of the ways your own language is put together.

Semantic Satiation and Linguistic Determinism

Consider another contronym: if you don’t want to make an oversight, you may need oversight. The term indicates both the mistake and a technique for mistake prevention. And it doesn’t stop there: it helps for someone to look over your work so you don’t overlook something important. If you dig into these incorrect/correction pairings, it’s not clear which came first, etymologically: the error or the editor. And as you’re digging, you come to see that English has quite a lot of words for watching someone from above: survey, surveillance, supervisor, superintendent, overseer, overwatch, watch over, etc. English has lots of words, period, but it seems like it especially has a lot of hierarchical words for watching someone else work!

Does this tell us something about Anglophone culture? Is this like having lots of words for snow (and the attendant Sapir-Whorf theories of cultural determinism and linguistic relativity) an indicator that hierarchy, bureaucracy, or even colonization and enslavement have such deep roots in our history that they’ve found lots of different expressions over time?

I used to think that the Sapir-Whorf theory had been falsified, but it’s more that it’s always been ambiguous between two different versions: that (a) language provides the medium for thought and thus (b) affordances and resistances. It’s clear that we often think in words, and thus if there’s no word for an idea there will be some difficulty in thinking it. But what happens then? Perhaps the thought is defied and goes unthought, we stutter and give it up. Perhaps we misuse another word. Perhaps we create a neologism. And perhaps we use poetic language to eff the ineffable with metaphor and simile.

My sense is that Benjamin Whorf, at least, thought we couldn’t understand the sheer variety of the world if our language didn’t give us the tools. A language that lacked some term would be spoken by a group that couldn’t grasp the attendant concept. You hear examples occasionally: did the ancient Greeks lack a word for “blue”? Why did Homer call the sea “wine-dark”? Did he lack the ability to see its true color? Is there really an Amazonian tribe that lacks number terms beyond “one, two, and many“? How does that work? This is empirically testable, though, and while there’s some evidence for the mathematical incapacity of the Piraha there’s fairly clear counter-evidence on color: at best we perceive different colors a bit more quickly when we have a color term to match them. (It’s too bad, really, that we have managed to empirically disenchant this fanciful view that inhabitants of the ancient world look out on vistas with utterly different eyes.)

Is there anything left of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis worth crediting? On one version of Whorf’s view, a language will gradually develop to capture distinctions and ideas that are especially relevant to its speakers. In short: if you don’t live in a highly hierarchical world, you won’t understand all the ways that bosses can come to be relevant to your life and your language won’t give you those tools. Meanwhile, if you’re surrounded by snow from a young age, and your culture and history have been built up around snow for generations, your language will give you the concepts to see how many different ways snow can be.

We have the same word for falling snow, snow on the ground, snow packed hard like ice, slushy snow, wind-driven flying snow — whatever the situation may be. To an Eskimo, this all-inclusive word would be almost unthinkable; he would say that falling snow, slushy snow, and so on, are sensuously and operationally different, different things to contend with; he uses different words for them and for other kinds of snow. The Aztecs go even farther than we in the opposite direction, with ‘cold,’ ‘ice,’ and ‘snow’ all represented by the same basic word with different terminations; ‘ice’ is the noun form; ‘cold,’ the adjectival form; and for ‘snow,’ “ice mist.”

Whorf, Benjamin Lee. “Science and linguistics,” Technology Review (MIT) 42, no. 6 (April 1940).

Another fun recent example is the observation that the English language has an absolutely gob-smacking number of words for being intoxicated by alcohol. As Christina Sanchez-Stockhammer and Peter Uhrig recently detailed, there are at least 546 synonyms for the word “drunk”!

A meaningful argument structure construction without any lexical content might be available to speakers, but we conjecture that additional contextual cues as to the topic of drunkenness will be needed to successfully use this construction, the most prototypical form of which is

be/get + intensifying premodifier + -ed-form.

Coming back to the theoretical questions asked at the end of Section 2, we can say that the wide range of words observed in the already existing lists of drunkonyms seems to support the view that there is a large amount of words that one could potentially use to creatively express drunkenness in English. The wording “any word” put forward by McIntyre appears slightly too general, though, as it is difficult to imagine words such as isthe or of to mean ‘drunk’. Also, for nouns such as carpark or gazebo, it is strictly speaking not the word itself but an -ed-form of it, i.e. carparked or gazeboed, that expresses the meaning of drunkenness in the relevant contexts.

Sanchez-Stockhammer, Christina and Uhrig, Peter. ““I’m gonna get totally and utterly X-ed.” Constructing drunkenness” Yearbook of the German Cognitive Linguistics Association 11, no. 1 (2023): 121-150.

What is it about the Anglophone world that makes it so necessary to express drunkenness? Anglophone countries aren’t the top alcohol consumers, for instance. Nor do we have the most binge drinking. Yet somehow we talk about it with more variety and creativity, which is more evidence agaisnt the stronger versions of Whorf’s claims.

Most people are at least a little bit tempted by Sapir-Whorf just because it seems like it can’t be totally irrelevant to your experience that your first language has or lacks some concept or prioritizes or deprioritizes some structure. But since language comes alongside membership in a community, and communities are often pretty internally diverse, this gets caught up with the same old problems of strong cultural relativism. It’s at most an influence, not a determination–unless the determinants aren’t simple things like which words (and thus concepts) you have, but rather what kinds of grammatical structures it allows.

Philology and Logophilia

Here is where I wish there was more appreciation for Friedrich Nietzche’s philology than his philosophy. One of his major insights is that the concepts crystalized in our language often radically diverge from their origins, which I think makes the strong version of Whorf’s claims seem obviously wrong: there can’t be linguistic determinism if we’re constantly re-appropriating language for new purposes and forgetting its origins. (Even the “drunkenness” formations are evidence of this: there is very little of the “gazebo” left in our understanding of what is happening to the drunken undergraduate who describes himself as “being utterly gazeboed.”

Nietzsche delighted in the ways that phonemes diverge from morphemes. He even suggested that our forgetfulness about the origins of our language was part of its power, and how we resisted sedimentation–even as some survivals dangerously persist. So I get to drop my favorite line again here. Describing truth, which might be a quality that some words and concepts aspire to, he explains that it is:

A mobile army of metaphors, metonyms, and anthropomorphisms—in short, a sum of human relations which have been enhanced, transposed, and embellished poetically and rhetorically, and which after long use seem firm, canonical, and obligatory to a people: truths are illusions about which one has forgotten that this is what they are; metaphors which are worn out and without sensuous power; coins which have lost their pictures and now matter only as metal, no longer as coins.

Friedrich Nietzsche, “On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense

I love the image of the philologist as numismatist, collecting old coins and discerning and perhaps repairing them to their original form. This is to say that Nietzsche’s genealogical practice was itself a kind of semantic re-saturation. His major works often pursue one or another concept through a historical and genealogical line not to restore an origin but to celebrate possibilities. You can’t think about “guilt” without thinking about “debts” after you read the Genealogy of Morals. Arguably some of his other efforts in this regard are less effective, but he was certainly trying to make us think differently and more fully when we hear cliched invocations of good and evil; faith and God; power and authority; creativity and individuality; pity and compassion; truth and honesty. Some of what he does is induce semantic satiation and then offer to re-saturate those meanings anew (and with his own preferred valences attached.) That particular effort has been one of the reasons that academic philosophers continue to read him, though it’s prone to embarrassing misuse!

So what?

Say all this is true:

  • repetition depletes meaning
  • linguistic puzzles resist this depletion
  • studying the origins of ideas can grant them a new lease on life
  • we’re not bound to those origins
  • we constantly engaged in creative rearrangements of our linguistic affordances.

What then?

It certainly seems like we’re entering a particularly dangerous period where a lot of text is being generated mechanically (ironically unlike Stein’s poetry). Emily Bender calls large language models “stochastic parrots.” We are approaching the zeitgeist of semantic saturation, and we’re going to have to work hard just to hold on to meaningfulness. (Probably we always have to do that kind of work, but it’s more obvious now.) In professional philosophy, we’ve seen the growth of normatively inflected “conceptual engineering” and “ameliorative analysis,” where conceptual analysis is being used to assert nakedly political projects, laying bare the ways that the very meanings of our words is subject to wrangling and contestation. In some future posts, I’d like to try to think both those trends together, perhaps via Heidegger’s frustratingly fascist etymological approach.

(Thank to my friend Michael Willems for discussions on this topic.)

Pindar on hope

Cephalus says: “For if, looking at his own life, [an old man] identifies many wrong acts, then he often awakens from his sleep, as children do, in fear and bad hopes, but if he observes no injustice in himself, then pleasant hope is always nearby as a good caregiver, as Pindar says–for he puts it gracefully, Socrates, when he says of a person who gets through life justly and piously:

Sweetness in the heart,
Fosterer and elder-carer:
Hope, the best pilot of the thought
Of oft-twisted mortals

Cephalus adds: “Oh, how wonderfully well he says that …”

But then Socrates breaks the mood by asking what justice is, making Cephalus–a contented old man–wonder whether he has ever really known it.

If I read the Pindar verses correctly, the two main words in the second line refer to the care (respectively) of children and the elderly. Indeed, the course of a human life is a prevalent theme at the beginning of The Republic, from which I have taken this passage (331a). At the very outset, Socrates, an older adult, is physically stopped on the road by a “child,”* who has been sent by an old man, Cephalus. One of the attractions that Socrates is promised, if he agrees to stay, is an opportunity for dialogue with “young men” (328a). But Socrates asks Cephalus to report on what it’s like to be old.

Although The Republic is about justice, the entree to that discussion is the question of how to age well. A major question is why one should have to think about justice at all, and an answer suggested here is that knowing justice allows one to have hope in old age. One irony is that Cephalus is happy because he only thinks he knows justice; a second irony is that Cephalus’ sons will later be cruelly treated by the unjust. In both respects, his hope may be misplaced.

*I drafted this post while preparing for a reading group discussion, and a colleague with infinitely better Greek than mine said that this use of the word pais is unspecific about age. Here, it’s a patronizing word for slave. Cf. Bernard Williams, Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, p. 54. (The quoted verse is denoted Pindar Frag. 214, Loeb. Translations are mine.)

choosing models that illuminate issues–on the logic of abduction in the social sciences and policy

It’s very common for people to use different explanatory and evaluative ideas to describe the same concrete situation, whether it’s the Israel/Palestine conflict, or bias in law enforcement, or almost anything else.

We should navigate between two obstacles, I think. One mistake to view rival ideas as simply subjective, because they are often value-laden, and to view politics as a mere clash among people with different subjective views. The other is to imagine that empirical research can settle such disputes by validating one model or (at least) refuting some of them. We can deliberate about competing models, but the discussion requires more than data.

It is often assumed that a model generates hypotheses, and we can test the model by testing its hypotheses. Nancy Cartwright disputes this assumption. She suggests that models are not like vending machines that yield hypotheses, but more like “fables” that present vivid scenarios and “morals”—suggestions for behavior—that we should look for in the world (Cartwright 1999, 185-6; Cartwright 2010).

Similarly, Max Weber understood an “ideal-type,” such as feudalism or the state, not as a hypothesis but as a “conceptual construct” that “offers guidance in the construction of hypotheses” (Weber 1905/1949, 93, 90). This means that disproving a hypothesis suggested by a model does not disprove the model, although repeated failures to suggest valid hypotheses might encourage us look for alternative models.

The fable of the tortoise and the hare does not pose an inference about reptiles and rabbits, or even a ceteris paribus hypothesis that moving slower yields better outcomes. Rather, it defines two personality types that may be worth looking for in the world; it cautions against arrogance; and it may suggest hypotheses, e.g., that making decisions more rapidly reduces the quality of information (Rae, Heathcote, Donkin, Averell & Brown 2014). Similarly, the model of the Prisoner’s Dilemma suggests that we should look for problems and form empirical hypotheses that involve individuals choosing independently. The model also makes a conceptual contribution by sharply defining cooperation and defection (Johnson 2020). Choosing any such model is a matter of judgment or practical wisdom, not a question of deciding which model is true

Forming and selecting an explanation for a specific situation is the logic of abduction. Deduction means drawing inferences from known premises; induction means generalizing from cases; but abduction involves connecting a single case to a relevant general idea. Charles Sanders Pierce coined the word (Douven 2021). Pierce was a pragmatist, and abduction is a pragmatic necessity, even in the natural sciences.

I would add that it is appropriate to apply normative principles when forming and selecting models of a society. First, the point is to improve situations, not only explain them. Second, any given model incorporates normative elements, even if it pretends to be strictly explanatory, and it should be assessed as such.

For Weber, an ideal-type is “an attempt to analyze historically unique configurations or their individual components by means of genetic concepts” (Weber 1905, 93). An ideal-type cannot be the basis of deductive conclusions about reality, because “a description of even the smallest slice off reality can never be exhaustive”; the “number and type of causes which have influenced any given event are always infinite”; and “there is nothing in the things themselves to set some of them apart as alone meriting attention” (Weber 1905, 78). Instead, we rightly choose our concepts to address aspects of specific situations that provide insights about our own problems, as we see them from “particular points of view” (Weber 1905, 81, italics in the original). Ideal-types are “model types which … contain what, from the point of view of the expositor, should be and what to him is ‘essential’ … because it is enduringly valuable” (Weber 1905, 97).

Weber objects to the assumption that we study phenomena to derive general laws that we can then apply deductively, as if a concrete investigation were the means to the end of general knowledge. He claims that the reverse is true; ideal-types are means to understanding the unique constellations of events that rightly concern us (Weber 1905, 79).

In the article that originated the concept (now almost a cliché) of “wicked problems,” Rittel and Webber posit that often solutions to social problems “are not true-or-false, but good-or-bad.” They write, “Normally, many parties are equally equipped, interested, and/or entitled to judge the solutions,” and “their judgments are likely to differ widely in accord with their group or personal interests, their special value-sets, and their ideological predilections” (Rittel & Webber 1973, 162-3).

They mention that “‘Crime on the streets’ can be explained by not enough police, by too many criminals, by inadequate laws, cultural deprivation, deficient opportunity, phrenological aberrations, etc.” (Rittel & Webber 1973, 166). In fact, evidence has overwhelmed phrenological explanations for crime, while other explanations have become more persuasive since Rittel and Webber wrote. But they are right that reasonable people may choose different explanatory models and frameworks for the same phenomena. Like Weber, they argue that data cannot settle such choices, but “attitudinal criteria guide” rightly us. People choose explanations that are “plausible” and useful for their “intentions” and “action prospects” (Rittel & Webber 1973, 166).

Our diverse starting points do not guarantee that we must reach divergent conclusions. We can learn from one another, and to do so, we should collect and share evidence. For instance, imagine that my initial model presumes a root cause, such as structural racism. Someone demonstrates that it is possible to disrupt a cycle of inequality by adopting a policy, such as reforming employment contracts for police, that does not address the root cause. My initial model was not refuted, but the evidence may persuade me that I could achieve more with a cyclical model that has no “root.” I have learned and shifted my view, but I have not refuted the root-cause model, which I might even use again on another day.

This is a pragmatist conception of the relationship between evidence and models (cf. Aligica 2014, 166-199). Note that in this conception, evidence is not merely instrumental to an outcome, because it may also persuade us to change the outcome that we think is best to pursue.

See also: what must we believe?; different kinds of social models; making our models explicit; social education as learning to improve models. Sources: Cartwright, N. (1999). The dappled world: A study of the boundaries of science. Cambridge University Press; Cartwright, N. (2010). Models: Parables v fables. In R. Frigg & M.C. Hunter, Beyond mimesis and convention: Representation in art and science (pp. 19-31). Springer Netherlands; Weber, M. 1905/1949. “Objectivity” in Social Science and Social Policy. In E.A. Shils, & H.A. Finch (Eds.), Max Weber on The Methodology of the Social Sciences. Glencoe Ill.: The Free Press, 50- 112); Rae, B., Heathcote, A., Donkin, C., Averell, L., & Brown, S. (2014). The hare and the tortoise: Emphasizing speed can change the evidence used to make decisions. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 40(5), 1226–1243; Rittel W.J. & Webber, M.M., (1973) Dilemmas in a general theory of planning. Policy Sciences 4, 155-69; Douven, Igor, “Abduction”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2021 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), Aligica, P. (2014) Institutional Diversity and Political Economy: The Ostroms and Beyond. New York: Oxford University Press

Highlighting Some Civics in Real Life Resources for Current Events

So, some folks may be aware that we have been providing mostly weekly resources around civics concepts and current events the past couple of years. This post is an opportunity to highlight some older and some newer CRL’s that you might find useful in thinking about how to touch on current events with your students. Please also keep in mind that you can easily search the database to see if there is a concept or event you are looking for. You can always email us if you want one created and see if it’s on our drawing board!

Presidential Power and Executive Authority

Are executive branches accountable to the rule of law?

What are vetoes and how do they work?

What does the president have the right to keep private?

What is the symbolic and constitutional purpose of the State of the Union address?

What are executive orders and how can they impact us?

Congressional Power and Actions

What is the purpose of impeachment and how does it work?

How do congressional expulsions work and how often do they occur?

What is a “motion to vacate” and what happens after a House speaker is removed?

How does the Speaker election work and who runs it?

What is the role of the committee system in Congress?

Constitutional and Civic Concepts

What is the line between peaceful protest and the threat of sedition?

How does the First Amendment apply during a time of crisis?

What does the U.S. Constitution require in terms of qualifications to hold national office?

What is a caucus and how is it similar to and different from a primary election?

What is actually in the US Constitution?

Let’s take a look at how Florida and other southern states suppressed Black voters even after passage of the 15th Amendment.

Interesting and Important Supreme Court Cases

So we also have something we are calling The Docket Series, which covers both past, pending, and present cases. A couple of examples are below.

What is an application to vacate?

When state legislatures draw congressional districts how do they disentangle race from politics?

What is the ‘shadow docket’, and how does it impact the justice system?

Rascal News

Rascal News is an exciting new venture in tabletop games journalism. Building on the 00s’ New Games Journalism for videogames, the editors/authors are Lin Codega, Rowan Zeoli, and Chase Carter. A recent interview with Kimi Hughes discusses “How Has Actual Play Changed Game Design?

Some sources and inspirations:

Max Weber on institutional neutrality

In a recent open letter, the Academic Freedom Alliance, Heterodox Academy, and the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression say:

In recent years, colleges and universities have increasingly weighed in on social and political issues. This has led our institutions of higher education to become politicized and has created an untenable situation whereby they are expected to weigh in on all social and political issues.

Most critically, these stances risk establishing an orthodox view on campus, threatening the pursuit of knowledge for which higher education exists.

Their recommendation: “if an academic institution is not required to adopt a position in order to fulfill its mission of intellectual freedom or operational capacity, it is required not to adopt a position.” They advise universities to enact versions of the 1967 University of Chicago Kelven report, and many institutions are doing so.

My own views on this matter are complex and conflicted. I am rarely impressed by universities’ statements on political issues. These pronouncements don’t model good participation in the public sphere, and they might chill dissent. However, I doubt that many people have really thought through what it would mean for an institution to refrain from stating or implying views on contested issues. Also, I am a proponent of institutional diversity and can imagine that we should want universities to adopt diverse missions and relationships to the society.

But I am not writing to adopt a stance. Instead, I want to recommend a close reading of Max Weber’s “The Meaning of ‘Ethical Neutrality’ in Sociology and Economics,” which Weber drafted during the First World War, when German universities were being called to support one side in a total war (Weber 1917/1949). In many ways, it sounds like a commentary on our moment–and Weber is a deep thinker.

His conclusion is rather like that of the Kelven Report. He would endorse the report’s view that the “great and unique role” of the university is “the discovery, improvement, and dissemination of knowledge”–not criticism or advocacy.

To get there, Weber explicitly cites philosophical premises that don’t seem sustainable to me, above all a “complete distinction” between facts and values (“the evaluative sphere and the empirical sphere,” p. 32), and an assumption that value conflicts “are entirely a matter of choice or compromise” that cannot be settled by any “scientific procedure of any kind” (19). Weber assumes that ethical maxims are “in eternal conflict” (16). I agree that there will always be debate about values, but Weber dismisses the scholarly consideration of them, e.g., in philosophy.

However, Weber complicates his premises in interesting ways. He notes that in order to understand and interpret culture, one must have the “capacity for evaluating” it (33). People create culture to advance values, and an inability to think evaluatively would make human choices unintelligible. I would ask: what does that mean about the education of scholars? Might there be room for the cultivation of ethical and aesthetic judgment?

Weber acknowledges that the comparative, empirical study of ethical (or religious) views can undermine students’ faith in all such views. In that sense, sociology is not neutral and may be a corrosive force (14). He also suggests that–“ultimately”–individuals must choose their own “meaning,” which sounds to me like a liberal, individualistic, and secular view, not a neutral one (18).

Weber recognizes that the selection of problems and topics in the social sciences depends on values, and “cultural (i.e. evaluative) interests give purely empirical scientific work its direction” (21-22). However, he gives this issue little attention, even though it seems fundamental to me and he does discuss it elsewhere (Weber 1905). A university could decide not to publish statements in response to major news events yet drastically expand its research on business applications of Artificial Intelligence while closing its classics department. That hardly seems neutral to me.

In his 1905 essay, Weber had acknowledged that a given intellectual institution–in that case, a major journal that he edited–might strive for neutrality and expressly invite “all political standpoints,” yet it could manifest a certain “character” due to the group of people who gravitate to it. For instance, his journal had mainly attracted non-revolutionary economic progressives (Weber 1905, 62). One could argue that modern American universities also have “characters” (one or more per institution) that are not the result of intentional policies but that diverge from neutrality, for better or worse.

Weber’s situation differs from ours because all German universities in his time were state institutions. In a footnote, he considers the Dutch model, which allowed anyone to create a university as long as it met basic standards. This sounds rather like our policy today. He objects that “it gives the advantage to those with large sums of money and groups which are already in power” (7).

That sounds familiar, and so do Weber’s other targets in the essay. He devotes several pages (35-40) to economists who smuggle strong normative assumptions into their ostensibly scientific models. He is annoyed by obvious partisans who define their positions as the ethically neutral ones (6) and by those who claim that a moderate position or a “‘statesman-like’ compromise” is neutral, when it is just another view that may even be harder than other positions to analyze critically (10). In the earlier essay (Weber 1905, 57), he had written that a centrist stance “is not truer even by a hair’s breadth, than the most extreme party ideals of the right and left.”

Weber alludes critically to colleagues who feel that asking professors to separate their political roles outside the classroom from their teaching duties injures their personalities (5). A central Weberian idea is that modernity requires increasing segmentation into roles.

Weber criticizes the kind of academic who uses data to demonstrate that certain political ideas are unrealistic, as if this were a scientific finding. “The possible is often reached only by striving to attain the impossible that lies beyond it” (24).

He acknowledges that students tend to prefer professors who express opinions in the classroom, and that universities need to hire popular teachers to compete for students, but he maintains that the teacher’s proper job is to inspire “a taste for sober empirical analysis” (9).

When he calls for “the professional thinker” to “keep a cool head” and “swim against the stream” of public opinion (47), Weber is targeting German nationalists and revolutionary socialists.

Weber also objects that academics opine on certain contested issues even though other questions–such as the German monarchy–are officially off limits. He says that the dignified response to partial censorship would be silence (8).

He finds a certain kind of (unnamed) colleague “altogether repugnant.”

An unprecedented situation exists when a large number of officially accredited prophets do not do their preaching on the streets, or in churches or other public places or in sectarian conventicles, but rather feel themselves competent to enunciate their evaluations on ultimate questions “in the name of science” in govenmentally privileged lecture halls in which they are neither controlled, checked by discussion nor subject to contradiction (4).

I suppose that many of us today would recognize this description yet would disagree about whom it describes.

Sources: Weber, M. (1917/1949). The Meaning of “Ethical Neutrality” in Sociology and Economics. In E.A. Shils, & H.A. Finch (Eds.), Max Weber on The Methodology of the Social Sciences (pp. 1–49). Glencoe Ill.: The Free Press; and Weber (1905/1949), “Objectivity” in Social Science and Social Policy, in ibid (pp. 50- 112). See also: Activism and Objectivity in Political Research; The Democratic Mission of Higher Education; when does a narrower range of opinions reflect learning?; right and left on campus today; academic freedom for individuals and for groupsvaccination, masking, political polarization, and the authority of science; values of a university; etc.

youth views of Israel/Palestine

CIRCLE has published detailed data on young people’s views of the current war in the Middle East. I’ll share two graphs, but I recommend their whole document.

First, compared to older generations, young Americans are much more likely to perceive genocide in Palestine (almost 50% agree that it’s happening) and to support an immediate ceasefire.

Second, young Americans are split on whether to sympathize more with Palestinians or Israelis and are divided about US support for Israel. There are differences by race and ethnicity: white youth are least critical of Israel; Asian/Pacific Islander youth are most critical. To my eye, these differences are not very large–particularly between white and African American youth–and the disagreements within each demographic group are more notable.

(By the way, not being sure what to think of this issue seems understandable–for anyone, and especially for someone who is young.)

Whether and how young people will vote in the 2024 election is certainly not the only relevant or important question. That said, political scientists generally doubt that Americans vote on foreign policy issues; and in 2022, according to CIRCLE, just 4% of young Americans named foreign affairs among their top three issues. But in this cycle, as many as 82% of young people are naming foreign policy. I agree with CIRCLE that many young Americans may be “viewing this conflict through a different lens” and, in particular, seeing it as continuous with domestic US issues regarding race.

Maybe the Horse Will Sing: On the Value of Putting Things Off

Nasreddin got himself into some serious legal trouble–the reasons are lost to time. Before the king sentenced him to death, Nasreddin asked for a delay because he was the only person in the world who could teach a horse to sing. The king was skeptical, but gave Nasreddin a horse and a year to teach it. “If that horse isn’t signing a year from today, you’re going to be put to death, and we’re going to get creative about it!”

Nasreddin’s cellmate asked him why he’d done such a foolish thing! “Even you know that a horse can’t sing!”

“True. But a lot of things can happen in a year. The king may die. I may die. And, who knows? Maybe the horse will sing.”

The preceding allegory is often attributed to Herodotus or Aesop in American science fiction stories, and I haven’t been able to track it down. To me it seems that the most plausible source is that this was originally a Sufi tale of Nasreddin Hodja, in part because sourcing is more difficult for Nasreddin stories and our folk tale philology is weaker for Muslim sources.

Regardless of the source, it’s surprising how much of life, work, and politics can respond well to this sort of lesson: keep trying and maybe things will be different later. Another science fiction author, Ray Cummings, captured this well: “Time is what keeps everything from happening at once.”

I’ve written about the problems with clichés often enough. They can be thought-defying and rule out further inquiry. (There’s surely more to time than Cummings’ joke.) Nonetheless, they often carry a little insight that’s needed often enough to justify the repetition, too.