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Showing posts from February 18, 2018

on sidewalks, cities and corruption

The French philosophes made a cult out of all things English, from Newton (whose science was taught to Voltaire by his lover, the Marquise du Châtelet), Locke, the school of psychology founded by Hartley, and the threefold division of powers as envisioned by Montesquieu. So it is not surprising that D’alembert and Diderot’s Encyclopedie is full of Anglophilia, even in the farther corners. For instance, in the entry entitled Trottoir, or sidewalk (which may have been added when the Encyclopedie was re-edited in 1825), we read this: “The city of London has been the one that most commodiously instituted the use of sidewalks. It owes this advantage to the almost entire reconstruction of the old part of the city that was consumed in the great fire of 1666. All the streets were retraced on a vast plan, all aligned and cut at right angles.” This of course is a fantasy, a fanta-fact, but it floated before these dreamers who longed to be the Great Fire themselves, purging the old and crooked f

colonial asymmetries

Back in the year 2002 – year of accursed memory – I remember reading a Guardian thoughtpiece by Ian McEwan about the impending invasion of Iraq. I don’t expect Middle Eastern expertise from Ian McEwan, but I do expect that heightened novelistic sense of epistemological consequences: the idea that other characters have ideas, which starts the the billiardwork of plots and counterplots and sensibility writ large. So I was rather astonished that McEwan began by dismissing the history of the West’s relationship to Saddam Hussein – the on again off again support – by insisting that a virtuous act in the present shouldn’t be weighed down by vicious acts in the past. What astonished me was the concentration on history solely as it was present in the consciousness of the British, American and European protestors. It was as if that history, which was lived experience by the Iraqis, didn’t count as something that might be present in their consciousness. They might actually have an opinion abou

nineteenth century observations about the twenty first century

The difference between intentions and conditions is a tricky topic, one that philosophers dance around, taking different partners to the dance. In the creaky old nineteenth century, they came up with the magic word “determine” and waved it over this business. So that they ground out phrases like, the economy determines history, or man determines his fate. Yet what was determination? Was it cause? And if so, why not just substitute the term cause here? But that, it turns out, was a substitution too far. For determine meant something more like: produces the terms in which… And this leads us to a difference between simple causes and conditions. And this leads us to the making of distinctions, which is not an American specialty. Save for Henry James, Americans are not big on making distinctions, which has a sort of sissy feel. I can imagine the bumper sticker: only sissies make distinctions! But to go back to something that isn’t dumb methodogical individualism. Let’s hypothesize