Daniel Little is a philosopher of social science with an extensive interest in Asia. He has written books on social explanation, Marx, late Imperial China, the philosophy of history, and the ethics of economic development. Little has come to see that understanding social processes is in many ways more difficult than understanding the natural world. Social phenomena are heterogeneous, plastic, and contingent, and understanding the social world requires a plurality of methods and theories. Little is currently interested in understanding some of the organizational causes of large technology failures.
What is the role of history and narrative for human beings and peoples? What do we gain by learning of “our” past and the often horrendous crimes that we human beings have committed? Consider this parable.
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Imagine that you are a different kind of human being. You are of a species that lives for a thousand years. You have a capacity for memory, moral reasoning, purposiveness, and reflection. But your capacities are bounded, and there are whole decades that you no longer recall. You have what we might describe as a persistent but intermittent personal identity; you know who you are, but not always who you have been. After passing the age of 800 you have reckoned that you are in the autumn of your years and you would like to collect the materials for an autobiography. You begin collecting documents and markers and newspapers and personal recollections from other people, and gradually you begin to form a more complete picture of yourself over time. It is not a happy picture.
It turns out that your younger years were turbulent. In your 100s you were impulsive and violent, sometimes attacking people for no reason, sometimes threatening and attacking them to take their property. Towards the end of this period you found tranquility, an excellent psychiatrist, and a yoga mat, and you were able to put your aggressiveness and percolating violence aside. Things went well for a century or so, you formed a family, you were a good father for at least a hundred years, and you practiced meditation in a disciplined way. Your life was orderly and kind.
Your researches have informed you, however, that this tranquility and peace did not last forever. In your fourth century you took up politics, you developed strong opinions, and you became intolerant. You were a charismatic person, and others followed you, and in that century you had a lot of influence. One of your passions was patriarchy — you became committed to the idea of the natural and moral superiority of men over women. By seizing the power of the state you sought to create a system of law in which women were permanently subordinated to men. With your followers at your side, you mostly succeeded. This period too didn’t last for ever. Instead, the women of the empire you had created rebelled, and they were successful. You left the palace in your fully charged Tesla, and you never looked back. It took another century for the state you had left behind to recover its equanimity, but eventually a decent liberal democracy was restored.
You felt you had learned a lesson, some kind of lesson, though you quickly forgot many of the details of this bad political episode. Anyway, your research tells you that things went better for you in your sixth century. You cultivated friends, had another family, and practiced the calming arts of meditation once again.
But then, once again, bad times. Petty disagreements with your friends led to breaches, to distrust, and eventually to active enmity. You broke your friendships, you broke promises and allegiances that had seemed permanent, you betrayed the trust of the men and women who had been your community. In fact, your own resentments and anger led you to do things you shouldn’t have done — you let slip embarrassing information about one friend to the newspapers, you denounced another friend to the political authorities for her disloyalty to the state, and you actively connived in presenting evidence against a third former friend to support a spurious allegation of business fraud. Once again, despicable behavior for a moral human being — “how could I have done those things?”.
Tranquility and peace came once again, as it always has. And this brings you more or less up to date. You have now filled in the gaps. You “know” yourself over time. And because you have been exhaustive in your search for evidence about your past, and because you have been unflinching in confronting the truth about yourself over the centuries as exposed by these researches, you now know that you have been a very long-lived person who has embodied both good and evil, both benevolence and hatred, both temperance and unbounded aggression. You have, you are now ashamed to realize, harmed a great many people who deserved only kindness and respect from you. The story of your life is now collected in eight compact volumes in a small library in your current palace. And you ask yourself this question: in the remainder of my centuries of life, how shall I live, given what I now know about my past and my potential for doing evil?
You realize a number of things all at once. (You spent a fruitful century studying philosophy with one of the great sages only a century or so ago. On balance, you preferred the philosopher to the psychiatrist, but more than both of them you preferred Seinfeld.) First, you realize that you have not consistently been a good person, a virtuous person, a person of integrity and courage. Second, you realize that the people you harmed are now dead and gone. You cannot make up your debt to them, you cannot undo the evil you inflicted upon them. You cannot, at the moment, even fully understand why you did those things. And yet, you now believe that you are a more fully moral person, a person who wants to act justly and well in the remainder of your years. Your overriding wish is to act as a virtuous human being for the time left to you, and to make the world a better place. You return to the philosopher-sage for more advice.
What advice can the sage offer this long-lived, flawed, but aspiring human being?
The sage, who seems to be a latter-day Stoic with a bit of Martin Buber included in the mix, has only five things to offer. To be humble. To seek to understand the deficiencies of character that led to the bad behavior over the centuries. To find ways to correct these flaws of character. To seek to rebalance the evils you have created. And most fundamentally, to dedicate your strength, talents, wisdom, and years, to the task of contributing to a better future for humanity. This will be enough, given that you cannot live your life over and undo the evil you have done.
* * *
Here is my question: Does this story about a limited, erratic, and forgetful human being provide an analogy for how we might think about long stretches of human history? Does the parable provide some means for understanding the history of humanity and the ways that we understand ourselves as human beings over time? Does it shed light on how we human beings, a historical species, must feel our way into an understanding of our past, our present, and our future? Is knowing history a form of self-discovery of often-forgotten truths about ourselves, and developing the strength to honestly acknowledge those truths, learn from them, and move beyond them? Can humanity deal with its blemished history in the same ways that the nameless ancient one in the parable is advised to deal with his own personal history and actions?
It is very interesting to reread George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia (1938) after a gap of about forty years or more. I remember reading the book in the 1970s with a sense of great admiration for Orwell’s moral and personal commitment to the Republican and anti-fascist cause. I read it primarily as an anti-fascist book, by a writer who eventually gained fame for novels about totalitarianism. Like several thousands of American leftists who volunteered to fight against fascism in Spain in the Abraham Lincoln brigades, Orwell made the choice to travel to Spain and to join a POUM militia unit near Barcelona. I did not pay a lot of attention to Orwell’s detailed descriptions of the “political lines” taken by the various factions of anarchists, socialists, Trotskyists, Stalinists, and syndicalists whose militias constituted the primary opposition to Franco’s forces — POUM, CNT, … But now those passages seem perhaps more interesting than the description of day-to-day life on the line in Catalonia and street fighting in Barcelona. And they are interesting in part because they demonstrate a more “revolutionary” Orwell than we have generally come to expect.
The issue dividing the factions was what to do about social revolution in Spain. The anarchists, syndicalists, and Trotskyists believed that the struggle must involve war against the fascist opposition and consolidation of revolution in Spain. The Communists (Stalinists) held for a common front with many groups in Spain — including the bourgeoisie and liberal landed classes. They advocated for a united front, and attempted to restrain or roll back revolutionary actions like land seizures and collectivized factories, and flew the flag of “War against Fascism first, revolution later”.
What comes across from Orwell’s comments about the Communists, the anarchists, and the POUM activists is that Orwell is more radical than expected. He appears to believe — along with the Spanish anarchists — that fundamental social revolution is necessary in Spain, and that any other outcome will be one form or another of class dictatorship. He faults the Soviet-backed Spanish Communists for many things, but most fundamentally for their willingness to compromise with landlords and the bourgeoisie against dispossessed peasants and workers.
Orwell had joined a militia group affiliated with POUM; but he had no special allegiance to POUM. “I had only joined the P.O.U.M. militia rather than any other because I happened to arrive in Barcelona with I.L.P. papers, but I did not realize that there were serious differences between the political parties” (kl 698). The Spanish civil war might have been perceived abroad as an anti-fascist struggle between defenders of the republic and a rogue fascist general; but Orwell perceived it as a revolutionary struggle between peasants and workers, on the one hand, and the landlords and owners of wealth who dominated them, on the other. The Church, as defender of the system of property that constituted this system of domination, was the natural antagonist of the peasants and workers.
The Spanish working class did not, as we might conceivably do in England, resist Franco in the name of ‘democracy’ and the status quo’, their resistance was accompanied by — one might almost say it consisted of — a definite revolutionary outbreak. (kl 719)
The men and women who rose up in anarchist militias to fight Franco’s troops did not do so on behalf of “liberal capitalist democracy,” but on behalf of revolution. The Spanish Communist Party’s “United Front” strategy (foisted upon them by the Soviet Communist Party and the military assistance offered by the USSR) was antithetical to the project of consolidating and furthering the gains that peasants and workers had already achieved through land seizures, workers’ control of factories, and parallel military and police systems. “Outside Spain few people grasped that there was a revolution; inside Spain nobody doubted it. Even the P.S.U.C. newspapers, Communist-controlled and more or less committed to an anti-revolutionary policy, talked about ‘our glorious revolution’.” (kl 762)
The Spanish Communists and their Soviet masters strove to eliminate their rivals, including the major anarchist parties (and their arms) and the POUM. POUM was denounced as a Trotskyist organization and a pro-fascist “fifth-column” seeking to undermine the defense of the Spanish state against Franco’s uprising. Orwell goes into great and convincing detail about the mendacity of the Communist press during those struggles, including especially the lies told during the May 1937 street fighting in Barcelona. Meanwhile, the revolutionary goals of the anarchists’ struggles were extinguished:
A general ‘bourgeoisification’, a deliberate destruction of the equalitarian spirit of the first few months of the revolution, was taking place. All happened so swiftly that people making successive visits to Spain at intervals of a few months have declared that they seemed scarcely to be visiting the same country; what had seemed on the surface and for a brief instant to be a workers’ State was changing before one’s eyes into an ordinary bourgeois republic with the normal division into rich and poor. (kl 821)
Here is how Orwell encapsulated the POUM “line” on revolution, for which he plainly had deep sympathy:
‘It is nonsense to talk of opposing Fascism by bourgeois “democracy”. Bourgeois “democracy” is only another name for capitalism, and so is Fascism; to fight against Fascism on behalf of “democracy” is to fight against one form of capitalism on behalf of a second which is liable to turn into the first at any moment. The only real alternative to Fascism is workers’ control. If you set up any less goal than this, you will either hand the victory to Franco, or, at best, let in Fascism by the back door. Meanwhile the workers must cling to every scrap of what they have won; if they yield anything to the semi — bourgeois Government they can depend upon being cheated. The workers’ militias and police-forces must be preserved in their present form and every effort to “bourgeoisify” them must be resisted. If the workers do not control the armed forces, the armed forces will control the workers. The war and the revolution are inseparable.’ (kl 895)
This is what I mean above that Orwell is more of a revolutionary at this period in his life than he is normally thought to be: he appears to believe that this assessment of the social situation in Spain is largely correct, and that retreating on these convictions means subordinating Spain’s peasants and workers once again to the chains of property, poverty, and repression that they have suffered for centuries. True, he also concedes the point that the Communist United Front line was a more practical way of pursuing the war against Franco; but he seems to believe that the result will be some form of class-based dictatorship. Orwell’s disgust with Communism seems to derive most deeply from its profound dishonesty and willingness to lie and murder in pursuit of Stalin’s wishes rather than its revolutionary or anti-democratic “line”. In this respect it is difficult to classify Orwell as a kind of democratic socialist.
It is also apparent from the book that Orwell was deeply affected by the ordinary men and women (as well as children) whom he met in Catalonia who were throwing everything in their lives into the flames of civil war in order to better their lives and support their revolutionary gains. His sympathies throughout his life were in favor of equality and for the ordinary men and women who must make do in a class-ordered society, and he had great contempt for the “bosses” and elites who profited from the exploitation of these ordinary people and exercised unconstrained power over them.
The dramatic end of Orwell’s time in Spain and the Civil War comes quickly. Within days of his return to the front lines with his militia unit after leave in Barcelona during the street-fighting in May 1937, he was shot through the throat by a sniper’s bullet, a wound that was thought to be inevitably fatal. He survived and spent weeks recuperating in hospitals, eventually making his way back to Barcelona in June 1937. During June the government, under the direction of the Soviet Communists, undertook a major repression of the POUM and its militia and supporters, with arrests throughout the city and the arrest and execution of its leader, Andreu Nin Pérez. Orwell himself was under danger of arrest and returned to England only hours ahead of Spanish secret police intent upon arresting him as a POUM spy. Orwell regarded the repression of POUM leaders and ordinary followers that subsequently occurred in Catalonia as a continuation of the purge trials that were underway in the Soviet Union itself. Here are an evocative few sentences by Orwell about the atmosphere in Barcelona in June 1937:
It is not easy to convey the nightmare atmosphere of that time — the peculiar uneasiness produced by rumours that were always changing, by censored newspapers, and the constant presence of armed men. It is not easy to convey it because, at the moment, the thing essential to such an atmosphere does not exist in England. In England political intolerance is not yet taken for granted. There is political persecution in a petty way; if I were a coal-miner I would not care to be known to the boss as a Communist; but the ‘good party man’, the gangster-gramophone of continental politics, is still a rarity, and the notion of ‘liquidating’ or ‘eliminating’ everyone who happens to disagree with you does not yet seem natural. It seemed only too natural in Barcelona. The ‘Stalinists’ were in the saddle, and therefore it was a matter of course that every ‘Trotskyist’ was in danger. The thing everyone feared was a thing which, after all, did not happen — a fresh outbreak of street-fighting, which, as before, would be blamed on the P.O.U.M. and the Anarchists. There were times when I caught my ears listening for the first shots. It was as though some huge evil intelligence were brooding over the town. Everyone noticed it and remarked upon it. And it was queer how everyone expressed it in almost the same words: ‘The atmosphere of this place — it’s horrible. Like being in a lunatic asylum.’ But perhaps I ought not to say everyone. Some of the English visitors who flitted briefly through Spain, from hotel to hotel, seem not to have noticed that there was anything wrong with the general atmosphere. The Duchess of Atholl writes, I notice (Sunday Express, 17 October 1937): “I was in Valencia, Madrid, and Barcelona . . . perfect order prevailed in all three towns without any display of force. All the hotels in which I stayed were not only ‘normal’ and ‘decent’, but extremely comfortable, in spite of the shortage of butter and coffee.” It is a peculiarity of English travellers that they do not really believe in the existence of anything outside the smart hotels. I hope they found some butter for the Duchess of Atholl. (kl 2800)
The worst of being wanted by the police in a town like Barcelona is that everything opens so late. When you sleep out of doors you always wake about dawn, and none of the Barcelona cafes opens much before nine. It was hours before I could get a cup of coffee or a shave. It seemed queer, in the barber’s shop, to see the Anarchist notice still on the wall, explaining that tips were prohibited. ‘The Revolution has struck off our chains,’ the notice said. I felt like telling the barbers that their chains would soon be back again if they didn’t look out. I wandered back to the centre of the town. Over the P.O.U.M. buildings the red flags had been torn down, Republican flags were floating in their place, and knots of armed Civil Guards were lounging in the doorways. At the Red Aid centre on the corner of the Plaza de Gataluna the police had amused themselves by smashing most of the windows. The P.O.U.M. book-stalls had been emptied of books and the notice-board farther down the Ramblas had been plastered with an anti-P.O.U.M. cartoon — the one representing the mask and the Fascist face beneath. Down at the bottom of the Ramblas, near the quay, I came upon a queer sight; a row of militiamen, still ragged and muddy from the front, sprawling exhaustedly on the chairs placed there for the bootblacks. I knew who they were — indeed, I recognized one of them. They were P.O.U.M. militiamen who had come down the line on the previous day to find that the P.O.U.M. had been suppressed, and had had to spend the night in the streets because their homes had been raided. Any P.O.U.M. militiaman who returned to Barcelona at this time had the choice of going straight into hiding or into jail — not a pleasant reception after three or four months in the line. It was a queer situation that we were in. At night one was a hunted fugitive, but in the daytime one could live an almost normal life. (kl 3019)
It seems evident that much of Orwell’s understanding of — and loathing of — the methods of totalitarianism, with its lies, violence, and betrayal, was much deepened by his experiences in Spain and especially in Barcelona in May and June 1937. Orwell died in 1950 at the age of 46.
Also interesting in this context is Franz Borkenau’s The Spanish Cockpit (1937), which was published a year earlier than Homage to Catalonia. Orwell had read The Spanish Cockpit before completing Homage to Catalonia and describes it as “the ablest book that has yet appeared on the Spanish war”. Borkenau himself is an interesting leftist intellectual of the 1930s and 1940s. Born in Austria and educated in Leipzig, Borkenau became a member of the German Communist Party in 1921 and worked as a Comintern agent through 1929. He left the party in 1929 out of disgust for the activities of Soviet secret police. He was a tireless anti-Nazi and also anti-Stalinist, and he was a vigorous critic of various intellectuals of the left whom he regarded as apologists for the Soviet regime, including Isaac Deutscher. In many respects his evolution and political position resembled that of Arthur Koestler, though Koestler’s disillusionment with Soviet Communism came a decade later. Borkenau visited Spain for several months, beginning in September 1936 and again in 1937, and wrote a penetrating analysis of the politics and revolutionary struggles that were underway in Spain at that time. One of the more interesting aspects of The Spanish Cockpit is Borkenau’s effort to explain the social and ideational basis of the power of anarchist ideas in Spain rather than Britain, France, or Germany. He attributes this willingness of Spanish peasants and workers to accept the political theories of anarchism to their clear and unmistakeable recognition of the need for a revolution in the relations of power and property that governed their lives. “Bakunin, for his part, regarded social revolution and socialism as the result of the revolutionary action of people prompted by the moral conviction of the immorality, the hideousness, the human inacceptability of the capitalist world.” Marxist socialism, by arguing for the slow historical inevitability of capitalist development, counseled patience in waiting for the crises that would allow the radical working class to seize power. Borkenau argues that the appeal of anarchism is its voluntarism: “The [anarchists] saw socialism as possible at any moment, provided there was revolutionary conviction and decision. But this conviction and decision, according to Bakunin’s idea, could not be put at the disposal of the masses simply by a small group of professional revolutionaries; they must emerge from a revolutionary spirit in the people itself.”
Revolutionaries by heart and instinct, according to Bakunin, were first and foremost those nations who did not admire the blessings of civilization; who were not in love with material progress; where the masses were not yet imbued with religious respect for the property of the individual bourgeois; revolutionary were the countries where the people held freedom higher than wealth, where they were not yet imbued with the capitalist spirit; and particularly his own people, the Russians, and, to a still higher degree, the Spaniards.
Here is how Borkenau describes the political power of the Communists with Republican Spain in 1936 and 1937:
Communist influence [in Spain], after all, works neither through a dominating organization nor through dominating personalities, but through a policy which is welcome to the republicans and the Right-wing socialists and which has the backing of such supremely important factors as the international brigades, the command of General Kleber in Madrid, and Russian help in general. Neither the republicans nor the Right-wing socialists are strong political forces in themselves. In fine, increasing communist influence today is a symptom of the shifting of the movement from the political to the military and from the social to the organizational factor. It is military and organizing, not political, influence which gives the communists their strength, and indirectly makes them the politically dominant factor. (kl 3718)
Borkenau himself was arrested and jailed by Communist-backed secret police in Valencia for the thought-crime of being critical of communist policies and of suspected Trotskyist sympathies.
The inferences from which they drew this conclusion were twofold: first, I had been highly critical of the type of bureaucratic tyranny towards which the communists are driving in Spain, and have achieved in Russia, as others have achieved it in Germany and Italy. Second, among many friends and acquaintances, I had some who were Trotskyist. What else but a Trotskyist could a man be, if he is opposed to the totalitarian state and talks to Trotskyists? (kl 4469)
Once again — Borkenau’s account provides a clear portrayal of a Stalinist police state as it was manifest in Spain in 1937.
The parties and militias
FAI Federación Anarquista Ibérica (anarchist party) CNT Confederación Nacional del Trabajo (anarcho-syndicalist trade union) POUM Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista (Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification) UGT Unión General de Trabajadores (General Union of Workers) i JCI Juventud Comunista Ibérica (Iberian Communist Youth) (youth wing of POUM JSU Juventudes Socialistas Unificadas (Unified Socialist Youth) AIT Asociación Internacional de Trabajadores (International Laborers’ Association) PSUC Partit Socialista Unificat de Catalunya Unified Socialist Party of Catalonia PCE Partido Comunista de España (Communist Party of Spain) PSOE Partido Socialista Obrero Español (Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party)
(Philip Bounds has written a very interesting book, Orwell and Marxism: The Political and Cultural Thinking of George Orwell, on Orwell’s relationship to English Marxism. Bounds is primarily interested in the question of cultural studies, but he offers a great deal of information about the English Communist intellectuals whom Orwell studied and with whom he sometimes interacted in print.)
A key problem faced today by liberal democracies throughout the world is the fact that millions of citizens in those democracies seem to support parties and candidates who are fundamentally anti-democratic. The authoritarian tendencies of Prime Minister Modi of India, President Erdoğan of Turkey, and President Trump of the United States are evident in their speeches and their actions, in varying ways and degrees. And each of these national leaders is supported by millions of citizens in their countries, who apparently endorse and support their inclination towards authoritarian rule and the suppression of the rights of minorities and critics. What explains the willingness of ordinary citizens to support these populist strongmen in their open contempt for the norms, values, and institutions of constitutional democracy?
John Dean and Bob Altemeyer have offered a summary of a theory of authoritarian psychology that has long roots in the discipline of personality psychology, extending back to efforts by psychologists to understand popular support for fascism and Nazi dictatorship in the 1930s and 1940s. Their book Authoritarian Nightmare: Trump and His Followers summarizes these theories and offers a warning: Trumpism will survive the presidency of Donald Trump. They argue that a very large number of supporters of Trump’s variety of populist authoritarianism score high on psychological measures for intolerance (racism, xenophobia) and support for authoritarian leaders, and that these psychological characteristics account for the fervent and unwavering support that the President gains from his base. In a word, many men and women in Trump’s base continue to support him because they appreciate his impulses towards authoritarian language and action, and they approve of his apparent comfort with white supremacy and racism. Dean and Altemeyer propose a psychological theory of Trump’s base and the base that supports other right-wing xenophobic populists in other countries as well: a certain percentage of citizens have been subject to social, cultural, and familial circumstances that enhanced features of intolerance, hierarchy, and authoritarianism in their personality structure, and these individuals constitute ready ground for supporters of xenophobic authoritarian populism. And, very importantly, Dean and Altemeyer were able to make use of a highly reputable survey research organization (the Monmouth University Polling Institute Survey, Autumn 2019) to measure personality characteristics of a sample of voters (link). The surveys found that Trump supporters do indeed show high levels of intolerance and prejudice, and high levels of authoritarian attitudes.
There is an extensive field of research on the topic of personality characteristics of “liberals” and “conservatives”. Carney, Jost, Gosling, and Potter (2008) review this literature and current developments in the field (link). They affirm that there are persistent differences in the personality characteristics of conservatives and liberals, writing that:
We obtained consistent and converging evidence that personality differences between liberals and conservatives are robust, replicable, and behaviorally significant, especially with respect to social (vs. economic) dimensions of ideology. In general, liberals are more open-minded, creative, curious, and novelty seeking, whereas conservatives are more orderly, conventional, and better organized. (808)
And they quote an important conclusion by Jost et al. (2003) (link):
We regard political conservatism as an ideological belief system that is significantly (but not completely) related to motivational concerns having to do with the psychological management of uncertainty and fear…. Although resistance to change and support for inequality are conceptually distinguishable, we have argued that they are psychologically interrelated, in part because motives pertaining to uncertainty and threat are interrelated…. (814)
The analysis offered in Authoritarian Nightmare is based on two distinct psychometric measures developed by different traditions of social psychologists that have been used and refined over several decades. The first is a scale measuring “social dominance orientation” (SDO) and the second is a scale measuring “right-wing authoritarianism” (RWA). Social dominance orientation is the psychological characteristic of expecting and valuing inequalities of worth and status in society, manifest for example in racism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, anti-homosexual attitudes, and anti-Muslim bigotry. The psychological characteristic identified in the measure of RWA is a willingness to accept a political system based on domination and one-person or one-party rule, without institutional protections of the rights of minorities.
Bob Altemeyer is a respected and accomplished academic psychologist who is one of the founders of RWA theory. He spent his career (in Canada) studying the emotional and motivational characteristics of authoritarian citizens, and was the author of Right-Wing Authoritarianism in 1986. Through his research Altemeyer developed an instrument for measuring an individual’s propensity for authoritarian thoughts and actions. This is the RWA scale, and the method has received widespread adoption and use. Saunders and Ngo provide a brief explanation of Altemeyer’s construction of the scale in “The Right-Wing Authoritarianism Scale” in Encyclopedia of Personality and Individual Differences (link).
The right-wing authoritarianism scale measures the degree to which people defer to established authorities, show aggression toward out-groups when authorities sanction that aggression, and support traditional values endorsed by authorities. (1)
Saunders and Ngo note that this line of research derived from studies of “the authoritarian personality” initiated by Adorno et al, The Authoritarian Personality (1950). Here is their summary of the RWA scale:
Right-wing authoritarianism, as currently measured by the RWA scale (Altemeyer 1981, 1988, 2006), is an individual difference variable that assesses attitudes concerning three covarying facets derived from Adorno et al.’s (1950) nine original dimensions: Authoritarian submission, authoritarian aggression, and conventionalism. In other words, RWA measures the degree to which people defer to established authorities (i.e., authoritarian submission), show aggression toward out-groups when authorities sanction that aggression (i.e., authoritarian aggression), and support traditional values, particularly those endorsed by authorities (i.e., conventionalism). (2)
The “social dominance orientation” (SDO) scale was introduced by James Sidanius and colleagues in the 1990s, and is presented in a research article entitled “Social dominance orientation: A personality variable predicting social and political attitudes” (Pratto, Sidanius, Stallworth, Malle, 1994; link). Here is the abstract to the article:
Social dominance orientation (SDO), one’s degree of preference for inequality among social groups, is introduced. On the basis of social dominance theory, it is shown that (a) men are more social dominance-oriented than women, (b) high-SDO people seek hierarchy-enhancing professional roles and low-SDO people seek hierarchy-attenuating roles, (c) SDO was related to beliefs in a large number of social and political ideologies that support group-based hierarchy (e.g., meritocracy and racism) and to support for policies that have implications for intergroup relations (e.g., war, civil rights, and social programs), including new policies. SDO was distinguished from interpersonal dominance, conservatism, and authoritarianism. SDO was negatively correlated with empathy, tolerance, communality, and altruism. The ramifications of SDO in social context are discussed.
They explain the central idea of social dominance ideology in these terms:
The theory postulates that societies minimize group conflict by creating consensus on ideologies that promote the superiority of one group over others (see also Sidanius, Pratto, Martin, & Stallworth, 1991). Ideologies that promote or maintain group inequality are the tools that legitimize discrimination. To work smoothly, these ideologies must be widely accepted within a society, appearing as self-apparent truths; hence we call them hierarchy-legitimizing myth…. For example, the ideology of anti-Black racism has been instantiated in personal acts of discrimination, but also in institutional discrimination against African-Americans by banks, public transit authorities, schools, churches, marriage laws, and the penal system . (741)
Saunders and Ngo observe that the RWA scale and the SDO scale are often used together to predict the political affinities and behavior of different groups, and that the two measures are correlated with each other.
What appears to be left unexplained in the psychometric literature on the SDO and RWA measures is the developmental question: why do different individuals develop in such a way as to manifest important differences on each of these scales? Why do some individuals become intolerant and authoritarian adults, whereas other adults are tolerant and democratic? Are these two aspects of personality linked, or are they independent from each other? What facts of social context, family relations, education, and other social and political factors are most important for giving rise to the social psychology of social dominance and right-wing authoritarianism? The most plausible theory mentioned by Saunders and Ngo is a social-cognitive theory (motivated social cognition) derived from Jost, Glaser, Kruglanski, and Sulloway (link): “people adopt RWA attitudes to meet psychological needs such as the reduction of fear (i.e., existential needs), uncertainty and loss (i.e., epistemic needs), as well as meeting related needs for structure and cognitive closure.” Jost et al summarize their approach in these terms in the abstract to this article: “Analyzing political conservatism as motivated social cognition integrates theories of personality (authoritarianism, dogmatism-intolerance of ambiguity), epistemic and existential needs (for closure, regulatory focus, terror management), and ideological rationalization (social dominance, system justification).” On this approach, conditions of insecurity, fear, and threat are thought to encourage the personality psychology of intolerance and authoritarianism.
The developmental question is important, but the empirical fact is alarming enough: tens of millions of American citizens rank highly on both scales, and these individuals tend to support right-wing populists with xenophobic and racist inclinations. And the two scales are correlated. “In large adult and student samples, for example, right-wing authoritarianism positively predicts anti-Black prejudice and did so more strongly than several other correlates of prejudice” (Saunders and Ngo 2017:4).
In Deeply Divided: Racial Politics and Social Movements in Postwar America Doug McAdam and Karina Kloos make use of this body of theory and research in their analysis of the influence of racism within grassroots conservative movements in the United States, including the Tea Party movement. In particular, they make use of survey research to assess the level of Social Dominance Orientation in different voting groups.
Abamowitz’s analyses of the 2010 ANES data yield results that are very consistent with the Parker/Barreto findings. In particular, Abamowitz finds three variables to be especially strong predictors of attitudinal support for the Tea Party. Two of the three—“dislike of Obama” and “racial resentment”—essentially mirror the first two variables in the Parker/Barreto study. Abramowitz’s conclusion echoes that of Parker and Barreto: “these results clearly show that the rise of the Tea Party movement was a direct result of the growing racial and ideological polarization of the American electorate. The Tea Party drew its support very disproportionately from Republican identifiers who were white, conservative, and very upset about the presence of a black man in the White House.” Support for the Tea Party is thus decidedly not the same thing as conventional conservatism or traditional partisan identification with the Republican Party. Above all else, it is race and racism that runs through and links all three variables discussed here. Whatever else is motivating supporters, racial resentment must be seen as central to the Tea Party and, by extension, to the GOP as well in view of the movement’s significant influence within the party. (p. 353)
It seems, then, that researchers in personality psychology have developed theories and measurement tools that contribute to answering part of the anti-democratic populism puzzle. The prevalence in a significant percentage of citizens of the personality attributes of social dominance orientation and right-wing authoritarianism may explain the dramatic and surprising upsurge of support that anti-democratic populist politicians are able to draw upon. The difficult questions of “why now?”, “why in this generation?” are as yet unanswered, though the cognitive theory of personality formation above may give the clue. The precariousness of certain parts of the populations in Western Europe and North America — terrorism, fear of shifting demographic balance, fear of the consequences of globalization — may be all it takes to trigger this toxic and intolerant form of personality in an extensive proportion of the population of these countries. This suggests that the theories of authoritarian personality at the individual level and political entrepreneurship at the political level — in an environment of rapid change and perceived threats to various groups — may go a long way to explaining the scope and depth of right-wing populism in liberal democracies today.
Recent discussions in a class on democracy and the politics of hate (link) have been very stimulating and thought provoking. We have spent several weeks discussing Rawls’s ideas in Justice as Fairness: A Restatement (JF) about the features of social life in a just society that might serve to make a just democracy stable over time. Rawls explicitly raises the question of the stability of a just society — the question of whether citizens within such a society develop the social psychology necessary to support its institutions. Do just institutions work to create the moral emotions in its citizens that are necessary to sustain those institutions? This question seems to have two parts. Will citizens acquire the motivation to act in accordance with the requirements of justice and the constitution? And will citizens acquire the motivation to actively defend the institutions of democracy when they are threatened? The first might be thought of as a fairly routine duty of reciprocity, whereas the second is more demanding.
Here is how Rawls raises the question of the stability of a just society:
The second part of the argument concerns the question of the stability of justice as fairness. This is the question whether justice as fairness is able to generate sufficient support for itself. The parties are to ask whether people who grow up in a society well ordered by the two principles of justice … acquire a sufficiently strong and effective sense of justice so that they normally comply with just arrangements and are not moved to act otherwise, say, by social envy and spite, or by a will to dominate or a tendency to submit. (JF 54.2)
Rawls does not believe this is inevitable, because a liberal democracy is committed to pluralism and a diversity of “comprehensive conceptions of the good.” And some of those conceptions are fundamentally anti-democratic.
Given the actual comprehensive views existing in society, no matter what their content, there is plainly no guarantee that justice as fairness, or any reasonable conception for a democratic regime, can gain the support of an overlapping consensus and in that way underwrite the stability of its political institutions. Many doctrines are plainly incompatible with the values of democracy. (11.6)
But Rawls does believe that it is likely that a just society will create the basis for stability and continuing support by its citizens. Rawls’s ideas of the citizen’s sense of justice, the idea of an overlapping consensus, and the idea of a well-ordered society provide an embryonic theory of a political sociology for liberal democracy: citizens living in a society that they regard as just are likely (in Rawls’s view) to gain a moral psychology of trust and loyalty that leads them to act in support of the institutions of liberal democracy. He appears to believe that the conditions of justice — equal liberties, fair system of economic cooperation, limited inequalities that work to everyone’s advantage — work to encourage a specific kind of “overlapping consensus”. And he believes that these social arrangements will be respected and adhered to because they are seen to be good for each individual and good for society. Finally, he believes that this will contribute to a social psychology of cohesion and political commitment that will make a just society with a secure liberal democracy a sociologically stable set of arrangements.
When they believe that institutions or social practices are just, or fair … citizens are ready and willing to do their part in those arrangements provided they have sufficient assurance that others will also do theirs. (59.1)
A well-ordered society is stable, then, because citizens are satisfied, all things considered, with the basic structure of their society. (60.4)
Thus Rawls seems to advance the idea that children who are raised within a well-ordered society in which the requirements of justice are largely satisfied will develop into adults who have a sense of justice and a motivated and reasoned willingness to support the institutions of this society. But this idea raises a number of difficult questions. Is this a plausible view? Is it partially true? Is it just wishful thinking? And is this “moral emotion” sufficient to create the level of active support that a liberal democracy needs in times of stress?
So far we have an argument for the emergence of a set of moral emotions that produce actions based on reciprocity — compliance with institutions and laws that benefit us all. This is a limited view of what is needed to stabilize democracy in the face of anti-democratic attacks, however.
And what about the countervailing, anti-democratic emotions that are so evident today? Rawls refers to “special attitudes” like envy or spite that may interfere with the moral emotions supporting justice. But we must also consider special attitudes more specific to current concerns in a contested democracy: hatred, fear, mistrust, bigotry, and racism. These latter emotions are the building blocks of mobilization for social movements based on division and hate — the politics of the extreme right, and current circumstances in the world make clear how much of a threat to liberal democracy these movements are. Do ordinary human beings have these motivations? And do they undermine the stability of justice? Is there an ongoing contest within a pluralistic society between the emotions of justice and the emotions of hate?
There is another question to pose as well: are the political motivations that Rawls postulates strong enough to ensure the stability of democracy in the presence of militant attack by the political organizations of the extreme right? Do the emotions of fair reciprocity suffice to defeat the aggressive and violent groups of white supremacists we now confront in our society? Stability of a constitutional democracy requires a willingness of citizens to extend themselves in its defense, to act altruistically in support of principle, and to make sacrifices for its preservation during times of crisis or stress. The journalist in Turkey who continues to publish her investigative reports even in the face of threats and coercion from the state or non-state actors is an example. It would seem, then, that the motivations needed in support of democratic citizenship go beyond a simple disposition to act according to the law and constitution, which might be described as “duties of reciprocity”. There seems to be another aspect of the motivational relationship between an individual and the society in which he or she lives — what we refer to as patriotism, love of country, or devotion to the constitution and political institutions of a just society. What are these motivations? How do they arise within citizens?
Abraham Lincoln’s writings about democracy prior to the American Civil War evoke this question in particularly powerful ways. He captures effortlessly the idea of an individual’s moral allegiance to country, to fellow citizens, and to the institutions that establish the environment of “equality and liberty for all”. Especially memorable are the final lines of his first Inaugural Address in 1861:
I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.
These are powerful words, and what they evoke is important: the moral emotions of patriotism based on a reasoned recognition of the justice of the constitutional arrangements and values of one’s country. This is not nationalism or an expression of ethnic loyalty; rather, it is an appeal to a powerful civil emotion — the emotion of commitment to an existing constitutional order.
It is evident, then, that this topic requires significant empirical and theoretical research. What kinds of moral emotions are needed to sustain a liberal democracy? What is “democratic loyalty and patriotism”, and how does it emerge as an active feature of the moral psychology of citizens within a democracy? What conditions are needed in society to lead to the cultivation and extension of these emotions? Will citizens nurtured within circumstances governed by the principles of justice acquire the motivations needed to sustain the institutions in which the principles of justice are embodied? When democracy is threatened, will its citizens come to its defense?
Marc Bloch’s Historian’s Craft: Reflections on the Nature and Uses of History and the Techniques and Methods of Those Who Write It is challenging to read, in part because it is not exactly what it seems to be. The English title suggests it is a handbook of sorts on the art and practice of historical research. But this is not quite right. In fact, the suggestion is partly the result of an unfortunate choice by the translator; the French title Apologie pour l’histoire, ou Métier d’historien might with equal justice be translated as “A discourse on history: The historian’s calling”. It is not a finished manuscript, as Lucien Febvre explains in a preface to the English edition. But it is certainly not organized as a treatise on methods. Instead, it is an extended reflection by Marc Bloch about his own thought processes as a creative, imaginative historical researcher. It includes many examples from Bloch’s own research as a medieval historian, and it illustrates the ways in which he interrogates and contextualizes these “tracks” of medieval historical life.
Throughout the text Bloch questions some of the most basic assumptions that both historians and educated readers often make about the past — periods, social systems, the significance of centuries (twelfth century, nineteenth century history); historical categories such as serfs and servitude; and many other fascinating assumptions that are shattered by Bloch’s careful dissection of the examples he considers.
I am inclined to think of this book as a “phenomenology” of the practice of historical research — a careful, detailed reflection on the particular thought-processes and question-posing that Bloch undertakes in investigating a particular historical problem. It is analogous to the reflections of a great biologist, reflecting upon and analyzing her efforts over decades to solve empirical puzzles in the laboratory and in the field, and to make sense of the phenomena under study. It is as if Darwin had used his notebooks to reveal to the reader the thought processes through which he arrived at various fundamental ideas of the theory of evolution. Brilliant!
The intellectual activities that Bloch illustrates through his phenomenological self-reflection are both “skills”, learned through the training associated with becoming a historian, and “creative acts”, exercised by an innovative and intelligent inquirer who is probing history to uncover some of its processes, mechanisms, and anomalies. Here is just one small example:
I have before me a Roman funerary inscription, carved from a single block, made for a single purpose. Yet nothing could be more variegated than the evidences which there await the probing of the scholar’s lancet. (145)
And Bloch proceeds to identify the numerous angles we can take on understanding and situating this inscription: linguistic, beliefs, political history, economics and trade, …
Some of the particularly important topics that Bloch considers in the later chapters of the book include: identifying and evaluating historical evidence; arriving at appropriate and useful historical concepts and classifications; making appropriate selections of aspects and topics for study within the infinite texture of the past; and synthesizing the phenomena that have been studied into comprehensible statements about the past.
On the topic of historical evidence Bloch is especially emphatic in casting doubt on the primacy of documents as sources of definitive historical truth. He discusses a number of strikingly contemporary issues — the perennial possibility of lies and deception, the cognitive limits of direct participants and observers, the common fact of “fake news” and rumors (yes, he was concerned with fake news!), and the likelihood that some of the documents one considers are deliberate fabrications. The “critical methods” of historians of the previous several generations are specific and logical techniques for evaluating the truthfulness of documents: comparing with other documents, considering spelling and orthography, considering the paper and ink of the document, and considering the consistency of dates and persons mentioned in the documents. Documents certainly have their role in the “epistemics” of historical knowledge. But Bloch emphasizes that many other sources of historical knowledge are equally valuable from an epistemic point of view: monuments, place names, urban geography, excavations, and garbage dumps. All these sources can provide the historian with important traces of the social and economic realities of the past.
But Bloch suggests that these problems concerning historical evidence are less difficult than a second group of problems confronted by the historian, the problem of arriving at a vocabulary for classifying and analyzing the past. He emphasizes that the use of familiar concepts can seriously mislead the historical researcher. The familiar concept may involve the importation of background assumptions that are profoundly misleading about the social and institutional realities of the past. His example of “family law” (148 ff.) is illustrative.
Take the family — whether it be a question of the small matrimonial family of today in a state of perpetual expansion and contraction or of the great medieval house, that community consolidated by such a lasting network of feelings and interests … (148)
These two instances are dramatically different, and the historian needs to reflect upon these differences. The “family” is not the same social entity or arrangement in the two settings. Bloch makes a similar point about the names of things that are used in historical documents. For example, he comments on the use of “aratrum” (“unwheeled plow”) and “farruca” (“wheeled plow”) (159), a pair of terms whose use is often confused in medieval documents and is highly consequential for anyone studying technological change in agriculture. Likewise, he comments upon the changing associations that the Latin term “servus” has had, leading eventually to the French term “serf” (159). Bloch notes that similar language implies similar social realities, but that this is fundamentally misleading in this case; “the differences between the serves of ancient Rome and the serf of the France of St. Louis far outnumber the similarities” (160). Another set of concerns in a similar vein bridge between language and social ontology, when Bloch underlines the problem of identifying large social systems in history.
Even among historians, custom tends to confuse the two expressions, “feudal system” and “seigneurial system,” in the most troublesome manner. This is arbitrarily to equate the complex of dependent ties characteristic of a warrior aristocracy with a type of peasant subjection which not only was very different by nature but had arisen very much earlier, lasted much longer, and was far more widespread throughout the world. (171)
Bloch also casts doubt on the historian’s common predilection for identifying distinctive historical periodization, presupposing a qualitative and substantively important difference between the activities, processes, and institutions of the distinct periods. Against this presupposition he shows that “the Middle Ages” and the “Renaissance” are arbitrary constructions. Here is what he has to say about the “Middle Ages”:
In truth, the term “Middle Age” has no more than a humble pedagogical function, as a debatable convenience for school curriculums, or as a label for erudite techniques whose scope is moreover ill-defined by the traditional dates. A medievalist is a man who knows how to read old scripts, to criticize a charter, to understand Old French. Unquestionably that is something. It is certainly not enough to satisfy a real science in its search for accurate periodization. 181
Even centuries are a misleading historical construct. There is no distinctive historical content or explanatory importance in the designation of “eighteenth-century culture” or “twelfth-century urbanization”; the fact that an event or process occurred between 1700 and 1799 is completely irrelevant from an explanatory point of view.
These kinds of observations add up to a theory of “cognition of historical reality”, or what we might call a “philosophy of historical language”.
Careful re-reading of The Historian’s Craft makes it seem that the real importance and significance of Bloch’s book have not been fully understood. The book deserves a monograph of its own, to unpack the many threads of commentary that are relevant to the philosophy of history today. The book is a rich expression of the intelligence and mental processes of this great historian. It is an important contribution to the philosophy of history, and to the philosophy of language in the context of historical analysis.
Marc Bloch wrote The Historian’s Craft: Reflections on the Nature and Uses of History and the Techniques and Methods of Those Who Write It. after the defeat of France in 1940. The title suggests that the book is a “how-to” manual for doing historical research, authored by one of the great historians of the twentieth century. But this would be to misunderstand the book. It is something better, more ambitious, and more important than a “users’ guide” to becoming a historian. Instead, it is a thoughtful, innovative historian reflecting on fundamental questions in what we can correctly describe as a philosophy of history. It is a reflective book that considers and reflects upon some of the great historians of France and Belgium, often praising but also often criticizing and correcting.
Bloch begins with a fundamental question: what is history? And of course, this is not an easy question to answer. Is history no more nor less than “the past” — everything that happened? This is not a particularly informative answer. Or more selectively, is history the sequence of important events, kingdoms, leaders, wars and revolutions, inventions, literary innovations, all set within a chronological framework? Even more abstractly, is history the study of great epochs — feudalism, ancient Rome, the absolutist French state, the Industrial Revolution?
Bloch does not like any of these answers to the fundamental question. Instead, he offers a simple answer of his own: history is “human beings in time”. He chooses this answer for several reasons. History is not simply “temporal sequence”; rather, it is the actions, creations, meanings, and life experiences of concrete human beings. Further, human beings are themselves historically conditioned; medieval serfs were different in deep ways from American farmers or contract software coders. They are different, in particular, in their mentalities, their mental frameworks through which they understand themselves and their relations to others. These differences are profound; they involve differences in beliefs, dispositions, ways of framing the world, attitudes towards neighbors, strangers, the gods, and their families. Their “histories” have shaped them into different sorts of human beings.
So for Bloch, the study of history is the study of individuals and groups in social settings in the past, striving, interpreting, and cooperating or competing with each other. Further, it is the study of some of the practices, structures, institutions, belief systems, and inventions that emerged from these forms of human action and interaction. There is no fundamental break between “the past” and “the present” — rather, human beings and their actions and social relations create and propel change, whether in the year 1000 or the year 1940. And distinctively, Bloch underlines the fact that human actions influence the physical environment; for example, the silting of the river port of Bruges changed the nature of water-born commerce in that great market town.
If human beings and their actions are the key stuff of history, then Bloch is also dismissive of the importance of traditional “periods” of history. Periods are created by historians, not by the ebb and flow of historical events themselves. In Bloch’s view of history, change is of fundamental interest to the historian; words change their meanings, place names change, patterns of habitation change, social relationships change, and it is a central task of the historian to chart and seek to understand these various processes of change.
Also of special interest are the creations of human beings throughout our histories. Ideas and ideologies; religious beliefs; social practices; technologies and scientific methods; social structures; and even wars and revolutions are all creations of human beings that the historian is especially interested in probing and investigating.
Bloch links the past and the present in an especially intimate way. The historian needs to be deeply immersed in the ordinary processes and activities of the present, if he or she is going to be ready to understand the actions and thoughts of the actors of the past. Bloch’s own experiences of war in 1917 and 1940 provided him with forms of knowledge and understanding that enhanced his ability to understand the medieval world.
Another key question posed by Bloch is whether history is “useful”. Can we “learn from history”? Can the study of history improve our chances for a happy and peaceful future? Bloch’s view is that the central value and use of history is its intellectual interest for us as human beings, and the significance we human beings attach to our histories. We are historical beings, in the sense that we understand ourselves in terms of the stories and narratives we tell about ourselves. We understand ourselves in the present in terms of the ways that we have constructed and interpreted the steps of human action and meaning that led us to this point. So the key values of history include the intellectual interest we take in understanding the past and the meanings we create for ourselves by discovering and interpreting aspects of our history.
We want to understand the past. And in fact, this is what Bloch regards as the central challenge for the scientific historian: to understand and explain aspects of the past. Historians should discover the pathways and causes through which various historical features came to be. Why did the actors behave as they did in the circumstances? What were they trying to accomplish? What social structures or circumstances influenced their choices, and thereby caused some aspects of the outcomes we are interested in?
Bloch’s philosophy of history is an inclusive and open-ended one. He encourages the historian to be multidisciplinary; not confined by periods or places; not focused on “great events and great persons: and to focus historical research on the circumstances of ordinary human beings. His approach is a “human-centered history”. And of particular importance, Bloch argues for a wide range of kinds of evidence that are relevant to historical inquiry. He doubts the privileged position of “contemporary documents and narratives,” and points as well to the value of non-text sources of historical insight — ruins, inscriptions, monuments, archeological discoveries, place names, and other apparently mundane and unremarkable “markers” of historical meaning.
Bloch was a founder, along with Lucien Febvre, of the Annales school of historical writing and research. It is not surprising that The Historian’s Craft captures eloquently some of the most important and innovative commitments of the Annales school in this important testament of the great historian.
In the last several weeks I’ve been thinking a lot about the twentieth century and its unimaginable crimes against humanity on an almost inconceivable scale. The Holocaust, the Holodomor, the Gulag, the mass starvation of prisoners of war, the executions and murders of vast numbers of innocent people; the reckless, unbounded cruelty of totalitarian states against their own citizens and innocent people who fell within their grasp; and largely, the world’s indifference and willful ignorance of these state-authored crimes while they were underway. These are nightmares from the twentieth century, and a central thrust of the posts in the past two months has been the urgent need for honest, careful study of these periods of human history. (Quite a long time ago I wrote a post called “Koestler’s nightmares” that described Arthur Koestler’s personal integrity in trying to see and record honestly the horrors that surrounded him in the 1930s; link. Here was my summary opinion of Koestler: “I am drawn to Koestler’s writings — both his fiction and his autobiographical writings — in part because he provides such a powerful example of an engaged mind attempting to make sense of the history around him. Much of his work is a first-person effort to “understand society” — to make sense of the social forces and individual behavior that the twentieth century presented.”)
We might like to think that deliberate state policies to extinguish a whole ethnic population within its borders is thankfully a thing of the terrible past. But today the world is forced to contemplate the systematic and brutal efforts the Chinese government is making to subdue, confine, and reduce the Muslim population of western China, the Uyghurs. Using mass surveillance, forced sterilization, confinement in “reeducation camps”, and other tools of repression, the Chinese government is engaged in an all-out effort to suppress the Uyghur population of Xinjiang. This campaign has been called a policy of “cultural genocide” — an effort to erase the culture and identity of this people. Sean Roberts’ forthcoming book The War on the Uyghurs: China’s Internal Campaign against a Muslim Minority promises to provide a great deal of detail about China’s illegal campaign of persecution against its Muslim citizens. (Here is an interview with Roberts in The Diplomat (link).)
Human Rights Watch curated a major report on the war against the Uyghurs in Xinjiang in 2018 (link). Here is a haunting summary:
This report presents new evidence of the Chinese government’s mass arbitrary detention, torture, and mistreatment of Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang and details the systemic and increasingly pervasive controls on daily life there. These rampant abuses violate fundamental rights to freedom of expression, religion, and privacy, and protections from torture and unfair trials. More broadly, governmental controls over day-to-day life in Xinjiang primarily affect ethnic Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and other minorities, in violation of international law’s prohibitions against discrimination.
Mass arbitrary detention, torture, and mistreatment; pervasive controls on daily life; violation of fundamental rights to freedom of expression, religion, and privacy … these are horrific conclusions by a world-respected voice in support of human rights worldwide. And their conclusions are supported by interviews and other direct empirical evidence.
A few lines later the report provides more summary devastating observations:
The human rights violations in Xinjiang today are of a scope and scale not seen in China since the 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution. The establishment and expansion of political education camps and other abusive practices suggest that Beijing’s commitment to transforming Xinjiang in its own image is long-term.
It is also evident that China does not foresee a significant political cost to its abusive Xinjiang campaign. Its global influence has largely spared it from public criticism. And its position as a permanent member of the UN Security Council means that it can deflect international action, whether sanctions imposed by the council or criminal prosecutions brought at the International Criminal Court, to which China is not a party.
This is a detailed, rigorous, and evidence-based report about China’s “Strike Hard Campaign”. It presents a devastating picture of China’s brutal repression of Uyghur people.
Since 2018 it has been widely reported that China holds at least one million Uyghur and Turkic Muslim people in detention and re-education camps (link). In February 2019 Freedom House issued a joint appeal calling for urgent investigation of these reports, representing 19 human rights organizations around the world (link). Here are the opening paragraphs of that appeal:
We, a diverse set of human rights and civil society organizations, urge the United Nations Human Rights Council to urgently adopt a resolution establishing an international fact-finding mission to investigate credible allegations that up to one million Turkic Muslims are being arbitrarily detained in “political education” camps across Xinjiang, a region in northwest China.
Over recent months, UN officials, human rights organizations, and independent journalists have painted an alarming picture of the conditions endured by ethnic Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang. According to these reports, the Chinese authorities have detained people outside any legal process in “political education” camps for their perceived disloyalty to the government and Chinese Communist Party. In these camps they are subjected to forced political indoctrination, renunciation of their faith, mistreatment, and in some cases torture. They are denied contact with family members.
It is important to notice what is in common between this twenty-first century war against a large ethnic minority and those of the 1930s and 1940s: an all-powerful authoritarian state with ample ability to impose its will against powerless men, women, and children within its reach. Like Stalin’s Soviet Union, China today is an authoritarian communist state. But it is its authoritarianism and unrestrained single-party rule rather than its communism that fosters its lawless treatment of the Uyghur minority. Communism has little meaning in China today. But authoritarian rule is alive and well. The regime has political goals, and there are virtually no limits on its use of the power of the state in pursuit of those goals. In some ways its powers of repression are greater than those available to Stalin or Hitler — constant electronic and video surveillance, control of the internet, inspection of communications and social media, …. Crimes against humanity and repression of its own people are the result. The Chinese state is not murdering the Uyghurs in vast numbers; but it is repressing and controlling them in a completely remorseless, tyrannical, and purposeful way. It is endeavoring to extinguish the culture, freedoms, and identity of this minority population. The world must take notice.
The Human Rights Watch report quoted above closes with detailed recommendations to the Chinese government, other governments, and businesses and non-profits that have relationships in Xinjiang. Here are the recommendations from Human Rights Watch to the Chinese government:
To the Government of the People’s Republic of China
Close immediately all political education camps in Xinjiang, and release all individuals held;
Cease immediately the “Strike Hard Campaign against Violent Terrorism” in Xinjiang, including the “fanghuiju” teams, “Becoming Family” and other compulsory programs aimed at surveilling and controlling Turkic Muslims;
Respect the rights to freedom of expression, assembly, association, religion, and culture to ensure that Turkic Muslims are able to engage in peaceful activities and raise concerns and criticisms;
Impartially investigate Party Secretary Chen Quanguo and other senior officials implicated in alleged abusive practices associated with the Strike Hard Campaign, and appropriately hold those responsible to account;
Review all cases of those detained or imprisoned on state security, terrorism, or extremism charges and drop all wrongful charges, and seek fair retrials in cases in which those convicted did not receive trials that met international due process standards;
Suspend the collection and use of biometrics in Xinjiang until there is a national and comprehensive law that protects people’s privacy; delete biometric and related data that has already been collected under current policies;
Refrain from the collection and use of biometrics unless according to law and demonstrated as necessary and proportionate for legitimate government aims;
Cease the operation of the big data program, Integrated Joint Operations Platform;
Return immediately passports to Xinjiang residents and cease the policy of recalling passports;
Stop pressuring Turkic Muslims abroad to return or collecting information about them. Stop pressuring host governments to forcibly return Turkic Muslim nationals abroad unless pursuant to an extradition request for legitimate law enforcement purposes;
Provide prompt and adequate compensation, including medical and psychological care, for people arbitrarily detained and mistreated under the Strike Hard Campaign; and
Grant access to Xinjiang as requested by several United Nations special procedures.
These recommendations have direct parallels with the provisions of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. China is a signatory to the UDHR and participates in United Nations human rights organizations; but it shows little evidence of conforming its behavior to the principles expressed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In his review of Ann Kent’s China, the United Nations, and Human Rights: The Limits of Compliance Greg Moore offers a very careful summary of China’s history of relationships with the United Nations and international human rights regimes; link. This 2012 Chatham House report by Sonya Sceats with Shaun Breslin provides insight into China’s relationship to the UN human rights regime; link.
The facts of mass murder in eastern Europe in the 1930s through the 1950s are simply too horrific to fully absorb. These decades include the mass killings of millions of Jewish men, women, and children by the Nazi state and military and their collaborators in territories they conquered in eastern Europe — the Holocaust. And they include the murder by Stalin and the deliberate policies of the Soviet state of further millions of peasants, Poles, and other ethnic minority populations in Ukraine, Belarus, and the Baltic states — the Holodomor. Anne Applebaum’s recent Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine chronicles Stalin’s war of starvation against the small farmers of the Ukraine and the deaths by hunger of almost four million people, the Holodomor. Applebaum’s Gulag: A History provides a vivid and horrific account of the story of Stalin’s prison camps and labor camps where his regime sent millions of “class enemies” to labor and often to die (link).
Prusin describes his historical methodology in these terms.
The main methodology employed in this study can be dubbed ‘integral’ — namely, it neither attempts to provide a detailed description of each borderland region, nor to illuminate all political and socio-economic changes that transpired in the borderlands as a whole. Rather it intends to create a larger synthetic narrative and analytical framework that encompasses all the borderlands as a specific region, giving it the appearance of a particular zone, within a specific time-frame and across whatever arbitrary and usually quite provisional international borders that had been determined by external or internal forces. (7)
Thus Prusin (like Snyder) defines his subject matter as a region rather than a nation or collection of nations. The national borders that exist within the region are of less importance in his account than the facts of ethnic, religious, and community disparities that are evident across the region. He chooses the concept of “borderlands” to capture the region he treats.
The term ‘borderlands’ here is applied in a geographical rather than in an ethnographic sense and implies as a spatial concept, a zone of overlapping, co-habitation, and contact between different polities, cultures, and peoples. In comparison, the more ideological term ‘frontier’ would denote a fluid zone within or outside of the state-organized society, even if bounded by clearly marked political boundaries. (10)
By the turn of the twentieth century approximately 16,352,000 people lived in the borderlands, including 10,809,000 on the Russian and 5,542,000 on the Austro-Hungarian side of the border. Situated on the fringes of the empires, the borderlands were ‘incomplete societies’, where modernity coexisted with the outdated socio-economic structures and socio-economic inequalities coincided with ethno-cultural categories, often defined in terms of religion. (38)
Snyder emphasizes the breakdown of state institutions in these “borderland” nations as a crucial determinant of the regimes of mass killing that ensued. Prusin too looks to the states — Germany and the USSR — and argues that these states, and their leaders and bureaucracies of killing, were the “main instigators of violence”. The two views are complementary: when intact, state institutions in Ukraine, Poland, or Lithuania had some autonomous ability to subvert or ignore the murderous policies of the Nazi and Soviet states. Once destroyed, the local impulses of lethal anti-Semitism and the organized strategies of the German military occupiers spelt doom for millions of Jews and other victims.
The Soviet and German rule in the borderlands followed the same methods of eradicating ‘class-enemies’ or the racially ‘inferior’ ethnic groups. Both states greatly facilitated internal conflicts by encouraging latent hostilities and creating an environment in which inter-communal violence was conceived as a legitimate means and could assume a genocidal character. This study, accordingly, accentuates the role of the state as the main instigator of violence. (Prusin, 5)
Here is Prusin’s map of the borderlands in 1920-1939:
Snyder’s map of the bloodlands picks out essentially the same region as the “borderlands” delineated by Prusin.
Image: Snyder, Bloodlands
Prusin gives a great deal of attention to the ethnic groups and relationships (as well as antagonisms) that existed across each of the national jurisdictions of these borderland nations (“the amazing heterogeneity of the borderlands”; 15), as well as the empires (Russian and Austrian, and earlier, the Ottoman) that dominated the region for a century prior to the shattering associated with the end of the Great War into the 1930s. Prusin finds that the borderlands were exceptionally violent when it came to war and largescale conflict:
The frontier wars displayed the appalling combination of extreme violence such as pogroms, massacres, the murder of prisoners of war, and collective reprisals. Violence thrived within and without clear ideology foundations and it was committed in the name of ideology as well as base human instincts. Its most disturbing aspect, and arguably its most profound cause, was that in many instances the state structure ceased to exist. (87)
Mass killings and pogroms were familiar in the borderlands. But the German invasion of the USSR in June 1941 led to killings of many groups, including especially Jews, on a huge scale.
Since the mechanisms of the Holocaust in the different regions of the borderlands are discussed in numerous studies, this chapter focuses on the attitudes of the local population towards the situation of the Jews…. Local volunteers constituted a fraction of the populations in which they lived, but their involvement cut across social status, educational level, creed, and age, and entailed a variety of motives. While the political aspirations of the nationalist groups that were particularly active in the initial stages of the war diverged from the Nazi ideological objectives, their interests effectively converged in the elimination of the Jews as ideological enemies or socio-economic rivals. (150)
Writ large, Prusin’s account of German invasion and occupation mirrors that of Jan Gross in Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland (link). He notes, for example, that the mass executions of prisoners and class enemies committed by the Soviets as they retreated in face of the German armies were attributed to the Jews, and led to horrific reprisal mass killings of Jews. Prusin believes that the massive killings of Jews that occurred in the region were the result of the intersection of Nazi strategic aims (elimination of the Jews) and local antagonisms towards the Jewish population in these countries that could be triggered into a frenzy of mass killings.
It can be argued, however, that the combination of these factors was at the core of the pogroms. Since the annihilation of Jews was inseparable from the Nazi military and ideological preparations for the war, the invasion of the Soviet Union created a particularly murderous environment — aptly named the ‘Jedwabne state’ by a prominent Polish historian — whereby anti-Semitism and anti-Jewish violence were officially structured and integrated into the emerging pattern of the Holocaust. Where the Germans and Romanians did not partake directly in the pogroms, they acted as organizers and overseers, guiding and encouraging native-driven violence as long as it was directed against the specific target — Jews. (154)
The initial period of “spontaneous” attacks on Jewish communities was followed in areas of Nazi occupation with organized systems for mass killing. These systems depended upon German leadership and organization, but also depended on large numbers of local volunteers who populated units assigned to eliminating Jews.
With the front moving eastward, the offices of the security and the Order Police commanders oversaw the reorganization of the native police forces that were to be deployed for regular duties, anti-partisan operations, and ultimately for the liquidation of Jews…. The constant shortage of German manpower was but one problem that the native auxiliaries helped resolve. As important was their ability and willingness to carry out the murder of thousands of men, women, and children, at least partially reducing the psychological stress and physical fatigue endured by the German police and security functionaries deployed in carrying out such tasks. Indeed, in any place where the ‘Final Solution’ was carried out, the role of the native policemen was crucial…. Some of the native police details smoothly mutated into proficient and zealous killing squads such as the notorious Arājs commando, which drove through Latvia and murdered at least 26,000 Jews.” (169-170)
There is one striking topic where Prusin’s book differs from Snyder’s Bloodlands: the mass starvation in Ukraine in 1932-33 created by Stalin as a way of destroying “class enemies of the Soviet state” — the Holodomor. This is a central topic in Bloodlands, but it receives no meaningful treatment in The Lands Between. Why is this? It seems as though it is a result of the way that Prusin defines his topic. Prusin’s book addresses mass killing in the borderlands region; but its primary focus is on mass-killing and extermination as policies by states at war. Prusin provides detail about the wartime policies and actions of the Nazi military and the Soviet Union and Red Army in its treatment of the peoples of the Baltics, Ukraine, Poland, and the other parts of this tormented region, but the internal use of mass killing through starvation by Stalin is not part of his definition of the scope of the book — apparently because at the time of this event, the people and territory were part of the Soviet Union. Prusin refers to a later period of famine in Ukraine caused by German military commanders (166), but he refers to the much larger Soviet famine of 1932-33 in just a single sentence: “By controlling food supplies, the state had at its disposal a powerful weapon to combat potential resistance, and in the early 1930s the Soviet government demonstrated its willingness to use this weapon to starve millions to death” (215). Here is a map of the extent of starvation in 1932-33:
The omission is perplexing. This region falls squarely within the borderlands that are the focus of Prusin’s book. So why was it not part of the story that Prusin tells? Apparently simply because it was at that time a part of a powerful nation, the USSR, and not the result, directly or indirectly, of inter-state war. Ukraine was no longer a borderland but a national possession.
Prusin’s book is an important contribution, and it is a good complement to Snyder’s Bloodlands. In a very real sense each book sheds light that the other does not choose to discuss at all.
* * * Prusin offers a quotation from Nicholai Bukharin, leading figure/victim in the Moscow show trials, that is grimly ironic eighty years later:
In the words of a prominent Soviet theoretician, Nicholai Bukharin, “however paradoxical it sounds, proletarian oppression (принуждение) in all its forms from executions to forced labour, is a method of the separating and forging the communist humankind from the capitalist epoch.” (141)
So tovarishch [comrade] Bukharin, you pronounced your own death sentence under the banner of принуждение … a term that is also translated as compulsion, coercion, constraint, duress, and forcing. In Moscow 1938 it meant a bullet in the back of the neck (link).
The ruthless authoritarianism and tyranny of Stalinist rule depended on a leader, a party, and a set of institutions that worked to terrorize and repress the population of the USSR. The NKVD (the system of internal security police that enforced Stalin’s repression), a justice system that was embodied in the Moscow Show Trials of 1936-38, and especially the system of forced labor and prison camps that came to be known as the Gulag were the sharp end of the stick — the machinery of repression through which a population of several hundred million people were controlled, imprisoned, and repressed. And, like the Nazi regime, Stalin used the slave labor of the camps to contribute to the economic output of the Soviet economy.
Anne Applebaum’s Gulag: A History is a detailed and honest history of the Gulag and its role in maintaining Soviet dictatorship. Here is her summary description of the Gulag:
Literally, the word GULAG is an acronym, meaning Glavnoe Upravlenie Lagerei, or Main Camp Administration. Over time, the word “Gulag” has also come to signify not only the administration of the concentration camps but also the system of Soviet slave labor itself, in all its forms and varieties: labor camps, punishment camps, criminal and political camps, women’s camps, children’s camps, transit camps. Even more broadly, “Gulag” has come to mean the Soviet repressive system itself, the set of procedures that prisoners once called the “meat-grinder”: the arrests, the interrogations, the transport in unheated cattle cars, the forced labor, the destruction of families, the years spent in exile, the early and unnecessary deaths. (kl 133)
Here is a map of the locations of thousands of camps in the Gulag, according to the Gulag.online museum (link). (This site is worth visiting and exploring.) It is remarkable how many of the camps are in the borderlands or bloodlands of eastern Europe, Ukraine, and Baltic states as defined by Prusin and Snyder.
Applebaum estimates that roughly two million prisoners inhabited the camps at a time in the 1940s, and that as many as 18 million people had passed through the camps by 1953 (13). And the economic role of the Gulag was considerable:
By that time the camps had come to play a central role in the Soviet economy. They produced a third of the country’s gold, much of its coal and timber, and a great deal of almost everything else. In the course of the Soviet Union’s existence, at least 476 distinct camp complexes came into being, consisting of thousands of individual camps, each of which contained anywhere from a few hundred to many thousands of people. The prisoners worked in almost every industry imaginable—logging, mining, construction, factory work, farming, the designing of airplanes and artillery—and lived, in effect, in a country within a country, almost a separate civilization. (13)
Applebaum makes a crucial and important point about historical knowledge as she frames her attempt to put together the history of the Gulag: the inherent incompleteness of historical understanding and the mechanisms of overlooking and forgetting that get in the way of historical honesty. She notes that public knowledge of the camps outside the Soviet Union was available, but was de-dramatized and treated as a fairly minor part of the reality of the USSR.
Yet although they lasted as long as the Soviet Union itself, and although many millions of people passed through them, the true history of the Soviet Union’s concentration camps was, until recently, not at all well known. By some measures, it is still not known. Even the bare facts recited above, although by now familiar to most Western scholars of Soviet history, have not filtered into Western popular consciousness. “Human knowledge,” once wrote Pierre Rigoulot, the French historian of communism, “doesn’t accumulate like the bricks of a wall, which grows regularly, according to the work of the mason. Its development, but also its stagnation or retreat, depends on the social, cultural and political framework.” (16)
The reality — that the USSR embodied and depended upon a massive set of concentrations camps where millions of people were enslaved and killed — was never a major part of the Western conception of the USSR. She comments, “far more common, however, is a reaction of boredom or indifference to Stalinist terror” (18), and she quotes the odious Jean-Paul Sartre, apologist for Stalinism to the end:
“As we were not members of the Party,” he once wrote, “it was not our duty to write about Soviet labor camps; we were free to remain aloof from the quarrels over the nature of the system, provided no events of sociological significance occurred.” On another occasion, he told Albert Camus that “Like you, I find these camps intolerable, but I find equally intolerable the use made of them every day in the bourgeois press.” (18)
It is interesting though not surprising to know that there were a number of major rebellions in large camps in the Gulag, which Applebaum describes in a chapter called “The Zeks’ Revolution”. The largest of these was the Kengir uprising in Kazakhstan. This rebellion occurred in spring 1954 (after the death of Stalin) and was put down some 40 days later by overwhelming military force, including tanks. Solzhenitsyn provided an extensive description of this uprising in the third volume of Gulag Archipelago in a chapter titled “The forty days of Kengir” (link). (Here is an analysis of the Kengir uprising by Steven Barnes in Slavic Review; link.)
Wide knowledge in the West of the scope and specific human catastrophe of the Gulag was first made available by Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn in The Gulag Archipelago, first published in Russian and English in 1973. And he wrote, not as an investigative journalist, but as a former prisoner, a zek. While serving in the Red Army in 1945 Aleksandr Isayevich was convicted of anti-Soviet propaganda under Article 58 and sentenced to eight years of forced labor. He spent the full eight years in several different camps in the Gulag, from 1945 to 1956. Following his release he lived in internal exile in Kazakhstan for several years before being pardoned by Nikita Khrushchev.
Here are the opening lines of The Gulag Archipelago:
How do people get to this clandestine Archipelago? Hour by hour planes fly there, ships steer their course there, and trains thunder off to it-but all with nary a mark on them to tell of their destination. And at ticket windows or at travel bureaus for Soviet or foreign tourists the employees would be astounded if you were to ask for a ticket to go there. They know nothing and they’ve never heard of the Archipelago as a whole or of anyone of its innumerable islands.
Those who go to the Archipelago to administer it get there via the training schools of the Ministry of Internal Affairs. Those who go there to be guards are conscripted via the military conscription centers.
And those who, like you and me, dear reader, go there to die, must get there solely and compulsorily via arrest.
Arrest! Need it be said that it is a breaking point in your life, a bolt of lightning which has scored a direct hit on you? That it is an unassimilable spiritual earthquake not every person can cope with, as a result of which people often slip into insanity?
The Universe has as many different centers as there are living beings in it. Each of us is a center of the Universe, and that Universe is shattered when they hiss at you: “You are under arrest.”
If you are arrested, can anything else remain unshattered by this cataclysm?
In 1978 — thirty-three years after his own arrest at the German front while serving as a decorated combat officer in the Red Army — Solzhenitsyn gave the commencement address at Harvard University, and he offered these important words about hard truths:
Harvard’s motto is “VERITAS.” Many of you have already found out and others will find out in the course of their lives that truth eludes us as soon as our concentration begins to flag, all the while leaving the illusion that we are continuing to pursue it. This is the source of much discord. Also, truth seldom is sweet; it is almost invariably bitter. A measure of truth is included in my speech today, but I offer it as a friend, not as an adversary.
A decline in courage may be the most striking feature that an outside observer notices in the West today. The Western world has lost its civic courage, both as a whole and separately, in each country, in each government, in each political party, and, of course, in the United Nations. Such a decline in courage is particularly noticeable among the ruling and intellectual elites, causing an impression of a loss of courage by the entire society. There are many courageous individuals, but they have no determining influence on public life.
Political and intellectual functionaries exhibit this depression, passivity, and perplexity in their actions and in their statements, and even more so in their self-serving rationales as to how realistic, reasonable, and intellectually and even morally justified it is to base state policies on weakness and cowardice. And the decline in courage, at times attaining what could be termed a lack of manhood, is ironically emphasized by occasional outbursts and inflexibility on the part of those same functionaries when dealing with weak governments and with countries that lack support, or with doomed currents which clearly cannot offer resistance. But they get tongue-tied and paralyzed when they deal with powerful governments and threatening forces, with aggressors and international terrorists.
The primary truths that Solzhenitsyn addressed that afternoon in Cambridge concerned the realities of colonialism and the Cold War and the moral failures of Western intellectuals and political leaders to confront authoritarianism and injustice. These are important words for us in the United States today; both truth and courage are called for. But beyond the present, these ideas underline the importance of the honest historical writings of scholars like Snyder, Judt, Applebaum, Gross, and Prusin in describing the catastrophes of the twentieth century. Solzhenitsyn himself demonstrated that courage and that commitment to revealing the truth about a gigantic and secret system of repression.
One of the impulses of the early exponents of analytic philosophy was to provide strict logical simplifications of hitherto vague or indefinite ideas. There was a strong priority placed on being clear about the meaning of philosophical concepts, and more generally, about “meaning” in language simpliciter.
The present investigations aim to establish a “constructional system”, that is, an epistemic-logical system of objects or concepts. The word “object” is here always used in its widest sense, namely, for anything about which a statement can be made. Thus, among objects we count not only things, but also properties and classes, relations in extension and intension, states and events, what is actual as well as what is not. Unlike other conceptual systems, a constructional system undertakes more than the division of concepts into various kinds and the investigation of the differences and mutual relations between these kinds. In addition, it attempts a step-by-step derivation or “construction” of all concepts from certain fundamental concepts, so that a genealogy of concepts results in which each one has its definite place. It is the main thesis of construction theory that all concepts can in this way be derived from a few fundamental concepts, and it is in this respect that it differs from most other ontologies. (Carnap 1928 : 5)
But the idea of absolute, fundamental clarity about the meanings of words and concepts has proven to be unattainable. Perhaps more striking, it is ill conceived. Meanings are not molecules that can be analyzed into their unchanging components. Consider Wittgenstein’s critique of the project of providing a “constructional system” of the meaning of language in the Philosophical Investigations:
12. It is like looking into the cabin of a locomotive. There are handles there, all looking more or less alike. (This stands to reason, since they are all supposed to be handled.) But one is the handle of a crank, which can be moved continuously (it regulates the opening of a valve); another is the handle of a switch, which has only two operative positions: it is either off or on; a third is the handle of a brakelever, the harder one pulls on it, the harder the braking; a fourth, the handle of a pump: it has an effect only so long as it is moved to and fro.
Here Wittgenstein’s point, roughly, is that it is a profound philosophical error to expect a single answer to the question, how does language work? His metaphor of the locomotive cabin suggests that language works in many ways — to describe, to denote, to command, to praise, or to wail and moan; and it is an error to imagine that all of this diverse set of uses should be reducible to a single thing.
Or consider Paul Grice’s theory of meaning in terms of intentions and conversational implicatures. His theory of meaning considers language in use: what is the point of an utterance, and what presuppositions does it make? If a host says to a late-staying dinner guest, “You have a long drive home”, he or she might be understood to be making a Google-maps kind of factual statement about the distance between “your current location” and “home”. But the astute listener will hear a different message: “It’s late, I’m sleepy, there’s a lot of cleaning up to do, it’s time to call it an evening.” There is an implicature in the utterance that depends upon the context, the normal rules of courtesy (“Don’t ask your guests to leave peremptorily!”), and the logic of indirection. The meaning of the utterance is: “I’m asking you courteously to leave.” Here is a nice description of Grice’s theory of “meaning as use” in Richard Grandy and Richard Warner’s article on Grice in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (link).
This approach to meaning invites a distinction between “literal” meaning and “figurative” or contextual meaning, and it suggests that algorithmic translation is unlikely to succeed for many important purposes. On Grice’s approach, we must also understand the “subtext”.
Hilary Putnam confronted the question of linguistic meaning (semantics) directly in 1975 in his essay “The meaning of ‘meaning'” (link). Putnam questions whether “meaning” is a feature of the psychological state of an individual user of language; are meanings “mental” entities; and he argues that they are not. Rather, meanings depend upon a “social division of labor” in which the background knowledge required to explicate and apply a term is distributed over a group of experts and quasi-experts.
A socio-linguistic hypothesis. The last two examples depend upon a fact about language that seems, surprisingly, never to have been pointed out: that there is division of linguistic labor. ‘Ve could hardly use such words as “elm” and “aluminum” if no one possessed a way of recognizing elm trees and aluminum metal; but not everyone to whom the distinction is important has to be able to make the distinction. (144
Putnam links his argument to the philosophical concepts of sense and reference. The reference (or extension) of a term is the set of objects to which the term refers; and the sense of the term is the set of mental features accessible to the individual that permits him or her to identify the referent of the term. But Putnam offers arguments about hypothetical situations that are designed to show that two individuals may be in identical psychological states with respect to a concept X, but may nonetheless identify different referents or extensions of X. “We claim that it is possible for two speakers to be in exactly the same psychological state (in the narrow sense), even though the extension of the term A in the idiolect of the one is different from the extension of the term A in the idiolect of the other. Extension is not determined by psychological state” (139).
A second idea that Putnam develops here is independent from this point about the socially distributed knowledge needed to identify the extension of a concept. This is his suggestion that we might try to understand the meaning of a noun as being the “stereotype” that competent language users have about that kind of thing.
In ordinary parlance a “stereotype” is a conventional (frequently malicious) idea (which may be wildly inaccurate) of what an X looks like or acts like or is. Obviously, I am trading on some features of the ordinary parlance. I am not concerned with malicious stereotypes (save where the language itself is malicious); but I am concerned with conventional ideas, which may be inaccurate. I am suggesting that just such a conventional idea is associated with “tiger,” with “gold,” etc., and, . moreover, that this is the sole element of truth in the “concept” theory. (169)
Here we might summarize the idea of a thing-stereotype as a cluster of beliefs about the thing that permits conversation to get started. “I’m going to tell you about glooples…” “I’m sorry, what do you mean by “gloople”?” “You know, that powdery stuff that you put in rice to make it turn yellow and give it a citrous taste.” Now we have an idea of what we’re talking about; a gloople is a bit of ground saffron. But of course this particular ensemble of features might characterize several different spices — cumin as well as saffron, say — in which case we do not actually know what is meant by “gloople” for the speaker. This is true; there is room for ambiguity, misunderstanding, and misidentification in the kitchen — but we have a place to start the conversation about the gloople needed for making the evening’s curry. And, as Putnam emphasizes in this essay and many other places, we are aided by the fact that there are “natural kinds” in the world — kinds of thing that share a fixed inner nature and that can be reidentified in different settings. This is where Putnam’s realism intersects with his theory of meaning.
What is interesting about this idea about the meaning of a concept term is that it makes the meaning of a concept or term inherently incomplete and corrigible. We do not offer “necessary and sufficient conditions” for applying the concept of gloople, and we are open to discussion about whether the characteristic taste is really “citrous” or rather more like vinegar. This line of thought — a more pragmatic approach to concept meaning — seems more realistic and more true to actual communicative practice than the sparse logical neatness of the first generation of logical positivists and analytic philosophers.
Here is how Putnam summarizes his analysis in “The Meaning of “Meaning””:
Briefly, my proposal is to define “meaning” not by picking out an object which will be identified with the meaning (although that might be done in the usual set-theoretic style if one insists), but by specifying a normal form (or, rather, a type of normal form) for the description of meaning. If we know what a “normal form description” of the meaning of a word should be, then, as far as I am concerned, we know what meaning is in any scientifically interesting sense.
My proposal is that the normal form description of the meaning of a word should be a finite sequence, or “vector,” whose components should certainly include the following (it might be desirable to have other types of components as well): ( 1) the syntactic markers that apply to the word, e.g., “noun”; (2) the semantic markers that apply to the word, e.g., “animal,” “period of time”; ( 3) a description of the additional features of the stereotype, if any; ( 4) a description of the extension. (190)
Rereading this essay after quite a few years, what is striking is that it seems to offer three rather different theories of meaning: the “social division of labor” theory, the stereotype theory, and the generative semantics theory. Are they consistent? Or are they alternative approaches that philosophers and linguists can take in their efforts to understand ordinary human use of language?
There is a great deal of diversity of approach, then, in the ways that analytical philosophers have undertaken to explicate the question of the meaning of language. And the topic — perhaps unlike many in philosophy — has some very important implications and applications. In particular, there is an intersection between “General artificial intelligence” research and the philosophy of language: If we want our personal assistant bots to be able to engage in extended and informative conversations with us, AI designers will need to have useable theories of the representation of meaning. And those representations cannot be wholly sequential (Markov chain) systems. If Alexa is to be a good conversationalist, she will need to be able to decode complex paragraphs like this, and create a meaningful “to-do” list of topics that need to be addressed in her reply.
Alexa, I was thinking about my trip to Milan last January, where I left my umbrella. Will I be going back to Milan soon? Will it rain this afternoon? Have I been to Lombardy in the past year? Do I owe my hosts at the university a follow-up letter on the discussions we had? Did I think I might encounter rain in my travels to Europe early in the year?
Alexa will have a tough time with this barrage of thoughts. She can handle the question about today’s weather. But how should her algorithms handle the question about what I thought about the possibility of rain during my travels last January? I had mentioned forgetting my umbrella in Milan; that implies I had taken an umbrella; and that implies that I thought there was a possibility of rain. But Alexa is not good at working out background assumptions and logical relationships between sentences. Or in Gricean terms, Alexa doesn’t get conversational implicatures.
Luca Gasparri and Diego Marconi provide a very interesting article on “Word Meaning” in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (link) that allows the reader to see where theories of meaning have gone in philosophy, linguistics, and cognitive science since the 1970s. For example, linguists have developed a compositional theory of word meaning:
The basic idea of the Natural Semantic Metalanguage approach (henceforth, NSM; Wierzbicka 1972, 1996; Goddard & Wierzbicka 2002) is that word meaning is best described through the combination of a small set of elementary conceptual particles, known as semantic primes. Semantic primes are primitive (i.e., not decomposable into further conceptual parts), innate (i.e., not learned), and universal (i.e., explicitly lexicalized in all natural languages, whether in the form of a word, a morpheme, a phraseme, and so forth). According to NSM, the meaning of any word in any natural language can be defined by appropriately combining these fundamental conceptual particles. (36)
This approach is strikingly similar to that described in the Carnap passage above, in that it attempts to decompose meanings of complex concepts into “atoms” of meaning.
Some research on language in computer science and artificial intelligence has been striking and surprising. For example, OpenAI’s GT3 natural language text producer, grounded in massive machine learning on billions of pages of text, creates text that appears to be conversational and intelligent — without a milligram of meaning (link). Here is a short (two paragraph) piece of philosophy text about freedom of speech, generated purely mechanically by Arram Sabeti using GT3 as a demonstration of the capabilities of GT3 (link):
There’s a concept that comes up often in debates about free speech called “shouting fire in a crowded theater”. The basic idea is that you can’t just say whatever you want whenever you want – especially if it’s likely to cause panic. And the reason for this is obvious: panic leads to violence, and violence hurts people. If you are causing panic, then your right to free speech ends where the other person’s right to not get hurt begins. But this isn’t really true. If shouting fire in a crowded theater were illegal, then there wouldn’t be any actual fires in theaters, would there? How could there be? If everyone knew that shouting fire would get them thrown in jail, then they’d all keep quiet when they smelled smoke – and thus there would never be any fires at all. The only way someone could shout fire is if they were lying – but lying is also illegal. So if shouting fire in a crowded theater were illegal, then theaters would never burn down, and no one would ever die from a fire.
The way I see it, the phrase “shouting fire in a crowded theater” should be replaced with “yelling ‘there’s an angry mob coming with torches and pitchforks’ in a theater”. This doesn’t sound quite as catchy, but it has the advantage of being true. And this matters because the whole concept of free speech is based on people getting the facts right. If you’re going to shout fire in a crowded theater, then you need to actually have seen a fire – not just heard about one from someone else. You need to have checked that there really is a fire before you warn everyone else that there’s a fire. Otherwise you’re just causing panic for no reason – and that’s not free speech, that’s just yelling “boo” in a crowded theater.
The passage is no argument at all — no guiding intelligence, and obvious non-sequiturs from one sentence to another. The first four sentences make sense. But then the next several sentences are nonsensical and illogical. In sentence 5 — what “isn’t really true”? Sentence 6 is flatly illogical. In fact, it is as illogical as Trump’s insistence that if we had less testing then there would be less COVID in the United States. And the statement, “… but lying is also illegal” — no, it’s not. The bot is misinformed about the law. Or more precisely: these are just words and phrases strung together algorithmically with no logical construction or understanding guiding the statements. And the second paragraph has the same features. It is kind of entertaining to see the logical flaws of the text; but maybe there is an important underlying discovery as well: machine learning cannot create or discover rules of logic that allow for argument and deduction. The passage is analogous to Noam Chomsky’s example of a syntactically correct but semantically meaningless sentence, “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously”. This GT3 text is syntactically correct from phrase to phase, but lacks the conceptual or logical coherence of a meaningful set of thoughts. And it seems pretty clear that the underlying approach is a dead end when it comes to the problem of natural language comprehension.