Archives For philosophy of history

Author Information: Pankaj Jain, University of North Texas, pankaj.jain@unt.edu

Jain, Pankaj. “A Call From the Great Wall of China.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 6 (2018): 26-30.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3Yg

Another angle on the Forbidden City, Beijing China.
Image by radiowood via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

This article is inspired by my first ever China trip in May 2018 in which I participated in a workshop at the Dalian University of Technology on American and Chinese approaches in environmental ethics and responsible innovation. In this article, I first summarize my recent exchanges with Robert Frodeman, Adam Briggle, and another colleague. In the final part of this article, I critique the review by Briggle and Frodeman of the book Taking Philosophy Back: A Multicultural Manifesto (Van Norden 2017).

The Breath of Another Land

After the philosophy workshop in Dalian, I chose to stay few more days in Beijing before flying back to the USA. Being in China for the first time, I wanted to make full use of my department’s funding that supported my trip. I had enriching experiences at Beijing’s historical landmarks such as the Great Wall, Forbidden City, Temple of Heaven, Beihai Park, Jingshan Park, Lama Temple, Confucius Temple, Bell and Drum Towers, Summer Palace, and Tiananmen Square. One of the world’s oldest surviving civilizations, in my opinion, has tremendous lessons for the world at so many levels and this was my chance to immerse in China.

At the workshop, almost all the papers by Chinese philosophers made references to Euro-American philosophers but American philosophers’ papers strictly remained Euro-American in their focus and approach. Realizing the pattern of indifference towards Asian intellectual traditions by American scholars, I shared my thoughts with my colleagues and graduate students upon my return from China. I had shared them also at the concluding session of the workshop in China,

During the silk route era, hundreds of Chinese scholars traveled to India and learned Indian languages such as Sanskrit, Pali, and Prakrit to translate hundreds of Buddhist and other texts into Chinese. Most famously, Faxian and Xuan Zang traveled on foot for more than a thousand miles across China, and Central Asia to reach India. and many others followed in their footsteps and became key bridges between the two most ancient Asian civilizations. In that period, Chinese scholars turned Indian knowledge systems into uniquely Chinese systems by mixing them with Daoism and Confucianism.

Their translation was so perfect that today India has lost some of its ancient knowledge systems but thanks to Chinese preservation efforts, we still have access to that lost knowledge. Chinese ethics of translation did not have the colonizing tendencies that the Western systems sometimes have tended to demonstrate. China seems to be doing the same with Euro-American knowledge systems currently. Chinese philosophers are meticulously learning Euro-American systems and are combining this with their own indigenous systems like they did with Indic systems more than 1000 years ago.

Compared to the Chinese openness for American scholarship, we in the American philosophy departments appear pretty xenophobic. We have a long way to go to truly understand and embrace “alien” philosophical ideas and Chinese scholars are good role models for us. Almost 90% of our philosophy students, even today, do not take any course on Eastern thought. Aren’t we producing new generations of Eurocentric scholars who continue to remain ignorant about the intellectual history of major Asian civilizations that are becoming increasingly important today? Almost all philosophy departments in Asia or elsewhere study Western thought.

When will the reverse happen? Philosophy majors studying Asian thought? Today, China is already one of the biggest economies in the world and yet how long will Euro-American philosophy students be stuck in the 19th century? The students in other departments or majors such as religion, anthropology, and history are much better as they do study several major world cultures.

The Barely-Noticeable Weight of Presumptions

Upon reading my message, even with his disagreements, my colleague Professor Adam Briggle shared his (and Frodeman’s) review of a recent book Taking Back Philosophy: A Multicultural Manifesto because the book makes the similar arguments as I did. Inspired by the book’s powerful arguments about Euro-centricity in American philosophy, I took a look at some of the philosophy courses and noticed that almost all of the philosophy courses focused only on Western philosophy. Although Asian courses are being taught in my department, including by me, they are taken almost exclusively by religion students, not by philosophy students. So, I sent another message,

Interacting with philosophers in China has really opened my eyes to this issue and hopefully, we can together begin to rectify the Euro-centric nature of this oldest field in humanities that seems stuck in the colonial times of 19th century (when Euro-America were dominant in every way unlike today’s globalized world). Luckily, many other departments/majors have diversified considerably, e.g., my own field of religious studies has “Great Religions” course that introduces all the religions, not just Western ones before a student chooses his/her specialization, of course. Similarly, anthropology, history, art history, etc. are much more inclusive. It is time to get to the oldest field that continues to resist this reformation.

Frodeman responded, “philosophy is a western term, which is explained in every intro class (Philos, Sophia)”. To that, another professor and I replied saying that if many other departments with their “western” title such as religion, art, and history can be much more inclusive, why philosophy must continue to be focusing only on western thought. Briggle mentioned, “I am also sympathetic and open to discussion. I’d like to avoid devolving into identity politics where somehow knowing the race or gender of a philosopher becomes all we need to know, or where race and gender are the only forms of diversity that matter.”

Another professor responded, “So our discussion doesn’t devolve into a caricature of the justice issues concerning race, gender, and sexuality: identity politics is not about diversity but freedom, equality, and dignity. Backlash discourses have trivialized it since the 1980s but identity politics is squarely in the liberal tradition – and if you believe Nussbaum, it draws equally on the Romans and Greeks.”

When You Need the Eyes of Another

The above is the summary of my exchange with some of my colleagues including Robert Frodeman and Adam Briggle that captures oft-repeated arguments both in favor and against the efforts to make philosophy department more inclusive and diversified. I will now respond to the book-review by Adam Briggle and Robert Frodeman. In their review, both start by noting their similarity and overlaps with the project by Bryan Van Norden. Both projects started with their respective columns in New York Times with a call for reforming professional philosophy and rejecting Kantian approach.

However, even as they note these similarities, they seem to be missing few points. Briggle and Frodeman advocate that philosophers must engage with scientists, engineers, policy-makers, and community groups. Almost, each of this set of people in the 19th century primarily consisted of people of Euro-American heritage, ethnicity, or nationalities. However, in the 21st century United States, more than 25% of all scientists and engineers are from Asian and other non-Western heritage.[1]

Similarly, no national or even state policy today can ignore the geopolitical conditions in China, India, and other countries. Finally, the fourth set of people, i.e., community groups are similarly becoming increasingly diversified in the United States. In summary, Briggle and Frodeman need to revise their own project to reflect today’s diversified, globalized, and pluralistic world, not just the interdisciplinary world that they already recognize in their project.

The next blind spot or loophole I discovered in their book review is when they challenge Van Norden’s approach by stating, “He tends to focus only on ‘top’ (via Leiter’s definition) philosophy departments or PhD-granting departments. This can give a skewed picture, which is something we wonder about, given that we have two faculty members in our relatively small department focused on Southeast Asian philosophy and religion.”

First, they conflate South Asia with Southeast Asia, a very common mistake by American scholars and students who do not understand the differences between two of the biggest regions of the world. The major countries of South Asia are India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh whereas Southeast Asian countries include Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia. Two groups of countries with distinct histories and geographies conveniently or mistakenly often clubbed by many Americans. It would be as wrong as combining Central and North American countries together.

Next, they note that two of the UNT faculty members who focus on Asian philosophy and religion but again forgetting to note that most of the philosophy students almost completely ignoring these classes. Almost all our Asian philosophy courses are taken exclusively by religion students, not philosophy students. This once again shows the openness of religion students and parochial nature of their philosophy counterparts.

Next, they state, “He first isolates different kinds of LCTP (Chinese, Indian, Native American, and African) and then notes how rarely each feature on the roster of philosophy departments. But it could be that when LCTP are aggregated the problem dissipates”. This statement seems to be ignoring the fact that as of now philosophy departments are overwhelmingly dominated by experts only in Western thought. Rarely if ever a faculty is hired to teach non-Western philosophy.

If I compare this situation with the religion counterpart, I have noticed that there are two or sometimes three professors who focus on different eras and/or aspects of Judaism and/or Christianity but almost all religion departments have distinct individuals with expertise in Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism, and in some cases with indigenous traditions as well. Similar is the case with most history departments in North America where two or three professors focus on Euro-American history with other professors focusing on South Asian (Indian), East Asian (Chinese), and other regions of the world. I am humbly requesting a similar model for American philosophy departments. Just as in other departments, philosophy also should not be West-only and also not “West and all the aggregated rest” either.

Further, I disagree with their statement, “We certainly would not list ourselves as specialists in any LCTP (Less Commonly Taught Philosophies), but we both draw from a variety of traditions and cultures in the classroom. We suspect this kind of practice is widespread”. This kind of sprinkling of non-Western traditions is not the way citizens of today’s globalized and pluralistic world can be prepared. This approach will continue to keep American philosophy students oblivious about the worldviews of more than three fourth of world’s population whose heritage is not based on Western thought.

A Shrug Is Not Enough

So, when philosophy folks say, “we cannot cover every kind of philosophy,” they effective end up dedicating almost 100% of their resources on the knowledge traditions of less than quarter of humankind. No other discipline is as parochial and xenophobic as this oldest humanities discipline that is now the most obsolete as well. One final and important criticism they make is this,

We subscribe to a different conception of philosophy. On our view, philosophy does not primarily consist of a series of problems (e.g., free will; intrinsic value) which one can take a variety of positions on. Philosophy consists of a tradition and a narrative across time.  The thoughts of Hegel or Heidegger can best be understood as a rumination on an ongoing conversation involving Nietzsche, Christianity, Duns Scotus, Aristotle, Plato, etc.

In short, we picture philosophy in narrative and historical terms as embedded in cultural contexts. And given that there is only so much time and so many credit hours in the degree plan, a philosophical education is understandably limited to one tradition (though, again, not exclusively – there should be room for cross-cultural comparisons).

This again shows some blind spots in their thinking. Are they forgetting once again the long history of interactions among Western and Asian philosophers? For instance, what about such monumental works as The Shape of Ancient Thought (McEvilley 2002) that demonstrate continuous exchanges between Greek and Indian philosophers? Similarly, others have demonstrated similar exchanges between Indian and Greek Aesthetics (Gupt 1994), Christianity and Buddhism, European Enlightenment with Muslim and Indian traditions and so on. When much of the history of the Western intellectual tradition has been a history of interactions with Muslims and Asians, why must today’s American students forget all those interactions and live as if three fourth of world’s people do not exist intellectually?

In conclusion, most of the arguments by Briggle and Frodeman are already responded by Van Norden and others. I hope my colleagues will recognize their blind spots and be as zealous about internationality of philosophy as they have been about interdisciplinarity. It is time for our field philosophers to realize that the field today already has become a global village. The study of LCTP is not just about justice, diversity, or identity politics, it is about professional ethical commitment to preparing tomorrow’s students as well-rounded as possible. Philosophy professors need to just look over their shoulders at their Religious Studies, Anthropology, and History colleagues and that will be a good beginning.

Contact details: pankaj.jain@unt.edu

References

Gupt, Bharat. Dramatic Concepts Greek & Indian: A Study of the Poetics and the Nāṭyaśāstra. New Delhi: D.K. Printworld, 1994.

McEvilley, T. The Shape of Ancient Thought: Comparative studies in Greek and Indian philosophies. New York: Allworth Press, 2002.

Van, N. B. W. Taking Back Philosophy: A Multicultural Manifesto. Columbia University Press, 2017.

[1] https://www.nsf.gov/statistics/2015/nsf15328/

Author Information: Robert Piercey, Campion College at the University of Regina, robert.piercey@uregina.ca

Piercey, Robert. “Faraway, So Close: Further Thoughts on Kanonbildung.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 5 (2018): 33-38.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3Xg

Please refer to:

In the courtyard of Humboldt University, where Georg Hegel taught at the apex of his institutional career.
Image by Joan via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

I’d like to thank Maxim Demin and Alexei Kouprianov for their probing study of Kanonbildung in 19th century Germany. As I understand it, the study has two goals. The first is substantive: to gather and present facts about how a particular philosophical canon emerged in 19th century Germany. The other is methodological: “to develop formalised methods of studying Kanonbildung as a process,” methods which “may turn out to be useful beyond the original scope of our project, in a wide range of possible studies in intellectual history and mechanics of cultural memory formation” (113).

It’s this second goal that I find particularly interesting. So in what follows, I won’t quarrel with the substantive conclusions Demin and Kouprianov draw about the formation of the 19th century German philosophical canon—in part because their conclusions strike me as plausible, and in part because I lack the expertise to challenge their findings. Instead, I’d like to reflect broadly on the methods they use to study Kanonbildung, especially the notion of distant reading which they borrow from Franco Moretti (113). More specifically, I’d like to raise some questions about whether, how, and to what extent their strategy of distant reading must be supplemented by a form of close reading: namely, a form that treats histories of philosophy as literary artifacts whose contents are to be studied by many of the same techniques brought to bear on fictional narratives.

I raise these questions as a philosopher interested in the philosophy of history and in the intersections between philosophy and literature. To be clear, I don’t reject the methods developed by Demin and Kouprianov. On the contrary, I suspect that distant reading has an important role to play in the history of philosophy in general, and in the study of canon formation in particular. But I’d like to suggest that this method becomes more useful when it is supplemented by others—as well as to raise some questions about what this supplementing might look like.

Canon: An Institution of Thought

Let me start by highlighting what I take to be the key points of Demin’s and Kouprianov’s  analysis. They describe themselves as contributing to an institutional history of philosophy: that is, a history that downplays the “conceptual reconstruction” of past views in favour of a “study of practices” (113). The practices that interest them most are the “implicit rules and patterns” (113, emphasis added) that shape philosophers’ understandings of what their activity is and how it should proceed—practices typically not noticed by philosophers themselves. And the epoch that interests them is the 19th century, since it was during this period “that the history of philosophy began its transformation from a generalised body of knowledge into an academic discipline” (112).

A crucial part of this transformation is the development of philosophical canons. Demin and Kouprianov say relatively little about what they think canons are. Very roughly, I take them to be groups of thinkers who are seen as representing the highest and most important achievements of philosophy as a practice, thinkers with whom one should be familiar if one wishes to understand or contribute to philosophy at all.

Furthermore, a canon consists of not just a list of thinkers, but some sort of ranking, some sense—perhaps not fully explicit—of each thinker’s relative importance. In the canon Demin and Kouprianov study, for instance, philosophers are variously described as “primary,” “secondary,” or “tertiary” (116). Understood in this way, canons perform several important functions. They perform sociological functions of “indoctrination and identity formation” (113). By the end of the 19th century in Germany, a familiarity with Kant, Hegel, and others had come to shape philosophers’ understandings of their enterprise to such an extent that it was probably a necessary condition of being considered a philosopher at all.

Canons presumably perform other functions as well—for instance, inspiring philosophers by providing “mountains peaks to look up towards,” in Richard Rorty’s phrase.[1] Canons can change dramatically over time. So if one wants to understand a particular period in the history of philosophy well, it is important to know not just which figures it considered canonical, but how and when its particular canon was formed. That is what Demin and Kouprianov set out to discover about 19th century Germany.

What Is Distant Reading?

As mentioned above, the methods they use to do so go by the name of distant reading. This term was coined by Franco Moretti to designate a particular way of studying literary texts. It is to be opposed to close reading, which privileges the contents of particular texts and engages in “the analysis of ideas and the reconstruction of conceptual schemata” (113). Distant reading focuses instead on the practices “standing behind” these texts, using “formal analytic methods” to uncover “objective characteristics of large amounts of digitised texts” (113).

I take it that the authors see distant reading not as intrinsically superior to all other approaches, but as a way of correcting an imbalance. Their suggestion seems to be that the study of the history of philosophy heretofore has been so dominated by close reading that it has overlooked “implicit rules and patterns” (113). Distant reading nudges the pendulum in the other direction by encouraging historians to pay “closer attention” (113, emphasis added) to previously overlooked practices.

With this goal in mind, Demin and Kouprianov examine a large number of 19th century German works in the history of philosophy, constructing a data set that reveals how often particular philosophers were mentioned and at what length they were discussed. Examining “845 [table of contents] entries for 151 philosophers’ names,” they compile data about the “number of pages devoted to each philosopher” in these works, the “share of the 19th century section devoted to him,” and the “start and end pages of the paragraph and those of the 19th century section” (114).

The result is a very precise snapshot of how much discussion was devoted to certain philosophers at various points in the 19th century—one that allows us to trace the ways in which interest in these figures increased, peaked, and in some cases declined as the century unfolded. It lets us see precisely how and when certain figures came to be seen as more canonical than others.

This approach bears several sorts of fruit. One—in keeping with the authors’ second, methodological goal—is that it spurs the invention of new concepts helpful for making sense of the data. The undertheorized concept of a “philosophical bestseller” (115), for instance, announces itself as important, and can be defined quite precisely as a work published three times or more. Likewise, their approach allows Demin and Kouprianov to develop precise markers of the perceived greatness of philosophers, in terms of “the frequency that a particular name appears across tables of contents” (117). A primary thinker, for instance, can be defined as one “mentioned in more than 80% of treatises” (117).

Other gains are substantive. We learn that the reputations of Kant, Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel were cemented between 1831 and 1855, as the rate at which they were mentioned outpaced that of other thinkers. And we learn that a common view of Schopenhauer—that he was underappreciated in his lifetime and scorned by the philosophical establishment—is false, “with his views being included in three textbooks by 1855” (118). These are important discoveries, and they demonstrate the value of the authors’ strategy of distant reading.

The new museum at Humbolt University.
Image by Bartek Kuzia via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Shifting Fortunes of Fame

Of course, as Demin and Kouprianov acknowledge, “presence in the canonic history does not tell us much about the part a philosopher played within it” (119). In order to bring this dimension into view, they use several additional techniques. The one I find most intriguing is their examination of where certain philosophers appear in various histories of philosophy, and more specifically, their study of how often various philosophers appear at the end of a history.

The authors focus on three philosophers—Herbart, Schleiermacher, and Fries—who are often discussed in conjunction with Hegel. Then they see how often the figures in question are discussed before Hegel, and how often they are discussed after. “This relative position,” they explain, “is an indirect but a most meaningful criterion which allows to assess the degree of perceived recency and relevancy of a given philosopher. The closer a philosopher stays to the end of the list, the more ‘recent’ and ‘relevant’ to the current debate he is” (123).

This view seems plausible, and in the authors’ hands, it sheds important new light on how these four thinkers were viewed at various points in the 19th century. But we should note that it makes a crucial assumption. In order to move from the premise that a history discusses a given philosopher last to the conclusion that it sees him as most relevant to current debates, we must assume that it tells a particular kind of story: roughly speaking, a progressive story.

We must assume that the historian has organized her data in a very particular way, with the episodes of her story becoming more and more germane to contemporary readers’ concerns as they get closer and closer to them in time. No doubt many, if not most, histories of philosophy actually are stories of this kind. But is a philosopher’s position in a given history a good general clue to her perceived relevance? Is it such a reliable indicator of perceived importance that it should be built into a method intended for use “in a wide range of possible studies in intellectual history” (113)?

Philosophy as a Tradition

I linger over this matter because it raises an important issue in the history of philosophy: the issue of genre. Histories of philosophy, I take it, are narratives, and every narrative belongs to some genre or other.[2] Narratives in different genres may describe the same events in the same order, but assign them different meanings by shaping these events into different sorts of plots. The philosopher who has contributed most to our understanding of this process is Hayden White. In his seminal essay “The Historical Text as Literary Artifact,” White asks us to consider several different ways in which a single series of events might be emplotted. We can imagine a pure chronicle in which the series is “simply recorded in which the events originally occurred” (93); it might be represented in the following way:

  • a, b, c, d, e, …, n[3]

But this series “can be emplotted in a number of different ways and thereby endowed with different meanings without violating the imperatives of the chronological arrangement at all” (92). The following series are all equally possible:

  • A, b, c, d, e, …, n
  • a, B, c, d, e, …, n
  • a, b, C, d, e, …, n
  • a, b, c, D, e, …, n[4]

In each of these series, one event is symbolized with a capital letter to indicate that it is being assigned “explanatory force,”[5] or some other special significance, with respect to the others. Privileging one event rather than another yields stories in different genres. Series (2) would be a “deterministic” history which endows a “putatively original event (a) with the status of a decisive factor (A) in the structuration of the whole series of events following after it.”[6] Were we to privilege the last event in the series, we would have a story in the genre of “eschatological or apocalyptical histories” such as “St. Augustine’s City of God” and “Hegel’s Philosophy of History.”[7]

Many other permutations, and thus many other genres, are possible. In some genres, it is plausible to suppose that the last figure discussed is seen by the author as most relevant to current concerns. But in other genres, this assumption cannot be made. In a history of decline or forgetting, the last figure discussed might well be seen by the author as the least relevant to these concerns. Consider a Heideggerian history of philosophy, in which the last figure discussed is Nietzsche, but the figure most relevant to the contemporary situation is one or another pre-Socratic thinker.

The point is that knowing that a philosopher appears last in a given history—even in a large number of histories—does not tell us much about how the author understood his significance for current concerns. To draw conclusions about significance, we must know the genre (or genres) of the history (or histories) in question. And that is something we can discover only through careful attention to a history’s “literary” features—precisely the features identified through traditional close readings. So while the data Demin and Kouprianov uncover, and the methods they use to do so, are indispensable, I suspect they do not give a full picture of Kanonbildung on their own. They will be most useful when pursued in tandem with certain types of close reading.

Merging Historical Paths

I have no reason to think that Demin and Kouprianov would deny any of this. But I would like to know more about whether, and how, they think it complicates their project. What is the relation between distant reading and close reading? Do these types of analysis simply complement each other, or are they also in tension? I’ve already speculated that the authors see distant reading as a way of correcting an imbalance—that “formal analytic methods” directed at the “objective characteristics… of digitised texts” (113) are called for today because a longstanding bias toward close reading has left historians oblivious to implicit rules and patterns.

If that is the case, is there a danger that performing close reading in conjunction with distant reading will overshadow the distinctive value of the latter? I don’t know the answers to these questions, but I suspect that it will be important to answer them if the methods of this study are to be extended to other areas.

I hasten to add that I am not “for” close reading or “against” distant reading. Distant reading, as the authors describe it, is clearly an important tool. But I would like to know more about how it relates to the other tools at the disposal of historians of philosophy. Whatever their view of this matter, I’d like to thank Demin and Kouprianov again for making a promising new contribution to our conceptual toolbox.

Contact details: robert.piercey@uregina.ca

References

Demin, Maxim, and Alexei Kouprianov, “Studying Kanonbildung: An Exercise in a Distant Reading of Contemporary Self-descriptions of the 19th Century German Philosophy.” Social Epistemology, 32, no. 2: 112-127.

Kuukkanen, Jouni-Matti. Postnarrativist Philosophy of Historiography. Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015.

Rorty, Richard “The Historiography of Philosophy: Four Genres,” in Philosophy in History, ed. Richard Rorty, Jerome Schneewind, and Quentin Skinner. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984.

White, Hayden. “The Historical Text as Literary Artifact,” in Tropics of Discourse: Essays in Cultural Criticism. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978.

[1] Richard Rorty, “The Historiography of Philosophy: Four Genres,” in Philosophy in History, ed. Richard Rorty, Jerome Schneewind, and Quentin Skinner (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), 23.

[2] Not everyone agrees that all histories are narratives, but space does not permit me to broach this issue here. For an important recent discussion of it, see Jouni-Matti Kuukkanen, Postnarrativist Philosophy of Historiography (Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), especially Chapter 5.

[3] Hayden White, “The Historical Text as Literary Artifact,” in Tropics of Discourse: Essays in Cultural Criticism (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978), 92.

[4] White, 92.

[5] White, 92.

[6] White, 93.

[7] White, 93.

Author Information: Bernard Wills, Memorial University, bwills@grenfell.mun.ca

Wills, Bernard. “Our Weimar Moment, Part Three.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 3 (2018): 32-37.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3VO

Please refer to:

These considerations seem to argue for some type of social-democratic ideal perhaps along Scandinavian lines. This, of course, is not a sure bet. Capital of its very nature will seek to subvert and destroy mixed economies of the social democratic type because it cannot internalize the notion of limit. As such regimes cannot exist without capital they will always be forced to accede to its demands, particularly in a globalized context. Given this a rapprochement between Capital and xenophobic nationalism, Fascism in other words, seems like a strangely logical if, finally, contradictory choice.[1]

A poster from 2012 of Barack Obama as a fascist dictator in the model of Hitler, doubling as an ad for the extremist website Infowars. Image by Madame LaZonga via Flickr / Creative Commons

For those who receive none of the benefits of globalism but bear most of its burdens it may well be a compelling choice. I should point out that in the context of declining public trust in institutions Fascist style myths of national redemption are fatally tempting. Of course neo-liberalism has laid the groundwork for this with its mania for privatizing public assets, often at low cost. These measures, along with ‘austerity’ budgets reduce the efficacy of institutions which can then be portrayed as inept and beyond reform by those who want to profit from their sale.

In this the neo-liberals make strange bedfellows with many radicals who also call for the dismantling of state institutions like the police and military: essentially, both groups take as their target the modern state which one sees as oppressive of economic enterprise and the other sees as oppressive of racial, class and gender difference. Battered from all sides of the political spectrum it is little wonder the state is now an object of general suspicion and contempt. It is little wonder people seek solutions that are radical though radical need not always (or indeed ever) equal progressive.[2]

Here, however, let me address something I think is a crucial error. We are hearing more and more of the ‘weakness of liberalism’ with the disturbing implication that we need something less rather than more liberal to deal with our current crisis. This argument, as it always has, runs like this. Liberalism is committed to the notion of pure tolerance and is thus incapable of opposing the rising tide of extremism. A commitment to pure liberalism will thus destroy liberalism altogether as extremists will use the cover of bourgeois civil rights to subvert the state. This is backed, again as always, with the argument ad Hitleram.

Exactly as the Weimar Republic was ‘too free’ so we are ‘too free’. If only, the argument goes, the Weimar state had been less tolerant and liberal force could have been used to stop the spread of Nazi ideology.[3] Thus, we too, if we are too ‘liberal’, will meet the same fate. This argument is surely balderdash. Firstly, what was it that rendered Nazi ideology a fringe phenomenon for the second half of the 20th century? Why was it that for so many decades, fascism was the preserve of isolated cranks, street thugs and lunatics? Clearly because the post war liberal consensus I have referred to above had widespread support. When did Fascism re-emerge as an option? Precisely when pro-market ideology succeeded in destroying that consensus.

It is simply wrong that Fascism has re-emerged because of excessive liberalism: Fascism re-emerged when liberalism was subverted, when liberals themselves sold out their principles to the emerging class of financiers, speculators and media barons. What is more, this is yet another argument curiously appropriated from the far right: it has been the insistent claim of right wing Islamophobes that ‘Liberalism’ is unsustainable because it entails the tolerance of “Islamists” and those feckless voices on the ‘left’ who undermine the West’s will to fight with their constant critiques of colonial oppression and craven apologies for acts of terror.

Indeed, I find it odd that a rhetorical ploy used so often on the right has now been picked up by the left apparently without anyone noticing. How many times have we been told by Bushes, Blairs and others that opposition to some foreign intervention was ‘appeasement’ because some foreign leader was the next ‘Hitler’? I certainly do think Trump represents a form of Fascism (as I explained above) but it is well to remember that Trump is NOT Hilter. For one thing his movement has nothing like the ideological coherence of the Nazi Party (as noted above) nor has he anything like the shrewdness or determination or even basic competence of its leader. He also leads a country that has a long tradition of anti-authoritarian politics and (for now at least) some functioning checks and balances.

This is important for two reasons. Firstly, the Hitler comparison creates the perception of an emergency to which any response is in principle justified: what would one not do to stop the next holocaust? Secondly, this response closes off an important discussion. If the problem with Trump is that he is Hitler then it follows that his supporters are the new Nazis: this dehumanizes them and renders their concerns moot. Politically this is disastrous for many (though not all) Trump supporters are legitimately upset about the failures of the neo-Liberal order. Fascism does not flourish in a vacuum and Trumpism is not reducible to slow witted people deciding to be jerks. Identifying and allaying these underlying anxieties and tensions is the real work of anti-fascists though it involves less than exhilarating things like humility and listening to others.[4]

A memorial statue of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in eastern Berlin. Image by Joan Sorolla via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Getting this balance right is crucial for the stakes are high. I believe what is at stake is a crucial component of the modern project. I believe that there is more to the idea of globalism than the ghastly parody of the Washington Consensus. I believe the ideal of a catholic and universal human society is a necessary moral challenge and a marvelous opportunity for human growth. Are we really better off retreating into the parochialism of pre-modern societies? Are we better off fearing and scapegoating the other? Are we better off with the old national rivalries and their attendant violence?

I say this in full awareness that supra-national institutions in the past have taken oppressive and imperial forms (such as the Romans and Ottomans or the modern imperialisms of the Americans and British). If there is something to be saved from the ideologies that drove those societies, it is the idea of universality: not of a universal military or commercial hegemony as in the past but of a moral society of all humans. To use Kant’s phrase there is a Kingdom of Ends that is unlimited in scope and illimitable in principle. We now know, due the simple fact of global communications, that the other is not a monster or if he is a monster, is no more a monster than we are capable of being. We have no need to engage in speculation like a Medieval person would have to concerning distant folk such as the Moors.

Given modern technology the other is among us whether we will it or no. The universal society is a simple fact however much we try to deny the moral implications of it. It is a fact that confronts us every day in the form of the world wide web. To use the language of Marx the material conditions of society already point to the necessity of a universal community!

This is reflected even in demographics: no western society currently has any future that does not involve an infusion of workers and consumers from other societies. Moreover, the many people in the west who do benefit from our current economic system will not easily forego new opportunities for consumption: having tried sushi they will not go back to meat and potatoes grown locally.

Lest both my right and left leaning colleagues sniff at the superficiality of the dining classes with their pumpkin lattes and craft beers let me say that there are many who enjoy the liberty of cultural contacts with other parts of the globe who will not give this up either. In other words, every western society contains a cosmopolitan impulse which will have at least some say in any proposed future and these people wish no return to the pristine purity of square dancing and tractor pulls. I do not mean to be flippant here: in small ways as well as in large we are coming to the understanding of Terence that nothing human is alien. This is the ideal that was once embodied in the old notion of Romanitas and persists though the imperial days of Rome are long gone.

It is well to remember that the first wave of political innovation in the West was the revived imperium of Charlemagne, a distant ancestor of our current European Union. Western culture at its best (as opposed to its worst) has never been about elevating the parochial for its own sake. Almost from the beginning (in spite of its wonderful and lively vernacular literatures) it employed the lingua franca of Latin as the universal norm of cultural discourse. This idea of universalism always has and always will meet resistance for openness entails risk and universalist ideals noble in conception have often disgraced themselves in practice. The temptation to turn our backs on this tradition are thus ever present. Yet those on the far right who trumpet ‘European identity’ while betraying everything good that Europe has ever accomplished not only deny the evident social facts of our world but its deepest moral potential as well.

Practically this means working to strengthen such international institutions as now exist and create new ones that can exercise some control over the flow of capital and enforce common labor and environmental standards. This means, and my right leaning readers will not like this, that I am indeed a globalist. As the ravages of unrestrained capitalism and environmental degradation are a global problem they call forth a global solution.

Similarly, my anarchist readers will also be displeased for I do not envisage the dissolution of the nation state but rather international agreements that will strengthen it as there is little way to enforce common international standards that bypasses national sovereignty. What, for instance, if trade deals between nations were used to buttress labor and environmental standards rather than subvert them? What if corporations that roam the globe looking for the weakest regulations and most immiserated workers were simply shut out of their own markets by newly empowered national governments?[5]

Both right and left envisage a world of spontaneously self-organizing social systems. The first group tell us that these are markets which if left to their own devices will slowly but surely solve all problems. The second group envisage workers organizing into guild like social collectives which can meet all basic needs on a purely local level. Both of these notions belong in the realm of utopian fiction. As Plato long ago pointed out classes emerge from any complex social order: antagonism and difference are grounded in the ineradicable particularity of human experience.

The individual does not merge directly with the collective but must be disciplined by the mediating power of civic institutions to regard the freedom of the other as her own. In other words, evil will always emerge as individuals absolutize their differences and the state (in whatever form it takes) is required to contain and harness these conflicts for good.[6] This banal fact of human experience has long been enshrined in religious and mythic conceptions such as the fall from paradise.

To put it bluntly, the communes envisaged by the anarchists and syndicalists (or any other form of social organization that assumes a direct harmony of interests between human beings) will last as long as it takes for the first love triangle to emerge: for the first individual to oppose absolutely h is subjectivity to another (as in the story of Cain and Abel). On this point at least the existentialist tradition (think of Dostoevsky’s underground man) has a much firmer grasp on reality than the Marxist as it recognizes the necessity of evil and conflict for the emergence of freedom.[7]

Contact details: bwills@grenfell.mun.ca

References

“”We Made a Devil’s Bargain”: Fmr. President Clinton Apologizes for Trade Policies that Destroyed Haitian Rice Farming” (https://www.democracynow.org/2010/4/1/)

Aeschylus, The Suppliants trans. Phillip Vellacott (Penguin Classics, London 1961)

Barzun, Jacques. Darwin, Marx, Wagner (Doubleday Books, New York, 1958)

Baudrillard, Jean, The Mirror of Production trans. Mark Poster (Telos Press, St. Louis, 1975)

Blake, William. The Marriage of Heaven and Hell from The Complete Poems (Penguin Classics, London, 1978)

Blum, George P. The Rise of Fascism in Europe (Greenwood Press, Westport, 1998)

Danticat, Edwige “Sweet Micky and the Sad DeJa Vu of Haiti’s Presidential Elections” (New Yorker, Dec.3, 2015)

Eagleton, Terry. Marx (Orion Publishing Group Ltd., London 1997)

Edmonds, Ennis B. Rastafari, A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2012)

Frank, Dana. “The Thugocracy Next Door” Politico. Retrieved from http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2014/02.

Hegel, GWF. The Phenomenology of Mind (Harper Torchbook, New York, 1967)

Heilbroner, Robert. Twenty First Century Capitalism (Anansi Press, Concord, 1992)

Marx, Karl and Engels, Friedrich. The Communist Manifesto (Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1986)

Marx, Karl, and Engels, Friedrich. The German Ideology (International Publishers, New York, 1970)

Russell Hochschild, Arlie: “The Ecstatic Edge of Politics: Sociology and Donald Trump (http://www.asanet.org/sites/default/files/attach/journals/nov16csfeature_0.pdf)

Pulver, Matthew. “Bill and Hillary’s Hyper-Capitalist Disaster: How the Clintons Can Apologize for a Decade of Deadly Policies”

Spielvogel, Jackson J. Hitler and Nazi Germany (Pearson Prentice Hall, Upper Saddle River, 2005)

[1] In Nazi Germany this contradiction was only resolved by the personality cult of Adolf Hitler to whom, finally, the German nation and all the institutions it contained became expendable. The interests of Capital, the Army and so on were sacrificed to a war of national suicide of which the charisma and will of the fuehrer was the only binding principle. That this will was fundamentally nihilistic is shown by the fanatical orders of Hitler’s last days, orders only subverted by the intervention of Albert Speer.

[2] The easy convergence of these two positions should give us pause. That extremists of the alt-right and anti- fascist radicals on the left closely resemble each other is something readily discerned by anyone not an alt-right extremist and anti-fascist radical leftist. I do not simply refer to their unbending dogmatism or their penchant for reflexive verbal aggression and ad hominem attacks. I refer to the deeper truth that both groups are fundamentally Gnostic/Manichean in outlook. They are the lone voices of reason and integrity in an utterly corrupt world where public institutions need to be smashed instead of reformed and armies and police replaced with private militias culled from the remnant of the saints. In other words, to use a theological vocabulary, their outlook is sectarian not catholic (political errors are often secular transcriptions of theological ones). Indeed, one is reminded of Hegel’s claim that ‘absolute freedom’ finds its logical fulfilment in murderous acts of political terror: “Universal freedom can thus produce neither a positive achievement nor a deed, there is left for it only negative action; it is merely the rage and fury of destruction.” (The Phenomenology of Mind, 604).

[3] The ‘liberal’ character of the Weimar Republic should not be exaggerated, at least in this respect. As the Munich putsch illustrates attempts were made to suppress Nazism both by direct force and the banning of Nazi publications. These ultimately failed because a divided judiciary and army (many of whom were sympathetic to nationalism) were unable or unwilling to back up the fledgling Republic. (see Spielvogel, 36-39) Even so, as George Blum notes: “As economic conditions improved after the mid-1920’s, following a currency reform and the infusion of foreign credits, the prospects of parliamentary democracy were much enhanced. It is quite likely that it would have survived in Germany and Nazism would have remained a boisterous fringe movement if the chaos of the Great Depression had not cut short economic prosperity and social stability.” (8) Perhaps it is not free speech we should avoid but depressions.

[4] Exemplary in this respect is Arlie Russell Hochschild: “The Ecstatic Edge of Politics: Sociology and Donald Trump “ (http://www.asanet.org/sites/default/files/attach/journals/nov16csfeature_0.pdf). Changing the narrative of Trump voters requires understanding the narrative of Trump voters. Russell Hochschild points out that this narrative is theological at base and very deeply embedded in the thought forms of American Protestantism (688). Appeals to reason will not affect it. Immiserated whites who abandon myth for reason will live in the exact same devastated communities as before and their view of them will only be that much bleaker. If Trump’s base is to be cracked by a progressive political party, incentives will need to be offered to his supporters to trade their despairing ‘deep story’ for a more hopeful narrative. Clinton lost to Trump because she did not offer such an incentive in material, moral or indeed any other form. No doubt she could not make such an offer loudly and publicly without offending the corporate donor class, which is most likely why she did not even campaign in the rust belt states that cost her the election.

[5] Is it inherently irrational to suggest that countries which try undercut other countries by slashing worker’s rights and throwing out health and safety regulations should simply be excluded from trading blocs that agree to enforce common standards in such matters? Corporations, of course, can impose no discipline on themselves in such matters but might they become so worried about the prospects of global capitalism that, like addicts, they agree to have their hands tied by the state?

[6] It is difficult to know why anyone would assume otherwise. The impression Marx leaves is that in a society without class conflict the individuality of each will fall into immediate harmony with the individuality of all which might, for all one knows, be true if it were not that class conflict is just one subset of conflict in general. People on the same side in the class war are quite capable of utter viciousness to each other as anyone can confirm by hanging around Socialists (or workers for that matter) for any length of time. I have spoken elsewhere of the grave loss to self-knowledge that comes from the occlusion of the theological tradition. This is a case in point: without the myth of the fall people have lost a powerful skeptical check on their motives and can, with fatal ease, identify their basest impulses with their highest and most noble aspirations. It is noteworthy that original sin is probably the least popular Christian doctrine though it is the only one capable of %100 empirical confirmation.

[7] And here I must register my fundamental criticism of Marx (at least the utopian Marx) and the point on which he has failed to heed his teacher Hegel. Total freedom can only take the form of absolute tyranny. Thus it is not in fact an accident that Marx, who gives us a wonderful vision of the possibilities of human freedom (see Eagleton, 19-23), has given us also a formula for abject tyranny. Marx of course recognizes dialectical opposition as central to history. This is what the history of class struggle is all about. However, the notion that these tensions will directly resolve themselves once the capitalist state is overthrown is both forlorn and dangerous. Forlorn because it cannot happen (differentiation will inevitably occur) and dangerous because once the ‘individual’ has been reconciled to the ‘collective’ any further assertion of personal will or individuality will simply be a falling off from the good and an object of immediate suppression. The final state can allow no real opposition or difference to emerge as the historical problem will be, supposedly, solved. This is Blake’s warning about the ‘religious’ who seek to dissolve the tensions of history into a bland unity. (MHH 16, 10) This is also the price paid for historicizing a religious symbol (the millennium and the kingdom of God) and attempting to make of it a literal reality. Thus, the utopian strain in in Marx should at very least be an object of reserve and skepticism: it is no longer possible to separate the hope of Utopian thinking from the specter of mass murder.

Author Information: Bernard Wills, Memorial University of Newfoundland and Labrador, bwills@grenfell.mun.ca

Wills, Bernard. “Conservatism: The End of An Idea.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 12 (2017): 7-16.

The pdf of the article refers to specific page numbers. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3R9

Image from Carnaval.com Studios via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

I recently noticed that conservatism as a political stance is definitively dead. Truth is it has been on life support for decades. This has not stopped all sorts of people from using the term both positively and negatively. All sorts of people proudly proclaim themselves to be conservatives while others angrily denounce people as conservatives. The death of conservatism means, for starters, that neither group fully grasps of the term they are using. The word has become utterly detached from the thing. Another thing it means is that an individual may have conservative opinions but only in the sense that an individual may worship the goddess Artemis in her back yard or live like a 17th Century Puritan. It is a private eccentricity with no public institutional reality. The death of conservatism is then something like the death of God.

A New Classification of Politics: Three Ideologies

There is no significance to taking any public stand as a conservative. This is for one basic reason. This reason is that the victory of ideology in contemporary politics is now total and that conservatism is not an ideology.[1] Our political discourse is now divided between three ideological stances: the progressive, the neo-liberal and ethno-nationalist stances. So called social conservatives used to exist but they have utterly disappeared into the third stance as is plain with the rise of Trump in the United States and the rise of similar populists elsewhere.[2] There are now no social conservatives of any note who are not also ethno-nationalists and indeed primarily ethno-nationalists.

This is absolutely evident from their obsession with a purported clash of civilizations between the West and Islam. By and large Muslims share the values of social conservatives when it comes to things like family, modesty, the centrality of religion and so on. Yet social conservatives despise and fear Muslims all the same making it plain that by family values they mean white Anglo-Saxon family values and by piety they mean white Anglo-Saxon piety. That is the core of the ethno-nationalist position: that western Christian values are cherished not for their supposed universality but as the foundation of a tribal identity. From time to time the neo-Liberal stance is classified as ‘conservative’ though for no reason I can fathom: as Marx pointed out predatory capitalism rips the veil form all traditional pieties by reducing everything to a cash value. The proposition that limitless accumulation is the aim of life and indeed the primary duty of a citizen is consistent with no ancient wisdom I know of religious or otherwise.

Conservatism then is no more. Is this a good thing or a bad thing? It is hardly my place to say: conservatism itself advises us that like all human constructions it is finite and imperfect. However, at this point the reader may well be waiting, impatiently, for a definition of conservatism. What is it that I say has died?

I will proceed to offer if not a definition then an account of what conservatism is in the root sense of the word: an attitude to the world which seeks to conserve or protect those principles, values or institutions on which genuine human flourishing has always and will always rest. It will then be evident that people who use the term most loudly haven’t the faintest interest in conservatism or conservative values and perhaps never have. Of course, I run the risk of baffling people (both boosters and knockers) who will not recognize their version of conservatism in anything I say. I ask such people to be patient until I finish my exposition.

How Were We Able to Drink Up the Sea?

I said above that conservatism is not an ideology: from writers labelled ‘conservative’ it would be difficult to cull a doctrinal statement. This means that it has no definition in the sense of a core statement of doctrine or set of prescriptive demands: it is, if like, the position which is not a position but rather an attitude and a practice. However, I can give you a living example of it from a much despised source.

I find an excellent description of conservatism as a life stance expressed in the five pillars of the Islamic faith.[3] Soi-disant ‘conservatives’ who are shocked and angered by this should ask themselves why as these values seem to me core to any conservative stance towards the world. The first of these pillars is the shahada or profession of faith: There is no god but god and Mohammed is his prophet. Now conservatism does not inherently care about the latter part of this assertion: it is happy to recognize a multitude of other prophets who have taught in other parts of the world such as Siddartha, Jesus, or Confucius.

The first however is essential: conservatism is theocratic in orientation. Humans are first and foremost unconditionally responsible to a divine order: to the standards which are ultimate because they are founded in the unchanging nature of God. No human being is to place any finite value, such as family, clan, party in the place of God. The regard the finite as infinite in value and as an absolute end is to commit the arch-error of shirk. On this basis conservatism attaches only a qualified value to the goods of this world: it does not absolutize the relative. No movement, no passion, no interest which is merely human or temporary can trump our duty to god and his sovereign will. Order is prior absolutely to freedom and in fact it is true freedom to recognize this.

Of course this whole position is pointless if we do not know God’s will. Fortunately, it is of the nature of god to reveal himself in scriptures, historical events, the exemplary deeds of prophets and saints and so on. God is present and active in the world. His will is manifest in the sacred teachings and philosophies (the philosophia perennialis) of the world as in the depths of our own conscience.[4] Indeed, his will is present even in those conscious non-believers who nonetheless enshrine the eternal verities (the good, the beautiful and the true) within their hearts.

For this reason, the second pillar enjoins us to prayer. Humans must remember and acknowledge both internally and externally the absoluteness of God. This is important because it cuts against the grain. Our tendency is to lose focus in the midst of the world’s distractions. We wander away from our final end and our ultimate good. We put wealth, or lust, or power or anger at the center of our lives instead of the union with god we all intrinsically long for. We miss our happiness by seeking it in things that cannot, of their very metaphysical nature, supply it.

This is why prayer, both personal and liturgical is central to a well lived life for in prayer we re-collect our ultimate aim, the peace that comes of divine union. This peace is the aim of all prayer even when expressed in its lowest manifestation which is petitionary prayer. Conservatism calls us to recollect those spiritual values that make for true fulfillment against everything faddish and temporary. It calls to put the eternal always before the merely modish and to this extent prayer is one of its liveliest manifestations as it a call to remember god in the midst of this world.

A Union of Materialism and Faith

Yet our lives are in this world too. Conservatism rejects the pessimism of the millenarian and gnostic. It does not long for an immanent millennium to destroy the present world order but waits patiently for the fulfillment of things in the fullness of time. Thus, when faced with the worldly Gnosticism of the secular revolutionary or the religious despair of those who simply wish to be raptured into eternity as the world burns it counsels skepticism. Thus, as our status in the next world is determined by how we live in this one our duty to god is also our duty to community. Almsgiving is then a conservative value. Wealth exists to be shared. It is not an idol and not an end. It is a means to community and those who are blessed with it in turn bless others. Wealth selfishly hoarded is not wealth at all and thus zakat is enjoined on all believers.

This is especially important as we tend to the selfish and misguided view that our wealth is the deserved result of our special virtue whereas in truth all good things come from god and god alone. As it comes from god it is given back to god as god is present in the neediness of our neighbors and the needs of our community. How vulgar then is the so called ‘prosperity gospel’ preached by certain Christians who claim to have Jesus in their hearts when they do not even have Mohammed! There are many displays of vulgar wealth in the Islamic world as in ours. People in the East and the West need constant reminding that the needs of the community outweigh the wants of the individual.

This is part of our human fallibility, our tendency to forget our ultimate end for merely proximate ones. The principle of almsgiving is, however, particularly salutary for those of us living in the Christian west as our societies have made the endless accumulation of personal wealth their over-riding principle even at the expense of the very soil we live on and the air we breathe. I should note though entirely in line with conservatism zakat assumes that differences between people entail differences in wealth and that this will not be abolished but equalized through giving.

The fourth pillar counsels fasting on the sound conservative principle that we do not live for the gratification of the senses but for the fulfillment of the spirit. Fasting reminds us that the primary struggle in life is with ourselves and that the demands of the moral and communal life are at odds (often) with the gratification of the senses. Indeed, there is no substitute for the feeling of hunger as those who never feel it have no conception of the suffering of those who do. This is why great wealth so often goes with poverty of the spirit and why it is harder for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle.

Yet fasting is only one letter away from feasting. As there is a time to curb the senses there is a time to release them particularly in the context of communal celebration. As Aristotle said long ago, proper self-control involves not just self-denial, knowing when to say no to our desires, but also knowing when to indulge them: one does not gorge at a funeral or fast at a wedding. Still, as giving free rein to our desires must be choice and not compulsion our moral training will tend to focus on self-denial so that our indulgence may be unconstrained by evil habit.

Finally, the fifth pillar enjoins on us pilgrimage to Mecca and why not as life itself is a pilgrimage? T. S. Eliot prays: “help us to care and not to care” and this is the core of the notion that we are pilgrims in this world. The world of time and space we inhabit is both affirmed and transcended. We give ourselves over to finite ends yet leave the fruit of our action in the hands of providence. The finite passes over to the infinite as we give over our worldly projects and passions, releasing them into the eternal will of God.

On practical level this is a powerful inoculation against despair as the world does not bear all the weight of our expectations (which of its creaturely nature it can never bear). Consider as an example the old expression “better dead than red”. Those who uttered this expression meant that the Western Bourgeois form of freedom was freedom absolute and that its potential loss justified the nuclear annihilation of the planet. Of course, Western Bourgeois freedom (though admirable in many ways) is a provincial form of freedom. It does not exhaust every possibility of human good. Only a whig-history-on-steroids view of western institutions as the inevitable and only culmination of human history could justify such nihilism.

Conservatism will have no truck with this sentiment. History is an arena of struggle subject to advances and retreats. Yet possibilities for good remain in the darkest of times and the insanity of history can never destroy or even affect in the slightest the eternal essence of God source and ground of all good. In a godless universe, where this world is the only locus of good, history becomes a battleground in which the stakes are absolute and compromise unthinkable: hence the vicious ideological battles of those who think they have solved the riddle of history and claim to be bringing about the final human good.

When Opposition to the Radical Falls Away

Of course it can be objected that conservatism as I have described it here has no more been tried than Christianity or communism. Conservativism, one might say, has never really existed outside the elegant, wistful prose of conservatives. There is much truth to this charge yet it is, of course, true of all moral stances that their instantiations are very far indeed from their archetypal forms. Hence we get the characteristic vice of the conservative: the tendency to forget fundamental values for external privileges and the inability to identify what it is that ought, in fact, to be conserved.

Still, on the plus side of the ledger, the conservative might well ask whether his or her own view is comprehensive of all its rivals. Conservatives share with progressives a concern for justice and equity especially for the poor and marginalized. Conservatives share with ethno-nationalism a concern for the particularities of language and culture over against the homogenizing tendencies of globalism and technocracy. Conservatives even share with neo-liberals a suspicion of totalitarian power, planning and control.

However, conservatism, in the west at least, may well be dead for a more fundamental reason. This is because there is a powerful alternative to the conservative tradition and that is the radical tradition. All three of our contemporary ideologies have their roots in radicalism and are closer to each other than they can readily imagine given their current conflict. For the radical tradition the constraints imposed by tradition are in almost all cases artificial. What the conservative tradition would constrain the radical tradition would release. Radicalism envisages a flowering of human diversity, a host of new avenues in which self-hood can be explored beyond the stale platitudes of convention. This radical principle has routed conservatism (much of which expressed itself as cheap nostalgia anyway) and is the default position of all North Americans.[5]

This spirit can express itself as radical egalitarianism or its opposite. For instance, among ethno-nationalists it is assumed that the will of the demos embodies the wisdom and good sense of the people. This wisdom would readily express itself were it not for the constraints imposed by various ‘elites’ whose abstract intellectualism has lost touch with the community and indeed with reality. These elites constantly invoke the authority of science, or education or expertise or data against what ‘simple folk’ can see with their own eyes. When the demos seeks to express its will this is declared ‘unconstitutional’ or ‘against the rule of law’ by lawyers or advocacy groups or other ‘elite’ institutions.

The demos however, holds all such institutions in contempt and seeks to impose its will through a ‘great leader’ who is willing to flout them and indeed is willing to flout moral convention altogether (even moral conventions like marital fidelity to which the demos remain sentimentally attached). Thus, we have a kind of direct democracy outside of constitutional and legal constraints such as conservatism has forever warned against. That these radicals sometimes espouse ‘conservative’ seeming policies or points of view is irrelevant as they espouse them lawlessly and in a manner contemptuous of the very traditions they claim to value.

Why, for instance, is it conservative to despise the opinions of the educated and even pour contempt on the intellect itself? Such things are an expression of a rebellious and anti-authoritarian spirit. The demos trusts only in its collective judgment and not only rejects but actively despises any other principle. That this attitude is over-determined by socio-economic factors is plain but that does not make it any easier to deal with on a day to day basis especially as the scapegoating of immigrants, prisoners and others is high on the populist wish-list and the populace resents institutional constraints on its will to revenge especially.[6]

There is of course the other side of this coin and that is the populism of progressive movements such as the occupy movement, black-bloc radicals and so on.[7] These movements, it must be said, have aims that seem overall nobler and better than the beefs and resentments of populists. However, this is a weakness as much as a strength: as I said above every stance struggles with its shadow. Noble ideals are a proven danger when not accompanied by political and moral pragmatism and relentless self-examination. Moral crusaders have a distressing tendency to fumble badly when actually called upon to run things: this is because sweeping moral denunciations are a form of cheap grace while actual governance (self-governance included) is slow, patient work.

Return to Innocence Lost (or Imagined)

There is also a false innocence that can maintained simply by never facing the temptations of power. William Blake (a far deeper radical) was a persistent critic of any form of abstract moralism. For him no political or theological order could be the basis of freedom that did not overcome the problem of self-righteousness: our tendency to identify ourselves with an abstract principle of goodness and others (inevitably) with an abstract principle of evil. In a powerful image he tells us that blood sacrifice and war are the culmination of the moral law, the categories of good and evil unrelieved by charity, solidarity, or forgiveness.[8]

Moralism is for Blake a form of violence. (see for instance plates 47-51 of Jerusalem) Our care must embrace the ‘minute particulars’ of humanity: no ‘humanism’ can be liberating that puts an abstraction like ‘Humanity’ before flesh and blood human beings. We all have encountered people who virtue signal on every conceivable ‘issue’ but have little but venom in their hearts: one danger of the progressive stance lies, then, in the monsters of self-righteous zeal that it breeds.

At any rate, such people envisage (after some difficult to specify revolutionary event) a world in which a host of sexualities, ethnicities, personalities and identities flourish without constraint and (though this is surely impossible) without mutual contradiction.[9] As the economic discipline of Capitalism lies behind all other forms of oppression the current economic order must be overthrown. The suggested alternative is often some form of anarchism.

Like the populists, anarchists distrust and despise constitutionalism which after all only serves to protect the oppressors. Indeed, the anarchists despise traditional civil liberties as a form of constraint and mock those who espouse them as ‘liberals’. In particular, they resent the fact that such liberties prevent them from waging all-out war against their eternal adversary the populists. The populists heartily agree. Both sides fantasize about epic street confrontations or cyber battles that will issue in a final rout of the forces of evil. In other words, they are secular (and indeed religious) millenarians.

Each believes in a great battle, an apocalyptic convulsion that will only happen if liberals and other idiots get out of the way. A significant minority of each group considers this not just as a ‘culture war’ but as a ‘war’ war with brickbats, fires and vandalism of property. At any rate both agree on the Manichean position: the world and everything in it is hopelessly vitiated and corrupt and must be purged by fire whether this be the literal fire of Armageddon or the flames of secular revolution.

Finally, we have the technological dreamers. They do not dream of an unconstrained populist will or an unconstrained flowering of genders and sexualities but of the unconstrained power of technical and economic innovation. The enemy is, again the state and its institutions. Regulation of industry and common sense controls over heedless technological advancement are as bizarre and repellent to them as constraints on abortion or sexuality are to progressives. They, after all, represent the creative energy behind all forms of human advancement, all growth and prosperity. Technological or business imperatives cannot be questioned without questioning prosperity and progress themselves: the two things which for this ideology are non-negotiable. Such people see nothing ironic or odd in the fact the demands of progress and the spread of prosperity never conflict with their own self-interest.

The self- interest of the entrepreneur or innovator is the interest of the community. In a seeming parody of the Marxist utopia where the freedom of each is the freedom of all the neo-liberals and libertarians do not see the economic freedom of the individual as ever conflicting with the good of the community. This is, of course, the dream of anarchists as well: that individual wills can exist in immediate and natural harmony once the power of the state is gone. The technophiles go even further however: for them this harmony can be achieved and maintained in the midst of unrestrained competition.

The magic of the market will smooth out all inequities and bring prosperity and balance to all (or, if the libertarian leans also to vengeful populism, to the deserving). At any rate the neo-liberals have one ace in the hole that it is difficult to imagine anyone overcoming: this is the fact that almost all acts of rebellion can be appropriated and monetized. This is particularly true of physical vandalism. Capitalism does not fetishize physical property the way some anarchists think it does: burn a bank to the ground and you will find only that stock in private security companies has gone up.

Liberation as Consuming Fire

For all three groups the enemy is clear as is the goal: the repressed must be liberated. The demos must be free to enact its vengeful fantasies on immigrants, prisoners or gays. The libertarian must be free to innovate and make more money than anyone can find a use for. Sexual and ethnic minorities must be free to express their forms of life to whatever limit logic implies. All must be free and all must be free especially of the enemy of freedom, the state and its laws and institutions.[10] This is the core of each position quite apart from the fact that within each there may be many demands reasonable in themselves.

This indicates that the radical stance is the stance where our politics is concerned. Everything must be liberated though conservatives may warn again and again that liberation may mean the freedom of everything awful as easily as the freedom of everything good. Lamentation however is pointless (with apologies to Canada’s lamenter-in-chief George Parkin Grant!). This is because the radical principle is our principle and is, indeed, along with conservatism, a fundamental human option. Moreover, it has great achievements to its credit even as conservatism has many disgraces.

At the same time radicalism imposes its own constraints: most of us would rejoice if anti-vaxxers stopped being such fools yet they are acting on an impeccable radical principle, that of personal autonomy, as well as a suspicion of institutionalized medicine that many of us share. In fact, this example raises a vexing problem: vaccination can only be carried out on a population, all must buy into it for it to work. How would an anarchist society founded on a principle of radical freedom (whether anarcho-communist or right wing patriot) handle a question of this sort? Will radical stances license such appalling disorder that conservatism will become a living option? Are Clinton and Trudeau after all the best we can hope for?

Blake certainly painted a dark vision of the hellish cycle of rebellion and reaction: the perpetual alteration between sanguinary radicalism and stultifying conservatism. Is this our future? Philosophy, alas, does not deal with the future. It counsels only that we temper hope as well as fear and judge all things sub-specie-aeternitatis. It is with this stoic sentiment, as boring as it is true, that I will conclude. We seem at an impasse though the author would certainly be happy to learn from others that he is unduly pessimistic about the world.

Contact details: bwills@grenfell.mun.ca

References

Aristophanes. The Clouds trans. C.D.C. Reeve, from The Trials of Socrates. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 2002)

Blake, William. Complete Poems ed. Alicia Ostriker. London: Penguin Classics, 1978.

Girard, René. I See Satan Fall Like Lightning trans. J.G. Williams. (Ottawa: Novalis, 2001)

Hegel, G.W.F. The Phenomenology of Mind. trans. J.B. Baillie. (New York: Harper Torchbook, 1967.

Reno, Robert “Why I Am anti-anti-TrumpFirst Things. Retrieved from https://www.firstthings.com/blogs/firstthoughts/2016/05/why-im-anti-anti-trump.

Smith, John Huston. The World’s Religions New York: Harper Collins, 1991.

[1] A fundamental problem with conservatism is that as soon as it defines itself vis a vis its ideological rivals it itself becomes an ideological construct rather than an assumed form of life. At that point conservatism turns into reaction. This problem was noted as long ago as Aristophanes the Clouds. One ace in the hole of the radical tradition is that as soon as traditional norms are questioned and have to be self-consciously defended the conservative standpoint is lost. At that point conservatism becomes a position duking it out with the other positions scoring the odd victory here and suffering the odd reverse there.

[2] The fatal weakness of social conservatism as a political movement was that it never articulated a positive vision of society leaving this work first to neo-liberals and now to ethno-nationalists. Its politics was simply oppositional: devoted to blocking actions against abortion or homosexuality or other things deemed decadent, conflicts that were and are unwinnable. On this basis it forged its foolish alliance first with corporate kleptocracy and then with strident populism culminating in ludicrous defenses of Trumpism from previously reputable conservative publications like First Things. (e.g Robert Reno https://www.firstthings.com/blogs/firstthoughts/2016/05/why-im-anti-anti-trump  

[3] For a rich introduction to Islam and indeed to other major faiths see The World’s Religions by John Huston Smith.

[4] This notion of a ‘perennial philosophy’ is central to writers we might place on the conservative spectrum from traditionalist writers like Rene Guenon to more eclectic figures like Aldous Huxley or Simone Weil who, while influential in some conservative circles, defy easy categorization. These metaphysically inclined thinkers contrast with the more pragmatic strain of conservatism stemming from the tradition of Burke and Swift. The American Russel Kirk may be taken as one of the last influential exponents of this view. One can add to this list the disciples of Leo Strauss (a far deeper thinker than Kirk), Canadians like George Grant as well as pure reactionaries in the tradition of Joseph de Maistre. What any of these figures would have thought of Donald J. Trump, a wealthy vulgarian straight from the pages of the Satyricon, one can only guess. Ironies abound here however: Guenon, a western convert to Islam, seems to have influenced the volcanic anti-Islamic rage of Steve Bannon. The paleo-conservatism of the genteel Russel Kirk also spawned the nativism of Pat Buchanan. Every stance has its shadow, the embodiment of its darker tendencies and ethno-nationalism seems to stand in this relation to conservatism.

[5] Any defense of a conservative principle in politics and society in the west can only be a highly qualified one for the reason that there are (in my view at least) a plurality of moral languages with claims on our attention and one of these is indeed that of the radical tradition. For Westerners this problem is acute for, as far as I able to determine, the roots of radicalism are in the Gospels and the Epistles of Paul. These are not Conservative documents in my reading of them precisely for their doctrine of radical solidarity with the poor which undermines the binaries on which traditional human societies are built (and sometimes subverts those texts themselves). It was not for nothing that the Emperors of Rome thought Christianity a fundamental threat to civilized standards. In the West, then, the radical principle is already present in its primary theological constitution (however much it tries to ignore or forget that fact).

[6] Indeed, conservative Christianity is, with some honorable exceptions, becoming a pharisaical revenge cult. Behind all the rhetoric around ‘security’ (Canada remains one of the securest societies on planet Earth where terrorism is concerned) and the ‘Muslim threat’ one will find the simple will to retaliate in kind against anyone who represents the hated ‘other’ no matter how guilty or how innocent.

[7] I have before me the online Anarchist Library compiled by the Green Mountain Collective. (https://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/anti-racist-action-the-green-mountain-anarchist-collective-black-bloc-tactics-communique). These sources give the inescapable impression of an abstract ideological rage consuming itself in an intellectual and historical vacuum: pretty much as Hegel saw the French revolutionaries. (The Phenomenology of Mind, 604) Talking to proponents of these views online (if talking is quite the word for it) only deepens this impression. Perhaps I am being harsh however: if the reader is curious, she may peruse Hegel’s chapter ‘Absolute Freedom and Terror’ and judge for herself if the comparison is apt. Those curious as to why the revolution always eats itself and why revolutionaries must at last turn on themselves may find Hegel’s analysis helpful.

[8] That ‘progressives’ will verbally disembowel each other over ideological differences barely discernible to outsiders shows that they are far from immune to the mimetic violence described by René Girard (2001; 24-31) Just as Blake said, moral abstraction enacts ritual violence. Progressivism is far from alone in this of course and indeed the ethno-nationalist stance is even more Manichean and violent. Still, the fact that it is over all the most humane of the current stances only makes the trap deeper: without what theologians once called a sense of sin it is difficult to imagine any politics escaping the scapegoating impulse and the self-righteous violence it manifests. Considering the ridicule and anger one provokes from many progressives by defending a stance of non-violence things do not seem hopeful.

[9] This is a deeper problem than many realize. The total liberation of one standpoint is the suppression of another: unconditional solidarity with ALL standpoints at once seems a chimerical notion. This is why in practice progressives (for instance) must always favor some oppressed people over others: aboriginal people in Guatemala, say, over outlandish folk like the Copts in Egypt. This why the radical stance may, for all protestations to the contrary, be implicitly totalitarian. Consider the following problem: A adopts the deep narrative about himself that he is the one true prophet of God. A desires not only the liberty to adopt this self-description but demands the universal recognition of this deep description by others. It is, to him, a fundamental denial of his personhood should anyone question his foundational narrative as, in his mind, he IS this narrative. However, trouble arises if B also adopts the deep story that SHE is the one true prophet of God as others cannot offer unconditional affirmation of both narratives. Here is where the currently much maligned standpoint of liberalism steps in. The liberal defers the eschaton by imposing articles of peace on A and B while each prosecutes their claim to be the one true prophet. With this peace imposed A and B come to the realization that, whatever differences divide them, they share a common nature as rational agents. They can now differ on each other’s deep story, neither one need be forced to accept the other because neither party is reducible to their narrative. With that they can go about their affairs. The alternative is playing the zero sum game of establishing my narrative as the dominant one through the suppression of the other contrary narrative. A simply destroys B. This is the totalitarian stance. Its dangers are evident yet the liberal stance costs as well. By entering that stance, we forgo universal recognition for the sake of peace and subordinate our deep story to the common good, at which point we cease to be simply our story, we assume a common public narrative as our own somewhat as we give up our private religious perceptions to join a church. I tend to think that is a cost worth paying though others may differ.

[10] This is why the most embattled principle of all is the centrism espoused by the Democratic party in the U.S. and the Liberal Party in Canada. As in the thirties it seems “the center cannot hold” (to quote W.B. Yeats). The basic problem seems to me that no centrist government can impose discipline on the fossil fuel-industry. Nor can it impose any discipline on the speculators and financiers who hoard badly needed funds offshore: a miserly activity contrary to the very nature of the capitalism they are said to espouse. That said, if there is anything which can be said to be ‘conservative’ in the current context it is belief in a social democratic state with traditional civil liberties protected by a strong constitutional framework. This, if I would hazard a guess, would be the best polity currently on offer. I have given short shrift to the phenomenon of political centrism in this piece, a deficiency I hope to make up in a subsequent essay.

Author Information: Daniel Little, University of Michigan-Dearborn, delittle@umich.edu

Little, Daniel. 2013. “Disaggregating Historical Explanation: The Move to Social Mechanisms in the Philosophy of History.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 2 (8): 1-7.

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink: http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-QM

Please refer to:

Melinda Fagan makes two valuable contributions to the debate on the Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective surrounding Johannes Persson’s critique of Jon Elster’s account of “explanation by mechanisms” (2012). First, she skillfully demonstrates that Elster’s position tacitly presupposes a monistic approach to explanation: the gold standard of explanation is subsumption under exceptionless regularities. Mechanismic explanations are faut de mieux, to be wheeled out when we have not yet discovered the underlying general laws.[1] This is a venerable approach, extending back to Carl Hempel’s advocacy of the covering law model for all areas of science, including history. Continue Reading…