Review of Journal of Modern Wisdom Volumes I & II

by Travis Dumsday (March 2014)

The Journal of Modern Wisdom is a newly founded venue for concise essays on culture, politics, and ethics, with most contributors writing from a broadly (very broadly) conservative perspective. Neither an academic peer-reviewed journal nor a popular magazine, the JMW occupies a space that overlaps to some extent such publications as First Things and City Journal, while possessing a distinctive voice of its own. In what follows I will summarize some of the highlights of the JMW’s first two volumes, and though I will venture some critical comments, my aim here is chiefly to give the reader an introduction to this welcome new entrant into the public square.

Volume I is 99 pages in length and divided into 13 pieces (a dozen articles plus a poem). The first piece, by editor Ben Irvine, serves in a way as an introduction to the whole enterprise. Titled “Wisdom and the Good Life: A Philosophy of Conscience”, it is a clarion call to self-examination on the part of both individuals and the collective. Rapidly changing technological, political, economic, and media structures are combining to render more difficult (in a bewildering variety of ways)  the pursuit of the good life for a large number of citizens. Intellectuals, both those operating in the public realm and in academia, ought to be at the forefront of combatting some of the worst tendencies of modern life; instead they are often paralyzed by (A) an unwillingness to acknowledge the very notion of objective axiological truth, and (B) a protracted inability to come to an agreement concerning what the contours of a genuinely good life might look like. “For too long, the only consensus has concerned the importance of hauling on a rope in an unwinnable tug-of-war. On one side are the hedonists - an unlikely alliance of yuppies, druggies, shopaholics and Machiavellians - all clamouring after selfish indulgence but finding it only fleeting, usually on the back of someone else’s.  On the other side are the ascetics - environmentalists, communists, hippies and fundamentalists - all looking to everyone else for a collective moral happiness that eludes them individually.” (JMW, Vol. I, p. 8) Irvine identifies a sort of mean between these as the better perspective, according to which a good life is best defined as one “in which personal gain accrues to those who help others; such that ‘good’ means ‘selfish and moral’, both at once: good for me is good for you (and vice versa). This is the thread - or rope, if you will - that unifies individualism and socialism.” (Ibid.) He takes this to be a commonsensical view of the good life, one presupposed by many, yet one that needs to be more explicitly articulated, referenced, and defended lest it be overtaken by its many competitors. (It is also a conception he expands on in a second article in this volume, titled “Newspeak and the Meaning of Happiness.”) Indeed, wisdom consists largely in the recognition that this is what the good life consists in, and in the commitment to check and minimize the flaws of human nature that interfere with it. It is the very implementation of this ideal, the living-out in community of mutually beneficial attitudes and actions, that will convince us of the correctness of this model of the good life; certainly such a lived-out realization will serve to persuade more decisively than could any purely a priori philosophical argument. Values are discovered precisely in their being lived: “Despite what a moral philosopher will tell you, those values don’t precede, but get discovered through, the good life….” (Ibid., p. 11)

There is much truth in this first piece; however, Irvine is too sanguine about the prospects for his own conception of the good life, which is too vague to resolve the sorts of disputes he refers to. The crucial issue is not whether the good life is to be found in achieving gains for oneself vs. achieving them for others vs. some combination thereof (aside from committed Randians, certainly few today would defend a thoroughgoing egotism); rather, the key dispute concerns just what constitutes a genuinely good life in the first place. In other words, what does it even mean to benefit someone? Does a good life involve merely the achievement of pleasure and avoidance of pain, such that, correspondingly, to benefit someone else means to help him/her achieve pleasure and avoid pain? Or does the good life instead involve the fulfilling of desires (which might have nothing to do directly with pleasure and pain)? Or the fulfilling of the intrinsic capacities of one’s human nature? And, if the last, what exactly does that human nature consist in, such that its fulfillment will constitute a good life for the person thus fulfilled? The philosophical waters here are deep and difficult (as Irvine, himself a philosopher, is well aware). The concept of a beneficent mutual self-interest, in the absence of a more detailed conception of the good life, will serve to clarify little. As an illustration, consider two competing visions of the good life, the disastrous results of whose competition unfolded across eastern Europe for most of the twentieth century: the Communist and the Eastern Orthodox. These disagreed not so much on the requirement to love neighbour as self (if love is defined as a desire for the other’s good, for the other’s sake, both the Communist and the Orthodox proclaimed the importance of fostering that desire), but on what that love involves; i.e., where they differ is on what the other’s good actually consists in, most fundamentally - whether equality with one’s fellows or deification. A society that prefers one vision of a good life (and its correlated conceptions of love and beneficence) will differ drastically from a society that prefers another. On top of this, one’s view of the human good needs to be circumscribed by other important moral notions, like those of inalienable rights and transcendent duties, which the Orthodox had the intellectual resources to affirm and the Communists did not. 

The next article, Stephen Bayley’s “Pride, Pleasure, Dignity”, is an impassioned defence of manufacturing, not only (indeed not principally) for economic reasons but for broader cultural / moral / aesthetic reasons as well. There is a kind of deep engagement with one’s artificial environment that is lost when a knowledge of manufacturing is jettisoned. “If you know how to make something, you understand everything about it. You appreciate its logic, its beauty and its meaning. And its value. … Abstract reasoning, spatial awareness, advanced motor skills, a keen aesthetic sense are all required. In comparison, the attainments of a commercial lawyer or a fund manager seem crude and debased.” (JMW, Vol. I, p. 14) With the decline of manufacturing and the skills associated with it have come certain important and under-studied forms of broader societal decline. “Post-industrial means unsatisfying occupations, meaningless targets, dumb consumption of goods fashioned by others and that generalized malaise characteristic of so many of Britain’s ‘clone towns’.” (Ibid., p. 15) When a society no longer makes what it consumes, it loses something profound. On a more practical level, as manufacturing is outsourced many of the important skills associated indirectly with it, including industrial design and related research and development abilities, also suffer. 

Later in the same volume we encounter Theodore Dalrymple’s “Connotation”. Dalrymple’s overarching theme is the way in which a word’s connotation can conceal the actual implications of some phenomenon the word is applied to. One of his examples is ‘social housing’. In English ‘social’ has decidedly positive connotations (think of derivatives like ‘sociable’), which can serve to obscure a number of unintended negative consequences associated with the provision of social housing, including its tendency to discourage employment-related mobility (since, in Britain, local practices with respect to granting housing benefits vary greatly). The connotation of a term can impede a thorough and critical analysis of the reality involved; governments recognize this point and utilize it. Why is it so successful as a strategy? Dalrymple answers this question by reference to a decline in critical thinking skills, a decline fostered by an over-emphasis on the power of reason and the supposed need to justify all of one’s beliefs by reference to it: “…in a secularised world, there is a greater need than ever before to justify every action from some rational principle rather than by reference to authority, custom or religious dictate; and this, paradoxically, has the effect not of making us more rational, but more prone and susceptible to rationalisation, for of course it is not possible to examine every claim about every action very deeply.  A simulacrum of a rational justification will do, as a kind of shorthand.” (JMW, Vol. I, p. 33)  In this context it has become easier for governments to confuse the public about the value of assorted policies by the mere use of words whose positive associations distract our critical reason.

“The Power of the Parent”, by Judith Harris, is a brief argument (drawing on her 1998 book The Nurture Assumption) to the effect that the role of parenting style in children’s development tends to be much overblown. She observes that, despite the fact that child-rearing techniques have greatly altered over the course of the twentieth century, distribution of personality traits across the population has remained basically constant. This statistical data is buttressed by “research using the techniques of behavioural genetics. Such studies consistently show that the home environment provided by parents has little or no effect on the children’s adult personality or mental health. The reason that troubled parents tend to have troubled kids is that personality and psychopathology are partly genetic.” (JMW, Vol. I, p. 47)  The practical takeaway Harris draws from this is that western parents should stop obsessing so much about optimal parenting styles. 

“Rebelliousness, Risk, and Social Deviance: Educational Intervention and Public Policy”, by Scott Kaufman, argues for the relevance of evolutionary psychology for understanding social pathologies. The core idea he works with here is that of the ‘fast life’: a mode of life adopted in social contexts in which the individual takes it as a likelihood that he/she will die relatively young. He suggests that some common social problems can be seen as rational, adaptive responses to the realization of likely early death, and that correcting these problems requires not piecemeal efforts but broad-based interventions that improve overall quality of life and life expectancy. An example of a social problem that he takes to be causally linked to the ‘fast life’ situation is teenage pregnancy. If one expects (even unconsciously) to lead a relatively short life, it makes sense to reproduce early, while one still can. 

While interesting and worthy of study, personally I am skeptical of most evolutionary explanations for human behaviour. A lack of falsifiability is commonly noted as plaguing such explanations, and this common criticism carries weight. I expect that the search for unconscious evolutionary drives as causal factors in this particular context is also vulnerable to being superseded by explanatory mechanisms uncovered by more qualitatively-oriented sociological/psychological study; think for instance of studies that simply ask impoverished teenage girls why they decided to become pregnant despite the easy availability of contraceptives - does anxiety over early death figure prominently in these studies? If not that will constitute a blow against Kaufman’s view (though not of course a decisive one).  

Turning to volume II (nine articles, one poem, 99 pages in length), it opens with the first part of a two-part article by Irvine, “The Common Bad”, which details a variety of interesting ‘tragedy of the commons’ dilemmas as they arise in social, political, journalistic and commercial contexts. For an example from the last context, consider marketing, seen as the effort of corporations not merely to inform potential consumers of their products but to manipulate them: “The individual reckoning which leads to the tragedy is this: if you use marketing to manipulate your customers into making purchases, and your rivals do not, you will gain an advantage; and if you use marketing as such, but your rivals do too, you will still be better off than you would have been otherwise….This reasoning is compelling despite the fact that in reality all such rivals end up gaining scant competitive advantage over each other while paying a grotesque financial cost.” (JMW, vol. II, p. 24) In the second part Irvine re-asserts individual freedom and responsibility in the face of these pressures. Such ‘tragedies of the commons’ can be avoided by individuals’ choosing freely to act in accordance not only with their own best interests but those of others (which of course ties back to Irvine’s conception of the good life, articulated in volume I). Government intervention can only do so much in preventing and ameliorating these situations, and beyond a certain point should not even be attempted, as “allowing the government to micromanage or even ban lifestyle choices that lead to tragedies of the commons would cause an even bigger tragedy, a potentially totalitarian one.” (JMW, vol. II, p. 84) Governments can be of some assistance, but even that assistance is best sifted through local community organizations that are close to the ground and better acquainted with what is actually going on.

In “A Silk Purse Out of a Sow’s Ear”, Amitai Etzioni argues that the current international financial difficulties might yet have a positive long-term impact if they prompt us to rethink the nature of contentment in a modern economy. As economic growth is scaled back, with less affluence and less employment, we might react to this by coming to revalue leisure time and humanistic pursuits that are independent of any large expenditure. “Hence it seems that if the current austere environment calls for a different attempt to form a society less centred on consumption, this endeavour will have to graft the new conception of a good life onto the old one. That is, not seek to replace consumption but to cap it and channel the resources and energy thus freed into other pursuits.” (JMW, vol. II, p. 44, emphases in original) He supports this with the citation of social science data indicating that, beyond a certain level, rise in income does not contribute further to peoples’ subjective reports of happiness. 

Theodore Dalrymple’s “Rationalism” picks up on a theme encountered in his contribution to the previous volume, namely the ways in which irrationalism can be prompted by the very attempt to justify rationally every belief and practice. Here the central case is the recent (mercifully unsuccessful) attempt to outlaw circumcision in Germany. Dalrymple charitably attributes this attempt to a background belief by the campaigners in the right of the child to physical integrity. Perhaps more cynically, I would be inclined to attribute it to the shocking increase in anti-Semitism throughout Europe (detailed exhaustively in such sources as Daniel Goldhagen’s 2013 book The Devil that Never Dies: The Rise and Threat of Global Anti-Semitism). At any rate, Dalrymple nicely employs this otherwise merely galling episode to make the point that in a society lacking guidance from religion, ideas about the relative weight of rights (in this case, a particular conception of bodily integrity vs. freedom of religion) are often products merely of individuals’ highly contestable and subjective assessments of first principles. This very replacement of authoritative religious pronouncement with authoritative individual pronouncement (for each individual) helps to drive the process forward, such that “in a society in which religion no longer provides much transcendent meaning or purpose, the struggle for the implementation of supposedly fundamental and unquestionable principles fills the vacuum, ‘the God-shaped hole’.” (It is worth remembering here that Dalrymple is not himself a religious believer.)  

Philosopher William Irwin’s contribution, “Control Your Thoughts and Emotions”, is both an insightful summary of the reasons why disciplining one’s emotions is an important endeavour, and a source of some suggestions for practical strategies at achieving such discipline. This theme of discipline continues in the subsequent article by Tom Barker, “In Praise of Lent”. There he discusses the benefits, personal and communal, of self-denial. 

In sum, both volumes have a good deal to recommend them, with each issue featuring sufficient fresh insights to justify the (reasonable) purchase price. It is to be hoped that the JMW will grow as a venue for informed and accessible debate on social policy and philosophy.



Travis Dumsday is an assistant professor in the department of philosophy and religious studies at Concordia University College of Alberta.


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