Polytelism and cultural objects

A month or so ago I saw an academic talk with the inciendiary title, “Aristotle’s Worst Idea”. It concerned the notion of “monotelism” in Aristotle, a word the speaker had coined to express Aristotle’s judgement that things which had a single purpose are superior to those with many purposes. This principle, that a thing out have a single function, has imperfect application both in nature and artifacts – Aristotle admits to examples in both techne (craft) and phusis (nature) where a thing has more than one function, but this is always unfortunate, always either because the maker (in the case of craft) was lazy, or because mother nature found it too difficult to make a species with a single thing for each function.

The idea as he expressed it frustrated me because it seems correct (it is after all based on quite extensive textual evidence form Aristotle), but it seems to bypass any philosophical questions that might be raised concerning monotelism. Practicing philosophy as beginning from definitions, giving examples, comparing with other philosophers, and giving examples of how the philosophical idea had technical or cultural rammifications seems to completely avoiding any “philosophizing” at all – everything done here under the name “philosophy” would be better called either science or cultural anthropology.

The philosophical question, it seems to me, is “What is a function/telos?” In other words, what does it mean to say something has a purpose, a role, an end? To give the simple Aristotelian answer: the Final cause is one of the four causes, and it is the purpose for which a thing is made, the function which that thing will play which is the reason to bother making it at all. For example, the final cause of a religious artifact is the role it plays in a cultural ceremony – it is for the sake of this role that it will play that it is made in the first place.

But this so far has avoided the question, I have not defined function qua function but rather function qua principle, or qua cause. What does it mean to say something has a function? I present an artifact for consideration:

Swiss Army Knife

A swiss army knife is what Aristotle, or at least the presenter on Aristotle, would characterize as an object made by a lazy craftsperson: he has saved time and sacrificed perfection by making a single thing which has many roles. Perhaps because of this he will not have to make as many things? This does not seem important, even if it might be true in a pre-capitalist economy. What is crucial seems to be whether this understanding is true at all – is it true that the knife has many functions?

Again, we must return to what it means for something to have a function. Imagine you are packing for a camping trip, and you are deciding which things to bring. Certainly you’d want to bring several shirts, because they will get dirty. But perhaps also they will be used as a pillow. And if no towels are brought, shirts might be used to towel off after a dip in the lake. So it might seem that a shirt has no single “function” but simply a plethora of possible functions, some seen in advanced and considered, and some not (every good woodsman knows how to find new uses(functions) for things in the bush – its perhaps in this sense that we can say the woodsman is the opposite of the mechanic, for whom it is never a virtue to use the “wrong tool for the job”). But none of this intuitively convinces me that a shirt doesn’t have a function – it seems that a shirts function is simply not expressible as a determinate proposition, rather it is something intangible, it is something like the grasp I have on what it will be used for, and I have this grasp on the “functions” of the shirt as a whole, and that is the function of the shirt. Said otherwise, it appears that the function of the shirt is not its particular uses but its usefullness as such, its sense of being “full of use value”.

Arriving at the swiss knife, I wish to defend the honour of the knife against the charge that it is less perfect than a more traditional hunter’s knife simply because it has many functions. It seems that to say a hunter’s knife has “one function” and a swiss knife has “many functions” is to use the term “one” equivocally. Certainly one admits that a Hunter’s knife can be used in many ways – for example, to skin a Fish or a Deer, to prepare tinder for a fire, etc… Perhaps a hunting knife could even be used in a religious ceremony – in fact I believe something analogous to this is actually the case in Boy Scouts. When one tosses a hunting knife in one’s pack, it is already aimed at a variety of possible “functions”, deemed in advance to be useful in a set of situations which cannot be entirely known in advance. This does not seem to be any different from a Swiss Knife, which perhaps has many functions in a more explicit manner, but it seems wrong to suppose these functions have less unity than the functions of the hunting knife. Again, I can toss a Swiss Knife in my pack, and the choice to do so can be based on a rough grasp of what situations I might encounter and what the knife might come in useful for. To answer why this grasp is of a grouping of situations “as a whole”, the answer is just the factual unity of the object – the fact I can’t simply throw in half the knife without breaking it and loosing all its usefulness.

The preliminary conclusion I have arrived at is that a things “function” is not expressible in a proposition in advance because it is best characterized as my perception of its telic/final cause – the set of purposes it might play in situations which I anticipate. The “monotelism” of a thing is just the unity of its functions, the fact that they can be grasped as a whole, and this follows from it being one thing and not many. The argument against codifiable monotelism is that any account of a “single” purpose can be given again as many or multiple purposes, depending on how specifically one characeterizes the situation in which that purpose is fullfilled.


Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (Robert Pirsig)

On one level, Zen is a book about a motorcycle journey taken by John and his son Chris from Chicago to San Fransisco. On another, it’s a treatise about how mechanics ought be practiced. On another it’s a recollection of John’s previous life before a nervous breakdown, when he pursued the ghost of reason, and quality or “the one” as the prior origin behind all rational dividing up of the world according to categories. But mostly, it’s all these things at once – an argument for what the appropriate life is, demonstrated in a road trip, exemplified in mechanical practice, and the historical-philosophical grounding of which is given in an encounter with Greek philosophy.

So, why is this book significant? To me, it’s significant for many reasons. As a scholar, I’m interested in the proximity of Pirsig’s reading of Aristotle to Heidegger’s, and also Pirsig’s affinity with Heidegger on insight that Greek thought was something like a “first beginning”, a first opening up of a truth or a seeing so important that it was worth fighting for (i.e. Socrates’ case), and that a wortwhile current task is not simply to “surpass” Greek thinking but to re-experience it’s original profundity. But as a mechanic (mostly bycicle, although I’ve done no shortage of work on cars), I find Pirsig’s discussion of “having the right attitude” when practicing mechanics to be essential, something I know negatively by having many experiences of not having the right attitude, and not being able to diagnose or solve mechanical problems. But also, I know it positively, because when you bright the right mindset to problems, and tackle them mindfully, solving them gives a strong sensation of worthwhileness. Furthermore, as a phenomenologically aware thinker, or rather, one who makes it a task of thinking to become aware how his body is understanding a situation, the kind of awareness Pirsig talks about having with the bike, with the road, with the weather, is all intuitively confirmed by my own experience. It is the kind of thing usually reserved for literature, but that philosophy can do much better through increased clarity.

Would I recommend this book to others? Almost certainly. Mostly, I would recommend it to undergraduates or beginners studying Greek philosophy – not only is the way the questions presented in the work as live problems for contemporary life philosophy, they are grasped within their historical context in a manner which exceeds by far the standard historical “context” given in any Plato or Aristotle course. And the context is not grasped as a historical nicety, but as a situation of strife within which the irony and mis-representations used by Plato can be understood as strategic within a living conversation.

But not “mostly”, because mostly this book is a book for not only the non-expert, but the person who hasn’t cultivated an interest in philosophy through the standard trappings of academia. Mostly, this is a book for someone who is willing to ask the question, “What is quality?”, and see it as a significant question. In a larger sense, it is a book for anyone willing to grapple with the inherent strangeness of notions in our everyday language which are immediately comprehensible yet impossible to define in a way that is not either empty or obscurantist (or a combination). In other words, it is a book for anyone who is willing to take on the serious challenge of making clear what is not only unclear but which is unclear not-accidentally.

Freedom of Association and the Right to Strike

It seems clear to me that freedom of association means the freedom to unionize – freedom to bind many wills together around a common goal.

There is a lot of talk right now about the union “screwing students”. We’ll, strictly speaking, the cause of the strike is the inability of the union and the employer to come to an agreement. So, you can say the union is screwing students only if you have already made a value judgment about the employer being “right” and the employee being “wrong” in their current bargaining positions.

This isn’t impossible – the condition for the employee bargaining position ever being right is that it could also be wrong. For example, if you want to say that the in coal miners strike the unions were in the right and Thatcher was in the wrong, you need to posit some moral framework where both positions can be evaluated on the same plane. And, since both positions can be evaluated on the same plane, you can’t say in advance that the employees are always right or the employer is always right.

However, I think this way of thinking about things is confusing. What moral framework can you use to evaluate the reasonableness of claims on either side? The standard thing to do is resort to status quo – the employer loves talking about other deals in the field. But, the fact that some other workers make some amount in no way justifies paying some other workers the same amount. You have to be able to show that the amount the other workers make is just, isn’t a product of exploitation, or whatever moral standard you want to use. For example, you wouldn’t say that the amount of money made by some workers on a banana plantation was just because it was industry standard, without arguing that the industry standard was just.

Just to bolster this position – even hard “supply demand” people need to acknowledge that the actual wage is not defacto the just wage, because people might be working because their liberty has been threatened. For example, migrant workers in Canada have formal recourse to the employment standards act, but in reality they do not because they can be deported at any time for any reason, and they are extremely expendable (i.e. replaceable). This means they de-facto don’t have the rights of the employment standards act, and are in many ways like slaves (do not have freedom of movement, are not allowed to learn the native language etc..). Luckily for you, supply-demand people, you do have a moral framework that can be used to set the conditions whereby any “actual wage” would also necessarily be the just wage.

Unfortunately for you, supply-demand people, the conditions you set include liberty – and by extension liberty of association. In other words, people can choose to work, to vote, to speak, in the ways they choose, and for the reasons they choose. For example, I can choose to vote for a Candidate because I think they will be better in foreign policy, or in helping the economy – no one can tell me which reasons are the valid ones.

By extension, no one can tell me not to stop working, or what counts as a valid reason to stop working. No one can say “you are allowed to not come to work because you are sick, or because your mother is dead, but not because of a strike”. To restrict the freedom to halt work based on a free association with a labour union is an infringement on the right to free association. Now, there could be limits on this right as with any right, but they would need to be justified.

Now, let’s consider a case in which it appears obvious that the right to strike should be limited. TTC workers, it is often said, should not be able to strike because they can “take the city hostage”. Let’s carefully think about what it means to take the city hostage – it means that if they cease to work, there are massive negative effects on the public welfare. This means that people who spend 2.25 a trip taking the TTC recieve a lot more than 2.25 worth of value from it – otherwise it would not be a large problem that it had shut down. For example, if I can either drive to work or take TTC, and driving costs 6$ a day including gas, parking and maintenance (and I would have the car regardless), then a TTC shutdown only puts me out the difference between 4.50 and 6$.

However, in reality, it is much more complex – if the TTC shuts down the roads get plugged because everyone drives. Also, many people simply do not have alternative transportation – indicating they would also pay much more for the TTC if they had to, because their marginal cost is extremely high.

What does this mean? It means the TTC has a monstrous positive economic externality on the city – it means the city derives a huge amount of value which is not paid for. This is the only reason that a strike is considered a “hostage taking” – because a huge amount of surplus value is being extracted (i.e. not paid for) by the city from the TTC.

However, since all this surplus value is not being paid for, the TTC is actually broke all the time. In fact, it probably receives more in funding from the province than from fares – because fares are set far below the pareto optimal level. This is done precisely because if one attempted to internalize all the positive externalities of the TTC, ridership would drop and the externalities would actually strike as they became internalized. This is exactly the justifiying reason for fixing prices below their supply-demand point – that the positive economic externalities created by the artificailly low price are significantly greater than the internal losses from the low price of the service/product.

So, what are TTC workers really saying when they go on strike? It seems to me they aren’t really demanding more money from the employer, but from the province/city – who set the funding levels of the TTC indirectly, and indirectly set the fare rates (I believe they must be approved). So, in other words, they are demanding that some more of the surplus value created by the TTC be returned to the workers on it. Is this reasonable? Do people not have rights to the fruits of their labour? What counts as a fruit of your own labour?

So, what was the argument again to take away the TTC union’s right to strike? Oh yes, that they can hold the city hostage – and we now understand that what this means is that the city extracts huge amounts of unmonetized positive economic externalities from the running of the TTC, and by going on strike the union can demand a larger piece of that. If it weren’t for these massive externalities, their going on strike would be no such “hostage” taking, people would simply switch to alternative modes of transportation. So, to say that a union should not have the right to strike seems to mean that so much surplus value is being extracted from them that we cannot allow them to even try to get a piece of it.

Over to York TA’s, it is also said that they are holding students “hostage”. What does this mean? It must mean that there is a massive amount of surplus value being extracted – this is actually what the union keeps indicating when it claims that contract faculty and unit 1 course directors do basically the same work as full professors for about half the wages. So, why should the union not have a right to demand a larger portion of the surplus value it creates for the university?

The deep question is, if essential services are called such because of the differential between their cost and their benefit (benefit far exceeds cost, or specifically, the marginal cost is extremely high because the “essential service” is so much cheaper than whatever could replace it in an emergency, and don’t say nothing could because everything can be procured for a cost), can that be a justifying reason to limit someone’s liberty?

Which has more net wealth, a Country or a Family?

Since conspiracy theorists are obsessed with international bankers, I thought to ask the question – how influential can a rich banking family really be next to countries? I mean, the country must have a lot more value than the family, even if its value isn’t liquid (it’s bound up in cars and houses and roads, instead of in Gold and Bonds and Stocks etc..).

So I checked. It’s fairly easy to get numbers on the net worth of states – it shows right up on Google. According to the Vancouver Sun, Stats can measured Canada’s total net worth (including the subtraction of foreign debts) at 5.7 trillion.

It’s impossible to find out what the net worth of rich international banking families is, however. I’ve seen estimates for the Rothschilds up to 700 trillion, but there are serious problems with this. One is the lack of credibility of the research. But another is, how can someone be said to have more money than an economy? What can you use the money to buy? At a certain point, you are not a “price taker” as it comes to spending – you yourself influence princes by spending. The hand is no longer invisible, it’s just your hand.

Perhaps rather than asking how much money international bankers have, we should ask how much money would they need to have in order to have more influence on world economic policy than statesmen? Well, presumably they’d have to have enough that they could influence various economies indirectly through their actions. Isn’t it recognized that certain international bankers do this with respect to smaller nations, isn’t that mainstream? Perhaps someone will remember the reference for me.

Anyway, my desire is to perhaps start a bit of a discussion about this issue. Or, to come up with good reasons why no discussion is needed.

World Monetary Policy

The current currency structure in the US is on the brink of collapse. They can prop up the dollar for a few more months because they’ve, in Bernakee’s words, “Engineered it so it works like gold”. He’s quite right – they’ve convinced the world that it’s US treasury bonds are the most stable thing you can buy – so people buy them rather than gold when they get out of risky investments. If the dollar wasn’t as good as gold, people would buy the gold, but everyone now believes that the US currency is more stable than gold (and not neccesarily for bad reasons), and their belief communally becomes a self-fullfilling prophecy.

However, I’ve recently learned that in the upcoming world meetings, called “efforts to reform the financial system”, Europe is going to push a new world currency system.

This is significant because the end of Bretton Woods two was the end of the gold standard. Nixon went off the standard because he didn’t have the gold to pay back for dollars which had been bought by France mostly. The notion that speculators caused the failure of Bretton Woods two covers over the fact that the crises were actually caused by DeGaul’s insistence on monetizing (turning into gold) American dollars recieved in exchange for Exports, at 35$ an ounce – when it became clear that there were not enough ounces in reserve to “pay” for all the dollars which had been printed and shipped overseas, Nixon suspended all monetizing off the dollar.

A Bretton Woods three would by a world currency standard based on fiat. This is extremely significant – because fiat money requires someone to say “This is currency because I say it is”. In other words, it requires executive power (in Canada, it is literally the Queen who says “This is legal for all debts” on the currency).

World treaties do not tend to be based on a single executive voice from which law is spoken – they are basically anarchic, based on tedious adherance to conditions on penalty of sanction or loss of prestige. But in any case – every international treaty is only as binding as the results of breaking it are unpleasant.¬† I’m not sure if the Nuremburg laws are an international treaty, but if they are, the fact that they have been broken so many times over since 1945 would be a good proof in the notion that international treaties are only as strong as the penalty which results (or rather, is anticipated).

What would a world fiat money be? What would prevent countries from overprinting their currency, knowing that it would steal value not only from their own, but others aswell. This is a simple instance of a common pool resource failure.

To prevent this, it seems countries could have little control over their own macro-economic policies. Even the ability of the national bank to set the overnight lending rate would need to be controlled internationally, because this requires effectively altering the money supply.

International currencies based on a commodity standard are inherently stable, because countries (like say, the post war U.S.A.) which overprint notes with respect to their reserves will (should) have their currencies fail. Or, if we think what happened was the rule and not the exception, an international currency could only be gold Рwhere the actual physical use of gold is just as common as the use of paper currency, and it can be exchanged one for the other on a daily basis  Рthis is the only way to prevent countries from taking advantage of each other by increasing the money supply (which benefits them, but hurts other countries which have their currencies tied to the first country).

Alan Greenspan on the federal reserve and the gold standard

The Economist predicts the coming world currency in 1988

Does anyone else have an opinion on this?

The Un-Romantic Return of Steam Locomotives

Steam trains are wonderful to behold – to watch one go by is to experience the power of the machine. Unlike modern diesel locomotives which start instantly, never make a fuss, Steam locomotives take hours to get going, and must let off steam when being shut down – literally spewing energy away in a wondrous display of power and might. Worse, steam engines needed such a high degree of maintenance that they were in the shop 7 hours for every 3 they spent on the rails. So, it’s easy to see why they were replaced with technically superior, and aesthetically much more boring machines.

However, the high cost of oil prompted ACE to desing the 3000 in the early 1980’s. Never put into production, it was an attempt to exploit the differential between the costs of oil and coal to build a cheaper running freight engine. Impressively, it doubles the thermal efficiency of older steamers – up to 15% from just 7% when steam was being phased out in the 50s. Thermal efficiency means how much of the heat energy created by burning the fuel is turned into mechanical energy. 15% is impressive compared to your car, which is lucky to squeeze out 9% from its gasoline engine, but a bit crap compared to the 30% modern diesel locomotives achieve.

Half the therman efficiency means coal needs to cost half as much per energy unit for the machine to be profitable. In the early 80s, We should in no way desire this bank managers dream to come true. And it was true – to prove their case ACE took that pretty old Steamer you see above, and fitted it with various sensors, put it into service, and proved it was profitable to run at existing coal prices compared to diesel (in the early 80s), and this was with an engine running 6% thermal efficiency.

ACE’s project failed because the price of oil fell in the mid 80s. However, if the cost of oil climbs again to 150$ a barrel, you can be certain there will be renewed interest in the 3000. This should make us afraid, because Coal produces a lot more C02 for every joule of heat created than does oil, and this runs half the therman efficiency of a diesel loco. This means it produces at least 4 times as much C02 for the same amount of work done, and although that’s surely a lot less than moving things by truck, it is certainly not the direction we need to be moving.