Under the Influence

Galen Strawson is my latest male crush. With almost everything I read or hear from him, I say, ‘that’s what I think’, over and over and over again. So I thought I’d share some of my journey to now. I made a post about female influences not too long ago. This is a bit different.

My first obsession, let’s say was the Beatles. I can’t pinpoint precisely when, but when I was a child, it’s been said that I would sing ‘she’s got a chicken to ride’ when it came on to AM radio. I asked for or bought all of their albums, and read everything about them that a kid could get his hands on back in the day. This obsession lasted for years and overlaps some of my next interests. My interests were in John Lennon’s political interests and George Harrison’s spiritual interests. I didn’t really find Paul McCartney or Ringo Starr very interesting beyond their musical abilities. And to be honest, I also got all of the Stones, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, and so on. At my peak, I had over a thousand vinyl records—all lost in a house fire because vinyl and heat are generally incompatible. Paper didn’t fare much better, as I lost hundreds of books, too. A lesson in impermanence.

I am a bit of a nonconformist, a contrarian, and a polemicist

In grades 5 to 8, National Socialism and World War II were fascinating to me. Not Hitler, per se, though I do recall reading Mein Kampf at the time. There was just something about the sense of unity. Upon reflection, I realised that this meant me conforming to some other trend, and that was no longer interesting, as I am a bit of a nonconformist, a contrarian, and a polemicist, so there was that.

At some point, I came across Voltaire’s Candide and it just struck me. This may have commenced me on my path to becoming somewhat of a francophile. I extended my interest into the language and culture. My WWII phase has already primed that pump. I remember reading Dumas, Hugo, and some Descartes.

After I graduated, I was a recording engineer and musician. I remember reading Schoenberg’s Structural Function of Harmony and being enamoured with Dvořák and Stravinsky. I was influenced by many musicians, engineers, and producers, but there was just something about Schoenberg.

I went through a Kafka phase—that eventually included Donald Barthelme. His Absurdism was a nice foundation for my subsequent interest in Camus. It was something that just resonated with me. After Kafka, I discovered Dostoyevsky and consumed everything of his I could get my hands on.

I took from Jung and Campbell the importance of metaphor

In the 1990s, I discovered Carl Jung and eventually Joseph Campbell and a few years I spent reading Jung’s Complete Works and peripheral material related to Archetypal and Depth Psychology. I absorbed the material. I took from Jung and Campbell the importance of metaphor, but it never really resonnated beyond this.

Somehow, this experience led me to the Existentialism of Sartre (and Camus and Beauvoir). At the same time something clicked with me, I was always put off by the teleological imperative these guys seemed to insist upon—Sartre’s political involvement and Camus’ insistence on Art. These were their paths—and I certainly had an interest in Art and Politics—, but I felt this was too prescriptive.

For a brief time, I really liked Hume (and Spinoza), but then I discovered Nietzche and felt compelled to read his major works. It all made sense to me. It still does. Nietsche set me up for Foucault with his power relationships and the sense that morality, good, and evil are all socially constructed and contextual.

And Nietzsche brought me to Foucault and his lens of Power. These two still resonate with me. I investigated a lot of postmodern thinkers after this.

Nietzsche brought me to Foucault and his lens of Power

Daniel Dennett came next. He seems brilliant, and I tend to agree with most of what he says. I was still absorbing. Where biologist Robert Sapolsky gets philosophical, it’s about the same.

But Galen Strawson is different. And I have a lot of catching up to do in my reading of his direct work. The difference is that with these prior influences, I was absorbing and synthesising—creating my own perspectives and worldview. By the time I am finding Strawson, with every encounter, I am ticking off boxes.

  • That’s what I think
  • That’s what I think
  • That’s what I think
  • That’s what I think

Only, he started publishing in the 1960s. I could have been reading his work all along. Since I agree with 99.999 per cent of what I get from him and he is such a deep thinker, I am looking for two things:

  1. Something that expands rather than confirms
  2. Some spaces to operate that he has missed or ignored

As I continue on my Anti-Agency project and gather more inputs and perspectives, I’ll be considering a lot of Strawson. Here’s a clip I really enjoyed. I am thinking of doing a sort of reaction piece, but whether or not that happens, here’s the source.

[Video] Galen Strawson — Is Free Will a Necessary Illusion?

Spoiler Alert: I believe that free will is a cognitive bias related to apophenia. It’s a Gestalt heuristic.

Before I was a Nihilist

For years—decades even—I identified as an Existentialist, and I still have an affinity for some of the works of Sartre, Beauvoir, and Camus. I had read some Richard Wright. I never read Kierkegaard directly, and I may never. And of course, there’s proto-Existentialist Nietzsche. I’ve encountered to various degrees Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, and Jaspers but not deeply.

The draw for me is that we create our own existences, but I came to feel this was at odds with Structuralism. Per my previous post, I don’t have much faith in the Agency seemingly required by Existentialism.

In Statistical analysis of variance (ANOVA), there is a notion known as degrees of freedom. This is how I view Agency. Per my Testudineous Agency post, after we account for genetics and environment, how much agency effectively remains? This is the degree of freedom. Under hard determinism, degrees of freedom are zero.

What else can we strip away after genetics, epigenetics, indoctrination, environment, and other mimetic and learned behaviours? And what remains after we do?

Žižek’s Essentialism

So, I’ve gone down a rabbit hole. Again. This time, it’s Žižek. Again. I’ve still not read any of Žižek’s own work, but people mention him often and he is a shameless self-promoter. In this video clip, he responds to whether gender is a social construct. Unfortunately, he conflates gender with sex, and his examples cite transsexuals not transgenders.

sex is about biological sex assignment

To set the stage, sex is about biological sex assignment—the sex category you are assigned into at birth: male, female, or other for some 1.8%. This is a simplistic categorisation: penis = male; vagina = female; both or neither: rounding error. In some cases, a decision is made to surgically conform the child to either male or female and ensure through prophylactic treatment that this isn’t undone hormonally in adolescence.

gender is about identity

Gender is about identity. As such, it is entirely a social construct. All identity of this nature is a function of language and society. In this world—in the West—, females wear dresses (if they are to be worn at all) and males don’t—kilts notwithstanding. In this world, sex and gender have little room for divergence. so the male who identifies as this gender (not this sex) is ostracised.

The example I usually consider first is the comedian Eddie Izzard—a cross-dresser. He’s probably a bad example because he does identify as a male. He just doesn’t wish to be constrained by male role restrictions and wants to wear the makeup that’s been reserved for women in the West at this time.

Žižek eventually gets to an argument about essentialism—so we’re back at Sorites paradoxes and Theseus again. At the start, I could argue that the sexual distinction has few meaningful contexts. For me, unless I am trying to have sex and/or procreate, the distinction is virtually meaningless. For others, only procreation remains contextually relevant. In this technological world, as Beauvoir noted in the late 1940s, strength differentials are not so relevant. End where they are, sex is not the deciding factor—it’s strength.

Žižek’s contention seems to be that the postmoderns (or whomever) disclaim essentialism in favour of constructivism but then resolve at essentialism as a defence because ‘now I am in the body originally intended’. I’ll argue that this is the logic employed by the person, but this person is not defending some academic philosophical position. They are merely engaging in idiomatic vernacular.

I am not deeply familiar with this space, and if the same person who is making a claim against essentialism is defending their actions with essentialism, then he’s got a leg to stand on. As for me, the notions of essentialism and constructivism are both constructed.