Our Unminded Society

November 10, 2021

Rexroth in Why is American Poetry Culturally Deprived? lamented a few generations ago: “American poets just don’t read non-fiction.” Our modern problem, it would seem, is a variation of the opposite: American industrialists only read dystopian fiction. As Rexroth also put it: “fascism is so much more easily assimilated by simple and emotionally unstable minds—you don’t have to read so many books.”

Their proselytizing of cryptocurrencies and NFTs—modern-day wildcat banking—is yet another reflection of past mistakes, in this case what Rexroth called “an ancient American foolishness”: “funny-moneyism is precisely a symptom of the incorrigible provinciality of small-town debtors in the American Outback,” except nowadays, since there are no unconquered lands—only unconquered minds remain—the people who are grist for this griftstone are found in online forums of the Digital Outback: the ideascape that is the internet. Instead of embracing the free replication and unprecedented interconnectednesses to further the human experience and reduce the lamentable elements of the human condition, they have shifted the conversation to emphasize a strictly regressive model for the future: let’s take that awful material constraint of finiteness and force it onto ideal (in the philosophical sense) experience. It’s a true testament to the insufficiency of a purely physicalist stance: the dissatisfaction of the modern mode has led us to extend physicality to places where it strictly does not belong, the motive in some to force material supremacy, in others to attempt—and, ultimately, always fail—to assert their own supremacy to quell the fear of the emptiness within (this expression being another form of, as Pynchon put it, “using every other form of life without mercy to keep what haunts men down to a tolerable level”). And worst, the sum in some is merely the other kind of materiality: stacks o’ greenbacks. God help us if they ever sink their claws into the patents for a Star Trek-like replicator technology: they would design it so that it could only run on smart contracts and an insatiable token slot; instead of a post-scarcity society, they’d probably structure a hyper-scarcity one.

Clever schemes by clever people. Algorithms for algorithms’ sake: just as there are extremists out there who don’t trust humanity to self govern so strongly that they want to build a sentient computer to manage us—a stupid contradiction, as obviously any tool, being in the first place constructed, is therefore manipulable by its architects—so too is this not at all about solving actual, real problems. It instead merely reveals the small mindedness of its primary backers—individuals with little understanding of the philosophy of the tool: that is, what makes humans distinct from animals and lesser forms of life.

And animal motive is what we see in their effects: what engineering principle can be found in the wild speculations of the cryptocurrency market? What we find instead is rather boring: ignoble pyramid schemes. Predator and prey, a relation older than sin—yet I’m sure it was pitched as an original, innovative business mechanism (as is the poseur fashion of the Silicon Valley elite). The prey is sold on . . . what, exactly? Easier money transfers, sure, for some—but gain is the name of the game for many. The vague promise of that mythical 10-100x ROI—a possibility now made available to every household, a casino where you can maybe win the pot while on the pot. A few profit while most will likely suffer. Rexroth too has an explanation: “When the actual levers of power are so remote as to be unimaginable, their victims always resort to sympathetic magic.”

What we have, plain and simple, is technical overreach: a solution looking for a problem. And a problem, unfortunately for the rest of us, they have found: centralized banking and its backer, the state. It was never really a principled stand—the moment regular payment processors signalled interest in cryptocurrency, it was celebrated. Why? (To be read with the most punch-worthy smugsneered face imaginable:) it’s about money, of course.

And, just like so many other modern-day ventures run by the unprincipled and the unstable, the question was not “how can the elements and effects of our construction complement and augment the superstructure of society?” Instead, the question that arose was probably more along the lines of “How far can I push this?” (I was going to make the question “How can I really put the mark in cryptomarket?” but I doubt anything coming close to wordplay or joy was generally present at their strategy meetings.)

This, unfortunately, is something of a generality in Silicon Valley, the seat of global innovation. What were once vague undercurrents of antigovernment sentiment have uncomfortably risen to the forefront: an insurrection occurred earlier this year, a collective distemperment stoked by, generating profits for, Silicon Valley products. Plans hatched in, realtime movements coordinated on, Silicon Valley products. And, most embarrassingly, some of the insurrectionists’ targets were legislators whose districts reside in . . . drumroll . . . Silicon Valley! There are probably parallel universes out there where things that day had gone differently, where democracy died as a result of cosmic irony, a comic end where, it turned out, nobody really had been in charge at all, and the only true effect would have been the end of the formality of pretending otherwise. Worse still, the insurrection itself almost feels like it was an accident, the result of some runaway Twitter meme: what if we . . . overthrow . . . the government . . . aha ha, just kidding . . . unless . . . ? It would have been a fittingly pathetic end to incessantly pathetic era.

And this collective distemperment is not entirely without cause. For more than a few, it was probably only about singly-fascistic goals like racial and ethnic supremacy. But the general dissatisfaction that undergirded the act—the rather naked transformation of the average citizen into chattel for “remote” oligarchs living lives that are increasingly “unimaginable”—remains so resonant in the populace that the more productive strategy of ceasing production has taken hold. (It’s likely to be a more politic and welcome demonstration comparatively, not to mention more hygienic—the principled are much more likely to form a picket line outside than smear shit along the walls inside.) To the boomers and living ancients that still force themselves on the American public by refusing to retire from their seats of power (probably out of some lame mixture of vanity, narcissism, and a need to keep up routine lest the Alzheimer’s fully takes hold), it may seem baffling, but you have to at least pretend, for appearance’s sake if nothing else, that you can understand the perspective of people unlike yourself—in this case, those of your children and grandchildren.

You witnessed the installation of mutually-assured destruction paired with the omen of HIV—that which is supposed to protect us instead kills us, a disease transmitted by a life-giving act (depending on your, uh, aim). Reality, for you, perhaps become too meta. For my generation, however, we were born into a world where these were givens. Not only that, but calamities of climate change were frequently brought up with a shrug in the middle of the news with a segue lined up immediately thereafter. Meanwhile, the stories we grew up with—the cartoon shows that raised us—were literally designed to make us buy merch. It’s all just a continuation of the same dark joke: impotent gestures by impotent powers, powerless not by nature but by concerted dedication, all energies directed toward power itself—its maintenance, preservation, and buttressed structure. We were born second-class citizens into the most dangerous of cults: the worshippers of power, idolizers—totemizers—of the fundaments of the living. The cultists spend all effort—all effort—on chasing an impossibility: ossifying the flux which is at the heart of being alive.

Meanwhile, our generation faces an uncertain future that we are constantly prevented from shaping. The idea of ownership itself is under a never-ending barrage of whittling deprivations across our experience: algorithms, not people, now purchase houses; cars, even phones, are not even really meant to be ours anymore. At the same time, a single guy running one of those Silicon Valley products owns a couple percentage points of the wealth of a whole generation. The media generally takes a soft hand to such triumphs while chastising all the rest for not working hard enough: everyone else is apparently responsible for whatever economic and political failures occur.

For anyone paying attention, it should come as no surprise that Silicon Valley’s “vision” of the future is to create an overlay on reality undertaken by those who have repeatedly demonstrated that they are entirely incapable of dealing with anything actually real (kinda like one of those pictures you see where a nervous nerd has his arm around—but is careful to never actually touch—a woman he’s being photographed with). Why? Because, lest anyone forget, Silicon Valley can’t even put out literal fires—some of the worst in California’s history—in its own backyard. They can’t even keep their own air clean—why bother delivering on promises of going to Mars when San Francisco can have its very own orange, apocalyptic sky?

All the while, they delivered pathetic displays of helpless insanities like looking for companies to invest in that could solve a problem that’s way too late to do much about. Rome is burning—uh, let’s figure out how to make money off it and prove how the state is a “legacy” concept. What’s that? The state is supposed to fulfill functions that aren’t meant to be profitable?-la-la-La-LA I don’t know what you’re talking about!

The wrong minders of society have been allocated, rugged individualism taken to absurdities so extreme that satire pales in comparison to cold fact, all while the world burned just beyond the doorstep. Good thing we had all those prisoners to fight back the flames and further the fantasy—in an incentive-based society, what better lever is there than incarceration? Death itself, perhaps—this market-based mishandling may just be a preview of things to come. It’s not too hard to imagine a pitch deck with a problem slide stating: “Nature itself is the ultimate competitor: it does not obey market dynamics.” And a solution slide: “Eliminate nature. Intermediate in market needs: air to breathe, water to drink.” This hypothetical, to me at least, is more thoroughly convincing when compared to the lackluster climate response from our elected officials. Politicians may give speeches, but money is what really talks.

We’re meant to be kept far too busy with work and our immediate survival to ever pause and take stock of the stockholders. Meanwhile, their dear economist and opinion-writing friends publish pieces literally defending offshore slave labor, probably to normalize the burgeoning domestic variation: American workers forced to piss in bottles so they don’t miss their quotes. That pervasive stench isn’t fear: it’s just the lathering of elbow grease and Puritanical sweat. Now get back to work. Be a real shame for that beautiful family you got there if you lost your insurance. The world outside the organization can be awful cruel.

We are all now subject to the thuggeries that spring forth from selfish philosophies. For this reason—as I’ll sketch out below—we shouldn’t be too hard on our leaders on the West or East coasts. They, believe it or not, are victims, the emptiness inside a result of our unminded society and institutions from which they graduated.

Take MIT, my alma mater, for instance. A lot of obviously important research was going on while simultaneously Epstein was bringing probably sex-trafficked kids to campus, literally to the offices of, had MIT not decided otherwise, what would have been the headquarters of OLPC—a program that set up pipelines to gain access to impoverished children. We live in a world where, given the alternative, it’s a good thing that such a nobly-minded project failed—a true testament to how twisted, and empty, modern technical endeavors have become because of absolutely awful leadership. It would have been better had they just stuck to inventing gee-whiz gizmos like, say, some kind of app-enabled roller skate-mounted knee pads—wearing such an invention, no one would ever confuse you with someone actually in charge.

These are the “idealists” that were supposed to be respected, looked up to, the temple virgins of the Order of the Technopriests—but even here, as we continue to trace the history of sin, we do not find its origin.

Instead, we must study the roots, the heights that have been reached, the beliefs of those who reached them. Let us begin with Quine and Two Dogmas of Empiricism. We find that this seminal work of the twentieth century takes as givens rather shocking predicates. “Things,” he wrote, “had essences, for Artistotle, but only linguistic forms have meanings. Meaning is what essence becomes when it is divorced from the object of reference and wedded to the word.” Meaning, by implication, does not exist independent of language according to Quine. This is trivially disprovable: simply take any of the numerous experiences that can be had prior to verbalization. Imagine, for example, a sudden, sharp pain in the body that cannot be easily localized. Is the sensation any less dulled, is the experience any less meaningful, just because you cannot name the site of its arising?

Far too commonly, doctors, likely unknowingly practicing Quine’s philosophy, may easily write off such complaints—it was poorly worded, and therefore of insufficient meaning. Chronic fatigue/post-viral syndrome, for example, has been prevalent especially in females but was only taken seriously when a male doctor experienced it after contracting Covid. More generally, to those of oppressed cultures, this is a too-familiar refrain—suffering is only meaningful when it is well expressed: you didn’t utter the exact right formula, and now you’re probably going to die. Too much of our daily lives are laden with the heavy burden of merely navigating the correct modern-day incantations—probably the supremum of the set of insults imaginable to someone like Quine.

He then goes on to emphasize this point:

A felt need for meant entities may derive from an earlier failure to appreciate that meaning and reference are distinct. Once the theory of meaning is sharply separated from the theory of reference, it is a short step to recognizing as the business of the theory of meaning simply the synonymy of linguistic forms and the analyticity of statements; meanings themselves, as obscure intermediary entities, may well be abandoned.


In other words, meaning can be abandoned wholesale—we need only focus on symbolic analysis. While his essay may have eliminated the trend of logical positivism, tradeoffs most certainly came with its adoption, an act which entails “abandon[ing] the thought of any special realm of entities called meanings”.

In a later essay, Has Philosophy Lost Contact with People?, Quine redoubles this position:

It has been appreciated increasingly in the past sixty years that our traditional introspective notions—our notions of meaning, idea, concept, essence, all undisciplined and undefined—afford a hopelessly flabby and unmanageable foundation for a theory of the world. Control is gained by focusing on words, on how they are learned and used, and how they are related to things . . . . [A] legitimate theory of meaning must be a theory of the use of language, and that language is a social art, socially inculcated.


Frege, Quine’s predecessor, works a subtler knife in the space and presents a more relatable conception in On Sense and Reference:

If the reference of a sign is an object perceivable by the senses, my idea of it is an internal image, arising from memories of sense impressions which I have had and acts, both internal and external, which I have performed. Such an idea is often saturated with feeling; the clarity of its separate parts varies and oscillates. The same sense is not always connected, even in the same man, with the same idea. The idea is subjective: one man’s idea is not that of another. There result, as a matter of course, a variety of differences associated with the same sense.


Not only could this be read as grounding meaning in feeling—a universally-understood experience—thereby allowing admission for the human (and not just their linguistic faculties) into the analytic process, it also demonstrates the utter folly in Quine’s pursuit of “control”: words, when regarding meaning, cannot be the bastion of stability Quine may have hoped they were—so long as feeling humans were involved, at least. This Fregean frame, perhaps, affords common ground enough to bridge the (to me) synthetic Analytic-Continental divide.

Quine, in his Philosophy essay, then goes on to try and qualify his positioning; he means to limit his characterization to a mere subset of philosophy which he terms “scientific philosophy”: “By this vague heading I do not exclude philosophical studies of moral and aesthetic values.”

But he immediately qualifies his qualifier:

[S]ome such studies, of an analytical cast, can be scientific in spirit. They are apt, however, to offer little in the way of inspiration or consolation. The student who majors in philosophy primarily for spiritual comfort is misguided and is probably not a very good student anyway, since intellectual curiosity is not what moves him.


We have stumbled across a clever trick: individuals who seek answers to questions which have no easy solutions—unlike those that can be derived from mere manipulable symbols—probably lack “intellectual curiosity”. He admits ethical concerns into the general field of philosophy—but only its “analytical” form, as anything else is motivated by the unintellectual need for “spiritual comfort.” Quine, in other words, does not accept forms of philosophy outside his very narrow definition. Worse still, he defines the template of the “good student” as one who is not “misguided” by spiritual needs—an absolutely terrible thing for actual students, who may respect his work, to read. I don’t know why there’s so much suffering in the world, little Jimmy. But I can symbolize what you said after the fact—so long as we do not draw from modal logic, of course.

He continues: “inspirational and edifying writing is admirable, but the place for it is the novel, the poem, the sermon, or the literary essay.” The only successful novelists are optimized for commercial output, the poets all starved to death a couple generations ago, the sermon is delivered to empty pews, the literary essayist is too busy working their second job at Starbucks—their assistant professor position doesn’t provide a living wage—to generate, or even have much experience of, inspiration.

Quine’s stance, up to this point at least, is strongly reminiscent of Russell’s in his Mysticism and Logic and Other Essays: “the elimination of ethical considerations from philosophy is . . . scientifically necessary . . . . The general form and structure of those attitudes towards objects which constitute mental phenomena is a problem for philosophy, but the difference between love and hate is not a difference of form or structure, and therefore belongs rather to the special science of psychology than to philosophy”. This, in my view, is wrong for the same reasons Quine is wrong. Quine, however, is a bit cleverer in that, where Russell heaped burden onto psychologists—a laughable concept to the modern sensibilities—Quine distributes the load across a number of professions: anywhere that is not the philosophy department.

“Philosophers in the professional sense,” he continues, “have no peculiar fitness for it.” It is truly stunning to see such a prolific essayist—a man who helped convince the world to abandon a track of philosophical study—that “professional” philosophers, such as himself, have “no peculiar fitness” for “edifying writing.” It flies in the face of nearly every single philosopher who came before him—and, unfortunately, now applies too many of those who have succeeded him. It is no wonder that this market need has been so unsatisfied for so long that business “gurus” now define what is meaningful. The truly “edifying” revelation of the Epstein scandal was that those who are now our society’s “inspirationals” are anything but.

“Neither have they any peculiar fitness for helping to get society on an even keel, though we should all do what we can.” We discover, finally, a source to why Silicon Valley’s leaders—PhDs trained in Quine’s field of analyticity, logic and symbols—have done so little to, as every one had presumed they would, help improve society through technology: the philosopher himself did not believe he had any specific obligations to “get[ting] society on an even keel,” so why should his acolytes in industry?

Quine closes the essay: “What just might fill these perpetually crying needs is wisdom: sophia yes, philosophia not necessarily.” First, we must note an accidental humor to this ending: Quine inadvertently levels all those whom he thinks of as true philosophers—lovers of sophia, wisdom—as mere fanboys of sage knowledge since they do “not necessarily” wield it. It is a true demonstration of how far he has contorted the definition of philosophy: the word itself has now become divorced from its etymology, its roots. It is a true demonstration of what “control” can afford: obliteration of meaning itself.

To me, this all reads as a personal abdication of responsibility given the loftiest position he had in our society. Not only that, it is a demonstration of a dangerous abuse of his social, linguistic, philosophical powers: he does not guide those looking for “spiritual comfort” to others in his field—he instead quashes the validity of the notion by redefining the field to its exclusion. Modern philosophy is no longer philosophical.

For Quine, the philosopher is “sharply separated” from servitude. It should come as no surprise given his political beliefs—in Paradoxes of Plenty, for example, he holds that a decline in academia occurred in part because of the ”[m]arginal students [who] came on in force”, that “even if a student sailed through on his father’s largesse, still he saw himself as privileged and was ready enough to ascribe failures good-humoredly to his own blitheness of spirit. Mass subsidy, on the other hand, soon loses its luster and comes to be looked upon as each man’s due”. We find again that same soft hand for the few, that familiar chastising for everyone else.

If this is the commonly-accepted stance, that they are mere careerists to be left to their own devices, then, truly, no one is in charge. Such adherents, at least, do not demand the pretense that our West and East coast “leaders” insist upon. It does, however, cleanly and succinctly explain the abject surrealistic nightmare that we call “modern living”: a world filled with technology and computing devices with nary a meaningful thought within them or their constructors, a once-clear day now blotted by the cloud. Technical sophistry, yes; technical sophia, not necessarily.

What were once obscure, deep philosophical constructions are now inlaid into the foundations of billion-dollar bets in Silicon Valley: there are now companies hoovering up every line of code they can get their hands on, blindly shoveling them into an amalgamated, unthinking morass of machine learning algorithms. It is promised that, just by ingesting all this code, logic and rigor—that is, expressions of forms of meaning—will one day be spewed out from a process that itself lacks logic and rigor: the process is generally unspecifiable, and it is somehow expected to generate logical specification.

Were I afeared of runaway computers wreaking havoc on society, I should look no further than to those who are already wrecking decades of goodwill in the open-source community. In other words, we are witness to well-identifiable consequences on civilization at a macro scale, effects set in motion by philosophers who have washed their hands of sophia.

In light of this, a Metaphysical Restoration must occur, and epistemology must be positioned within metaphysical frameworks that, as Whitehead in the introduction of Process and Reality says, achieve the “accurate expression of the final generalities”. Indeed, Whitehead—the somewhat forgotten co-author of another seminal work of the twentieth century, Principia Mathematica; the person who was Quine’s doctoral advisor; the person who, as McHenry points out in Whitehead and Russell on the Analysis of Matter, Russell himself credited “for his awakening from ‘dogmatic slumbers,’” so much an influence that key Whiteheadian ideas became “part of the maxim of [Russell’s] epistemology”—presaged the problem of mathematics’ influence on philosophy: “Philosophy has been misled by the example of mathematics . . . . The verification of a rationalistic scheme is to be sought in its general success, and not in the peculiar certainty, or initial clarity, of its first principles.” Quine’s “categoreal scheme of entities,” to borrow from Whitehead, excludes meaning, and this essay seeks to convince that it does not “issue in” a fully “satisfactory metaphysical system”; therefore, many—but not all—premises remain “under suspicion.”

Further, lest certain academies be remembered merely as Epsteinian institutes, popular academic activism—rather than elitist academic activism, the new tradition—should be revitalized. His is not a stain that washes out so easily, and further elitist activism recalls the extent of exploitation that is possible.