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I don't want to choose a title because this post is about multiple things.

Calculating your ability to understand writing is not a matter of comparing how smart you are with how confusing the writing is. Rather, it's mainly an issue of comparing what sort of writing it is with your skill at reading that particular type of writing. Anyone can read and understand any sort of writing if he knows how. And if he doesn't he can learn.

The sorts of writing commonly thought to be confusing and arcane by our society are mostly the unpopular ones that few people are skilled with. Notice that all new and valuable forms of writing will, at first, seem confusing and arcane to most people because no one is used to them.

(Actually this isn't the whole story. Some writing is more complicated because it says more. And there are various other factors too.)

Anyhow, long ago Kolya began posting to the ARR list. At first I found his writing very difficult to read. It now feels perfectly natural. Here I'm going to go through one of his emails (his first) and explain it.

But first, to make my point about the difficulty, here is the entire email without any explanation. If you get frustrated or bored with it feel free to scroll to the bottom as my point will be made. (Scroll to the first non-quoted text or search for the word "Alright".)

From: "Kolya" To: Sent: Thursday, April 25, 2002 3:57 PM Subject: The role of pluralism in personal relationships

One of the most fundamental issues in all of philosophy (especially epistemology and moral philosophy) is the question of monism versus pluralism: Is a given domain in principle unitary or irreducibly multifaceted.

Which way you jump on this issue, essentially determines whether you are a realist/objectivist (nothing to do with Ayn Rand), or a relativist/subjectivist, with respect to the given domain. If some aspect of the world is fundamentally incapable of being described by a single consistent theory, there can be no *right answers*, no *objective truth* of the matter.

I, for one, assume that ontologically speaking the world is unitary. But, as Popper has taught us, methodologically speaking we must all be pluralists. There is only one truth, but no royal road to finding it.

Getting the relationship right between these seemingly paradoxical features of the world is of paramount importance. Almost everybody gets it wrong. Creationists and moral dogmatists let their ontological monism spill over into their methodology, leading them to believe not only in objective truth but also in the existence of authoritative sources of truth. Structuralists, post-modernists, and relativists of every ilk let their methodological pluralism spill over into their ontology, leading them to repudiate not only authoritative sources of truth, but also the very existence of objective truth.

Classical liberals, libertarians, and ARR-advocates fall into a category of their own. They rightly recognise that we need both monism and pluralism, but they get the relationship between the two wrong, in a very interesting and fruitful way. Instead of seeing the crucial divide as being between ontology and methodology, they draw it between the collective domain and the individual domain.

The "collective" they treat as *both* ontologically and methodologically unitary e.g., Nozick: "Individuals have rights, and there are things that no person or group may do to them (without violating their rights)". This is methodological (as well as ontological) monism because Nozick and company regard the rights in question as authoritatively given (presumably by reason).

The "individual" they treat as *both* ontologically and methodologically plural. This is inherent in the widespread libertarian belief that rights are philosophically prior to morality. In other words, whereas rights are universal, morality is a matter of individual choice. This was also inherent in Locke (who started this ball rolling with his separation of state and religion): "It is plain, in fact, that human reason unassisted failed men in its great and proper business of morality." In other words, whereas reason tells us that the state has no business dictating morality (collective ontological and methodological monism), reason cannot tell us what is morally right (individual ontological and methodological pluralism).

Now this Lockean way of slicing life into an objective/monistic public domain and a subjective/pluralist private domain is one of the most brilliant and worthwhile fudges in the history of philosophy. In fact, I would rank it second only to the the invention of monotheism which has almost single-handedly transmitted moral and physical realism (albeit in a dogmatic wrapper) through 3000 years of human history.

But a fudge it remains. Because morality (both collective and individual) is ontologically monistic, and our search for it (both collective and individual) must be pluralistic.

What has all this to do with relationships?

Well, the ARR conception of relationships is fundamentally Lockean. The relational cake is sliced into a public tier, which has jurisdiction over individual rights within the relationship (such as the right to do what one likes in other relationships, so long as it does not harm the first relationship); and a private tier, which is nobody else's business.

As with the political version of the Lockean fudge, this is an immensely wise and valuable rule of thumb. But, philosophically speaking, a fudge it remains; for the reasons given above.

Both in politics and in personal relationships there can be no *fundamental* division between the public/collective sphere and the private/individual sphere. The status of this division is purely that of a pragmatic device -- an approximation to the truth -- which simplifies decision making by obviating the need to go back to first principles for every decision.

However, and this is the crux of the issue, the division is not some moral absolute from which we can deduce what is right and wrong. It is a handy line of demarcation which we shift hither and thither as our understanding or morality improves. Put more directly:

Rights (such as those defining the separation of the collective and individual spheres) are not fundamental moral concepts. They are pragmatic guidelines derived in the course of our search for moral understanding.

Therefore the fact that a person questions a particular version of the Lockean fudge does not necessarily make them irrational or coercive. It may just mean that they have found a problem whose solution is being impeded by the prevailing Lockean heuristic.

Of course, many relationships are founded on a shared understanding of a given set of rights. Most friendships are of this kind. Friends don't normally think they have to consult each other about where they live or what they spend their money on.

But states and families ought not be limited by any immutable definition of their members' rights. They ought to be free to alter their rules as their problem set evolves and their knowledge improves. Methodologically speaking, nothing ought be sacrosanct.

I think a good way to crystallise this idea is to bring together the concepts of autonomy and sovereignty. We often speak of autonomy as if it were a self-evident good whose meaning is manifest. But by itself that is not a coherent idea. Properly understood, autonomy must be seen as the maximal devolution of decision-making freedom that is compatible with the sovereignty of the collective entity of which the autonomous entity is part. Because fractured sovereignty, necessarily results in insoluble problems.

In this sense, the ARR paradigm views the family as a federation of sovereign entities. That is a legitimate arrangement. But, I suggest, that epistemology tells us that the higher up you can push the nexus of sovereignty (while of course always striving to push down the loci of autonomy) the more problems you can solve, and the more common preferences you can discover.

So, I say, to maximise human creativity, sovereignty must lie with the family (or state), not with its individual members. This in no way precludes ARR-style "open" relationships. But it changes the default assumptions about the rules that should regulate the "opening up" of a family relationship.

In the ARR paradigm starting a new relationship is like admitting a new member to a federation. In the "sovereign family" paradigm starting a new relationship is like two sovereign entities embarking upon a union into a single sovereign entity. The latter is not impossible, but only rarely is it actually a good idea -- i.e. conducive to increasing human creativity -- even in principle; and hardly ever is it feasible in practice.

- Kolya

Alright, welcome back. Now to go through piece by piece.

One of the most fundamental issues in all of philosophy (especially epistemology and moral philosophy) is the question of monism versus pluralism: Is a given domain in principle unitary or irreducibly multifaceted.

Monism and unitary both mean one. Pluralism and multifaceted both mean more than one. Epistemology is about the nature of knowledge. These aren't the most common words, but they are actually quite important to the subject material.

All Kolya has said so far is that whether stuff is one or many is an important question. He hasn't even explained what that means yet.

Which way you jump on this issue, essentially determines whether you are a realist/objectivist (nothing to do with Ayn Rand), or a relativist/subjectivist, with respect to the given domain. If some aspect of the world is fundamentally incapable of being described by a single consistent theory, there can be no *right answers*, no *objective truth* of the matter.

Here Kolya is telling us that if something is exactly one way, then realism/objectivism is true about that something. On the other hand, if it cannot by fully described by just one theory, and rather multiple theories are needed, that's relativism/subjctivism.

For example if the world was whatever way we thought it was, and this applied to all people at once, then we'd need a theory about how the world is for each person in order to capture all the details. They couldn't be combined into one grand theory because they are not consistent with each other (maybe Bob's world is all blue and Jill's is all red).

I, for one, assume that ontologically speaking the world is unitary. But, as Popper has taught us, methodologically speaking we must all be pluralists. There is only one truth, but no royal road to finding it.

If you thought the many-theory conception of the world made no sense, you're absolutely right! Ontology has to do with what exists. Kolya is saying the world only exists one way. However, our method for figuring out what exists must involve many different conflicting theories or guesses about what exists.

Getting the relationship right between these seemingly paradoxical features of the world is of paramount importance. Almost everybody gets it wrong. Creationists and moral dogmatists let their ontological monism spill over into their methodology, leading them to believe not only in objective truth but also in the existence of authoritative sources of truth. Structuralists, post-modernists, and relativists of every ilk let their methodological pluralism spill over into their ontology, leading them to repudiate not only authoritative sources of truth, but also the very existence of objective truth.

The seeming paradox is that the world is only one way, but rather than just say what way it is, we must tentatively try out many different guesses, even though we know that all the guesses but one must be wrong (and they could also all be wrong).

Applying monism (one) to one's method of exploring the world means only looking for the truth one way and assuming that way is right (for example deciding the Bible is literal truth). This is a mistake.

Seeing that a pluralist (many) approach to finding theories works well, some might think in effect that all these theories must have something to them (that is, some truth). This is also a mistake.

Classical liberals, libertarians, and ARR-advocates fall into a category of their own. They rightly recognise that we need both monism and pluralism, but they get the relationship between the two wrong, in a very interesting and fruitful way. Instead of seeing the crucial divide as being between ontology and methodology, they draw it between the collective domain and the individual domain.

He's saying classical liberals, libertarians, and ARR-advocates make a different mistake than the errors he just went over.

The previous mistakes involved people who were mono WRT (with regard to) existence and method, or plural WRT existence and method (whereas the correct approach is mono WRT existence and plural WRT method). This mistake involves making up a new distinction (between collective and individual) and ... well he hasn't told us the error yet.

The "collective" they treat as *both* ontologically and methodologically unitary e.g., Nozick: "Individuals have rights, and there are things that no person or group may do to them (without violating their rights)". This is methodological (as well as ontological) monism because Nozick and company regard the rights in question as authoritatively given (presumably by reason).

They make the double-monism (for existence and method) mistake to collective stuff.

The "individual" they treat as *both* ontologically and methodologically plural. This is inherent in the widespread libertarian belief that rights are philosophically prior to morality. In other words, whereas rights are universal, morality is a matter of individual choice. This was also inherent in Locke (who started this ball rolling with his separation of state and religion): "It is plain, in fact, that human reason unassisted failed men in its great and proper business of morality." In other words, whereas reason tells us that the state has no business dictating morality (collective ontological and methodological monism), reason cannot tell us what is morally right (individual ontological and methodological pluralism).

They make the double-pluralism (for existence and method) mistake to individual stuff.

Now this Lockean way of slicing life into an objective/monistic public domain and a subjective/pluralist private domain is one of the most brilliant and worthwhile fudges in the history of philosophy. In fact, I would rank it second only to the the invention of monotheism which has almost single-handedly transmitted moral and physical realism (albeit in a dogmatic wrapper) through 3000 years of human history.

Kolya appreciates the value in this approach even if it's an error.

But a fudge it remains. Because morality (both collective and individual) is ontologically monistic, and our search for it (both collective and individual) must be pluralistic.

However, he insists that it really is an error.

What has all this to do with relationships?

Well, the ARR conception of relationships is fundamentally Lockean. The relational cake is sliced into a public tier, which has jurisdiction over individual rights within the relationship (such as the right to do what one likes in other relationships, so long as it does not harm the first relationship); and a private tier, which is nobody else's business.

What Kolya means about private tier is that an ARR person with relationships with Jack and Jill would see no problem keeping the details of his relationship with Jack private from Jill, and vice versa.

However, declaring something "nobody else's business" is a veiled reference to pluralist (many) truth. Because through this approach we could all deal with our private sphere's differently, and consider everyone in our society to be doing it right.

As with the political version of the Lockean fudge, this is an immensely wise and valuable rule of thumb. But, philosophically speaking, a fudge it remains; for the reasons given above.

Kolya sees the value in this approach, but insists it is mistaken.

Both in politics and in personal relationships there can be no *fundamental* division between the public/collective sphere and the private/individual sphere. The status of this division is purely that of a pragmatic device -- an approximation to the truth -- which simplifies decision making by obviating the need to go back to first principles for every decision.

Kolya repeats that the real division is between matters of existence (one) and method (many) not between matters of collective and individual.

He says the division makes life easier because it allows us to argue by referring to the division instead of arguing from scratch. There is a mistake here. Kolya gives the alternative to this fudge as having to go back to first principles in all arguments. But it's perfectly possible to refer to higher level concepts that aren't errors or fudges. It's also perfectly possible to argue by referring to emergent properties (in fact we always do), which again makes Kolya's alternative-case (having to argue from first principles) incorrect.

However, and this is the crux of the issue, the division is not some moral absolute from which we can deduce what is right and wrong. It is a handy line of demarcation which we shift hither and thither as our understanding or morality improves. Put more directly:

Rights (such as those defining the separation of the collective and individual spheres) are not fundamental moral concepts. They are pragmatic guidelines derived in the course of our search for moral understanding.

Rights are low-precision guidelines that help us get imperfect answers easily.

Therefore the fact that a person questions a particular version of the Lockean fudge does not necessarily make them irrational or coercive. It may just mean that they have found a problem whose solution is being impeded by the prevailing Lockean heuristic.

Since rights are not perfect, it's only natural that sometimes someone will have a situation where rights give the wrong answer. In such a case, the rational thing to do would be to question the right. Some people who question our rights are wicked. But some people who do are perfectly reasonable.

Of course, many relationships are founded on a shared understanding of a given set of rights. Most friendships are of this kind. Friends don't normally think they have to consult each other about where they live or what they spend their money on.

Basically, friends tend to consider each other free to live their own lives when apart without (much) regard for the friendship. For example I might sign up for an art class without worrying about whether my friend would want to hang out during that time. I would likely only worry about losing time to hangout if I myself wanted to hang out more. Saying "Sorry, I'm busy," to a friend is generally considered legitimate regardless of why one is busy (with some rare exceptions). This is a fudge for the same reasons having a private life is. We take this conception of friendship for granted, but Kolya is saying it outloud.

But states and families ought not be limited by any immutable definition of their members' rights. They ought to be free to alter their rules as their problem set evolves and their knowledge improves. Methodologically speaking, nothing ought be sacrosanct.

Sacrosanct is yet another way of saying one. Kolya is saying that our conception of rights should be mutable (changeable), not sacrosanct. This is because we should seek the truth with a plural not monistic method.

I think a good way to crystallise this idea is to bring together the concepts of autonomy and sovereignty. We often speak of autonomy as if it were a self-evident good whose meaning is manifest. But by itself that is not a coherent idea. Properly understood, autonomy must be seen as the maximal devolution of decision-making freedom that is compatible with the sovereignty of the collective entity of which the autonomous entity is part. Because fractured sovereignty, necessarily results in insoluble problems.

Kolya fails to explain what he means by sovereignty. This makes the rest of his piece extra hard to follow. A sovereign is a ruler.

He says autonomy is not a coherent idea. His reasons for this aren't clear here, and I'd rather skip them as they aren't all that important to this piece.

Fractured sovereignty necessarily results in insoluble problems is also unexplained. The reason for this is because separate entities (think people) are different. So of course they will disagree. The only ways they could get along are if they both decide to submit to one single something or other (like a code of rules) or if they agree about something. But we can't agree about everything (if we did we'd be the same person). And submitting to something is another way of saying that something is sovereign. Fractured sovereignty would mean not going that route. And the other route can't solve all problems. So it follows that fractured sovereignty will result in some problems.

Backing up a sentence (Kolya put a conclusion before the reason for it, so I skipped ahead), Kolya says that individual freedom (he writes 'autonomy', but means individual freedom or self-directedness) must be limited to be compatible with sovereignty, because without sovereignty we would get insoluble problems.

To see how sovereignty works, look at the US. The government is sovereign (it rules over us) but we still have a lot of individual freedom, especially in day-to-day life. Without one government ruling over us, we would have insoluble disputes (for example if there were a number of conflicting legal codes, people following different codes would not be able to resolve their problems).

Kolya thinks our personal lives should be like this too, and that they should be organised with families analogous to states.

In this sense, the ARR paradigm views the family as a federation of sovereign entities. That is a legitimate arrangement. But, I suggest, that epistemology tells us that the higher up you can push the nexus of sovereignty (while of course always striving to push down the loci of autonomy) the more problems you can solve, and the more common preferences you can discover.

ARR views families like alliances of people who rule themselves. Just like the US and England were allies in the Iraq conflict, but are still individual states with separate governments.

This is not a wicked arrangement. But Kolya suggests it is not the best one.

In the army there is a command structure with some guys on top, then some lower officers, then slightly lower, and so and and so forth down to people who lead groups in the field, and actual basic soldiers who don't lead anyone. The more freedom lower officers have, the more powerful the army is, because they can make local adjustments to the overall orders to fit their exact situation. But also, if every sergeant had his own battle plan the army would not function (that would be an exampled of fractured sovereignty).

Another example is pathing in computer games. A common strategy is divide the world into a large grid and keep track of connections between each section. Then if a character needs to walk a long distance, the computer only needs to calculate which sections of the large grid the character should walk through to reach the correct section. Small obstacles within each large grid area can be navigated around separately when the character is in that area. In this example there is one overall path, but for each section of the path, the character is free to find the best way to walk through that section. Thus the pathing algorithm distributes some autonomy to the character to make it work better (trying to figure out the exact path over very long distances is really expensive to calculate).

So Kolya is trying to say that what my examples illustrate is a generally principle: lower-level individual freedom and higher-level unified sovereignty both increase problem-solving capabilities.

So, I say, to maximise human creativity, sovereignty must lie with the family (or state), not with its individual members. This in no way precludes ARR-style "open" relationships. But it changes the default assumptions about the rules that should regulate the "opening up" of a family relationship.

Families (or states) are higher level things than individual people (they consist of many people). So if they could be sovereign, there would be less fractured sovereignty issues.

By open Kolya means open to admitting new members.

In the ARR paradigm starting a new relationship is like admitting a new member to a federation. In the "sovereign family" paradigm starting a new relationship is like two sovereign entities embarking upon a union into a single sovereign entity. The latter is not impossible, but only rarely is it actually a good idea -- i.e. conducive to increasing human creativity -- even in principle; and hardly ever is it feasible in practice.

Federation means alliance. Paradigm means point of view. So in the alliance approach, a new relationship is like Poland joining the coalition to free Iraq. In the "sovereign family" approach a new relationship is like the US and England trying to unite under one government.

However, Kolya has made an error here. He seems to assume that relationships come into being fully formed. Rather, they begin small and tentative and slowly grow/evolve into greater things. But if they have a chance to evolve, then it is feasible for them to evolve to satisfy some very difficult niches (problem sets, or a simpler word would be situations).

Anyway, I hope Kolya's view makes sense now, and that you'll have an easier time reading similarly confusing philosophy in the future.

For the curious, I do agree with almost all of what Kolya says, but not everything, especially not the two places I said he was mistaken.


Elliot Temple on March 1, 2004

Comments (5)

Interesting and thought provoking - thank you.


Kristen at 6:46 AM on March 3, 2004 | #863

Looks interesting. I'll try reading it when I don't have a headache and get back to you. I think a valuable bit of information would be to answer, "How do you read such a thing while being interrupted very often by children needing help?"


Becky at 9:55 AM on March 4, 2004 | #864

By storing what you've read so far in short-term (easy to call-up) memory very accurately. Don't know how to help someone learn that skill though.


Elliot at 9:58 AM on March 4, 2004 | #865

Oh another thing to do is read each section and try to understand it individually, without worrying about the overall picture. Then find a longer bit of time, but not nearly as long as reading the whole thing would take, to skim the whole thing looking for the overall picture. The skimming will go pretty quickly because you've already read each part.



Individual parts would be any group of text broken apart from the other groups by quoted blocks + any quoted text that goes with it.


Elliot at 10:17 AM on March 4, 2004 | #866

Thank you Elliot! That was the first time a) I didn't just blanky stare at Kolya's words & b) I actually understood most of what he was saying.



I enjoyed your Kolya for dummies ;-)


Camille at 10:41 PM on March 6, 2004 | #867

What do you think?

(This is a free speech zone!)