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I’m no expert on epistemology; and, since radical epistemic deformations come with my territory, perhaps that’s to be expected. Still, there can also be too much of a good thing, and I’m not sure that Timothy Williamson doesn’t suffer from a problem at the other end of the spectrum. Williamson’s approach, making the concept of knowledge an explainer rather than the thing to be explained, requires and reinforces the idea that there is quite a lot of unproblematic knowledge which we can take off from in explaining evidential justification, norms of assertion, etc. This is indeed quite different from the drift of most modern epistemology, which prizes goodness of warrant on the supposition rational thinkers do not always achieve it; but it is quite like another trend in metaphysics, the “causal calculus” as practiced by Judea Pearl and others.

As Williamson rejects attempts to do an end-run around Gettier problems by establishing more sophisticated criteria for knowledge, the causalists reject the thought associated with Bertrand Russell, that causation is a primitive concept which modern science suggests we should replace with lawlike regularity. They aim to make the formal study of causation as legitimate as the logic of probability; again, we have the rejection of habits of thought engendered by the possibility that causal reasoning might be susceptible to skeptical arguments. But are these really wholesome restorations of common-sense notions in the face of philosophical degeneracy? I’m not sure that attempting to establish the way in which knowledge must function in our inter- and intrapersonal cognitive economy really can deal with all the significance of skeptical argumentation.

Consider the pre-Cartesian case of Sextus Empiricus. The Outlines of Pyrrhonism is not a work of great literary art; it’s basically a “cookbook” full of recipes for refuting any sort of claim to knowledge. What is interesting about it is all the ground it covers — including chapters devoted to refuting the not-inconsiderable intellectual resources of Stoic logic. Modern scholars have stressed the final goal of Pyrrhonian skepticism, an attitude of intellectual detachment compatible with ordinary functioning in the world, but this is the consequence of its theoretical claims, such as the one raised against the validity of the material conditional: surely the skeptic must be permitted to draw the “appropriate” inferences if such are part of the “conventional” mode of life, just not to reason from their a priori effectiveness.

In a way, I think that Pyrrhonian skepticism anticipates exactly the kind of attempt to codify and consolidate the concept of knowledge we find in Williamson, and the attempt to make causal reasoning mathematically precise; it is opposed to the exaltation of common-sensical knowledge-claims, the attempt to make what is practically unproblematic theoretically impregnable. The “knowledge economy” of things ordinary rational thinkers accept without reservation is something different from critical thought, and critical thought often takes a “problematic” attitude to its purported objects — the “negativity” Hegel spoke of. Perhaps what we accept in our daily practice cannot be unquestioned upon reflection, and it must be the task of “metaphysical” concepts to circulate between the two positions.

The Oregonian has one thing right: the commercials against ballot measure 40, paid for by R.J. Reynolds, are stunningly misleading. Measure 40 is Oregon’s version of a tack tried elsewhere, to make basic health insurance available to the state’s children by raising the cigarette tax. Versions elsewhere (in California, e.g.) have been defeated by expensive ad campaigns mounted by the tobacco companies, and now we get a taste of what this amounts to.

What it amounts to is a breathtakingly stupid attempt to make this policy initiative look like a conspiracy to enrich HMOs, which is pretty definitely untrue. These policies derive from the conventional wisdom in state-government circles concerning the growing health insurance crisis, and the willingness of anti-tobacco activists to sign on concerning anything against the demon weed. HMOs are largely indifferent — they’ll take the extra business, but they haven’t exactly been clamoring for it (the problem in the first place).

I’ve smoked for over ten years, since before it was legal for me to do so and until after it was halfway acceptable to the majority of people around me. Additionally, I think that the idea of using an excise tax on something most people wish would go away to fund a basic government service is a little rummy, and I am doubtful (given other growing pressures to make regular smoking impossible for all but the most affluent, reclusive diehards) that the revenue stream will hold up for such a costly project.

But I’ll be voting for Measure 40, since the tobacco companies have moved from misleading people about their product to misleading people about government, and that can’t be tolerated. Whether I will cough up enough money to keep a child in asthma medication is an open question, but those are at least worth asking.

UPDATE: A new commercial features “Ordinary Oregonians” (think Albert Brooks and Laura Linney with unfashionable haircuts) fretting about amending the Oregon state constitution to include a tobacco tax. Reality: the Oregon constitution, while in some respects a fine document, has all the inviolability of tissue paper. Every ten years or so, Byzantine new restrictions on property taxes are written in as result of “sagebrush” (subdivision) rebellion; it’s the Oregon way. So why not increase the revenue stream for a change?

One of the irritating features of Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s Empire (I addressed earlier my failure to be with the times in reading material, OK?) is its staking a claim to all that is valuable, or reputed to be valuable, in the cultural world for the post-modern communists they write for. Doing so does not contradict their theory, which aims to mirror an “undialectical” reality of immanence, but it makes for some inclusions that chafe at the historical memory of us more dialectical folk. Woodrow Wilson, whom they celebrate as a precursor to “Empire” with his League of Nations, is better known to most American leftists as the racist shithead who resegregated the civil service; and they begin one of their earlier chapters by quoting approvingly Robert Musil’s Man Without Qualities, specifically the musings on government of the aristocratic Count Leinsdorf.

Although I think there is quite a bit to be said about how selective Hardt and Negri are with respect to American history, especially considering the Marxist left’s reputation for careful historical research, I want to dwell a while on the second choice, the “cultural anti-front” they present. I don’t make it through many novels, but I recently did read the ’90s translation of Man Without Qualities, with not inconsiderable enjoyment (I found the whole thing dryly funny) but also a greater appreciation of the politics of culture in Europe. The Man Without Qualities is decidedly not a book with socialist sympathies: in fact, the whole thing is an extended case against socialism (and incipient fascism) on behalf of that Austrian liberalism that counted among its ranks such people as Freud.

I suspect many left-wing scholars who quote approvingly Musil’s nostalgia for “Kakania” fail to realize it was being enunciated amongst (against) the establishment of “Red Vienna”, one of social-democracy’s greatest and most prolonged victories in the interwar period; but I think simply dismissing the book as not morally educative on these grounds, as more “puritanical” people like me might be wont to do, would also miss the point. In 1906 Werner Sombart famously asked “Why is there no Socialism in the United States?”, and in terms of a effective political movement there never was any before or after that; but there is an area where Americans may have “left-wing” expectations that are a bit naive when confronted with the larger sweep of modern history — in culture.

Since the establishment of American arts and letters, their most illustrious practitioners have also been aligned with universalizing moral sentiments; which naturally lend themselves the causes of the left, as in fact many of those writers and artists also lent themselves to those causes. For example, among serious authors the exceptions to this are few, and those exceptions tend to prove the rule: there is no American Celine, a reactionary universally admired for his literary talents, only figures like John Dos Passos (whose work lost its appeal as he drifted from the masthead of the New Masses to that of the National Review). By contrast, as I learn more about classical European culture I see this bias towards the left is not at all present. I spent a long, long time poring over a six-volume set of Goethe’s Werke, and although my spoken German is still atrocious something I could not fail to pick up was Goethe’s hostility to anything anywhere near the French Revolution.

Goethe was hardly alone in favoring a well-constituted monarchy to revolutionary upheaval; and although as the years wore on and left-wing movements gained in size and radicality some good writers got caught up in the excitement, the Continental titans remained coolly “liberal” or worse. Figuring out why Europe has the politics, and the Americas (!) the political literati, would take more than one blog post, but I suppose noting the inverse proportions should make the task of those, like Hardt and Negri, who want to bridge the Atlantic intellectually, a bit more sympathetic.