Where does this word "liberal" come from and what does it mean?  I'll dare a naive etymology to start:  "liber" is from "liberty" but I also see "book". 

Now checking Google...  Yes "tree bark" is a part of it, as if "liber" were some kind of papyrus.  The liberty one achieves by reading. 

These connect:  liberal arts; open minded;  catholic.

In the software world we sometimes pretend we have only the word "Free" which comes encumbered with two meanings: 

  • at no cost ("the best things in life are free"); but also
  • accessible and, more to the point, adaptable. 

We say "free as in free beer" to mean "at no cost" to distinguish that meaning from "free software" as in Office Libre.  "Free Software" is the other "free", as in "accessible / adaptable" -- it doesn't necessarily mean without cost.

But as R0ml points out (that's his nick, a handle, the "0" a zero):  we do have another English word that means freedom, which is "liberty".

"Liberal" in this sense therefore means "open to new uses", which gives a special spin to "Liberal Arts" and what that means. 

Richard Stallman, champion of Free Software and founder of the GNU project, explains that free software is the software we're free to change, to fix, and to share with others.

Historically though (leaving etymology behind for the moment), there's a lot more to be said about "Liberal". 

I tend to anchor our current concept of Liberalism not so much in the French Enlightenment, nor in the rise of the scientific method since Francis Bacon, but in early 1900s Vienna and the civilizational struggles that converged there.  I meditate on and study: the Vienna Circle, the rise of psychoanalysis, the two World Wars.

A pivotal figure in the Vienna Circle was Ludwig Wittgenstein, from a wealthy Viennese family.  He turned his back on great monetary riches to pursue a somewhat simple and monastic lifestyle, as a philosopher and as a friend and colleague of Bertrand Russell's. 

He was curiously misunderstood at first (including by Russell), as saying language without a strictly literal interpretation is verging on nonsense, whereas what he was really showing as nonsensical is our attempt to make strict sense of the ineffable.  There's a difference, albeit a subtle one.  His emphasis on Silence becomes a link to Quakerism.

A liberty one achieves through reading is the freedom to "misread" (Harold Bloom), by which I mean "to repurpose" or "spin" in ways unintended by the original author -- but then meaning is always greater than any one person intends.  Ownership belongs to the Zeitgeist.

Or call it the Ouija Board Effect:  a whole greater than the sum.  It always feels like "everyone else" is pulling on the Ouija thingy, called a planchette.  The psychologists have a simple explanation:  there's more of them than there are of you.  So it feels to each individual that new meaning "emerges" -- and so it does.

Fast forward to literary (liberal) America and to Norman O. Brown.  His book Love's Body made a big impression on me.  Its thesis:  the Holy Spirit is most alive when not channeled to mean one thing literally. 

Keeping meaning multiplicitious was more the Liberal way.  To clamp down, to get strict about it, to insist on the one literal meaning of it all, is to stress what's not free.  Freedom is in continuing revelation, remaining open to future meanings.

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Comment by Kirby Urner on 9th mo. 25, 2015 at 11:24am

Quoting from the Preface of Wittgenstein: From Mysticism to Ordinary Language: A Study of Viennese Positivism and the Thought of Ludwig Wittgenstein (State University of New York Press, 1987) by Russell Nieli (emphasis mine):

Again and again as I searched through the secondary literature and learned more about Wittgenstein's life and person, I discovered facts previously unintegrated into an overall view of Wittgenstein fitting smoothly into place. The fact that Wittgenstein held St. Augustine in such high regard, that he considered Kierkegaard the greatest thinker of the 19th Century, that he was a great admirer of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, that he had early in his studies read and praised William James's Varieties of Religious Experience, that as a university professor he gave one of his students a copy of George Fox's Journal, and that on a number of occasions he seriously thought of entering a monastery -- all these known facts about Wittgenstein's life tended to bolster the ethical and religious view which I had come to form of the Tractatus.

Comment by Kirby Urner on 9th mo. 25, 2015 at 11:52am

Once in this ballpark, of Wittgenstein and his investigations, I make the connection between his Remarks on the Foundations of Mathematics, his notion of "language games", and the more contemporary computer science notion of "namespaces". 

The meaning of a term arises through use, and "use" is in the context of "rule-following" or "grammar", neither true nor false yet, as the dichotomy at this lower level is sense versus nonsense.  First one needs to make sense, then we can talk about the truth value of one's statements (or not, as language is for much more than merely making true or false propositions!).

As an example of a language game (or namespace), I then introduce Quadrays, hinting that ethnographically speaking, we may connect them to Quaker academia.  "All math is ethnomath". 

Why this connection?  Because Quadrays, in being somewhat disruptive of entrenched concepts, using 4-tuples instead of 3-tuples to map volume (space), but no negative numbers, serve as an on-ramp to the even more disruptive Synergetics:  Explorations in the Geometry of Thinking, by R. Buckminster Fuller. 

The latter is the paradigm New England transcendentalist of the 20th Century, I might argue, which transcendentalism has informed Quakerism, partly though me, but also through many others (lets make a map!).

For further reading:


Comment by Forrest Curo on 9th mo. 25, 2015 at 11:58am

None of this has anything whatsoever to do with the ideology of LiberalFriendism -- which seems to involve a mix of middle-class smugness with the certainty that spiritual realities are purely internal, subjective, and secondary to saving the world in one's spare time.

Comment by Kirby Urner on 9th mo. 25, 2015 at 12:02pm

I would agree:  nothing to do with the ideology of LiberalFriendism, which relates more to Neoliberalism.  Tiz my privilege to deliberately "misread" and repurpose what is meant by "Liberal Friend".  It's an Open Source religion, after all.

Comment by Forrest Curo on 9th mo. 25, 2015 at 1:51pm

You can attempt to repurpose words and phrases, but generally people go right ahead reading them to mean whatever they're used to thinking

Comment by Kirby Urner on 9th mo. 25, 2015 at 2:02pm

That can work to my advantage, as I blend right into the woodwork with my fuzzywuzzy goodstuff talk.  Quaker camo!  http://media.midwayusa.com/productimages/880x660/Primary/545/545324...

Comment by William F Rushby on 9th mo. 25, 2015 at 2:08pm

I want you guys to know that some of my best Liberals are Friends!

Comment by Forrest Curo on 9th mo. 25, 2015 at 4:29pm

Does it work to the advantage of any insight you'd actually want better understood? Probably not...

Comment by Kirby Urner on 9th mo. 25, 2015 at 7:46pm

It's more that I'm establishing a beach head within Quakerism for like-minded co-conspirators.  I'm forming a Quaker cabal.  http://worldgame.blogspot.com/2008/08/elitism.html

Comment by Forrest Curo on 9th mo. 26, 2015 at 12:23am

Ah, yes, your RA Wilson kick...

Those were fun books, lots sex & humor... but I think Tolstoy's your guy if you want to know the truth about conspiracies. Napolean & a few generals may have conspired to take Russia, but this only worked as well as it did because a whole lot of poorschmuck Frenchmen went on an international munch like starved lemmings (which don't so much follow each other off cliffs as go that way because everybody behind keeps pushing.) And all that brilliance fell apart due to the fact that nobody could really monitor and control all the factors involved, including a whole lot of pissed off Russians in control of the local food, shelter, transportation home. Result, lots dead Frenchmen.

Successful conspiracies are pretty much venal, sleazy, and loose. Veblen knew 100 years ago that you could know all you needed to about a city's local politics from whatever real estate rackets were going on. You know who the major developers, contractors, and speculators are; they're conspiring against everybody else, quite openly and successfully; and whenever one of the gang gets caught in a serious crime you can pretty much assume that he pissed off somebody bigger and got thrown to the wolves. But it's just the social ecology of a place -- our gang, their gang, who cares? -- And most people don't notice, take it for granted, or just vent their indignation futilely...

But trying to do something constructive that way -- Oy, like putting a dog through a meat grinder and expecting flower pedals!


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