Imagine a heap of sand. You carefully remove one grain. Is there still a heap? The obvious answer is: yes. Removing one grain doesn’t turn a heap into no heap.--Timothy Williamson "On vagueness, or, when is a heap of sand not a heap of sand?" @Aeon
When I went to bed, in Amsterdam, around 2:30am the night of the US Election, I concluded after seeing the Indiana returns (where the Democrat was not being as competitive as expected in the Senate election), and carefully watching Florida and North Carolina returns, that it was not going to be a Clinton landslide, but a close election. (At that time I had no idea about how Pennsylvania and the rest of the Midwest were unfolding.) When I awoke three or so hours later, I could not resist to check the election results and by then it was clear that Trump was going to be the next President. Much to my own surprise, my first thought was How could I have put a child on this Earth?*
While the day before election, I had written that "I have no idea what happens if Trump wins," my reaction betrayed my sense of unease. Throughout the year, as I have shared in these musings, I have been concerned about Trumps's embrace of an illiberal, Jacksonian/authoritarian (misogynist, etc.) political stance. While I did not overlook the fact that the Clinton campaign deliberately and mistakenly had turned the election into a referendum on Trump's character, I had watched enough of the debates and his speeches to have come to independent, preliminary unsettling conclusions.
But I recognized a deeper source of unease; my whole childhood I had been told, by my refugee-traumatized parents, to treasure my US Citizenship and passport as a kind of backstop or security blanket to whatever craziness or worse would occur in Europe. While most antisemitism I encountered locally was nonthreatening during childhood, there was always a quiet daemonic voice reminding me that the parents or grandparents of nearly all the people I encounter were complicit, or worse, in Nazi-crimes, or too servile to do anything. (And genuine xenophobia has become socially permitted again.) I always found it reassuring that the Dutch, and our neighbors, were protectorates within an American empire. Of course, I recognized that American exceptionalism was a myth, but we all need to embrace some fictions to live by.
My second thought was, there is no place to run.* America's reach is global. I felt a panic swell up, and I reflected on familiar names of exiled and refugee philosophers; I paused to reflect on their friends, forgotten names, who never got out on time. As regular readers know, these daily musings are a form of therapy. When I logged in to start a post, while the election results and commentary were being announced on the background, I found myself staring blankly at a screen--a fatigued paralysis. I am not much prone to writer's block, but I had no desire to remain frozen in my feelings. Philosophy can be a form of escapism, a means not to feel (recall). I call this false philosophy. By contrast, in true philosophy the thoughts are felt and, thereby, owned. I was too fragile, so opted for false philosophy (this piece on Bayesianism), despite the risk that such intellectual running would just hasten the onset of depression.**
Not everybody responds to fear in the same way. Some are thrown into panic; I have that with heights, airplanes, snakes, and some forms of social embarrassment. But to my own surprise after I completed the post, I could sense a decision: I really don't know what will happen; I am a witness to the unfolding events and devote my efforts to understanding them. I joked, to no body in particular, that I should rename these daily digressions, notes toward a post-apocalyptic liberalism.
A few days ago, when Dailynous linked to Williamson's piece, my first thought was, he's still minutely working his way through yet another sorites paradox. Just as I was about to start a satirical mental rant, I noticed how he was making the argument for relevance: "More important legal and moral issues also involve vagueness." Yeah, vagueness really does matter, and not for the last time I agreed with him that vagueness is not a problem about logic. (I tend to think sometimes it's an ontic problem, but I am happy to concede it is often merely epistemic.)
Much to my surprise I was vehemently annoyed at Williamson for making the case for the social significance of his work on vagueness. I wanted him to double down on contingently non-concrete objects, and forego selling philosophy to an indifferent public; it's degrading. In reflecting on my irritation, I recognized that precisely because political events demand our attention, we should not sacrifice all the noble ends that justify life. If the only proper end becomes the political fight, then the bad dudes have won and even conquered our inner sanctum. I made a mental note to check if one of my bourgeois heroes, a Havel or an Arendt, had made the point somewhere about the significance of defending (philosophical) art for art's sake.
And, then suddenly, I am not even sure I was still even reading the words, I had made it to the final paragraph of Williamson's piece, and stumbled across these lines:
If analytical philosophy could reach maturity, perhaps I could live without my security blanket.
*Of course, my wife played a much larger role in this in all ways, but it was a shared decision.
**To be sure it is easier for false philosophy to be true than true philosophy, but let's leave such quibbles aside.