“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Friday, November 11, 2011

Humean anthropology and indolence: 3

Hume’s Natural History of Religion is, as its very title shows, something different than a mere history. History and natural history differ in their object: in the former, the object is the chronicle of human action, and in the later, of the development of living forms in nature. By shifting religion to the realm of nature, Hume was following through on the logic of a division that he articulates in the very first paragraph between reason and human nature. Already this division speaks to a certain incoherence in the pretence that man is, ontologically, on an equal level with ‘nature’. In other words, an incoherence of ontological scope. This incoherence haunts social science like a Cartesian demon, casting doubt on all attempts to ground a social science on the opposition between culture and nature, while at the same time making it impossible to simply combine the two without destroying the very meaning and savor of both categories. In the twentieth century, Levy-Strauss made of that opposition one of the founding social structures, the study of which is the object of anthropology, at least insofar as the society studied lacks a system of writing. I mention Levy-Strauss to signal a certain textual destiny that can assigned to Hume’s natural history. Although the essay is not shaped by the protocols of what we would call anthropology – it evidences no fieldwork whatsoever – it is, on the other hand, an argument about a certain product of human nature, religion, that is almost – Hume is very clear about the ‘almost’ – universal. And in as much as it appears in most societies, Hume feels that we can understand it as a system of beliefs by asking what qualities of human nature are expressed in it.

However, in posing the question in this way, we already suppose that it is not a product of human reason. Reason, here, will be regarded not as an expression of human nature, but as a mechanism that transcends human nature. Reason is a machinery that allows for a two-fold operation, beginning firstly with citation – breaking a certain phenomenon out of its context or situation – and secondly with analysis, breaking it down according to the rules of either deduction or induction. Hume thinks that the operation of reason, abstraction, contemplation, etc. is so little a product of human nature that most humans do it badly, if they do it at all. In a sense, Hume’s whole essay is at the polar opposite of one of Wittgenstein’s comments about Frazer’s Golden Bough (which is itself very much a descendent of Hume’s Natural History of Religion):

“Already the idea of wanting to explain the practice – for instance, the killing of the priest king – seems to me to miss the mark. All that Frazer does is make it plausible to men who think as he does. It is very remarkable that all these practices are finally so to speak portrayed as stupidities.


But it will never be plausible that people did all this out of stupidity.

When he explains to us that the King must be killed in his blood, because after the ideas of the savages, otherwise his soul will not be fresh, one can only say: where this practice and this idea go together, the practice does not spring from the idea, but they are both simply there. “

Hume, on the other hand, thinks it will never be plausible that religion – in his survey of it – comes from anything but stupidity. The “ignorant”, the “vulgar”, and the “ignorant vulgar” play a very strong role in Hume’s account, and help us understand another of the determinations of his initial separation of human nature and reason: it is from the standpoint of reason, which deduces the truth about God, that the historian can understand the history of religion, which unfolds as a series of misperceptions of God. Importantly, for Hume, as for Frazer, God is a phenomenon of belief, molded in the form of the God that is worshipped in the Christian church. When Hume finds, not unnaturally, that this concept of God cannot really be imposed on many of the religious phenomena he finds in the past, he attributes this to a primitive intellectual equipment.

It is in explaining that primitive intellectual equipment that we come upon a certain unarticulated primal supposition in Hume, concerning primitive man. Hume, while never fully spelling this out in his essay, evidently assumes Hobbes. He assumes, that is, that the primitive state was one of man against man, or perpetual and complete war. It is characteristic of that state that people are harried – they have no time for contemplation. The temporal/material condition for reasoning – indolence – is lacking. And this original lack impedes the habit of inquiry; for inquiry, like all human phenomena in Hume, is eventually founded in habit and habit’s social cousin, custom.

“Adam rising at once in Paradise, and in the full perfection of his his faculties, would naturally, as represented by Milton, be astonished at the glorious appearances of nature, the heavens, the air, the earth, his own organs and members ; and would be led to ask, whence this wonderful scene arose: but a barbarous, necessitous animal (such as a man is on the first origin of society), pressed by such numerous wants and passions, has no leisure to admire the regular face of nature, or make inquiries concerning the cause of those objects to which, from his infancy, he has been gradually accustomed. On the contrary, the more regular and uniform, that is, the more perfect nature appears, the more is he familiarized to it, and the less inclined to scrutinize and examine it. A monstrous birth excites his curiosity, and is deemed a prodigy. It alarms him from its novelty,and immediately sets him a-trembling, and sacrificing, and praying. But an animal, complete in all its limbs and organs, is to him an ordinary spectacle, and produces no religions opinion or affection. Ask him
whence that animal arose? hewill tell you, from the copulation of its parents. And these, whence? From the copulation of theirs. A few removes satisfy his curiosity, and set the objects at such a distance, that he entirely loses sight of them. Imagine not that he will so much as start the question, whence the first animal,much less whence the whole system or united fabric of the universe arose.”

This is interestingly wrong. It was even known to be wrong in Hume’s time: there was, by 1750, two centuries of material gathered and published by Europeans that showed, contrary to Hume, a deep fascination with how the whole system of the fabric of the universe arose, and even how animals arose. Hume was probably aware of Lafitau, if not the numerous Spanish works on the belief systems of the Indios. And of course since Hume’s time we are more and more aware that, whatever else interested Paleolithic humans, they were absolutely fascinated and even obsessed by an animal complete in its limbs and organs. But Hume’s Hobbesianism disallows at least one reading of the evidence. And, interestingly, sets the stage for one of Hume’s most ingenious suppositions, which will prove to have a long life in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

comment on the NYT Stephen Roach piece at Room for Debate

Stephen Roach, the well named financial analyst, was asked about the crisis in savings in Japan and the United States in the NYT’s Room for Debate the other day. His response was essentially to knock the American middle class for living beyond its means (which used to be the bright side – remember the Ownership society? Remember ‘its your money’? Ah, the Bushisms of yesteryear). Anyway, I wrote a comment which, for some reason, the NYT chose not to publish, although I can’t see that it violated any policy of theirs. So, in the interest of keeping this comment around so that I can use it later, rather than flushing it into the cybervoid, here’s a link to Roach’s article and here’s my comment.

"Nice to see Roach talk his book - let's shove more money into Wall Street via IRAs and 401Ks. - Or, lets strip them of their tax deductibility and set up government retirement and education accounts which would be tax free and offer a modest but guaranteed return of 3 percent annually, as suggested by Teresa Ghilarducci. As Jim Mosquera in ‘Escaping Oz’ puts it: “At the last major stock market bottom in 1982, American households were not that interested in owning stocks. The growth of the stock industry was aided by the creation of IRA accounts (1974) and 401(k) plans (1980). IRA accounts came during the stock market bottom of 1974 and 401k plans arrived just before the major stock market bottom of 1982. Stock ownership comprised barely 12 percent of all household financial assets in 1982, where not 2/3 of investors have half their financial assets in mutual funds. Stocks litter IRA and 401k accounts, the most precious of saving vehicles. Fifty-four percent (54%) of households own stock mutual funds and 37% own individual stocks in their IRA accounts.” In 1982, retirement was much more secure than it is now. Our experiment with stock ownership has failed. It is time to admit it, and to shrink the funds Wall Street has to play with. This will re-set Wall Street so that it becomes of use, rather than what it is now - a wasteful casino that allocates capital with maximum inefficiency - and would actually help finance the operation of the government without tax increases for the 99 percent - although of course we need to hike the 1 percent tax rate to Eisenhower levels."

Monday, November 07, 2011

Hume and Rousseau on indolence: 2


Han Joachim Voth, in his essay, Time Use in Eighteenth century London: some evidence from Old Bailey (1997) cleverly figured out a way to quantify over time use in 18th century Britain by using the accounts of witnesses at trials. The question of whether and how much time discipline intensified among urban laborers (and agricultural workers) has been much disputed, as the Marxist claim that was backed up in the E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class has been tugged at here and statistically stiffed there. Voth concluded that the evidence points not to longer working days, but instead, to longer working weeks. The sixteenth and seventeenth century holidays were being cut down. St. Monday was assassinated. Another study of the decline of Saint Monday (the day that workers would sometimes take off to have a day of drinking and music) in 18th and 19th century Birmingham found that the Saint was not martyred all at once, but bit by bit.

The evidence, then, points to an increase in the working time of the laboring class in Britain in the 18th century. And yet, at the same time, one discovers a new sense of leisure among the ‘middling men’ – the bourgeoisie – both in the later start in life by bourgeois children, who were educated for much longer than laborer’s children, and in soft work and hard leisure – a certain non-differentiation of the two spheres. Gambling could be leisure, but for many it really did pay the bills. And the question of intellectual labor was still not wholly defined at this time. Research could be a hobby from, say, preaching.

What is important is that leisure and labor carry strong class colorations. As Joan-Lluís Marfany puts it in “The invention of labour in Early Modern Europe”:

…take the question of boredom, the history of which [Peter Burke] invites us to write. This is not, as it may seem, strictly an upper- class problem, but here too there is one important distinction to be made. The leisured classes get bored because they are idle; their problem, as Burke, quoting Henry Fielding, points out, is how to kill time. For the workers, the source of boredom is work. They too devise ways of passing the time, only in their case it is working time that needs to be passed. In conservative, idealizing literature, peasants are portrayed as people who like to keep always busy, to the extent that even in the long winter evenings when they get together to while away the time by telling stories, singing songs and playing games, they still manage to combine these activities with some useful task, such as, for instance in northern Catalonia, peeling or shelling corn cobs, or sifting Yet we might just as well look at it from the opposite angle. The cobs had to be peeled and shelled; the seeds had to be sifted; the stamens to be carefully plucked for saffron; the wool or the flax had to be spun: all tedious, repetitive tasks. Doing the work together to the accompaniment of stories, songs or games was a way of alleviating the mind-numbing boredom of the chores.”

These are quick glimpses of a deep and complex historical event, but they pose a question: how could Hume have gotten it so wrong? That is, how could he, and other European intellectuals of the time, have thought that they were living in the golden age of leisure?

Sunday, November 06, 2011

Hume and Rousseau on indolence: a backwards glance 1

Indolence and leisure have long been outlier themes in philosophy and the social sciences. And yet, as I hope to show, they are connected by every family tie to the grander themes of reason, progress and culture, as these were articulated among the Enlightenment intellectuals of the eighteenth century.

Let’s start this inquiry with a conference held in 1966 when Marshall Sahlins surveyed the ethnographic evidence concerning the use of time by hunter gatherers, such as the !Kung and Australian aborigines, and used it as evidence for what he called the “original affluence”. Sahlins wrote: “A fair case can be made that hunters often work much less than we do, and rather than a grind the food quest is intermittent, leisure is abundant, and there is more sleep in the daytime per capita than in any other condition of society (1968 – quoted by Winterhalder (1993). Windterhalder’s essay, which advocates a neo-classical framework to explain the “original affluence” thesis instead of Sahlins’ own Zen economics, introduces the problematic with a clever comparison to the myth of the busy bee:

“More than ninety years ago entomologist Professor C.F. Hodge marked individ- ual honey bees to study their activities. He observed that between sunrise and sunset no bee worked more than three and one-half hours (see Hubbell 1988: 78). Compare this observation with the commonly held belief captured in the phrase, 'busy as a bee'. In popular wisdom the honeybee stands for bustling productive effort, its labours those of nearly ceaseless toil. Only the beaver equals its reputation as an icon of industriousness.1 But Hodge is right. Bees spend a lot of time doing nothing or wandering through the hive appearing to do nothing in particular. Only intermittently do they work hard (Seeley 1989). Beavers too are active foragers only a small percentage of the time (Belovsky 1984).”

The bee, the leisurely hunter, and sleep will all figure in one way or another in a backward glance at Hume and Rousseau’s conjectural histories of original man. Neither Hume or Rousseau are ‘typical’ Enlightenment figures, but their different philosophical anthropologies did influence two different lines of thought in the Occident.


Hume’s essays on economics and social theory were written, according to James Buchan, under Hume’s strategic impulse to introduce himself a second time into the world of the learned, or at least the Edinburgh part of that world, after his first foray, A Treatise of Human Nature, fell stillborn from the press – at least in Hume’s own, retrospective account. Hume wrote the essays while living in his mother’s house, Ninewells, outside of the village of Chirnside. Although Hume’s afterlife has been more lively in metaphysics, his essays certainly gave him a fair place in the prehistory of economics and political theory.

One essay in the second volume, On refinement in the arts, takes up the defense of luxury. The Enlightenment inversion of the values of Christendom made a special case of luxury. Denounced by the Church as a vice, and subject to various taxes, luxury was not only praised by Mandeville and the French libertine school, but praised, specifically, for its social utility. Mandeville’s argument (made in The Fable of the Bees, for that insect's folkloric properties can be made to serve enlightened ends) that private vices can be public virtues, gave a radical foundation to the separation of the secular and the sacred: if we grant, as the New Philosophers held, that government exists to promote the happiness of the people, than giving the sacred secular tools to pursue private vice snuffs out the public benefit – the commerce – deriving from them.

By the time that Hume came to write the essays in 1741, Mandeville’s wicked creed had diffused itself into the circles of the advanced thinkers. Myself, I want to look at Hume’s essay not so much for the defense of luxury as for his characterization of the human happiness that is the essence of public virtue, because it is subtended by what one might call a speculative anthropology – a conjectural history – that is more abundantly expressed in the Natural History of Religion. Against one of the powerful but under-recognized themes of that anthropology – the theme of indolence – I’d like to pit Rousseau’s anthropological conjecture in the Discourse on Inequality.

Here, then, is Hume’s analysis of human happiness:

“Human happiness, according to the most received notions, seems to consist in three ingredients; action,
pleasure, and indolence : And though these ingredients ought to be mixed in different proportions, according
to the particular disposition of the person ; yet no one ingredient can be entirely wanting, without destroying,
in some measure, the relish of the whole composition. Indolence or repose, indeed, seems not of itself to contribute much to our enjoyment; but, like sleep, is requisite as an indulgence, to the weakness of human nature, which cannot support an uninterrupted course of business or pleasure. That quick march of the spirits, which takes a man from himself, and chiefly gives satisfaction, does in the end exhaust the mind, and requires some intervals of repose, which, though agreeable for a moment, yet, if prolonged, beget a languor and lethargy, that destroy all enjoyment.”

One should note that, though the structural place of this remark in his essay is directed towards building a case for further sociological observation, in fact, the natural history of the ‘quick march of the spirit’, and the exhaustion attendent upon it that requires leisure and play, has already, in Hume’s Treatise, been given a certain metaphysical, or perhaps I should say, anti-metaphysical, value in a passage highlighted by Buchan:

“But what have I here said, that reflections very refined and metaphysical have little or no influence upon us? This opinion I can scarce forbear retracting, and condemning from my present feeling and experience. The intense view of these manifold contradictions and imperfections in human reason has so wrought upon me, and heated my brain, that I am ready to reject all belief and reasoning, and can look upon no opinion even as more probable or likely than another. Where am I, or what? From what causes do I derive my existence, and to what condition shall I return? Whose favour shall I court, and whose anger must I dread? What beings surround me? and on whom have, I any influence, or who have any influence on me? I am confounded with all these questions, and begin to fancy myself in the most deplorable condition imaginable, environed with the deepest darkness, and utterly deprived of the use of every member and faculty.
Most fortunately it happens that, since reason is incapable of dispelling these clouds, nature herself suffices to that purpose, and cures me of this philosophical melancholy and delirium, either by relaxing this bent of mind, or by some avocation, and lively impression of my senses, which obliterate all these chimeras. I dine, I play a game of backgammon, I converse, and am merry with my friends; and when after three or four hours’ amusement, I would return to these speculations, they appear so cold, and strained, and ridiculous, that I cannot find in my heart to enter into them any farther.”
Play and amusement are ‘cures’ to the tangle of reasoning that has made Hume a monster to himself and – projectively – to others. Hume’s fall into monstrosity is imagined as a sort of foundering on an island –that is, it is a fall away from sociability,into what one might call primitive state of being, a Robinson Crusoe-like solitude. I will come back to that image later.
However, if in the Treatise the relaxation of the mind is a sort of film director’s cut that ends the curious metaphysical narrative, in the Natural History of Religion, relaxation – what I will call indolence – assumes a very different historical shape.