For over thirty years, now, I have been studying and mulling over some issues of philosophy, particularly social and normative theory. Chiefly for my own edification, I list, in no particular order, the themes of inquiry that have loomed largest:

  • Fantasy as a major, basic category of metaphysics. (This possibility is an offshoot of my interest in the writings of George Santayana, though it is also my primary reaction to logical positivism’s obsession with “facts” — the world of facts is not the whole story, Wittgenstein. Reading in the work of Alexius Meinong has revived my interest in this, in recent years.)
  • Personal character as the prime determinant of happiness within a philosophical or religious system, but as a separate matter from being convinced of any such system. (I noticed, early in the years of my religious apostasy, that — unlike some people very close to me — the religion of my birth was no great burden to me, except intellectually. I separated the question of the personal compatibility and utility of an idea system from the reasons for its acceptance or rejection. Most folks do not do this. Instead, they take personal compatibility issues as most vital. And that is a very “practical” point of view. And yet this seemingly pragmatic attitude, interestingly, does not fit the pragmatic understanding of meaning much less a standard of truth. Herein lies the heresy of philosophy — and its chief value.)
  • Responsibility, particularly the division of responsibility in society. (Yes, this is my addition to the classic, Smithian discussion of the division of labor and the Hayekian focus on the division of knowledge. I regard this theme as a rarely noticed feature of Herbert Spencer’s normative philosophy.)
  • Self-righteousness in a communal context, particularly the problems associated with in-group/out-group antagonism. (This was probably my earliest concern, borne of trying to figure out why my friends manqué treated me differently, and better, one-on-one than when in groups, and was first clarified as an intellectual problem by reading Aldous Huxley. I later encountered the problem in Spencer’s and William Graham Sumner’s sociological writings. This was my primary concern I took with me into research in libertarian normative theory.)
  • Transactional clarity as the primary conceptual tool in understanding social systems. (This is my variant of methodological individualism — I have been most concerned with the variety of human interaction, from a praxeological/semiotic point of view. In this I’ve been most influenced by Carl Menger, Destutt de Tracy, Herbert Spencer, Ludwig von Mises, and recent game theory.)
  • Marginal utility as a function of subjective value; cost as opportunities foregone. (I struggled a long time to get a handle on this crucial idea set in economics, reading Jevons and others, but really only understanding it during a course of stereo study of Destutt de Tracy, Carl Menger, and Murray Rothbard . . . with an assist from F. W. Taussig. Friedrich von Wieser and Eugen von Boehm-Bawerk were also always at my back.)
  • How subjective value — the exact nature of which is almost never fully appreciated in philosophy — can produce an “objective” character, and, more practically, how diverse values can give birth to any consistent and universal standard, especially in the realm of “justice.” (This was the second problem I explicitly brought to my studies of the libertarian and classical liberal normative tradition, a problem that I took away from my first reading of Robert Nozick’s Anarcy, State and Utopia.)
  • Morality as a tool, an instrument of human purposes. (The subjective, praxeological foundation of ethics — my take on prescriptivism in metaethics. This notion I found assumed in much utilitarianism, and came to clarity as a problem unsolved by Herbert Spencer in his Principles of Ethics,)
  • Egoism as inadequate in ethics; altruism as childish in most normative discussion. (The misuse of the word “selfishness” in the writings of Ayn Rand proved an early vexation for me, while the perseverations amongst self-described “progressives” on the virtue of generosity remain a continual exasperation. I have come to regard this set of issues as fascinating, but judge those who moralistically focus on problems of selfishness and selflessness as inherently childish. The persistence of the issue is a great indicator of emotional and ethical backwardness.)
  • Ethics as never a matter of “knock-down” argument. (The assumption by rationalists that a complete ethical philosophy would serve as some sort of philosopher’s stone for social betterment severely misconceives the nature of ethics, and places upon reason too much burden for the improvement of humanity. I first took this position as obvious horse-sense; found important back-up in the writings of Herbert Spencer, and in critique of same; and understand — but have not yet confronted — similar notions by Bernard Williams.)
  • Freedom as an ideal compromise. (This was my basic conception of political liberty’s utility, and it was this notion that allowed me to call myself a “libertarian” at age 20. I perceived that this was not how most libertarians explicitly conceived their basic notion, but it was my explanation for how their many and diverse arguments for one basic idea could all be, in a practical sense, correct. David D. Friedman’s identification of liberty as a Schelling point seems, to me, intimately related.)
  • Opt-out strategies as vitally important both for personal and social freedom, without cultivating the vice of froward combativeness. (This is one of many ideas of a fairly straightforward libertarian nature. Others include liberty as a limit to government, government and criminal activity being of very similar natures, etc.)
  • Voluntary co-operation as the main source for human betterment. (My early interest in the leftish varieties of anarchism — the anti-private property variants — fed this conception, which I found most clearly expressed in the writings of Herbert Spencer, but importantly carried over by Ludwig von Mises into a somewhat narrowed social theory of economics. Recent extensions of this idea have mainstreamed, with slight new twists being introduced by Matt Ridley in his latest book.)
  • The importance of manners in social signaling and co-operation. (I’ve long recognized that manners is a vitally important normative concern, on its own level and quite distinct from law. Curiously, the only libertarian theorists to give this adequate theoretical attention have been the evolutionary theorists, Spencer and Hayek.)

I asked my friend James Gill if I had forgotten to list any of my usual “talking points,” and he mentioned that I often make much of the distinction between ethics and aesthetics. He is right.

But then, many of the notions, above, are really about making the proper distinctions between one realm of experience and another, the finding of the essential differences and similarities. Missing from the above list are some Epicurean notions, and my list of cardinal virtues, and my grounding for that list. (I leave out my musical interests, my literary fixations, little notions on the combination of figures of speech, fairly obvious arguments about moderation and balance, etc. etc.)

Perhaps I will come back to my list to remind myself of my intellectual projects.