Tzvetan Todorov is primarily a literary theorist, but it’s often worth highlighting the following:
“Or take the current fetishisation of The Science, or as Todorov calls it, ‘scientism’.”
“We experience this most often, although far from exclusively, through environmentalist discourse. Here, science supplants politics. Competing visions of the good are ruled out in favour of that which the science demands, be it reduced energy consumption or a massive wind-power project. This, as Todorov sees it, involves a conflation of two types of reasoning, the moral (or the promotion of the good) and the scientific (or the discovery of truth).”
On this analysis, those who would defend skepticism and political conservatism against climate change politics (demanding less, much less and in some ways more, from their politics …and with a healthier understanding of what politics can do) are boxed out.
But our author is somewhat critical of Todorov’s approach:
“Any redemption of the hopes of the Enlightenment, any revival of the core principles of Enlightenment, from autonomy to secularism, can never be a purely intellectual exercise.”
Merely pushing back against the influence of Foucault and Lacan in the academy, or perhaps questioning the motives of student radicals during Paris ’68, can be enough to torpedo an academic career:
My two cents: If your metaphysics is hung upon the bones of a failed theory of (H)istory, with the goal of dismantling civil society, through violent revolution if necessary, then guerilla-style tactics are your best bet.
You don’t have much influence if you don’t gain traction within universities, co-opt many administrative and political institutions, and come to control the largesse of many wealthy donors, seeking to sway opinion through ‘culture.’ Many aesthetes and good critics can end up here, too.
This seems to be the case now in many quarters.
Many other products of the Enlightenment, the rather Romantic idea of (M)an, and (M)an returning to (N)ature through the exultation of the Poets and the Romantic genius, or the mission of bettering all (H)umankind through Western (R)eason and (P)rogress, these seem to be default ideals within the West, often pursued through political idealism.
Liberal idealists, from my point of view, tend to live on similar real estate as many radicals when it comes to change as a first principle (generally a good), and can share similar attitudes regarding religion, tradition, and the rule of law as things which should be looked at, primarily, to change.
If your primary personal, professional, and moral commitments are to the (E)nvironment, (W)omen’s Liberation, or (L)iberation in general, then you are possibly sympathetic to the aims (if not always the methods) of critical theorists. They often speak your language. Fairness and Equality, against some injustice, or perceived injustice, are likely shared moral lights.
‘There is no morality in art. There is morality in religion; there are philosophical objectives embedded in politics. The two are intertwined in a society and reflected in its art. When you sever art from its cultural moorings and make “newness” the overriding criterion by which the merits of a work are judged, then anything is possible. This results in crap. Not always’
James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Ezra Pound, the Bauhaus, the imagists, the futurists etc. Some of those influences have morphed into post-modernism or where such currents have flowed and keep flowing. Were they the best models, or has much been lost in translation?
‘The primary urge of the revolutionary and the modernist and the adolescent: impatience.’
So, do we aim for maturity? Reverence? Good old Longfellow? Sonnets? Rhyming couplets delivered by higher powers to monks in haylofts?
This blog is still welcoming critiques of reformers, progressives and liberators who seem pretty certain of what they are against, if not always certain, just what exactly, they are for. I could be persuaded to become a liberal, on certain matters, if I thought that the people seeking to change our current traditions, customs, and laws understood just which habits of mind, character and ideas they will rely upon for our freedoms going forward.
Which knowledge should become the basis to guide the moral foundations for new laws and the rules which we all must follow? Which customs should become the basis for new arrangements, gradually hardening into traditions?
Who should be in charge of these institutions going forward and how should their authority be limited?
A 20th century address of some of those claims to knowledge:
‘But my object is not to refute Rationalism: its errors are interesting only in so far as they reveal its character. We are considering not merely the truth of a doctrine, but the significance of an intellectual fashion in the history of post-Renaissance Europe. And the questions we must try to answer are: What is the generation of this belief in the sovereignty of technique? When springs this supreme confidence in human ‘reason’ thus interpreted? What is the provenance, the context of this intellectual character? And in what circumstances and with what effect did it come to invade European politics?’
Oakeshott, Michael. “Rationalism In Politics“. Rationalism In Politics And Other Essays. Liberty Fund, 1991. Print. (Pg 17).
The Puritan past of Boston directs many Bostonians, nowadays, into acting like members of something like a church of high-liberalism. Very buttoned up behavior but not necessarily the same holy denials.
I would be more comfortable leaving my freedoms to many high liberal priests if I thought they were more competent.
I’m not sure many people have thought these changes through:
‘The effect of modern liberal doctrine has been to hand over the facts of moral and political life into the maladroit hands of social and political scientists, and the results have been intellectually disastrous. For moral issues, shuffled into the logician’s column, turn into formalized imperatives; transferred by the device of generic man to the sociologist, they turn into culturally determined norms. As likely as not, the psychologist will regard them as neurotic symptoms. Politics similarly loses its autonomy, dissolved into a set of reactions to supposed external causes. The criterion of a “value-free science” is no doubt scientific in excluding propaganda from intellectual investigation. But it is merely superstitious when it turns “values”—in fact the subject matter of ethics and politics—into an intellectual red light district into which no thinker may stray, on pain of losing his respectability.’
Minogue, Ken. “The Liberal Mind“. Rationalism In Politics And Other Essays. Liberty Fund, 1991. Print. (Pg 17).
The actual Communists, committed Socialists, and narrow dogmatists, well, they’re pretty up-front about their intentions and aims. Once the rational ends of man are known within these doctrines, every single one of us becomes the means to reach these ends through radical revolution, the logic unfolding towards its murderous outcomes.
Apart from people pursuing defunct ideologies, frankly, I think most people go along to get along. If enough truths about a particular injustice emerge through radical protest, social change, and appeals to reason and non-reason, then many everyday people slowly follow the logic of social reform.
There are moral gains and there are freedoms, but they don’t come without costs.
Many of these changes weren’t driven by deep knowlege claims nor ‘science,’ but rather by committed social and political actors with visions of the future.
Something I think might help unite the Anglosphere, even though I think America might still have the largest stores of healthy religious conservative tradition:
In dealing with the Enlightenment, frankly, I’m a little more comfortable with the English/Scottish liberal tradition than the German idealism found on the Continent.
‘Hobbes identified the rational life with the life dominated by the fear of fear, by the fear which relieves us from fear. Moved by the same spirit, Locke identifies the rational life with the life dominated by the pain which relieves pain. Labor takes the place of the art which imitates nature; for labor is, in the words of Hegel, a negative attitude toward nature. The starting point of human efforts is misery: the state of nature is a state of wretchedness. The way toward happiness is a movement away from the state of nature, a movement away from nature: the negation of nature is the way toward happiness. And if the movement toward happiness is the actuality of freedom, freedom is negativity .’
Strauss, Leo. Natural Right And History. Chicago: The University Of Chicago Press, 1965. (Pg 250).
According to Strauss, the rational life for an individual, from Hobbes to Locke, is defined negatively, respectively as either a removal from fear or a removal from pain. And more broadly: Strauss has Locke remaking Hobbes’ more intrusive Leviathan into a smaller role for government: to secure them in their lives, liberty and estate (property). The key formulation of nature here, though, remains the same.
The Stanford Encyclopedia Of Philosophy elaborates:
‘Leo Strauss, and many of his followers, take rights to be paramount, going so far as to portray Locke’s position as essentially similar to that of Hobbes. They point out that Locke defended a hedonist theory of human motivation (Essay 2.20) and claim that he must agree with Hobbes about the essentially self-interested nature of human beings. Locke, they claim, only recognizes natural law obligations in those situations where our own preservation is not in conflict, further emphasizing that our right to preserve ourselves trumps any duties we may have.
On the other end of the spectrum, more scholars have adopted the view of Dunn, Tully, and Ashcraft that it is natural law, not natural rights, that is primary. They hold that when Locke emphasized the right to life, liberty, and property he was primarily making a point about the duties we have toward other people: duties not to kill, enslave, or steal. Most scholars also argue that Locke recognized a general duty to assist with the preservation of mankind, including a duty of charity to those who have no other way to procure their subsistence (Two Treatises 1.42). These scholars regard duties as primary in Locke because rights exist to insure that we are able to fulfill our duties.’
And of course, there’s this problem:
‘Another point of contestation has to do with the extent to which Locke thought natural law could, in fact, be known by reason.’
So what does Strauss offer instead as a possibility for man and nature? Nature revealing itself to man without the use of his reason…or through his reason without a lot of Enlightenment metaphysics? Or through some return to Natural Right?
Any thoughts and comments are welcome. Here’s another quote:
That all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; that, to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…”
As a Straussian might see it: Once you set up (S)cience on the positivist definition, as the only arbiter of facts, one can very easily invite the anti-(S)cience response in kind, which manifests itself here as the retreat into a victimhood/oppressor ideology.
‘(S)cience’ was only a tool of the white oppressor, anyways, don’t you know (and no one actually has to do the hard work the sciences require…how convenient):
As to these more radical groups splintering and applying pressure upwards upon institutions of learning (or at least remaining very vocal and demanding voices within them), I remain skeptical of merely relying upon an adaptable and healthy post-Enlightenment humanism to push back against them in the long-run.
It seems groups of post-Enlightenment individuals gathering to solve commonly defined problems is a risky business, indeed, or at least subject to the same old schisms and problems religious institutions underwent and continue to undergo regarding human nature. I think it’s fair to say people and institutions are often requiring of constraints, especially when it comes to political power and lawmaking; especially when it comes to the challenges our civilization faces from within and without in maintaining institutional authority.
I’d like to think that secularly liberal leadership, more broadly, including the people who want to be in charge of all of us (at their best operating from within moral communities of not too great a solipsism and self-regard) can resist such pressures. For there certainly are those who would fracture our institutions into rafts of post-Enlightenment ‘-isms’ and politicized movements often driven by illiberal ideologies; movements relying on the presumed self-sufficiency of reason while behaving quite irrationally.
I’m looking around and not seeing too much decency in American politics, lately.
A.C. Grayling makes one of the better cases for morality without religious doctrine, I’ve heard of late, but I’m not entirely sold these particular problems can be addressed sufficiently:
Jonathan Haidt has infused the more modern field of moral psychology with some of David Hume’s empiricist theory of mind, the idea that intuitions come first, and our reasons for them are usually trotted out afterwards (when was the last time you walked away from an argument/debate/discussion totally converted and persuaded by the reasoning of the other guy?
Yet, how, exactly, did our institutions of higher-learning get to the point of catering to the loudest, often most naive, and often illiberal student-groups claiming their feelings and ideas deserve special treatment?
Isn’t this already a failure of leadership, to some extent?:
Kudos to Haidt for hanging in there, and providing an example:
***My own anecdote: After a fruitful Town Hall discussion here in Seattle, celebrated British mathematician Roger Penrose did some Q & A afterwards. Most questions were from math majors, physicists, engineers and hobbyists in the crowd (many were over my head…but I tried to catch a few).
One question came from a youngish man in a beret, a little unkempt, who asked (in a possibly affected, but in a very serious tone):
‘Mr. Penrose, what is meaning in a moribund universe?
‘Eh…sorry…I didn’t catch that?’
‘What is meaning in a mo-ri-bund universe?’
‘Well, that is a different kind of question…I mean, here’s what I can offer you…’
***That’s roughly how I remember it, and Penrose was gracious, but brisk, in moving onto the kinds of questions he might be able to answer, or for which he could provide some insight.
As I see it, one major purpose of institutions is to to not interfere too much with genius, to get the best people working on specific problems and challenges, and to try and give talented others on down (the rest of us, per IQ tests and abilities) opportunities to succeed.
Once you start demanding equality of outcome, you’ve gone too far, in my estimation.
There seems a lot of going too far in many parts of our institutions lately, demanding utopian ideals be their guides and that nature/human nature/reality submit to these utopian, post-Enlightenment ideals guiding these institutions.
“The purpose of bureaucracy is to devise a standard operating procedure which can cope effectively with most problems. A bureaucracy is efficient if the matters which it handles routinely are, in fact, the most frequent and if its procedures are relevant to their solution. If those criteria are met, the energies of the top leadership are freed to deal creatively with the unexpected occurrence or with the need for innovation. Bureaucracy becomes an obstacle when what it defines as routine does not address the most significant range of issues or when its prescribed mode of action proves irrelevant to the problem.”
“Moreover, the reputation, indeed the political survival, of most leaders depends on their ability to realize their goals, however these may have been arrived at. Whether these goals are desireable is relatively less crucial.”
In the world of politics and the political economy, there is endless competition over limited resources and their allocation, hence the bloodsport and all the fighting.
Here’s another take, the entirety of which can be found here.
“[Thomas] Sowell’s argument is a relatively simple one: “innate” mental abilities do not develop spontaneously but must undergo development, which is differentially fostered by different cultures, even when the abilities are general and abstract and do not consist of items of cultural knowledge. “
“…Sowell’s approach splits the difference between “nature” and “nurture“…“
With Larry Summers being pushed out by members of the Democratic party for his nomination as chairman of the Federal Reserve, it reminds of when he was pushed out of the role of President at Harvard. For the many reasons that may be involved, I suspect the notion of a faint, scarlet ‘S’ for ‘sexist’ marked on his chest is one. You don’t need much logic or reason to make that charge.
I keep putting this post up, because, one hopes we’ll arrive at a little sanity in pursuit of truth.
1. The first is what I call the high-powered job hypothesis-Summers notes that high positions demand high commitment. Science could be analogous to other professions like law. He appeals to a longitudinal study that suggests that fewer women may agree to, or be willing to, devote such time and energy to their jobs over their careers as do men. Changing the nature of these professions to higher female ratios may change some of the fundamental ways we arrange our society:
“…is our society right to expect that level of effort from people who hold the most prominent jobs?”
Perhaps…though the subtext might be: are some members of our society right to expect that the guiding ideas of diversity and equality won’t come with a host of other problems…?
What about biology?
***Charles Murray takes it a few steps further, asserting that our social sciences are leading us to become more like Europe (less dynamic and less idealistic in our pursuit of Aristotelian happiness) He also argues that there is a sea-change going on in the social science that will come to support his thinking. This last part could be a few steps too far…but it’d be nice.
2. The second is what I would call different availability of aptitude at the high end-The bell curve argument that there are more genius and idiot men. When you get to MIT, 3 and more standard deviations above the mean…means a lot.
3. The third is what I would call different socialization and patterns of discrimination in a search-If discrimination is such an important factor in there being a lack of women scientists, then economic theory holds that there are going to be:
“…very substantial opportunities for a limited number of people who were not prepared to discriminate to assemble remarkable departments of high quality people at relatively limited cost simply by the act of their not discriminating.”
So if the theory holds…where are the science departments scooping up all women scientists at low cost…who’ve been rejected elsewhere due to discrimination?
I believe there is quite arguably discrimination against women in the sciences, and they have a harder road to reach success. But there is also substance here…and clearly politics was a factor in Summers’ firing as well; the women’s groups who viewed his ideas as an attack on their belief appealed to public sentiment in the worst kind of way.
Will social science ever be enough to address such an issue…or is it possibly changing to adapt to the demands people require of it?
Addition: I always get an email or two that suggests I’ve joined the ranks of those who don’t fully understand the problem and seek to oppress women. I don’t think I’ve done such a thing, and if women are going broaden and deepen feminism, they may well have to answer to arguments like these.
It’s not like there aren’t women in the sciences either, Vera Rubin, Lisa Randall and Lise Meitner come to mind, but this debate is clearly not just about science. It’s also about feminism, the social sciences, money, politics, public opinion etc…
Gray reviews two books, one by Marxist dissector of postmodernism, anti-New Atheist, and literary critic, Terry Eagleton, and the other by Peter Watson.
Gray finishes with:
‘Reared on a Christian hope of redemption (he was, after all, the son of a Lutheran minister), Nietzsche was unable, finally, to accept a tragic sense of life of the kind he tried to retrieve in his early work. Yet his critique of liberal rationalism remains as forceful as ever. As he argued with masterful irony, the belief that the world can be made fully intelligible is an article of faith: a metaphysical wager, rather than a premise of rational inquiry. It is a thought our pious unbelievers are unwilling to allow. The pivotal modern critic of religion, Friedrich Nietzsche will continue to be the ghost at the atheist feast.’
I tend to take the idea that science and religion are in perpetual battle as misinformed, or at least, as one which can serve the interests of those seeking to put a certain ideology/theory of history above both science and religion.
Some related links on this site:
Dinesh D’Souza is a Christian, and while debating New Atheist Daniel Dennett at Tufts University, he brings up Nietzsche’s argument that God is dead in favor of his position…
Interesting debate. Argument starts at 5:30:
Terry Eagleton debates Roger Scruton below. Scruton was no doubt heavily influenced by German idealism.
Are we really that thick into the postmodern weeds? What should students in the humanities be reading?:
There’s a bit of an intellectual turf war going on in the Western world. I suppose it’s been going on for a while. Here are some recent public skirmishes I’ve been able to track:
-Steven Pinker, Harvard experimental psychologist and cognitive scientist wrote a piece in the New Republic, entitled: ‘Science Is Not Your Enemy‘
-Now Daniel Dennett, philosopher, cognitive scientist, one of the New Atheists and Boston-based secularistresponds to Wieseltier:
‘Pomposity can be amusing, but pomposity sitting like an oversized hat on top of fear is hilarious. Wieseltier is afraid that the humanities are being overrun by thinkers from outside, who dare to tackle their precious problems—or “problematics” to use the, um, technical term favored by many in the humanities. He is right to be afraid. It is true that there is a crowd of often overconfident scientists impatiently addressing the big questions with scant appreciation of the subtleties unearthed by philosophers and others in the humanities, but the way to deal constructively with this awkward influx is to join forces and educate them, not declare them out of bounds.’
“an infinite cosmos, consisting of innumerable heliocentric worlds”…
“that the universe was a vast, wheeling, unknowable thing, and that all theories about it, including his own, were not descriptions but merely approaches—“models,” as we would call them today.”
None of his ideas were completely original, apparently, but they were advanced, and woven into a metaphysical system that directly challenged chruch doctrine. The church was not pleased. In her review, Acocella also claims:
“Whatever else Bruno was, he was wild-minded and extreme…”
This also seems to have contributed to the church’s decision to burn him at the stake.
‘This political ideology is obviously not the personal invention of a single, crazy individual. It has deep roots in the extreme European Right that produced Nazism, fascism, and radical conservatism. It is the tradition of Counter-Enlightenment, which arose against nascent liberal democracy and rule of law in the eighteenth century and has held its place on the European Right ever since. Breivik’s dream is totalitarian: democracy should be severely restrained, political rights should be the privilege of certain citizens over others, theology should regain a central role in politics, and modernity itself should be rolled back.’
The pendulum is still swinging, apparently. Hopefully we don’t back ourselves into such a situation. R.I.P to the victims.
Our author, Joe Carter, puts up an argument against Martha Nussbaum‘s work:
Those who reject the concept of the wisdom of repugnance must be prepared to deliver solid arguments against incest, bestiality, necrophilia, and other moral horrors that lie within the Pandora’s Box of taboo behaviors. If all ethical arguments must withstand the rigors of analytical reasoning then we will have to reject a great deal of our deepest moral presuppositions. Are we prepared to do that in order that radical individualism may advance unimpeded?
You’ve probably been hearing the slippery slope argument for a while, and may find the logic compelling. There is a deep debate here, about what moral-philosophical framework we use in order to base our moral thinking and thus our laws (Nussbaum isolates disgust from other emotions as particularly unreliable, and argues it does not justify moral censure through law). She offers her own framework as an alternative.
‘Montesquieu would make most everyone’s top-ten list of political philosophers, but he is not prominent in the ranks of natural philosophers. Following the lead of the American Founders, who referred to him as “the celebrated Montesquieu,” we associate his name with new discoveries and improvements in the science of politics rather than science proper.’