Conventions, relativism, and cosmopolitanism

Raw link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H3oS-8TKsho

[ Below is the text of the presentation. Note that in the video I sometimes explain statements which are not found in the text. ]

Table of Contents

  1. Definitions
  2. Chremata and the extrinsic value of money
  3. Chremata and “this is not a pipe” («ceci n’est pas une pipe»)
  4. Chremata and the human-measure of Protagoras
  5. Relativism and objectivity
  6. Conventions and nature
  7. Pragmata and cosmopolitanism
  8. The utility of ideals

Hello everyone! My name is Protesilaos, also known as “Prot”. In today’s video I will talk you about the topic of “conventions, relativism, and cosmopolitanism”.

This is a continuation of my first presentation about the living universe and specifically the profound significance of the words “cosmos” and “logos”. It also complements my second presentation about ataraxia, moderation, and mysticism:

  1. https://protesilaos.com/books/2022-02-05-cosmos-logos-living-universe/
  2. https://protesilaos.com/books/2022-02-16-ataraxia-moderation-mysticism/

I recommend that you study these resources or at least have a general idea of what they deal with (the text of this presentation will also be available on my website).

Today I will draw linkages between the general concepts about the world and our everyday affairs, based on a distinction between objectivity and subjectivity. This means that I will refer to magnitudes such as politics and ethics in light of the view that the universe is alive. We will discuss how everything compares with the insight about leading a life of moderation.

Definitions

Here are a couple of terms that I will use in the rest of this talk:

  • Pragma/Pragmata (Πράγμα/Πράγματα): Refers to a thing as it is; a thing regardless of how we would like to think of it. “Pragma” is singular, while “pragmata” is plural. The term relates to the concept of “pragmatism” (πραγματισμός) which is the disposition of a person who takes things as they are. Pragmatism, in its basic form, is about setting aside one’s preferences or notions of how things ought to be, while accepting the prevailing conditions for what they are.

  • Chrema/Chremata (Χρήμα/Χρήματα): In everyday parlance, this is the Greek word for “money”. It derives from the root word for “usage”. By extension, chremata are things that attain a value through usage: a use-value or, more generally, an extrinsic value. This is true for all forms of money in the immediate sense, whose value qua money is determined exogenously to them. Money does not have monetary value in itself but only acquires it in the context of how it is used (given the relevant economic and/or legal-political forces). In turn, chremata are all things which can be thought of as different or used in a different way than intended. Our conception of them influences them insofar as the intersection between the human element and the objective reality is concerned. In other words, chremata are the opposite of pragmata.

Chremata and the extrinsic value of money

In the definition of the term “chremata” I explained how it means “money” in everyday parlance and how that extends to the general concept of use-value or extrinsic quality. We may describe “use-value” as context-dependent, else relative. Let us consider why that is with some economic examples before drawing general conclusions.

Suppose you are a farmer who cultivates potatoes. You live in a place where a barter economy is in effect. This means that you must exchange your goods or services for those supplied by someone else. So you can trade, for example, one kilogram of potatoes for a kilo of rice. In this scenario, the monetary value of potatoes is equal to that of rice given the same weight.

Though there is nothing in the nature of either the potatoes or the rice which makes them inherently monetary: for our purposes, their nature is that of plants which we can be eaten. Because of the barter economy, we can think of potatoes and rice in terms of what they can buy—potatoes exchanging for rice and vice versa. Though we can just as well only treat them for what they are to us: food. Them attaining the function of money as a medium of exhange is a matter of the prevailing conditions. And them having a 1:1 exchange rate is also not a universal constant, as it depends on the specifics of the case.

Now you may think that the goods in our example do have something in their nature which makes them suitable as monetary media: they are items which we want to acquire because they are edible. Fine, so how about a form of money which is not clearly valuable in itself such as a piece of paper we call “dollar”, “euro”, et cetera? These are called “fiat money” because they are instituted by state fiat, else edict or legally binding command.

What makes paper money worth its monetary value? Is it its inherent utility as paper? Then why is a five euro bill not the same as a fifty euro bill, given that their production quality is the same?

Their monetary value is, at first, the stamp of authority: its authenticity as defined by the government, the central bank, or related. Then is the fact that it is enacted as the legal form of money: you can only pay your taxes in it and engage in every other legal [and typically taxable] transaction.

We can add more considerations as we consider the uses of money as a unit of account and store of value apart from a medium of exchange, only to realise that we are always dealing with a case of something that has use-value, else extrinsic or relative features.

You might think that gold or other precious metals and minerals are excluded from this description. Perhaps you believe that they have value in themselves, being precious and all that. No, they are not exceptions. What holds true for potatoes and fiat money applies equally to precious metals or any other goods.

Suppose you find yourself in the middle of Antarctica. There is no sign of human presence in the vicinity, you are strangled in the middle of nowhere, and are freezing to death. Suddenly a magical spirit appears. It offers you the choice between a makeshift house and a chest full of gold. The former will save you from certain death as it will provide you with shelter and warmth. The latter can theoretically be exchanged for goods and services, though there are none in the area as there are no humans around. Under normal circumstances, you would most likely prefer the treasure over some basic housing. Yet in relative terms and given the prevailing conditions, you have to opt for the makeshift house otherwise you will die from the extreme cold.

In this scenario, gold has no value because it cannot be used for anything that matters in the moment. Its value is also extrinsic because it comes from its usage in the given context. It could have value, if things were to change.

We should thus not conflate the qualities of a thing, such as gold’s rarity and durability, with how humans may interpret or make use of them in any one set of circumstances. The qualities may be constant, but their function or utility from their intersection with the human agent is not: humans determine what a chrema is and how it is. The context is essential.

Chremata and “this is not a pipe” («ceci n’est pas une pipe»)

We are continuing with this theme of “chremata” as we need to appreciate its extent, which will then lead us to the political or ethical side of things. Please bear with me.

These insight about chremata are not specific to money or economic affairs in general. They apply to every case where human perception is involved. Consider the problématique involved in the famous painting of René Magritte: La trahison des images, else The Treachery of Images.

The painter presents us with the drawing of a pipe accompanied by the caption “this is not a pipe” («ceci n’est pas une pipe» in French). We might think this is some kind of trick. Though Magritte is no trickster: the caption is correct. What we see is the drawing of a pipe, not a pipe as such. Consequently, the picture or pictorial representation of a thing is not the same as the thing itself. The caption in the painting is accurate. We could say this for anything, such as a selfie of you is not you. But let’s stick to our example.

If the picture of a pipe is not a pipe, then we surely know what the underlying object is. In other words we can answer the question of “what is a pipe, anyway?”. It clearly is not the painting, though what is the underlying reality presented in this work of art and how do we think of it? We would assume that the real pipe is the physical object of that same name. So some pipe we can touch. And we would be justified in that belief if we were to associate the object with its function of serving as a tool for smoking tobacco or whatnot.

Put differently, we identify the “real” thing by finding the one which fits the role we have already assumed as a given. We have thought that pipe is that which is used for smoking and so anything that is not used towards that end cannot be a pipe. Is that association correct? Is a physical pipe necessarily used for smoking? Is it a pragma—a thing as-is—or might it be yet another chrema? The answer is that a physical pipe is a chrema because it can perform functions that are not related to the original intent behind its design. The original intent is irrelevant in that regard.

Think about the actual pipe that René Magritte used in his studio as a model for the painting. That was clearly not being used in the same way as a smoker’s pipe is. Its value or utility had nothing to do with whether it could hold and filter tobacco. Rather, the physical object served the role of a model—still nature—or, more generally, was employed as a means of artistic expression. It follows that the pipe in Magritte’s studio could also come with the caption “this is not a pipe”.

But wait because it does not stop there!

Suppose that a collector found the physical pipe that was used by René Magritte. This famous item could be exhibited in a museum. Or, in another scenario, it could be auctioned and sold for a sum that far exceeds the price of any other pipe.

You get the idea. Again, we observe the same pattern where the human element makes the difference in how something is perceived in its context.

We can always have the identical underlying thing, Magritte’s pipe in this instance, and still assign to it a different value or utility depending on the situation: (i) a model in some painter’s studio, (ii) an exhibit at the museum, (iii) an asset in the marketplace, and so on. All of them may come with the caption “this is not a pipe”.

So what is a pipe? It depends on the case. We cannot know about it in abstract because it does not have a standalone presence: it does not exist in abstract, in some decontextualised vacuum. We must thus consider the specifics, the factors at play, the constitution of the case as I explained in my first presentation about Cosmos, Logos, and the living universe. Otherwise we are assuming a built-in goal or purpose for the thing, some intrinsic truthfulness, which merely reflects our predispositions.

Chremata and the human-measure of Protagoras

Protagoras was an ancient philosopher who is best known for his dictum that “human is the measure of all things” (πάντων χρημάτων μέτρον άνθρωπος). In the original Greek version, we encounter the term “chremata” (χρήματα), so we must wonder whether “things” should come with a proviso based on what I have explained thus far. Unfortunately, we only have fragments of Protagoras’ work, so I can only expound on my own theories.

First let’s take the English phrase at face value: “human is the measure of all things”. This may sound naive if we take it to mean that everything is relative to us. Is a single human responsible for, say, the Earth orbiting the Sun? Or for the Sun existing at all? If a single human is neither the cause nor a factor in the emergence of these phenomena, maybe humanity as a whole makes a difference? The answer has to be negative: those magnitudes are not dependent on the presence or workings of humankind.

So is Protagoras wrong? Not necessarily, because the ancient philosopher was, above all, not talking about pragmata, about things as they are. He was referring to chremata whose multitude of significations all entail use-value or an extrinsic quality more broadly.

Haven’t we already considered how the perception of potatoes in a barter economy, or gold and a makeshift house in Antarctica, or René Magritte’s pipe are all a matter of the specifics? Didn’t we establish that the context is essential to our understanding of the phenomenon and, by extension, that no valuation can be made in abstract? Those items are all chremata insofar as humans are concerned. We can thus argue that human, be it an individual or the genus of human (humankind), is their measure. A better translation then is that “human is the measure of the use-value of things”.

Then we have the notion of a “measure”, which implies perception not causality. Even if we are talking about something that is clearly not contingent on humanity, such as the attributes of gold, we have to consider the intersection between pragmata—things in the world as they are—and human’s subjectivity: things how they are thought to be. We already covered such examples, like monetary value and Magritte’s pipe: they are physical items, yet how we think of them for our purposes in the given situation does not necessarily correspond to what they are or, more specifically, what we think they should be.

Relativism and objectivity

This raises many problems, because it seems that we can no longer speak about anything with a degree of certainty. If everyone is the measure of things, then how can we possibly find any sort of agreement as to what those things are in an objective sense? Is not relativism leading to absurdity? If you claim that “everything is relative”, does that not annul the proposition itself, since it too would have to be relative and thus not always applicable?

There are so many questions. Though I feel the relativist inferences might miss the nuance in the distinction between chremata and pragmata, which is why I elaborated on chremata at length. It is not that the world has no constants. For example, there is no subjectivity involved on whether the Earth has gravitational pull on us. That is objective. If there is some careless relativist out there who insists otherwise, you can always convince them about the fact by urging them to jump off a cliff in order to test their hypothesis.

Our point is more subtle. When we talk about chremata, we are not denying the underlying reality. Instead, we are highlighting the human aspect of how this state of affairs is brought in to the personal or interpersonal sphere and how it is interpreted in that context. Rather than deny objectivity, we emphasise the importance of the objective magnitudes at their intersection with human subjectivity as that applies to the evolving phenomena.

What the distinction between pragmata and chremata does at the level of how we reason about the world, is to remind us that we should be extra careful and rigorous with how we study the objective magnitudes. Otherwise we fall into traps, where we assume as constant the categories that we already take for granted through our culture or some other deep-seated ideology. Think, for example, how influential the notions of individuality and free will are, given our legal-political order and its prevailing narratives. These are cultural constructs which we need to be mindful of. If we obsess about the individual, we fail to understand how any given person is biologically a system of systems that necessarily exists within a greater system of systems that extends from the person’s immediate milieu, to the Earth’s ecosystems, to the greater beyond of the living universe. In reality, there can be no individual as such: nothing can have a decontextualised—a standalone—presence. The very notion of “individual”, meaning indivisible, is a convention and mental shortcut because it rests on a binary that is analytical: “the human” as such and “the society” as such.

Analytics, as I have mentioned in previous presentations, involve mental representations of patterns which we treat as if they have a standalone presence, though we know they do not.

Conventions and nature

The human experience is organised around all sorts of conventions, such as the near-sanctity of property, social classes and the concomitant stratification of society, the constructs of natural and legal persons, the rights of states, and so on. These are all institutions, meaning that they take effect through tradition, political expedience, sheer force, or anyhow are not a constant like, say, gravity.

There are attempts to ground institutions in natural patterns, such as with the case of Natural Law and its manifestation as Human Rights. Those start with observations about the human condition and ramify to the domain of law or jurisprudence. Such is a laudable effort, though the fact remains that the so-called “Natural Law” is a contradiction in terms, because Law is instituted as such, whereas that which is Natural is not.

Humanity cannot promulgate some piece of legislation which will, for example, envisage that the Sun shall no longer rise from the East. No legal instrument can do that. No institution can affect such a phenomenon. The Sun rises from the East due to a natural state of affairs, which will be that way regardless of how humans think of it.

Again we see the distinction between pragmata and chremata. Why does this matter anyway? Is it not obvious that laws are made by humans for humans? Yes, that much is clear. What is not always apparent is that whatever is instituted as such can be re-instituted, meaning that its claims on necessary objectivity are untrue.

This is not to argue that chremata are somehow bad, that Natural Law is irrelevant or undesirable, or anything along those lines. It is to stress the nuanced point that we should not conflate our subjectivity with objectivity, else we run the risk of falling victim to our own prejudices.

There is no reason, for example, why less than 1% of the world’s population holds 50% of the wealth. This is not a necessary condition of the universe, but a matter of convention: it can be made different if people want to.

There are insights we can derive from nature to inform our conduct, such as what I described in my presentation about ataraxia, moderation, and mysticism. Acknowledging the presence of chremata is all about avoiding potential errors in judgement; not dismissing moral considerations altogether; not trying to justify arbitrariness; not implying that there is no objectivity whatsoever.

Pragmata and cosmopolitanism

Cosmopolitanism is kind of a misused term nowadays as it either denotes an ideology of internationalism or it describes a lifestyle of affluence that is not limited to any one locale. For example, people who want the United Nations to turn into a federal system with its own government may describe themselves as cosmopolites or as having a cosmopolitan outlook. As for the lifestyle choice, we hear about how some rich fellow is, say, an American citizen who dines at the finest French restaurants, drinks the most refined Italian wine, is a collector of medieval Chinese artefacts, and lives in several countries around the planet. Then there is also the pejorative term used by some political parties who associate so-called “rootless cosmopolitans” with various perceived evils. Those can have a variety of forms, depending on the specifics of the ideology. The point is that these uses of the term are, in my opinion, not faithful to the original meaning.

Let’s consider the story in brief. There was an ancient philosopher by the name of Diogenis. He is known as “the Cynic” or “of Sinope” referring to his school of thought and hometown, respectively. While in Sinope, Diogenis defaced the local currency, which was illegal back then as it is today. He was thus exiled from the city, rendering him stateless. Diogenis could thus no longer claim to be a “polites” or citizen of any given “polis” (city), as he was deprived of that status. He was an outcast. When people would ask about his citizenship, he would reply that he is a citizen of the world, else polites of the cosmos.

The literal meaning of “citizen of the world” involves a contradiction. One can only be a citizen of a state or, more generally, be the subject of a given legal-institutional order. It is impossible to be a citizen in the absence of a polity, a citizen of nowhere. We thus have to assume, based on Diogenis’ philosophical views, that cosmopolites is a normative claim about how a person’s conduct should be aligned with the Cosmos. Or, as I see it, with the Cosmos, Logos, and the living universe.

In practical terms, we can think of cosmopolitanism as the continuation of the distinction between pragmata and chremata in the domain of ethics/politics. The argument would be that whatever principle governs our conduct must trace its source to pragmata instead of being some arbitrary convention that we take for granted. Think, for example, about the notion of respecting people. We are taught to respect authority, though there is no natural constant that makes such a phenomenon necessary. It is a matter of upbringing, of culture, of convention. Perhaps it is useful and practical, but that still does not make it anything more than a chrema.

On this matter of respecting authority, Diogenis was clearly a contrarian. He was sold as a slave and when asked about what kind of job he was good at, he replied “governing people”. This was an irony, of course, which hinted at the fact that both the slave and the master are instituted as such: their status is not a natural condition.

We can see Diogenis maintaining the same stance towards Alexander, who is most commonly known as “Alexander the Great”. When Alexander met Diogenis and asked him what he wanted from the aspiring despot of the Earth, Diogenis only asked to not be kept in the shadow. This has the literal meaning of wanting Alexander to step aside so as to not obstruct the sunlight, but also has a metaphorical sense of telling the conqueror not to impose tyranny, not to hinder one’s enlightenment.

Cosmopolitanism then, is the call to develop the methods that are necessary for distinguishing between chremata and pragmata in order to find the truth of the latter (otherwise how can you be a citizen of the cosmos if you do not understand what the cosmos is?). Once we learn about the pragmata, we can develop a more informed view of the world, a better morality, a more just polity.

Cosmopolitanism also relates to what I covered in my previous presentation about ataraxia, moderation, and mysticism. Such as the realisation that we as individuals or as a species are not the epicentre of the world. We are but a part of a greater system, citizens of the greater polis, so to speak.

Furthermoe, knowledge of the pragmata is consistent with what I already mentioned in that talk about knowing our limits, avoiding hubris, and leading a life of moderation.

Perhaps we will not be able to fully overcome chremata, because that requires that we remove the subjective aspect from everything we perceive. Is that even possible? Regardless of the answer we can always try to approximate the truth of the Cosmos and align ourselves with it.

Which brings us to the use of the term “polites” (citizen). By studying the Cosmos we want to develop insights which will underpin our laws and institutions. Our citizenship then, our real affiliation, will be with a moral code that reflects the Logos of the universe and is not limited to some cultural constructs. Our allegiance will not be to our notional tribe, our government or some borders on a map, but to the objectivity of the world, the common in the multitude that we can identify in all humans and all other forms of life.

The utility of ideals

Whether cosmopolitanism, in the sense of an objective morality, is realisable is a matter of discussion. I think it is a useful ideal that can help guide our actions, but we should be careful not to mistake it for a directly applicable set of instructions. We cannot implement an objective morality, because we do not have the clarity to grasp perfect objectivity. This is due to our lack of foresight and knowledge about the totality of the universe. There is always some case that makes us question how workable any given ethical system is; there is always some unforeseen event or set of outcomes which makes us question the efficacy of our designs.

The claim on an objective and thus universally applicable morality is dubious as it necessarily involves interpretation. I would even consider it hubris to believe that your ethics are fully objective. “Hubris” in the sense I already explained in my previous presentation as the unwillingness or inability to recognise our limits, all while overestimating our potential.

If you think you have discovered a complete and objective moral code, then you are implying that you hold the corresponding knowledge of the workings of the Cosmos and are certain of your findings. Is your certainty justified? Is your knowledge perfect, meaning that it can take no further refinements? I think not and would thus question any claims on the totalising reach of any one system of morality.

We should thus be careful with the kind of idealism that Diogenis might have argued for. While we might agree with some principle, we have to understand what our condition as humans renders possible in the “here and now”, as we say. We cannot live in an ideal polity because we ourselves are not ideal humans. We have our flaws, defects, frailties of character, biases, and instincts or emotions which run contrary to our reasonableness and which might inhibit our mystical ascension. And we are not omniscient, which means that we cannot be perfectly sure about the completeness of our findings regarding the world at-large.

The ideal must serve as our guide. It must be the lodestar, the brightest star in the sky, that helps us orientate ourselves amid the uncharted wilderness. We should try our best to approximate the ideal, with the understanding that we cannot ever attain it in full. That is so due to the fact that ideals are absolute, whereas the specifics in each case are not. Approximations are all we can ever hope for.

Which bring us back to the Delphic maxims that I covered in more details in the previous video (about ataraxia, moderation, and mysticism):

  • Know yourself: Given the interconnectedness of the universe, this means that you must commit to the study of the world in order to start realising how you relate to all the other forms of being and how your selfhood takes form. Is your understanding complete? Or are you always learning something new? What does that entail for your sense of self?

  • Nothing in excess: Try to find the balance in everything that you do. Exaggerations are reducible to errors in judgement. For example, if you are certain that you know yourself and, by extension, the Cosmos, you are overly confident in your abilities, which means that you are ignoring the boundaries imposed upon you by your nature as an imperfect animal. Consequently, by exaggerating you are making a mistake, despite your opinion to the contrary.

  • Ensure, ruin follows (certainty brings ruin): While you are learning about the world and yourself and are trying to live in moderation (without excesses) you necessarily maintain a dubitative and inquisitive disposition. You are not claiming to know everything. When, however, you make claims that hint at omniscience, when you overestimate your abilities, you run the risk of being corrected the hard way. Kind of how I said before that the careless relativist could try to prove their point against gravity by jumping off a cliff: if they are certain that everything is a relative social construct, they will only be ruined by their certainty.

In conclusion, the distinction between pragmata and chremata does not introduce arbitrariness. It is a nuanced point in favour of not taking things at face value; not assuming that we know everything; not conflating our opinions or cultural outlook with objective magnitudes. Simply put, we want to be extra careful with how we study phenomena. We must raise the standard, as we must always try to understand the factors at play, the constitution of the case, and the dynamics involved.

In everyday life, that sort of attitude will make us more tolerant of other views. We will not be taking our opinions as inherently superior to those of others, at least not without giving the others a fair chance to speak their mind. When we all do that, we are better off as a culture, as we help each other sort out falsehoods through genuine exchange and compassion. Conventions are not bad per se. They are needed to make our collective life work. What matters is that whatever is instituted can always be instituted anew as part of a continuous process of refinement or sincere experimentation in pursuit of the truth. Can we become citizens of the Cosmos? We can always try to approximate that ideal while understanding what our limits are. Else suffer from our hubris.