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Jon Cogburn
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Jon Cogburn This is just a short note to the effect that I'm going to take a social media hiatus for the next year. When I come back I hope to have leveled up in the following abilities: (1) reading French, (2) teaching Kant and 19th Century Philosophy, (3) writing... Continue reading
Posted 4 days ago at Philosophical Percolations
By Julian Friedland [Julian Friedland is a French-American philosopher, who, along with his research, likes to write on current issues in the popular press. He has written for such periodicals as the New York Times, the Chronicle of Higher Educ In the span of a single day, Donald Trump was... Continue reading
Posted 4 days ago at Philosophical Percolations
Yeah, you have to radically gerrymander your definition of naturalism to have it be the case that Brandom and Rorty are not naturalists. Rorty's late period relativism is just a sop to the positivist's putting normativity off the island of meaningfulness. We're going to deconstruct every distinction under the sun except for the one between fact and value, and choice in a "vocabulary" is never ultimately rational for Rorty. As far as I know, Rorty never evinced much awareness of the fact that there might be a problem here, nor the manner in which statements of his relativism recapitulate the scheme-content distinction (McDowell is very good on this). Brandom is a little more self-conscious about it, for example, when he compares moral externalists (those who believe in objective moral reasons or norms) to pre-Enlightenment religious fanatics. In any case, surely the denigration of objective normativity is what is most philosophically significant about naturalism? I didn't used to get this, not in for Rorty, who wrote so deeply and movingly about moral injury, and not in Brandom, who in every other respect (beside the return of teleology) is one of the best living interpreters of the significance of post-Kantian philosophy. I assumed that the disciplinary pressures to be naturalist in the late positivist period where Rorty came up, and which still informed Brandom's philosophical infancy, must just have just been overwhelming. But I've recently had some time to reflect on the disciplinary response of Alvin Plantinga, Jerry Fodor, and Thomas Nagel when they criticized evolutionary theory. If these philosophers wrote about anything else lots of B listers and C listers like me would have spent loads of time interpreting them with the utmost charity,* including reformulating the arguments in the best possible way. And the critics would follow the principle of charity and respond to the reformulated versions. This would not at all be difficult with Plantinga at least (I haven't read Nagel's book yet), since his type of self-reflexive argument against scientific accounts of intentional creatures such as us has a rich history. Recognizable varieties of it have been made by Schelling, Nietzsche, Bertrand Russell, C.S. Lewis, and John McDowell. I don't know if anyone's noted this except me at various times on blogs. The response instead (included by one prominent Nietzschean!) has largely been to treat Plantinga like a force of darkness that must be defeated. It's embarrassing. As if reading Plantinga uncharitably were the equivalent of defending Galileo from Cardinal Bellarmine. . . I did find some of the prose in Making it Explicit to be hard-going. I don't think it's that I've just been acclimatized, but I do find his prose from Articulating Reasons onwards to be much more easy-going. He's capable of genuine humor too. I love the Wittgenstein quote for exactly the reasons you give. [*It's probably not clear from the above post that I actually do spend a fair amount of time on Brandom. Since Carl Sachs' comment above, I've started reading Bernstein's book on torture now and beginning to get a good appreciation for the aspects of Brandom's work (in particular, his reading of Hegel on the constitutive nature of recognition for creatures like us) that are extremely helpful for ethics. More broadly, I think both that his philosophy of logic is basically right and that his meaning use diagrams should be understood as the best thing to happen to critical theory since the Frankfurt School.]
Thanks for your reply. As far as not being a professional ethicist giving one a license to being philosophically committed to rebarbative views, please see BZFGT's response above. In the beginning of my post I explictly said that I don't think the view makes Brandom a bad person and I don't think it gives us an excuse not to study his philosophy. I think he is one of the three most important living philosophers and that the dialectic goes through him. I think that projects such as those of Joshua I Wretzel, Carl Sachs, and Andrew Sepielli are incredibly important in part because their interventions with respect to contemporary pragmatism generally (and Brandom in particular) help us to figure out what in his views detach from the troubling ethical consequences. If I were doing the lazy thing of saying that because some philosopher said something abhorrent (say, Aristotle on slaves having no soul) we should not read that philosopher, then everything you write would be justified. But I'm not saying that. If it were easy to detach what Brandom says about the inarticulate from the rest of his system, then what you write would have some justification. But in point of fact it is not at all easy. From my contributions to the discussions above, it should be reasonably clear that his account of the source of normativity in Kant, his account of the myth of the given, and his attacks on traditional pragmatism to motivate his own views are all to greater or lesser degrees tied up with his view that the only non-derived obligations stem from whether the conversation is aided. If you don't recognize this as a wicked view, then we really are at a case of conversation breaking down (as Rorty and Feyerabend would describe it). Again, by the view: your digital computer (which very much is a potential conversation mate) has the same moral status as your baby does. (2) If widespread child abuse ends up producing better novels and theories (as it almost surely did in 19th century education practices) then we have a moral obligation to abuse our children. (3) Parrots, dolphins, and elephants have no moral status whatsoever, other than the very debatable (almost certainly false) claim that cruelty towards them would hinder conversation. (4) We have no moral obligations towards people who are not potential speakers such as old people with advanced dementia, or severe cases of apraxia, autism, aphasia, and deafness. One could try to gerrymander the "potential speaker" designation to exclude computers and to include everyone else that we have moral obligations to (including those humans for who are never going to, of biological necessity, speak), and then agree with Brandom's claim. I don't for a second think this would be independently plausible. From the few times I've taught social contract theory or Kantianism, my impression is that there's an overwhelming amount of literature in ethics which supports this pessimism. As noted in the original post, the same trick has been tried to make sense, on social contract and Kantian views, of our obligations to children and animals, and it doesn't work. But, more importantly, the resulting view would still get wrong the sources of normativity. It's morally important to not take pain to have only a derived moral significance. Perhaps independent of its falsehood, the pragmatic downstream of such views lead to justification of wickedness. Philosophical epicycles (such as the abuse of the potential/actual distinction in ethics to prop up the view) have a way of dropping away in the trenches. Denigration of the significance of pain is a standard racist trope employed by members of the ethnicity benefiting from the oppression of other ethnicities. The grief of a widow or agony of a lacerated back aren't the same to those people because they are simpler [Real examples of this were famously uttered by architects of the Vietnam War and the South African mining industry, respectively]. Yes, it's denigrating to view them as simpler, but it's also abhorrent to take someone elses simplicity to be morally exculpating. Finally, let me reiterate that I think the abhorrent views are detachable from much of Brandom's philosophical achievement, but as I argued above it is not at all a simple matter to detach them. The same kind of thing holds for Heidegger and various tropes in German Romanticism (see the OP), but maybe not so much Aristotle (whose view about slave's souls does at least to me seem to me to be an easily removable excrescence). And to the extent that they are not detachable, this is an important philosophical lesson too. Again, people like Wretzel, Sachs, and Sepielli's engagement with pragmatism are very much pushing the dialectic along here. But, and I'm sorry about this, I don't think it's helpful to just say he's not an ethicist or to waive our hands at a distinction that's already failed to do the same kind of work in defending other moral theories from similar problems. This being said, I do think you are on to something. One should in this context look at what sensitive Kantians such as Korsgaard have said about similar issues. This *would* be very helpful in the process of detaching Brandom's substantive achievements from his ableism.
It's hard to be polite when someone calls you a sophist, but I'll try. First, as far as I'm aware Brandom never says what you attribute to him. I think I've read all of his books, and taught some of them, but maybe I'm misremembering or haven't read a paper. Please direct me to a source. Second, your appeal to potential sits very badly with a number of things Brandom *has* said in print (Rorty talks about baby pain in PMN, I'm going to dig that up this week). When Brandom equates parrots with thermostats he never says that the difference is that the parrot is potentially able to speak and the thermostat isn't. Third, the overwhelming majority of ethicists take this kind of appeal to potentiality is very thin soup if not sophistic in itself. It's the same argument that people who wish to criminalize abortion make on behalf of zygotes. I very much doubt that Robert Brandom thinks that every sperm is sacred. And, again, nothing he's written that I've read suggests that he thinks animals have worth because they are potential speakers. At some point pretty soon it will probably be true to say that your laptop computer is a potential speaker (with the right software and hardware upgrades) but it would be absurd to say that your present laptop has moral worth in light of that. And, finally, it's an abhorrent view anyhow. Elderly people who have dementia and no longer speak are still valuable, but they are no longer potential speakers in the sense you mention. The value of children is not due to the fact that they are potential speakers. There's pretty good evidence that the widespread child abuse in European schools in the 19th century was very helpful at getting kids to learn all of those classical languages. This produced the generation of scholars that, among other things, gave us modern physics and mathematics. If this were correct (and for the purpose of argument it only needs to be possibly true), then Brandom and Rorty would be committed to saying that it was justified because it helped the conversation. Thus, even if it's relevant in the case of abortion, and even if Brandom countenances it somewhere, your Roman Catholic bit about the moral relevance of potentiality is a complete non-sequitur here because neither Rorty nor Brandom can account for the wrongness of harm that increases the conversation, as widespread child abuse in the service of learning classical languages did. For Brandom, *anyone* who manages to write a good book out of their suffering has to then to turn around and say that there was nothing wrong with their suffering since it helped the conversation. Such a consequence is both ludicrous and deeply morally troubling. I'm *not* saying that the view you attribute to Brandom is "outright sophistry." But, as far as I can tell, it ranks with Brandom's own views on these matters in terms of absurdity and abhorrent moral consequences.
A student of mine who is working on non-verbal autistics (who I should have mentioned above) pointed me to this youtube series of Brandom's: . I haven't watched it yet but my student reports that Brandom explicitly critiques "weak lingualism" in a way that shows that he's committed to the problematic views I've attributed to him. Again, one of the things that excites me about your work is that it might put us in a position to separate Brandom's other achievements from this aspect of his thought.
Dear Joshua, Wow. Fantastic! Please do send me the paper. I'll love reading it. I know that your paper will help me better integrate what I agree with in Brandom with other commitments that go against Brandom, but I'm a bit skeptical that I'll end up reading Brandom himself that way because the debate between him and Mark Okrent hinges on this very issue, whether non-linguistic responsiveness could in principle be enough to attribute sapience. It starts with Okrent's critique of Brandom's reading of Heidegger in the essay in Tales of the Mighty Dead. Okrent's response is at . And then Okrent actually sketched an account of how it's possible in his book, Rational Animals. For Okrent, Brandom goes wrong by taking his opponent to be committed to explaining belief content in terms of desires and acts. Note that in Articulating Resonas Brandom defends the opposite order, explaining desires in terms of beliefs and acts. This greatly compounds the difficulty in the possibility of sapience holding for the mute. Okrent, on the other hand, takes beliefs and desires together to bootstrap out of a prior realm of acts and goals. Even sphex wasps have goals, but it makes no sense to attribute beliefs and desires to them because when you mess with their goals they just robotically try to go through the same algorithm over and over again (Heidegger noted this with bees). Birds, on the other hand, illustrate a lot of flexibility with respect to achieving their goals when you mess with the normal way they do this. In Rational Animals Okrent argues that the attribution of beliefs and desires only starts to makes sense to explain this kind of thing. But in thinking about Brandom's account of the quantifiers it's always struck me that much of what he's done is extremely helpful for attempts like Okrent. The way explicit commitment to a quantified sentence is reporting behaviorally manifest implicitly held commitments is a very plausible part of an account of how linguistic expression bootstraps out of previous behavioral commitments. And you can do this for all of the logical operators (as people like Neil Tennant and Greg Restall basically do) if you are appreciative of the natural logic inferentialist tradition. Anyhow the story gives you a recipe for how to attribute quantificational and logical thinking to creatures without the ability to explicitly talk in those ways. So, even if at the end of the day Brandom is not moved to attribute sapience to anyone short of Hegel, I do think that your work will be extremely helpful for further connecting up his key insights into the implict/explicit distinction and (also with the help of Tenant/Restall et al) his account of logicality into the kind of broadly functionalist project of Okrent's (as well as considering the latter's project in terms of some of the neglected wisdom from the 19th century).
I agree, and thanks for the link. I read and enjoyed Shusterman's book a few years ago and it will be fun to explore Puolakka's take.
By Jon Cogburn I hate to point out that I find some aspects of Robert Brandom's philosophy to be morally rebarbative for two reasons. First, I don't think it follows from this that he's a bad person. I've never met him, but have had the pleasure to meet many of... Continue reading
Posted Feb 8, 2017 at Philosophical Percolations
Thanks, these are very good points. I've always been on Schopenhauer's side with respective to animal suffering in nature being sufficient to motivate the argument from evil. The issue about the moral relevance of distance is a really difficult one. But with respect to natural versus moral evil, when it comes to the argument from evil, theists very much do find that they have to say something about natural evil at least with respect to how it effects human beings. I don't think they can have it both ways. Either you deserve Voltaire's hatred for having an atrocious view of natural evil, or your argument against abortion fails. In addition, in the OP above I tried to explicitly argue that it makes no sense for it to be appropriate for a moral evil to provoke a strong negative affective response without the corresponding natural evil to do so likewise. [Friedland appealed to the planet of psychopaths to try to show that affective responses are a non-sequitur, and I explained why I think empirical work about psychopaths and people with right prefrontal cortex damage shows he's mistaken.] Given the moral relevance of affective responses, this morphs up into obligations and permissibilities themselves. People are allowed to deposit money in your bank account without asking first in part because coming into money by luck is not a natural evil. People are not allowed to kill you in part because dying is a natural evil.
Yeah, I don't know why this stuff isn't more salient in public policy discussions. I'm going to look for statistics for how often this stuff happens. One of my colleagues at a previous institution had health issues because she'd absorbed her twin in the womb during the second trimester. It's strange to me that even defenders of trans rights go along with the pretense that nature is Aristotelian with respect to sex differences. But the percentage of people who are biologically intersex is the same as the percentage of Americans with red hair! I suspect that the WGS focus on the ways that gender is cultural and culture contingent messes up the focus a little bit. I think there also needs to be a strong focus on the ways in which gender is natural and nature is not Aristotelian. I also think that contingency/necessity needs to be treated much more carefully here. In the sense of biology, culture plays a huge role in determining which traits get selected for. So nature is contingent in this manner. And, as all good Burkeans know, culture is not infinitely plastic, so not simply contingent. But this is giving too much credit for how university professors might shape public debate. In any case, it does seem to me, especially after reading your comment, that denial of biology is as or more widespread as denial of climate science. And as with the epistemic relativism that justifies denial of climate science, this is an instance of a bad habit on the left being gleefully appropriated by the right to much more destructive ends.
Again, this is a great comment, but I do find the conclusion absurd for two sets of empirical reasons, concerning the two kinds of Vulcans we do find on Earth. The first kind are people with damage to their prefrontal cortex, studied by Antio Demasio. Many such people feel much less emotional affect and do great on passing tests concerning rational ways to act. But their real lives are messes because they lack the ability to quickly chose what to do based on emotional ordering. The second groups are psychopaths, who don't experience empathy (see Ken Levy's work on this). This lack of experience of empathy produces a failure in understanding. Psychopaths understand if you get mad if they hurt you, but they don't understand someone else getting mad if they hurt you. They just don't get it. A planet full of psychopaths would not last, for familiar Kantian reasons. A planet full of people with severe damage to the right frontal cortex wouldn't either. I agree with you that it is wrong to kill a psychopath and hence wrong for psychopaths to kill each other. But I agree with this because I'm not a Kantian. I think that what the empirical literature shows is that autonomy in the Kantian sense actually requires empathy. Moreover, Parfit and other Kantians notwithstanding, I'm not convinced that this isn't Kant's real view. But if psychopaths are not autonomous, for the Kantian they have no moral worth, and it is hence not violating the categorical imperative to kill them. Thus there is no injustice in the world where they are murdering each other. A similar argument can and has been made to justify the death penalty, and to justify killing the disabled, or who only justify not killing the disabled in terms of imperfect duties involving the wellbeing of the non-disabled (compare some Kantians on animal ethics). I know that there are lots of followers of Kant who don't come close to endorsing these things, and I'm not sure they really follows from Kant himself. My point is that if you take into account what we know about human nature from studying psychopaths or Demasio's patients, then the idea that human beings could be moral (in the standard Kantian sense) vulcans goes out the window.
By Jon Cogburn In the spirit of Judith Jarvis Thomson's "A Defense of Abortion"* I want to begin by talking about a couple of adults, who we'll call Sam1 and Sam2. As with most unfortunate fictional actors in philosophical gedankenexperiments the world over, we shall prescribe a horrific end to... Continue reading
Posted Feb 3, 2017 at Philosophical Percolations
Yeah, I wish I knew what that would be. I'm trying. Last night at my church (University Presbyterian Baton Rouge) we had a pot luck for LSU students and faculty affected by the first stage of Trump's Muslim ban. There were over a hundred people there and it was great to get to know each other better and to much better understand what they are going through. I think that this kind of thing (and it will have to be ongoing and more than just one church) is a necessary start, but it is just a start.
Toggle Commented Feb 2, 2017 on Screw your feelings at Philosophical Percolations
By Jon Cogburn One of Joseph Goebbels' most impressive propaganda victories involved paradoxically using widespread revulsion at the earlier stages of the Holocaust as a motor for the later stages of the Holocaust. Here's the problem. You saw a little kid screaming as his mother was being beaten bloody by... Continue reading
Posted Feb 1, 2017 at Philosophical Percolations
Guest Post By Julian Friedland [Julian Friedland is a French-American philosopher, who, along with his research, likes to write on current issues in the popular press. He has written for such periodicals as the New York Times, the Chronicle of Higher Education, the Denver Post, and the Humanist. He has... Continue reading
Posted Jan 31, 2017 at Philosophical Percolations
Carl! Great to hear from you. You're one of the people I'm missing most in my post-election facebook hiatus. I agree with what you write, but I still think that Brandom is more Strawsonian than Sellars in very important respects. First, the way in which he is not. Unlike McDowell, Brandom doesn't spend a lot of time (or any, as far as I know) on the kind of German Idealist problems with Kantianism that Strawson recapitulates. Brandom's Kant is, in fact, Jonathan Bennett's Kant (he probably got this from Rorty). It was Bennett who placed so much emphasis on how the actual way Kant reconciled empiricism and rationalism is by (a) recharging Descartes' "ideas of reason" by understanding concepts in terms of inferential role (rather than less vivid sensations), and (b) nonetheless affirming a basic tenet of empiricism with the claim that concepts without intuitions are empty. For Brandom, the first point is *the* most important point about Kant. Nonetheless, Brandom's whole theory of meaning project is arguably an instance of "descriptive" (versus "revisionary") metaphysics in Strawson's parlance. That is, if Strawson's sin is lifting bits of Kant for an epistemology, this is exactly what Brandom does. I think doubly so, since his basic model is regressive from a Heideggerian perspective. For the Heideggerian, concepts are non-linguistic inferences based on goal oriented behavior and language is built up out of that. But Brandom over and over again rejects this (even, perversely, as a reading of Heidegger) in favor of discursive inferences being originary. [The way Brandom does this is through a false dichotomy between deriving beliefs from desires and his own view, ignoring Okrent's teleological view of how both beliefs and desires simultaneously bootstrap up out of a pre-existing teolology.] McDowell is deeply skeptical of the neo-Kantian business of providing a "theory of meaning." You are right that McDowell goes Wittgensteinian when metaphysics comes up, but he gets us much, much, much closer to metaphysics than Brandom does, so much so that it's not clear that he succeeds in denying it. Please note that I realize that when I get to the hard work of going through your book on givenness that what I'm about to say will be changed. But here goes. I think the reason Brandom can say "I'm just doing epistemology here" and McDowell can't is that they actually have radically different takes on the Myth of the Given. For Brandom, following Rorty, what's mythical about the myth is the very idea that something could be both normative and causal. For McDowell, the myth is rather thinking that something that would have to be both normative and causal is in fact merely causal. McDowell responds by bidding "bald naturalism" goodby, which puts him right up against some serious metaphysics, since it seems to be committed at the very least to anti-Humean externalism about norms/reasons. But then he backs up and tries to buy us the right to this without substantive metaphysical commitments. The stuff about avoiding the 3d perspective has to be read in this light. I don't think he's successful, but I do think that his form of the myth of the given is correct, so this makes me a substantive Hegelian, who (among other commitments) believes in objective (albeit possibly ananthropocentric) teleology (e.g. Brandom on the other hand, does make some concessions here at least concerning alethic modality, where he argues that our view of the external world is sense dependent upon our views concerning language. But since the actual external reality of facts is not reference dependent upon the linguistic reality of propositions, idealism doesn't threaten. But Brandom never attempts to answer Maimon's Quid Facti argument. All you have to ask is if reality is really like what we are (according to him) forced to take it to be. But it's perfectly licit for Brandom here to say he doesn't know, he's not doing metaphysics. He's, in good Marburg School style, doing transcendental epistemology (again, which was one of Gardner's accusation against Strawsonians). And Brandom never, as far as I know, makes any concessions to externalism about reasons/norms. If he can get away with that (to be clear, I don't think anyone can, but I'm in the minority) metaphysical issues just aren't as pressing for him. This is tentative, but I think McDowell would reject the kind of transcendental idealism that Gardner attributes to Kant. Without citing McDowell, Gardner motivates Kant's entire project as an attempt to avoid what McDowell calls the 3d view (a view of both reality and our representation of it so that one is forced to ask whether we represent reality correctly). But I suspect McDowell would characterize Gardner's type of transcendental idealism as being anti-realist, whereas McDowell is defending anti-anti-realism, but not realism. But you see how close McDowell is to metaphysics! Mind and World puts you right up to substantive, teleological, Hegelianism. And so he tries to harness Wittgenstein so as to not go there. But Brandom just doesn't need to do that. He reads Sellars differently and is doing (really interesting) transcendental epistemology. McDowell rather is reflecting on what we can learn about ourselves out of the failure of such projects. Kant is canonical for both, but for entirely different reasons. McDowell is with Strawson in reading Kant as incoherent. He is against Strawson's mining of Kant for transcendental epistemology. Brandom is not Strawsonian in reading Kant as incoherent (Hegel's correction of Kant's two-stage theory of concepts is not a reaction to incoherence, but rather just correcting a false view) but is Strawsonian in mining Kant for transcendental epistemology. If I'm even close to right here, this again shows how Gardner's division into Strawsonians and post-Strawsonians just doesn't work. Brandom and McDowell each combine different aspects of both. Even though Brandom is a wonderful expositor of Hegel, McDowell is much closer to Hegel than Brandom. [Added later: I should have mentioned Brandom on the "Kant-Sellars Thesis" (concerning the inescapably of modality) above, and maybe also his controversial claim that Kant is the first significant philosopher to come close to correctly marks the force/content distinction. Neither effect the argument, but the above misleadingly suggests that all he gets from Kant is the inferentialist/rationalist account of concepts.]
By Jon Cogburn If you are an academic, please join over 12,000 Academic Supporters, including 9,000 U.S. Faculty Members, 44 Nobel Laureates 45 Winners of Fields/Dirac/Clark/Turing/Poincare Medals, Breakthrough Prize, Pulitzer Prize, MacArthur Fellowship 273 Members of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, Arts by sending an email to [NoToImmigrationEO AT... Continue reading
Posted Jan 30, 2017 at Philosophical Percolations
By Jon Cogburn One of the grim paradoxes in philosophy is that we are often most critical of the books we love best. This is why (if you substitute gods for readers and a victorious commander for the author) during the celebration of a Roman triumph, a slave constantly whispered... Continue reading
Posted Jan 30, 2017 at Philosophical Percolations
Sam Dresser in Aeon: In October 1951, Camus published The Rebel. In it, he gave voice to a roughly drawn ‘philosophy of revolt’. This wasn’t a philosophical system per se, but an amalgamation of philosophical and political ideas: every human is free, but freedom itself is relative; one must embrace... Continue reading
Posted Jan 28, 2017 at Philosophical Percolations
By Jon Cogburn Dear Senator Cassidy, I am writing to encourage you to oppose the appointment of Betsy Devos to head the federal Department of Education. As an educator, Christian, and parent I am opposed to Devos' agenda of lowering standards for charter schools, weakening federal protections concerning student safety... Continue reading
Posted Jan 26, 2017 at Philosophical Percolations
I should probably note that my relatives in rural Oklahoma are at least as likely to have Anti-Oedipus on their bookshelves. This is still too anecdotal though. It would be nice to have some hard evidence of the sort you're mentioning with respect to the suburban swing-state Baudrillard voters.
Yeah, but I think their votes were swamped by the rural upstate Deleuzians. Or am I mislead by all the times Trump claimed that Difference and Repetition was his favorite book next to Art of the Deal? Are there statistics on this?
Well, not quite I think. The poets are the unacknowledged *legislators.* As far as I can tell, this leaves the executive (and judiciary) wide open.