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Thoughts on the Death of Fidel Castro

Fidel Castro - MATS Terminal Washington 1959.jpg

I have little to add to all the commentary that is flooding the internet on this event.

But I will add something, because to fail to do so might be thought idiosyncratic. Also, because I was born in 1958, the year that ended with Castro's victory. So I have some sort of fortuitous connection with the man, and it would be bad karma to ignore his death.

I think of the movie Godfather 2. And by this route, thinking about Castro will bring us around to William James and pragmatism.

The best scenes in that movie were the Cuba scenes, centering on the Corleone family's efforts to get in on the action in Cuba in 1958. The family was late in its timing, and had to make a hurried exit during the New Year's' Eve festivities that the revolution had so rudely interrupted.

Before the plot gets to that final collapse of the gangsters' friendly regime, though, it shows us that Michael (Al Pacino) has a premonition that Castro will win. He has seen that the rebels are willing to die for their cause, whereas nobody is defending Batista except on a salary or out of cynicism.

Now, if I remember the movie, this premonition doesn't cause any change in behavior. Corleone tells Roth about his suspicion, but then business proceeds. So Corleone gains nothing from this moment of perceptiveness except I-told-you-so rights.

It isn't even knowledge, then, in the pragmatic understanding of the term, because as WIlliam James wrote, "there is no difference anywhere that does not make a difference somewhere else."

Now, if the Corleone's had communicated to a stock broker in New York to sell short stock in Bacardi, or in some other company that was about to be hurt by the revolution (a US based cigar importer?), then we would have had a clear instance of knowledge of the forthcoming revolution that a pragmatist could respect as such.

With that confluence of pragmatism and finance capitalism, I had better conclude. Or rather with this: Fidel Castro, Rest in Peace.


  1. Pacino's character did not have knowledge that Castro would win, because a premonition is not knowledge; it is a guess, perhaps based on knowledge of other facts. But suppose that he had knowledge (in the ordinary English, non-pragmatic sense) of some fact, and he kept it to himself so that it made no difference anywhere else.

    In that case, it nevertheless made a difference to Pacino's character; the act of learning a fact changes one: one knows one more fact than he or she did before. Who knows whether and how knowledge of that fact might change the way Pacino's character acts or thinks in the future?

    But suppose that one deems merely knowing a fact in the ordinary English, non-pragmatic sense insufficient to constitute knowledge. It is still knowledge, and, if pragmatism says otherwise, then pragmatism is wrong.

    1. Of course, pragmatism is free to define "knowledge" as it wishes. “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean--neither more nor less.”

  2. Henry, I'm curious. Suppose that after you learned of Castro's death, it had occurred to you to wonder whether your friend Christopher was going to set down his reactions shortly in this blog. Further, in your hypothetical stream of consciousness, you wondered what direction those reactions might take?

    Would you have expected something more political than the above? More anarcho-capitalist?

    Or might you have had a premonition that he would take this opportunity to indulge other obsessions, such as pop culture references and amateur epistemologizing?

  3. Christopher, I suppose that, because Castro was a communist, I would have expected something anarcho-capitalist. But you are unpredictable and have a wide range of interests, so I am not surprised by your epistemologizing.

    If your question was designed to make a point about my disparagement of pragmatism, then I have missed it.

  4. Not really making a point there, just reveling in my own unpredictability. I'll seek to make a point now.

    The epistemological point, surely, begins with the reflex arc. The arc is triadic. I get (1) some stimulus from my senses, this is (2) routed through my brain, it results (3) in some action. Corleone saw some street fighting involving Batista's men and Castro's. He drew a conclusion, and that conclusion naturally expresses itself in some action, completing the arc.

    But if the action that expresses the idea, which in turn has modified the initial perception, is merely talk, posturing as a know-it-all at someone's birthday party ... that is pathological. We allow our gossip to become a substitute for more world-impacting actions, like preparing one's getaway from Havana in an orderly way, or placing that call to a broker.

    Your first point is right, that this premonition was not knowledge at all. Pragmatism helps us understand that intuition.

    1. I don't disagree with anything you write here, but I still don't understand why the fact that one takes no action means that one has no knowledge, even in the pragmatic understanding of the term. Some consequence results from the fact that Michael's premonition doesn't cause any change in behavior. You might reply that the consequence that results is the same one that would have resulted if Michael hadn't had the premonition, so that consequence doesn't count. I'd accept that answer as explaining why Michael had no knowledge in the pragmatic understanding of the term, but I would still disagree that he had no knowledge.

    2. When I just wrote that I would still disagree that he had no knowledge, I was referring to a situation in which he had more than a premonition, but had knowledge in the ordinary English sense of the word.

  5. When I look up knowledge in a dictionary it gives me unhelpful answers like "the act or state of knowing." But let us get classical, and stipulate that we understand by knowledge "justified true belief." That is a pre-pragmatism definition, going back to one of Plato's dialogues. And let us stipulate further that we both know what "true" means and that I don't intend to make a fuss about that.

    The kicker, I submit, is that knowledge is a subset of my beliefs. It is the subset that an onlooker regards as justified and true -- I regard them all as justified and true -- since that is implied in calling them my beliefs. But Somebody else, taking stock of my belief system, will presumably deem only part of it to constitute knowledge.

    Are we on the same ordinary-language page so far?

    1. Yes, except for two exceptions. Edmund Gettier showed that not all justified true belief constitutes knowledge. And people believe things, notably the existence of God, that they acknowledge are based on faith and not justified in the sense in which we ordinarily justify beliefs, namely, with evidence of their truth.

    2. I believe that a proper understanding of the Gettier cases indicates that the problem is allowing LUCK to play a role in what counts as knowledge, and that the element of luck is allowed to play such a role precisely BECAUSE of the correspondence notion of truth and the damage it can do.

      Some sneaky person has rigged up a movie screen so that it looks like a window, and is showing me a movie of geese in flight. Hence I believe that geese are, right now, flying by this building. The sneaky person has taken pains in his efforts to fool me adequate to allow us to say intuitively that my belief is justified. Meanwhile, by happenstance -- by epistemological luck -- geese are in fact at this moment flying past this building. Thus, to a correspondence theorist, my belief that "geese are flying past this building" is true. It corresponds to fact.

      This, I believe that geese are flying by, they are flying by, and I have justification. But intuitively we don't want to say that I have knowledge.

      So much the worse for the correspondence view, then right?

      My sneaky practical joker requires far less potential metaphysical assumptions than Descartes' demon or the laboratory where I'm a brain in a vat. But correspondence is the problem in all such cases.

    3. It has been years since I read Gettier's article, so let me ask this. In your geese example, you do not have justification for your true belief, because you've seen only a movie. At least that is what the rest of the world, if it knew how you had been tricked, would say.

      Granted, you reasonably believe that you have justification, but is that sufficient for justification? I don't think so.

  6. Because it seems to me that even from perspective of ordinary-language philosophy, "belief" and thus "knowledge" carries some important baggage with it. Like, say, the notion of a commitment. If I believe X, I can reasonably be expect to act on it, and if I am not willing to act, I will generally be judged not to believe it, and this not to have knowledge of it either.

    1. But some beliefs have no relevance to our lives, and we have no occasion to act on them. For example, I believe, based on authority, that the earth is 93 million miles from the sun, but, not being an astronomer, I have no occasion to act on that belief, or even mention it, except in this comment, and perhaps if a child asked me how far the earth was from the sun.

    2. If I thought it was closer than that, I'd use higher SPF lotions!

      Seriously, a full discussion of epistemology would have to take account of the division of functions in the knowers' society. Assuming we agree that knowers generally HAVE a society and aren't brains in vats who have been deluded into thinking there are such creatures as astronomers....

    3. If we are brains in vats and the scientists who control us make us believe that we aren't, then our agreement that we aren't would have limited value.

    4. Actually, from a pragmatic point of view, I'm wrong. If we're brains in vats but we agree that we're not, then our lives would be no different from the way they would be if we really were not. But I insist on the "really." The pragmatic point of view would describe how we view the world, but it would be false--delusional, in fact.

  7. Contemporary philosophers debate this under the heading "what is the truth bearer"? That is, if we replace "belief" in the definition of knowledge by, say, "asserted sentence," then the asserted sentence is the truth bearer, and "knowledge" becomes "justified true asserted sentences." In THAT case, Corleone has knowledge in the relevant sense. But with "belief" as the truth bearer, he doesn't. And I believe pragmatism is in accord with ordinary language in treating belief in a strong sense as a more appropriate truth bearer.

  8. To constitute knowledge, would the truth of the asserted sentence have to be justified to the person asserting the sentence, or be justified to others? If it would have to be justified to the person asserting the sentence, then he would believe in the truth of the asserted sentence and we'd be back with justified true belief.

    Suppose that I had no idea how far the earth is from the sun, but I spun a roulette wheel and it pointed to 93 million. I then asserted that the earth is 93 million miles from the sun. That assertion is justified as to others, but not as to me. Surely, I have no knowledge of its truth, just because the roulette wheel stopped at the right number. Only Humpty Dumpty could call that knowledge.

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