Category Archives: philosophy

Afghanistan’s Communist Revolutionaries, 1978

From Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century, by Christian Caryl (Basic Books, 2014), Kindle Loc. 2221-2259:

Taraki and Amin both belonged to the PDPA’s other faction, known as Khalq (“the People” or “the Masses”). Khalq’s ethnic basis was narrower than Parcham’s: Khalqis were overwhelmingly Pashtuns, and more often than not they hailed from a particular subset of the Pashtuns. Taraki and Amin were both members of a particular Pashtun tribal confederation, the Ghilzais, that had long chafed under the domination of more powerful Pashtun groups—and especially the Durranis, the dynasty that had dominated Afghanistan for centuries, right up until the Communist coup. (Both Daoud and Zahir Shah were Durranis.) The Khalqis tended to be far less vested in the existing system of ruling elites, and this helps to explain the radicalism that dominated their thinking.

Khalqis were, above all, dutiful Leninists. Like so many other would-be Third World modernizers, they detested their country’s backwardness, and they believed that the only reasonable cure was to frog-march it into the twentieth century by brute force, if need be. To be sure, Afghanistan didn’t really have a proletariat, and though many aspects of its agricultural system appeared backward and traditional, most peasants actually owned their own land. But no matter. There was one institution that could still serve as a revolutionary vanguard, and that was the army. For years the military had been one of the few structures in the country—along with the monarchy and a steadily expanding state educational system—that managed to coalesce the notoriously unruly Afghans around a sense of shared national destiny. The military was one Afghan institution that offered opportunities for advancement even to those who weren’t part of the traditional elites. And the upper ranks were filled with officers who had studied in the Soviet Union, which offered them a clear example of a primitive rural society that the Communists had mobilized into a modern industrial power.

The ideological differences between Parcham and Khalq were just part of the problem. There were also intense personal feuds at work. Karmal, the Persian-speaking patrician, despised Taraki and Amin as upstarts, and they were happy to return the favor. In the old, prerevolutionary parliament, Amin had been famous for his easy joshing with his opponents among the religious conservatives, who gave their atheist colleague the joking nickname of “Satan.” Karmal, a formidable orator once imprisoned for five years by the king, had emerged to become a political heavyweight courted even by Daoud himself, and he cultivated a self-regard that alienated just about everyone. As the new Communist regime got under way, Amin couldn’t help reminding the Parchamis that they had spent the “revolution” cringing in prison while the Khalqis got on with the job. The Parchamis, in turn, regarded the Khalqis as bumbling zealots who needed a bit of adult supervision.

The Afghan public at large knew little of this, of course. What they saw instead were slogans, revolutionary parades, and a burgeoning personality cult centered on Taraki. There is little doubt that the vast majority of Afghans—most of whom had no access to television or newspapers—regarded all this with bemusement, apprehension, or apathy. But the state almost immediately denied them the luxury of disengagement. Within weeks of seizing power, the new revolutionary government announced a series of far-reaching edicts that would tip Afghan society into a maelstrom from which it is still struggling to recover.

Decree Number One proclaimed land reform. The proclaimed intent was to uproot the supposedly feudal underpinnings of Afghan society, stripping power from traditional landlords and canceling unfair lending arrangements that had kept millions of people indentured to local power brokers. The political aim was to give the majority of Afghans—who overwhelmingly lived in the countryside—a reason to love the new government. A flurry of other new reform measures followed. A literacy campaign taught the benighted how to read and write. Women received full civic rights. It was a program that bore a striking resemblance to the shah’s White Revolution [in Iran].

It all sounded wonderful, on paper. The problem was that this blizzard of reforms, and especially the realities of their implementation, bore little or no relation to the society they were intended to change. Of course, everyone believed in the goal of literacy, but the catch was that the government had little in the way of resources to accomplish the task of educating the rural poor. So it relied, as Communist regimes so often had in the past, on a mixture of mobilization and brute force to fill the gap. Zealous young schoolteachers dispatched to the villages, invariably without proper textbooks or teaching materials, often ended up haranguing the locals on their backwardness. What particularly inflamed the locals was the newcomers’ insistence that women should take part in the courses, in classrooms that mingled both sexes. Mobs drove the arrogant outsiders away. In some cases the do-gooders then returned with escorts of government troops, and literacy classes then proceeded at bayonet point.

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Filed under Afghanistan, democracy, economics, education, Islam, military, nationalism, philosophy

Hua Guofeng and the Two Whatevers, 1977

From Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century, by Christian Caryl (Basic Books, 2014), Kindle Loc. 2594-2619:

In the wake of Mao’s death, the colorless Hua surprised everyone with a sudden show of initiative. Allying himself with two established party elders, Army Marshal Ye Jianying and veteran functionary Li Xiannian, Hua engineered the arrest of the Gang of Four. It was a startling gambit even by the Byzantine standards of twentieth-century Communist conspiracies. Hua had started by splitting off one of the Gang’s key allies, a man by the name of Wang Dongxing, who had risen with the Gang’s help to become the head of the party’s Praetorian Guard, the 8341 Special Regiment, which provided for the security of top officials. Hua and Wang arranged for two of the Gang’s leaders to be called to a special session of the Politburo. They were arrested at gunpoint as they stepped into the room. Jiang Qing, Mao’s widow and the Gang’s leader, was taken into custody in her bedroom; one of her personal servants is said to have spat on her as she was led away. Under orders from Hua, the People’s Liberation Army quickly moved to disarm the heavily armed militias and the powerful media machine that Jiang’s faction had built up over the years. The Cultural Revolution was finally coming to an end.

Yet what was Hua offering in its place? This was not immediately clear. Hua certainly understood that the country could no longer afford permanent revolution. Adopting a strategy originally envisioned by Zhou Enlai, he declared that China should push ahead with “the Four Modernizations” (science and technology, industry, national defense, and agriculture). He moved to restore the economy’s animal spirits by ordering a huge surge of investment in industry and agriculture. Like Gierek in Poland, Hua seemed to believe that part of the solution involved taking big foreign loans for flagship projects; also like Gierek, he seemed to have few concrete ideas about how these loans would be paid back.

Hua’s program did result in tangible growth. But it also led to big budget deficits and scandalous waste, since it failed to tackle many of the serious problems of management and organization bequeathed by Maoist excess. Hua had the right idea, but he was still, in essence, relying on mobilization and slogans rather than substantive economic policy. Some of his critics belittled the program as another Great Leap Forward, a utopian exercise with little practical foundation. Hua, for example, urged a rapid increase in the output of steel, which duly materialized. But to what end? What, precisely, was the underlying economic strategy?

Hua had eliminated the Gang of Four. He tried to revive the economy. But he seemed hesitant to put an end to the broader legacy of the Cultural Revolution. In February 1977, a few months after Mao’s death, Hua’s supporters published a statement containing a conspicuous quote: “We will resolutely uphold whatever policy and decisions Chairman Mao made, and unswervingly follow whatever instructions Chairman Mao gave.” This credo came to be known as the “the two whatevers,” and its adherents, “the Whateverists.” Like many factional nicknames, this one contained a large grain of truth. Hua’s legitimacy stemmed from the fact that he was Mao’s chosen successor. That counted for a lot. But it also limited his freedom of maneuver. He could not chip away at the memory of the Great Helmsman without undermining himself.

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Quoting Mao Against Mao, 1978

From Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century, by Christian Caryl (Basic Books, 2014), Kindle Loc. 2656-2682:

In May 1978, the prominent national newspaper Guangming Daily published an article with the innocuous title “Practice Is the Sole Criterion for Judging Truth.” The piece was quickly picked up by a series of other publications, including the leading army newspaper. The title sounds dull enough, but it went off like a bomb. The article, collectively authored by a team of academics working under the direction of rising party reformer Hu Yaobang, argued that Communist ideology was not the only yardstick for determining what was true. If Marxism was indeed a scientific theory, as it claimed to be, its findings ought to be tested through experiment: apply them to reality and see if they worked. Marx had said that the social and political prescriptions derived from his theory had to be subjected to constant empirical testing to make sure that they coincided with the dictates of historical materialism. And just to be sure that everyone got the point, the authors of the article undergirded their argument with a slogan from Mao himself—the one they used as the article’s title.

They were, in short, using Mao’s own words to undermine the central Maoist postulate of the Cultural Revolution, namely, the idea that the imperative of “revolution” overrode all else, including professional expertise, scientific knowledge, or economic efficiency. To many Chinese, the article’s paean to pragmatism sounded like a healthy dose of common sense after years of hysteria. Yet this was exactly what the Whateverists did not want to allow. After all, during the Cultural Revolution, Mao and his adepts had followed a rather different principle: for them it was revolutionary zeal, directed against the entrenched establishment, that had become the decisive litmus test for the correctness of policy. It was this same mind-set that had led to the persecution of countless engineers, managers, scholars, and scientists on the grounds of insufficient “class consciousness”—with devastating consequences for the Chinese economy.

Prioritizing “practice,” as the authors of the new article demanded, thus represented an implicit challenge to those who considered themselves to be the keepers of the chairman’s flame. If this new argument won the day, unwavering loyalty to Maoist slogans would no longer be the deciding factor in career advancement or political struggle. Professional skill, managerial competence, or scholarly acumen would come to the forefront. Deng, who does not appear to have been directly involved in the publication of that article, was quick to see its uses in his reckoning with Hua. Since his return to the center of party life, Deng had already been putting a different Mao quote at the center of his speeches: “Seek truth from facts.” This, of course, was a dig at Hua and his adherents, who continued to stress that truth was whatever Mao had said it was. Among the things that Deng had learned from his long years of involvement in party intrigues was the importance of defining the terms of debate. He now set out to deploy his “good,” pragmatic Mao against the “bad,” doctrinaire one of the Cultural Revolutionaries. Would the party cling to the Mao celebrated by the Gang of Four, inflexible, rigid, and dogmatic? Or would Chinese Communists reach back to the earlier version of Mao that was now held up high by Deng and his friends—a Mao who had (allegedly) celebrated the virtues of practicality and sober realism?

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1979, A Turning Point

From Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century, by Christian Caryl (Basic Books, 2014), Kindle Loc. 236-279:

These five stories—rich in event and grand personalities—would be worth telling in themselves. But do they really have that much to do with each other? Surely, Britain’s first female prime minister has nothing in common with Iranian Shiism’s leading militant cleric. And what could possibly unite the bishop of Rome, the budding Islamists of Afghanistan, and the leader of the Chinese Communist Party? The fact that they lived through the same historical inflection point, one might argue, does not mean that their stories are linked. Coincidence is not correlation.

In fact, though, they have much more in common than at first meets the eye. The forces unleashed in 1979 marked the beginning of the end of the great socialist utopias that had dominated so much of the twentieth century. These five stories—the Iranian Revolution, the start of the Afghan jihad, Thatcher’s election victory, the pope’s first Polish pilgrimage, and the launch of China’s economic reforms—deflected the course of history in a radically new direction. It was in 1979 that the twin forces of markets and religion, discounted for so long, came back with a vengeance.

Not all of the historical figures whose fates converged that year necessarily thought of themselves as conservatives, and none of them tried to turn back the clock to some hallowed status quo ante. This is precisely because they were all reacting, in their own ways, to a long period of revolutionary fervor that expressed itself in movements ranging from social democracy to Maoism—and it is striking that they were all variously denounced by their enemies on the Left as “reactionaries,” “obscurantists,” “feudalists,” “counterrevolutionaries,” or “capitalist roaders” who aimed above all to defy the march of progress.

There was a grain of truth to these accusations. The protagonists of 1979 were, in their own ways, participants in a great backlash against revolutionary overreach. Deng Xiaoping rejected the excesses of Mao’s Cultural Revolution in favor of pragmatic economic development—a move that, despite Deng’s disclaimers, entailed a gradual restoration of capitalist institutions. Khomeini’s vision of an Islamic state was fueled by his violent repudiation of the shah’s state-led modernization program (known as the “White Revolution”) as well as the Marxist ideas that dominated Iran’s powerful leftist opposition movements. (The shah, indeed, denounced the Shiite clerics as the “black reaction” in contrast to the “red reaction” of the Marxists.) Afghanistan’s Islamic insurgents took up arms against the Moscow-sponsored government in Kabul. John Paul II used Christian faith as the basis for a moral crusade against the godless materialism of the Soviet system. And Margaret Thatcher aimed to roll back the social democratic consensus that had taken hold in Great Britain after World War II.

At the same time, it was easy to underestimate just how much these leaders had actually absorbed from their opponents on the utopian Left. A conservative can be defined as someone who wants to defend or restore the old order; a counterrevolutionary, by contrast, is a conservative who has learned from the revolution. John Paul II, who had spent most of his adult life under the Communist system, knew the Marxist classics intimately and devoted considerable intellectual and pastoral effort to countering their arguments—knowledge that helped him to shape his program of moral and cultural resistance. (It also left him with an intense interest in the politics of the working class that informed his patronage of the Solidarity movement—as well as feeding a deep skepticism about Western-style capitalism.) Khomeini and his clerical allies appropriated Marxist rhetoric and ideas wherever they could, forging a new brand of religious militancy that railed against colonialism and inequality; socialist notions of nationalization and state management later played a large role in the Islamist government’s postrevolutionary economic policy. (One historian describes the resulting synthesis as “revolutionary traditionalism.”) Afghanistan’s jihadists borrowed from the Communist playbook by building revolutionary political parties and comprehensive ideological systems to go with them. Margaret Thatcher, who studied at Oxford when Marxism was the reigning political fashion, fused her conservative instincts with a most unconservative penchant for crusading rhetoric, ideological aggression, and programmatic litmus tests. It was precisely for this reason that many of the Conservative Party comrades-in-arms who accompanied her into government in 1979 questioned just how “conservative” she really was. As for Deng Xiaoping, he insisted on maintaining the institutional supremacy of the Communist Party even as he charted a course away from central planning and toward state capitalism. Cold War historian Odd Arne Westad describes Deng’s reform program as “a counterrevolution in economics and political orientation the likes of which the world had never seen.”

It was entirely in keeping with this spirit that Thatcher proudly reported to a Conservative Party rally in April 1979 that her political opponents had dubbed her a reactionary. “Well,” she declared, “there’s a lot to react against!” It was, indeed, precisely this peculiar spirit of defiance that gave the year its transformative power. The decisions of these leaders decisively defined the world in which we live—one in which communist and socialist thought has faded, markets dominate economic thinking, and politicized religion looms large. Like it or not, we of the twenty-first century still live in the shadow of 1979.

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Soviet Famine Humor, 1932

From The Invisible Writing, by Arthur Koestler (PFD Books, 2015), Kindle Loc. 844-882:

Officially the famine did not exist. It was only mentioned in the terms of veiled allusions to ‘difficulties on the collectivisation front’. Trudnesty—difficulties—is one of the most frequent words in Soviet parlance; it serves to minimise disasters in the same proportion as achievements are magnified. The Soviet citizen automatically understands that a ‘gigantic victory of the revolutionary forces in Britain’ means that the Communist Party has increased its vote by one half per cent, whereas ‘certain difficulties in the health situation in Birobidjan’ means that the cholera is raging in that province.

After a week, I had incorporated into my vocabulary some of the essential household words of Soviet life such as pyatiletka (the five year plan), komandirovka (official journey), propusk (permit), nachalnik (chief), remont (‘in repair’). I learnt that valuta (foreign currency) could buy one any otherwise unobtainable goods; that si-chass meant literally ‘at once’ but was in fact the equivalent of the Spanish mañana; that a kulturny choloveik, a ‘cultured person’ was one who did not spit and swear, who used a handkerchief, and could do sums without an abacus. I learnt that Soviet watches, gadgets and machines had to ‘go to remont’ every three months; I learnt to write on the coarse, grey sheets which served as writing paper, and to wash under a kind of samovar with a drip-tap, fixed to the wall. I learnt that no map or policeman could help you to find an address because all streets had new names but were called by their old ones; and that officials and employees were permanently being moved about the country as in a game of musical chairs. All this I learnt eagerly and with a great sense of exhilaration, for I knew that everything that annoyed me was the heritage of the past and everything that I liked a token of the future. Besides, I have always had a deep longing for the primeval chaos, a nostalgia for the apocalypse; and here I found myself in the middle of both.

One of my favourite pastimes was to walk through the streets trying to guess the meaning of the mysterious abbreviations by which every institution, office or shop, was called. Thus my co-operative store was called INSNAB; the organisation that looked after me, MORP; the Institute for which Alex worked, UFTI, which was a branch of NARKOMTASHPROM (People’s Commissariat for Heavy Industries), which depended on SOVNARKOM (the Government), and was controlled by GOSPLAN (the Government Planning Committee) jointly with the CKSP(B)CS (Central Committee of the Social Democratic Party, Bolshevist Fraction, of the Soviet Union). Most difficult to remember were the initials of my publishers in Kharkov because they were not in Russian but in Ukrainian. The abbreviation ran: URKDERSHNAZMENWYDAW, and meant: Ukrainian State Publishing Trust for National Minorities. The reason for this epidemic of initials was that enterprises could no longer be called after their proprietor or trade-name; it was a symptom of the depersonalisation so typical of Soviet life.

In trying to understand everyday life in a totalitarian state, one should beware of over-simplification. In the period preceding the murder of Kirov in 1934, which started the Terror, people in Russia did not live in permanent fear, but rather in a world of diffuse insecurity, of floating apprehension. An incautious remark did not, as a rule, entail immediate retribution. The citizen merely knew that his remark would remain on the record, and that the day might come, perhaps in a year, perhaps in ten years, when he would slip up on his job or get involved with a jealous woman or a neighbour coveting his flat, and on that day the G.P.U. would hold against him every dubious conversation and encounter of his past. In other words, the Soviet citizen was no more acutely frightened than a Catholic is of the Last Judgment—except that the G.P.U. operate this side of death, and that he had nowhere to turn for confession and absolution.

In 1932, it was still possible among intimate friends to pass on a joke that was politically off-colour. To understand the sample that follows, one must know that before he was exiled, Trotsky had advocated a harsh policy towards the peasants for the benefit of the industrial workers, whereas Bukharin had advocated concessions to the peasants at the expense of the workers. The story purports to list questions put to candidates for Party membership, and the correct answers thereto:

Question: What does it mean when there is food in the town but no food in the country?
Answer: A Left, Trotskyite deviation.

Question: What does it mean when there is food in the country but no food in the town?
Answer: A Right, Bukharinite deviation.

Question: What does it mean when there is no food in the country and no food in the town?
Answer: The correct application of the general line.

Question: And what does it mean when there is food both in the country and in the town?
Answer: The horrors of Capitalism.

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Denunciation as a Test of Loyalty

From The Invisible Writing, by Arthur Koestler (PFD Books, 2015), Kindle Loc. 1685-1693:

There is one aspect of time-travel in which science-fiction writers have never been interested, and which for a while interested me to the point of obsession. If a time-machine could be made, it would be possible to undo what one has done in the past.

Denunciation is an elementary duty of every Party member, and a test of his loyalty. During the Purges, women denounced their husbands, and boys were made to sign public statements demanding that their fathers be hanged. Denunciation is a scientifically fostered epidemic, the Party’s principal method of waging germ-warfare against the human spirit.

During my seven years in the Communist Party, the only person whom I denounced or betrayed was Nadeshda, and she was the person dearer to me than anybody during those seven years. It is no exaggeration when I say that I would have died for her readily and with a glow of joy. The Party to which I betrayed her I did not love; I had qualms and doubts about it, and moments of exasperation. But I was part of it, as my hands and my guts were part of myself. It was not a relationship; it was an identity.


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From Books-internet to Television-internet

I’ve belatedly discovered that Persian-blogging pioneer Hossein Derakhshan ( was released from prison in Tehran just over a year ago and has returned to book blogging in Persian. Last year he published a long essay on the Medium publishing platform titled “The Web We Have to Save: The rich, diverse, free web that I loved — and spent years in an Iranian jail for — is dying. Why is nobody stopping it?”

Here are excerpts from his essay about how the web has evolved:

Six years was a long time to be in jail, but it’s an entire era online. Writing on the internet itself had not changed, but reading — or, at least, getting things read — had altered dramatically. I’d been told how essential social networks had become while I’d been gone, and so I knew one thing: If I wanted to lure people to see my writing, I had to use social media now.

So I tried to post a link to one of my stories on Facebook. Turns out Facebook didn’t care much. It ended up looking like a boring classified ad. No description. No image. Nothing. It got three likes. Three! That was it.

It became clear to me, right there, that things had changed. I was not equipped to play on this new turf — all my investment and effort had burned up. I was devastated.

The hyperlink was my currency six years ago. Stemming from the idea of the hypertext, the hyperlink provided a diversity and decentralisation that the real world lacked. The hyperlink represented the open, interconnected spirit of the world wide web — a vision that started with its inventor, Tim Berners-Lee. The hyperlink was a way to abandon centralization — all the links, lines and hierarchies — and replace them with something more distributed, a system of nodes and networks.

Blogs gave form to that spirit of decentralization: They were windows into lives you’d rarely know much about; bridges that connected different lives to each other and thereby changed them. Blogs were cafes where people exchanged diverse ideas on any and every topic you could possibly be interested in. They were Tehran’s taxicabs writ large.

Since I got out of jail, though, I’ve realized how much the hyperlink has been devalued, almost made obsolete.

Nearly every social network now treats a link as just the same as it treats any other object — the same as a photo, or a piece of text — instead of seeing it as a way to make that text richer. You’re encouraged to post one single hyperlink and expose it to a quasi-democratic process of liking and plussing and hearting: Adding several links to a piece of text is usually not allowed. Hyperlinks are objectivized, isolated, stripped of their powers.

Some networks, like Twitter, treat hyperlinks a little better. Others, insecure social services, are far more paranoid. Instagram — owned by Facebook — doesn’t allow its audiences to leave whatsoever. You can put up a web address alongside your photos, but it won’t go anywhere. Lots of people start their daily online routine in these cul de sacs of social media, and their journeys end there. Many don’t even realize that they’re using the Internet’s infrastructure when they like an Instagram photograph or leave a comment on a friend’s Facebook video. It’s just an app.

But hyperlinks aren’t just the skeleton of the web: They are its eyes, a path to its soul. And a blind webpage, one without hyperlinks, can’t look or gaze at another webpage — and this has serious consequences for the dynamics of power on the web.

Even before I went to jail, though, the power of hyperlinks was being curbed. Its biggest enemy was a philosophy that combined two of the most dominant, and most overrated, values of our times: novelty and popularity, reflected by the real world dominance of young celebrities. That philosophy is the Stream.

The Stream now dominates the way people receive information on the web. Fewer users are directly checking dedicated webpages, instead getting fed by a never-ending flow of information that’s picked for them by complex –and secretive — algorithms.

The Stream means you don’t need to open so many websites any more. You don’t need numerous tabs. You don’t even need a web browser. You open Twitter or Facebook on your smartphone and dive deep in. The mountain has come to you. Algorithms have picked everything for you. According to what you or your friends have read or seen before, they predict what you might like to see. It feels great not to waste time in finding interesting things on so many websites.

But the scariest outcome of the centralization of information in the age of social networks is something else: It is making us all much less powerful in relation to governments and corporations.

Surveillance is increasingly imposed on civilized lives, and it just gets worse as time goes by.

In early 2000s writing blogs made you cool and trendy, then around 2008 Facebook came in and then Twitter. Since 2014 the hype is all about Instagram, and no one knows what is next. But the more I think about these changes, the more I realize that even all my concerns might have been misdirected. Perhaps I am worried about the wrong thing. Maybe it’s not the death of the hyperlink, or the centralization, exactly.

Maybe it’s that text itself is disappearing. After all, the first visitors to the web spent their time online reading web magazines. Then came blogs, then Facebook, then Twitter. Now it’s Facebook videos and Instagram and SnapChat that most people spend their time on. There’s less and less text to read on social networks, and more and more video to watch, more and more images to look at. Are we witnessing a decline of reading on the web in favor of watching and listening?

[T]he Stream, mobile applications, and moving images: They all show a departure from a books-internet toward a television-internet. We seem to have gone from a non-linear mode of communication — nodes and networks and links — toward a linear one, with centralization and hierarchies.

The web was not envisioned as a form of television when it was invented. But, like it or not, it is rapidly resembling TV: linear, passive, programmed and inward-looking.


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