Monday, January 28, 2013

The Jewish Whalers

Last week was the publication of the third issue of Makom, a journal on Jewish thought for which I'm the academic editor. Read the latest issue here; if you want a print copy, email me at

This is the article that I wrote for the last issue's symposium. My thinking has changed substantially since it was published, so ascribe this post to the Jonathan of last October.

File:Walvisvangst bij de kust van Spitsbergen - Dutch whalers near Spitsbergen (Abraham Storck, 1690).jpg

Imagine a whaleship, and bear with me. 

The ship is at sea for a specific purpose: to hunt and kill whales for their oil. If there were no market for whale oil, there would be no whaleship. If no one believed that sperm whales existed, there would be no whaleship. 

But the ship is full of activity that has nothing to do with whaling. The cook has developed a unique menu. The sailors have invented an ingenious variation of contract bridge, which they hardly ever play on Sundays. And as a sign of their membership in the gallant crew, they cut off the tips of their right pinkies, even if they think it’s gross. 

Moreover, the population of the ship is not uniformly committed to the project of whaling. Some crewmembers deny the very existence of whales, even though they’re willing to stay on board because they grew up on the ship. Others, seeking a direct experience of the Cetacean, declare organized whaling to be an impediment to their happiness and threaten to strike off on their own in small whaleboats. 

I propose that Judaism works on a similar principle: Judaism is a nation whose raison d’être is a collective religious history. Starting with the generation that crossed the Jordan, the Jews have been sustained by a national memory of revelation, if not a direct experience of revelation itself. 

But Judaism is also filled with activity that has intrinsically little to do with this religious experience—consider Israeli dancing, the Hebrew language, borscht, and latkes. Institutions like these are important to Judaism and common to most Jews, but unconnected to religion. 

Moreover, many Jews renounce the religious aspect of Judaism. Though this decision separates them from the central Jewish project, it does not remove them in the slightest from the Jewish nation. An atheist Jew can still be important to her community, can still find prayer beautiful, and can still look forward to Shabbat dinner every week. In much the same way, the ship’s cook has no interest in whaling, but he is just as much on board the ship as anyone else. (The only difference between the cook and the whalers is that a ship full of cooks would have no reason to exist.) 

All this granted, though, theology is at the root of Judaism, in three different senses of that phrase. In the first place, theology has historically provided the basis for the forms of Jewish practice. A completely secular Friday-night dinner is conceivable, but it is difficult to imagine its having been sustained over the millennia without its status as a commemoration of Creation. In the same vein, the only reason that Passover is today a dynamic and empowering cultural experience is that Jews over thousands of years believed that they should recount the story of the Exodus as real history. 

Second, theology it is the only thing that unites every Jewish community on Earth. The Jews have very little national history beyond the Revelation and the few centuries that followed it: Iraqi and Ethiopian Jews had already left the scene, for instance, by the time the Romans occupied Jerusalem. There are also next to no cultural practices that are common to all Jews. (I find gefilte fish revolting and Ashkenazic music vapid. Less trivially, put a Jew from Latvia in a room with a Jew from Cape Town, and they’ll stare at each other without a language in common.) Even the Rabbinical Law came too late to reach some far-flung communities. But there is no Jewish community on Earth that does not recognize the Revelation as a national event. 

Finally, and most importantly, the theological element of Judaism is the only thing that gives Jewish practice special meaning. There is no society on earth that is not filled with idiosyncrasies, and Jewish idiosyncrasies are perhaps more notable, and certainly more ancient, than those of other groups. So the cultural anthropologist might want to examine the sociological innards of Judaism in order to satisfy his curiosity. There is no reason, though, why that anthropologist should be more interested in Jewish culture than that of any other ethnic group: a bagel is no more intrinsically noteworthy than a slab of pork, and the hora is simply a Balkan dance. Seen from the outside, though, the Jews are marked by a central project more important than all of their idiosyncrasies, and which sets them apart from other nations: responding to a revelation at Mount Sinai. 


“Who are the Jews?” 

“A group of Hebrew-speaking Europeans and Africans that complains endearingly, tells sardonic jokes, eats bagels, doesn’t pick up the phone on Saturdays (though different Jewish cultures have variations on this custom), and is committed to the ethical principle of tikkun olam.” 

“And what was the Pequod?” 

“It was a ship of men who always used to sling their hammocks from the third hook up the post, some of whom hunted whales, and who ate each piece of toast with two squares of butter…”

Thursday, January 17, 2013

The Rule Applies to Everyone: Ending the Usage Wars

I come not to bring a sword, but in peace. I'm writing to plead for an end to the Great Usage War, which has taken the soul of many a college-student. As it stands, it seems like educated English speakers will be eternally divided into two camps:

First, the Prescriptivists. To these schoolmarms and librarians, usage is a matter of careful speech. Cultivating proper language breeds good habits of thought and allows a speaker to express himself effectively. It's thus lamentable that standards of usage have declined in the West. With the advent of Twitter and texting, there's no one left to defend traditional English in all its clarity and good form. O tempora! O mores!

File:William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905) - Dante And Virgil In Hell (1850).jpg
This, by the way, is the fate of those who mispronounce dénouement. 

Second, the Descriptivists. To these vagrants and graffiti-artists, usage is simply a matter of how people talk. It's useless to set down rules of speech, because 1) language is constantly changing, 2) people who really drive the language have little concern for rules, and 3) who the hell are you to stop me from putting a preposition at the end of a sentence?


But the whole debate is nonsense, utter nonsense. Let me start with two obvious facts about English.
  1. The earth will not swallow me up if I split an infinitive, dangle a participle, say "applicable" instead of "applicable", or substitute the quetzal munched on the bones of Nebuchadnezzar for do we have any napkins left?
  2. I will, however, be subject to some degree of social scorn at the University of Chicago if I say any of those things. In some cases, I might not even be understood. It is therefore to my advantage to say none of them in a classroom, or (to a lesser extent) when I'm with my friends.
So in some sense, I can talk about the "rules" of standard English: they are the standards that I must abide by if I want to be taken seriously or understood by other speakers of the dialect.

There is no human language that does not have rules in this way: in order to communicate, we need to agree on certain conventions. (E.g., the mouth is the organ that conveys meaning, and "banana" isn't a command to take out the garbage.) The idea is to make sure that "pass the salt" can be expected to bring about consistent results each time it's uttered.

Rules, though, go beyond simply aiding communication: all languages also have conventions that could be jettisoned without causing confusion, but which are nonetheless socially enforced as part of the language's structure. So there's a good  reason why we spell island with an s and write (bizarrely) with possessive apostrophes. If we didn't, we would be subjecting ourselves to derision and contempt.

But that's it. A rule is nothing but a prophecy that if I violate a certain usage, I will pay a social penalty among speakers of standard English. The most useful set of predictions varies from place to place: you won't get very far speaking punctilious, WASP-y English in Washington Park or in Tokyo. 

Sometimes, it makes sense to formulate the rules as prescriptive commands. Think of a parent saying to an six-year-old: "Don't say brang. The right word is brought."  It's also convenient for a dictionary to say: "Meerschaum is a form of magnesium silicate used to make Turkish pipes" rather than: "we're not judging you at all, but if you're speaking to an English speaker it's to your advantage to use meerschaum to mean..." But we shouldn't be seduced by these statements into thinking that the prescriptive command is anything more than a cautionary prophecy.

So the case against prescriptivism is clear: there is no cosmic significance to a rule of usage, and it's not an offense against God to break one. But the case against descriptivism is just as simple: it doesn't help anyone to simply describe the way people speak without describing it as a system of tacit rules, some of which involve punishment if they're broken. A good dictionary does more than just note that ain't and isn't exist together in English.

So let's stop making a fuss. People speak how they speak, but they also choose their words for good reason. There ain't nothing more to it.

P.S. If we disregard transcendental morality, ethics work in almost exactly the same way. So do courts if the legal Realists are to be believed. But that's a subject for another post. 

P.P.S. If you want to see this case made at greater length, read this article by David Foster Wallace or this one by Steven Pinker.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Why Vegetarianism is Unjustified

I used to be a believing vegetarian. Now I'm a vegetarian.

I remember the moment of my first conversion: I was sitting in my political-philosophy class last May when I realized, not that I should stop eating meat, but that I could. I felt like it was already obvious why it was wrong to eat a mammal. But once my vegetarianism became public, the pressure was on to give a precise justification. So after much tinkering, I hit upon a mantra that made it easy to explain it to other people: "it's wrong to kill animals in order to eat them." But why that was the case, I discovered, I couldn't really say. I wrote a convoluted email to my skeptical brother trying to make my ethical position consistent. I wrote an elegantly styled blog post refuting all the reasons for vegetarianism except the one I said was true.

But after nine months of my brothers' bemusement and my grandmother's despair, I realized: I have no idea why it's wrong to kill animals for food. I don't even know whether or not it's wrong at all. I don't know whether fish are in a different category from mammals, whether killing is worse than suffering, or whether it matters how an animal is slaughtered.

The problem is worse than that I haven't heard a good argument yet. In fact, I don't even know what a rational ethical argument for not eating meat would look like. (By "ethical" I do not mean "advisable" like the so-called desirists do in an intentional obfuscation. I mean "good beyond material phenomena, and for whose sake I should suppress my natural inclinations.")

If you'll bear with me for a moment, imagine coming across the following shape:

(In fact, no need to imagine, because it's right here.) You might say to yourself: "I see a left-facing angle with a teardrop attached to the upper ray and a dot on top of it." You might also say: "I like this shape, and so do my nineteen friends."

What you don't know is that it's a symbol in the Inuktitut Syllabary understood by thousands to stand for the syllable vaa. But that meaning is utterly underivable from its form: there is no hidden vaaness in a set of squiggles. It's a geometric shape with a meaning beyond geometry.

The same goes for ethics. We are concerned with a meaning that our actions carry to an observer outside the universe, who understands something by our behavior that we do not. We can only observe the technique that a butcher uses to kill and the consequences that befall him; if we try to explain that what he did was transcendentally evil using only what we can observe in the world, we're looking for something that does not—cannot—exist.

This is similar to the symbol above.

For that reason, I do not know whether or not it is transcendently bad to kill an animal. I am as ignorant of animal rights as I am of Inuktitut.

Do you claim that killing an animal inflicts unbearable pain on it? I ask: why should I care about an animal's pain? What makes it morally relevant? If I feel nothing, why should I make myself feel pity?

In other words, you might make an observation as to the mental state of a cow, but you can tell me nothing about whether that mental state is transcendentally bad. One could only understand that killing a cow was bad if one sat outside the world and understood the significance of the phenomenon. In other words, God knows and not us.

In some cases we think we know what God wants. "Thou shalt not murder" is an attempt to communicate the transcendental significance of murder to humankind. But in the case of animals, I do not know what God wants of me. Of course, I might say: It is my vivid experience that God despises slaughter. But in the realm of feeling, a feeling can be countered with another feeling, and there is no unfeeling judge to arbitrate the dispute. 

So much for ethics. I don't know whether or not it's my duty to spare a cow, and since I like steak, I might as well err on the side of eating meat. All that's left to my vegetarianism, then, is habit and pity for the afflicted piglet. On top of that, I have a vague sense that I will be held to account for inflicting death on an animal, just like I will for not finishing David Copperfield. But that's it.

P. S. Wittgenstein makes this point beautifully in the Tractatus (see §§6.41–6.422). Reading this passage removed the last strut from a bridge that was already on the point of collapsing.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

How to Enjoy Yourself: The Danger of "Experiences"

If you’re looking for a good time, there’s a strong chance you’re missing out. Are you on a road trip? It’s likely there’s a beautiful moonrise behind your car that you’re not noticing. The most romantic rest stop was eight miles ago. You probably just passed a small clearing in the woods that houses the secret tomb of John Wilkes Booth.

But that’s all okay. As long as you’re enjoying yourself, and even if you’re not, you’re doing okay.

I write this to argue against an attitude to leisure that’s as common as it is tempting and poisonous. According to it, enjoyment comes in packets that must be swallowed whenever they’re available. The quality of our lives is enhanced by the number of good experiences that we accumulate, and a life well-lived is one that ends with an ample collection of remembered pleasures.

There are many behaviors that can only be justified under that understanding of fun: take large weddings, for instance. The main function of a wedding is simple, and I need not elaborate on it. But many a couple has insisted that a wedding be a perfect day, and accordingly procured dead flowers, solemn violinists, and buckets of mousse to make it so. It’s as if there were an invisible judge in heaven who nodded his head in approval at the end of every perfect wedding. (Even if there were, why would we care?)

Take also photo-collecting. It makes sense to take photos if your only intention is to prod your memory later about the trip. It doesn’t make sense to swallow experiences down the gullet of your camera as if they’re more valuable on an LCD screen than in real life.

In fact, we shouldn’t consider experiences valuable in real life either, for experiences aren’t inherently worth anything at all. They might be fun—that’s great! They might be emotionally moving—that might be great! But don’t be seduced by the illusion that an experience is inherently worth anything more than the pleasure it gives you in the moment. Nor is it worth anything to anyone but you.

Readers fall into the same trap. Many people’s reading habits seem to be based on the assumption that they’re going to be held to account for the number of complete books that they’ve read. But books are not trophies to be put on a shelf: they’re arguments to be followed or worlds to be explored. (Most people forget what they read, anyway. Even if we remembered every word, though, what would be the point? How would it make us happy?)

I therefore propose a new method for enjoying ourselves. We should take pleasure in what’s in front of us. We should enjoy the company of the people we’re with. We should do things spontaneously if they seem like fun to us.

But we shouldn’t do things for the sake of the “experience”. Still less should we do them to tell other people about them. And it might make things better to leave your camera behind, or to tear out Chapter  XLIII without even looking at it to prevent yourself from finishing the book.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

The Reader's Heaven: A Cautionary Parable.

Commentary to follow in the next post.
Francis Omnilegens sat up in bed one night, reading a volume of Tolstoy. It was not, God forbid, War and Peace. Francis had read that last summer. No, it was much more important: The Sevastopol Sketches, an account of the Crimean War, was the last of Tolstoy's works that Francis had never read. (Francis, who had dabbled in a little Russian, preferred to call it Севастопольские рассказы to himself, though of course not to anyone else.) Arriving on page 144—the last—he smiled and leaned back. Tolstoy was now all his, a part of his mental vault that would subtly shape his worldview in innumerable imperceptible ways.

Suddenly, Francis felt a cramp in his stomach. He yelled downstairs to his wife, Frances, for a glass of water. Frances dutifully put down her Ugaritic grammar (her eighth Semitic language!), filled a cup with water from from the kitchen, and went upstairs to her husband. By the time she arrived upstairs, she found Francis lying on the floor: he had died of a ruptured gall bladder.

While Frances dialed for an ambulance, Francis opened his eyes to a glorious dawn. He was surrounded by ethereal clouds, which were somehow substantial enough to support his weight. The sun was rising exquisitely on the horizon. Francis reached into his pocket for his phone to take a picture, only to find that he had neither phone nor pocket. In fact, he was completely naked.

Suddenly, he heard the blast of a horn behind him followed by a piercing, pure voice. "Son of Man!"

Francis turned around. A tall, broad-shouldered man was standing in front of imposing golden gates. He carried a flaming sword in his right hand, and a halo of swirling flame crowned his bronze helmet. His fair brow was radient, and his eyes burned with celestial fervor.

"Thou hast arrived at the gates of paradise. I am the Archangel Michael, judge of Man and guardian of eternal life. If thou art indeed just, thou wilt surely enter into these gates. But woe unto the unjust soul; for I am like a refiner's fire."

Francis gulped, remembering that very afternoon, when he had decided not to mention to the Wal-Mart cashier that she had given him double the right change. And he remembered last week, when he had pretended to be busy in order to get out of visiting his half-sister in the hospital. Thinking about those incidents, and beginning to think of more, he stood silently in front of Michael, who continued speaking:

"If thou canst satisfy my interrogations, you may enter. First tell me: how much Jane Austen hast thou read?"

Francis breathed out, immensely relieved. "Every bit," he said with a smile. "Even Sanditon, The Watsons, and Lady Susan. I read them for their own sake, too: I didn't enjoy a single one for myself."

Michael kept his stern look, but he allowed a faint smile to disturb his lips. 

"Tolstoy?" he asked with unabated fervor.

Francis exulted in his heart, delighted at his narrow escape.

"I just finished him this evening. If you want, I can even explain to you why Allan Bloom is wrong that Anna Karenina is an elaboration on Rousseau's Émile."

"That won't be necessary, for I, the knower of secrets, know that thou hast complete knowledge of the Prolific One. But so much for thy secular learning. That is a trivial part of the soul."

Now Francis began to tremble, fearing that the real test was coming, which he would surely fail.

"Hast thou read the entire Bible?"

"I—I have, sir. I made a point of reading all the way to Revelation about four years ago."

"And the Apocrypha? Francis son of Frederick, have you read the Book of Tobit?"

An icy terror gripped Francis's soul, for he he had only read the exciting parts of Tobit. Under Michael's terrifying glare, he suddenly realized the major fault of his life: despite his best efforts, he had not stored up enough complete books to make his life worth anything.

 Suddenly, the cloud beneath him gave way, and Francis was hurled headlong flaming from th'Ethereal sky. In the vast caverns beneath, the Demons of Illiteracy hungrily devoured another ignorant and proud soul.