not an expert

Rationalists, Empiricists, Rhetoricians

since I am cranky on the Internet this week, how about this picture of a cat in an excavation? Just look at those eyes and that curly tail! Photo by Sean Manning, 19 August 2021.

natural-science types and engineers have completely different intellectual worldviews: the first are empiricists while the second are rationalists. As a biochemist, reading Less Wrong or Slate Star Codex has me screaming at my laptop; not a pretty sight.

rms, comment on “Lawyers Guns and Money” blog, 8 July 2020

C.P. Snow’s two cultures are very English and a bit old-fashioned. I come from a country where most people learn physics and chemistry for 10 to 12 years, and I know both calculus and Latin. This is not so unusual in North America, L. Sprague de Camp was an amateur classicist, a poet, and an aeronatical engineer. So this week, I would like to describe three intellectual cultures which I see.

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We the People

Old Iranian kāra- and spada-, Greek laos, Latin populus, German Heeresvolk, Babylonian uqu “the militarily and therefore politically significant part of the community” –

Manning, Past Approaches, Future Prospects (2021) p. 138

In my first book, I touched on something which is obvious to military historians but might not be as clear to other kinds of people. When people from the Iron Age to the 19th century spoke of <the people>, they meant the militarily and therefore politically significant part of the society. Political change had to be literally fought for- if not by revolution then by a new section of the population doing something so conspicuously useful in war that the people who ran things had to give them a voice. One reason why combined-arms tactics were harder in practice than theory was that they required integrating the poor with stones and darts, the middle sort with bows and spears, and the rich with horses and swords. Often, the thing which was tactically advantageous was politically disadvantageous for the people who were currently living easy on others’ work. The French lost the battle of Coutrai in 1302 because their crossbowmen and javelin-men were breaking up the Flemish pikemen on their own, and the French lords decided that they needed to charge so they could say they had really won by themselves. French aristocrats lost battle after battle which was unfortunate for individual aristocrats, but aristocrats as a class kept control of French society at the expense of the peasants and the burgers. There was a vicious political battle after 479 BCE about whether working-class rowers or leisured hoplites had saved Hellas from the Mede. People who seized power often disarmed their opponents and dissolved their militias. That might make society as a whole less able to defend itself, but it made the losers in the power struggle less able to defend themselves against the winners.

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Essentialism, Identities, and History

“Idiot! All you have to do is stop wearing that silly robe and get rid of that daft hat and no one will even know you’re a wizard! … Just get rid of them. It’s easy enough, isn’t it? Just drop them somewhere and then you could be a, a, well, whatever. Something that isn’t a wizard.” …

Rincewind nodded gloomily. “I don’t think you understand. A wizard isn’t what you do, it’s what you are. If I wasn’t a wizard, I wouldn’t be anything.” He took off his hat and twiddled nervously with the loose star on its point, causing a few more cheap sequins to part company.

Terry Pratchet, Sourcery (Corgi Books: London, 1988) pp. 147-148 the first visit to the tower of sourcery

A Haida filmmaker is pushing for new legislation in Canada to penalize people who pretend to be Indigenous in order to access grants, awards and jobs intended for Indigenous people. Tamara Bell said she wants those who misrepresent their identity to face fines and even prison time.

Angela Sterritt, “Indigenous filmmaker wants fines, jail time for ‘pretendians’ who misrepresent their identity” CBC News, 2021-Jan-19 (link)

If you follow the news or corporate social media, you will see how often the gap between identities as internal self-belief and identities as external attributes leads to conflict. Most people are reluctant to explain what is at issue or how the word “identity” is used in different ways, and they are even more reluctant to talk about why we started talking about the first kind of identity. I am not an intellectual historian, but as a military historian I will tell the bloody story as well as I can. This is a tale of genocide and oppression and the cycles between different ways of thinking about complicated areas of life.

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Identities Are Hard to Get At

Some stranded seaweed on a Salish Sea beach at about 1/3 of full tide

A few weeks ago, I talked about how an identity is something to which someone says “I am that.” After a series of unfortunate events between 1914 and 1948, educated people stopped talking about race, gender, and ethnicity as essences and started to talk about them as identities or social categories. This change was meant to reduce the amount of murder, enslavement, and forced migration in our world. But when we try to understand the ancient world, identities in the proper sense are not very helpful.

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Incurious Black Magic

a keep and church atop a hill with cloudy sky in the background
Burg Freundsburg over Schwaz, Tirol.

This fall, I have been thinking about why some communities did not feel right for me. I enjoy learning from different types of experts, from craft workers to retired thugs to academics, but the kind of journalists who write opinion pieces and columns always gave me a bad feeling. I have trouble talking about feelings, but I think I can articulate two reasons why I feel this way.

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Remembrance Day 2020

Mt. Douglas as seen from Mt. Tolmie, November 2020 Today is Remembrance Day. I am not as mobile as I would be in an ordinary November, and neither of the ways people often talk about Remembrance Day feels right to me. Some people turn it into a festival of peace and... Continue reading: Remembrance Day 2020