As a young man, Scruton watched the Generation of ’68 go by, gathering anger and righteousness with them through the streets of Paris.
‘In the narrow street below my window the students were shouting and smashing.’
Many are still passing by our windows, so to speak, heading to some undetermined point in the future. Whether speaking postmodernese, Marxist economics, or the politics of intersectionality and identity, many are still ready to bring about utopia; enforcing it if necessary.
Many years ago, watching what seemed like an endless protest near the campus of Penn State, chatting with the State Cops assigned to keep order, I felt much the same way. Somewhere in all this were a few truths, and meanwhile, a lot of endless abstractions and falsehoods.
Watching what seem like endless protests bubbling up in the streets of Seattle (from WTO to Pussy Hats to Antifa to anti-Trump), I still feel much the same way.
Scruton suggests Richard Dawkins to be an example of the new humanists. Also, an interesting quote:
“Having shaken off their shackles and discovered that they have not obtained contentment, human beings have a lamentable tendency to believe that they are victims of some alien force, be it aristocracy, the bourgeoisie, capitalism, the priesthood, or simply the belief in God. And the feeling arises that they need only destroy this alien force, and happiness will be served up on a plate, in a garden of pleasures. That, in my view, is why the Enlightenment, which promised the reign of freedom and justice, issued in an unending series of wars”
‘Oakeshott connected his perceptive account of tacit knowledge with a larger conception of modally distinct worlds of discourse, and, in this way, his account differed from Ryle’s. However, both thinkers contributed to the re-emergence of a kind of traditionalist and pluralist epistemology which rejects the reductionism of scientism and acknowledges the multitudinous ways in which human beings know things. For both writers, authentic knowledge always involves a capacity which cannot be reduced to articulable explicit propositions. Knowledge depends upon being capable of using it in some way.’
‘Modes, then, are provisionally coherent and distinguishable kinds or categories of understanding and inquiry. In Experience and Its Modes, Oakeshott aims to identify the presuppositions in terms of which a mode can be made coherent and distinguished from other modes. In philosophy, categorial distinctions are distinctions of kind rather than degree and what are called categories are often thought of as the most fundamental classes to which things can belong. But philosophers differ on whether the identified kinds are natural or real (ontological) or conceptual (epistemological). The former are categories of being (Aristotle), the latter categories of understanding (Kant). Philosophers also disagree about whether a categorial scheme must be exhaustive and fixed or, alternatively, can be open and mutable. The modes that Oakeshott identifies in Experience and Its Modes—history, science, and practice, to which he later added “poetry” (art)—are epistemological categories, not ontological ones. And although the modes are mutually exclusive, they do not form a closed set. They are constructions that have emerged over time in human experience. They could change or even disappear and other modes might yet appear.’
‘The idea of a hierarchy of modes is not particular to Idealism. Where there are different understandings, it can occur to someone interested in reconciling them to imagine that they represent different levels of understanding. In contrast to unifying philosophies, including philosophical Idealism, Oakeshott’s position is pluralist and anti-hierarchical. In this respect he has more in common with Wilhelm Dilthey, who struggled with the issue of relativity in metaphysics and how to distinguish the human from the natural sciences, than with the British Idealists—Bradley, Bosanquet, and McTaggart among others—with whom he is often associated (Boucher 2012). For Oakeshott, all knowledge is tentative and conditional. Theorizing is “an engagement of arrivals and departures” in which “the notion of an unconditional or definitive understanding may hover in the background, but … has no part in the adventure” (OHC 2–3). In attempting to construct a coherent view of the world the philosopher “puts out to sea” (OHC 40) and is perpetually en voyage: there are no “final solutions” in philosophy any more than in practical affairs.’
I’m guessing Oakeshott would NOT have taken the case of monarchy up, nor the divine right of kings via Robert Filmer. Nor, likely, would he have taken up Thomas Hobbes’s case for the Leviathan based on a synthesis of the burgeoning practice of the natural sciences of the time. This isn’t an empiricist account of the world either (all knowledge arises in experience, sensation is separated from its object).
An Oakeshotian might see technical manuals everywhere, and few practitioners. He might see a lot of category errors, especially amongst those who mistake their own brilliance, method and scope as being enough to design political systems, laws and rules for the rest of us. Especially when such folks have little to no experience of those political systems, laws and rules.
‘The “hidden spring” of rationalism, as Oakeshott explains, is a belief in technical knowledge–which, by its very nature, is “susceptible of precise formulation”–as the sufficient or even the sole form of knowledge. This goes with a ‘preoccupation with certainty’ and an obsession with method, of the sort that can be expounded in a book; what it excludes is the kind of practical knowledge that is acquired only through prolonged contact with an experienced practitioner (RP, 11-17). Here one is reminded of Hobbes’s frequent insistence that true “science,” which yields certain knowledge, is different from “prudence,” which merely extracts probabilities from experience. Hobbes believed that geometry was the prototype of a true science, and that his own civil science was modeled on it;…’
And now for something mildly different:
During my humanities education, I developed an increasing suspicion of the postmodern rejection of tradition, rules, laws, rituals and beliefs, at least with regard to reading, writing and thinking. In engaging with some dull, and other absolutely mesmerizing, works of the creative imagination, I realized many of my own rituals and beliefs were being challenged. There are many experiences, and views, and ways to understand both myself and the world.
This is a good reason to get a good education!
It also slowly dawned on me that the lack of pedagogy, endless deconstructionist academic discussions, canon-less syllabi and increasing identitarian drift (is this person a professor because he/she’s the best poet/teacher or because he/she’s black/female or some mix of both?) were taking up valuable time.
I aimed to be open-minded, but not so much as to notice my brains falling out.
Honestly, I didn’t come across too many radicals and wasn’t particularly radical myself, though I went deep enough to see how people can become animated by some cause or injustice, often deep within their own lives (a bad childhood, homosexuality, social isolation, legal injustice, rejected prodigal talent etc).
It’s tough to say what conspires to make great artists and observers of life and their own experiences; but maybe it’s a little less tough to understand how some people forego the difficulty of creation in favor of political activism, religious certainty and belief, ideological certainty and second-rate moral scolding.
Oh, there are reasons.
Maybe I was just aging out or wasn’t so creative myself, anyways.
For many Westerners, perhaps there is no longer a God revealing Himself to Man, but there are expanding fields of knowledge and human endeavors able to light the way forwards onto a future of hope and progress; backwards onto human origins.
In the popular media (such as in the publications displaying the photo above), perhaps this knowledge can align with current popular sentiment and belief. An imprimatur, of sorts.
Such thinking can also coincide with a rather Romantic Idealization of Nature; a vision of Man without dominion over Nature, necessarily, but rather men, women, children and an ever growing list of humans (and animals, even) living both frustratingly apart, but also interconnected within Nature, following Nature’s lead alone and with each other.
Most people, I suspect, often without such specialized knowledge (not specifically trained in the sciences), require a lot of moral oughts and shoulds regarding how to live and what to do.
Furthermore, people tend to organize into groups united by shared principles and beliefs, and so often, in the modern world, beneath political ideals and political ideologies. Even if these political ideals and ideologies aren’t explict moral philosophies, necessarily, they can certainly end-up engaging the moral sentiments, basic human desires and motivations of the people within them.
Such movements are certainly understood by many of their members as posessing truth and knowledge enough to write the laws and rules we all must follow, prescribing our own personal moral behavior enough to align us with the people who ought to be in charge of us.
Perhaps the poet or Romantic genius can help guide Man (into the Self and the Self into Nature). The poet/thinker’s example can be full of grief, anguish and Nature’s brutality, indeed, but it can also offer moments of self-actualization, beauty, consolation and transcendence. It can be taught as part of a civilizing hierarchy or canon, a reef of traditions and structure enough to develop seriously good artists and produce quite a few educated citizens.
I suspect there’s always been a tension between the poet/artist and the Man of Science and Mathematics; people generally more concerned in seeking the underlying order and patterns within Nature, discovering the probabilistic and mathematical laws able to accurately describe and predict the strange world in which we seem to find ourselves. Such laws can be beautiful, and symmetrical, and true just for their own sake, sure, but like a good poem, a mathematical law remains curiously silent about how to live and what to do.
Addition: Perhaps, I might add, but perhaps not. Perhaps it’s worth thinking about just which dangers accompany such lights, and which problems endure.
How does the West interact with the non-West, and vice versa. What common assumptions do Westerners often assume and project onto other civilizations? The late Roger Sandall, here:
‘The claim that “open societies” are now increasingly threatened would probably meet with little argument. But what is the nature of the threat, and what are its roots? Here less agreement might be found. Some would say an essentially religious clash of civilizations is the main cause, and point to the growing struggle between Islam and the West.
Others might point to Russia under President Putin, finding evidence of a long-standing political tradition that owes relatively little to the Russian Orthodox Church, but has always found liberty odious.
And then there’s a third and troubling possibility — that from an evolutionary perspective, taking a long view of our historic and prehistoric origins, open societies where voluntaristic principles prevail are new forms of human association only recently arrived from the distant tribal past, and in the more violent trouble spots around the world they never arrived at all.’
The late Ken Minogue:
On the many dangers of political idealism, and using political theory as the limits of your field of vision:
‘We may sum this up by saying that the more the style of what used to be called politics becomes theorized, the more political problems come to be reintrepreted as managerial. Working out the least oppressive laws under which different and sometimes conflicting groups may live peaceably together is being replaced by manipulation and management of the attitudes different groups take towards each other, with the hope that this will ultimately bring harmony. In other words, in the new form of society, human beings are becoming the matter which is to be shaped according to the latest moral idea.’
-Minogue, Kenneth. Politics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995. (Pg 111).
“‘…a morally concerned style of intellectual atheism openly avowed by only a small minority of individuals (for example, those who are members of the British Humanist Association) but tacitly accepted by a wide spectrum of educated people in all parts of the Western world.”
Roger Sandall, Australian critic of romantic primitivism and the Western’s Left’s penchant for the Noble Savage: His home page where his essays can be found. Here’s “The Rise Of The Anthropologues“ and…
Robert Hughes, Australian and often fierce critic of modernism and post-modernism.
Here’s one take on the problem, downstream of Oakeshottian philosophical idealism. Timothy Fuller On Ken Minogue’s take on this endless quest of liberalism, and its dangers:
‘For Minogue, freedom led to “oppositionality,” a topic he explores in “The Conditions of Freedom and the Condition of Freedom.” Oppositionality is the idea that citizens may exercise an independent judgement on questions of their obligations that were once off-limits for discussion; everyone simply accepted them. Opposition and is seen both as a “disruptive and dynamic” part of freedom but also a threat to it – “fundamentally parasitic” on society and often praising dissent for its own sake.
This leads naturally to “The Modern Liberal’s Casebook,” which contains Minogue’s well-known comparison of liberalism to the legend of St George and the Dragon. In his telling, St. George didn’t know when to stop fighting battles and grew breathless in pursuit of smaller and smaller dragons, as big dragons were harder to come by. In this Minogue is quite correct. Taking his analogy further, there must come a time when dragons become extinct and younger versions of St. George are misguided into pursuing chickens and other desirable species instead.’
-According to Ferguson, this still tends to make Kissinger an idealist on the idealist/realist foreign policy axis, but it also likely means he’s breaking with the doctrines which animate many on the political Left, hence his often heretical status.
Stanley Fish on being recently disinvited from speaking at Seton Hall (behind a paywall):
‘Recently I was invited, then disinvited, to speak at Seton Hall University. Members of a faculty committee had decided by email that they didn’t want a university audience to be subjected to views like mine. I had been writing on the emergence on campus of what I call a regime of virtue. this was the first time I experienced it directly.’
A fairly typical pattern: A group of student activists claim that a certain speaker’s views are so dangerous that this speaker cannot be heard.
Many ideologically aligned, sympathetic, or sometimes cowardly, faculty members encourage or endorse these student activists.
‘In previous columns and in a recent book I have argued that higher education, properly understood, is distinguished by the absence of a direct and designed relationship between its activities and measurable effects in the world.
This is a very old idea that has received periodic re-formulations. Here is a statement by the philosopher Michael Oakeshott that may stand as a representative example: “There is an important difference between learning which is concerned with the degree of understanding necessary to practice a skill, and learning which is expressly focused upon an enterprise of understanding and explaining.”
A few conservative folks have said to me: Whether it be Kant, Mill, Locke or even Isaiah Berlin, conservatism (conserving what is) does not necessarily require a movement towards Continental and rationalist systems of thought.
It’s a trap!
There’s important truth in such a statement, of course, but I don’t think you know quite what you’re up against, here, and who my audience is. I’m looking for anchors.
Interesting paper presented by Erika Kiss, beginning about minute 32:00 (the whole conference is likely worth your time for more knowledge on Oakeshott).
According to Kiss, Oakeshott’s non-teleological, non-purposive view of education is potentially a response to Friedrich Hayek, Martha Nussbaum, and Allan Bloom, in the sense that all of these thinkers posit some useful purpose or outcome in getting a liberal education.
Hayek’s profound epistemological attack on rationalist thought is still a system itself, and attaches learning to market-based processes which eventually drive freedom and new thinking in universities. The two are mutually dependent to some extent.
Nussbaum attaches liberal learning to ends such as making us ‘Aristotelian citizens of the world’, or better citizens in a democracy, which has struck me as incomplete at best.
Allan Bloom is profoundly influenced by Straussian neo-classicism, and wants love, classical learning, honor and duty to perhaps be those reasons why a young man or woman should read the classics. This, instead of crass commercialism, the influences of popular music, deconstructionism and logical positivism.
For what it’s worth: The two quotations highlight a current, unresolved conflict on this site, and in my life. If you have any suggestions for new reading material, I’m all ears.
‘I guess I’m trying to say that I remain skeptical the sciences can properly scale. Many people claiming to have a scientific worldview are curiously more committed to ideas downstream of scientific inquiry. This can involve an idealized or popular, mummified vision of ‘science,’ (the science is clear, it’s on on my side, we must act together or vote for x) or even ‘anti-science’ nihilism and destructive cultism (the universe is a meaningless void, you’re utterly alone, here’s exactly what the scientists don’t want you to know, so join us).’
‘It typically takes years to imbibe the necessary and often counter-intuitive tools to ‘see under the hood’ of Nature. Then, it often takes very long and close observation to make some kind of contribution. Unlike the Oakeshottian critique of rationalism in favor of tradition, I do think there are gains in basic competency from an education in the sciences that are not exclusive solely to the genius. Some of this can scale. Many laymen can become aware of how deterministic and probabilistically accurate these laws govern the world in which we live.’
‘Ideology is a philosophical type of allegiance purporting to transcend the mere particularities of family, religion, or native hearth, and in essence lies in struggle. The world is a battlefield, in which there are two enemies. One is the oppressor, the other consists of fellow ideologies who have generally mistake the conditions of liberation.’
‘Yet for all their differences, ideologies can be specified in terms of a shared hostility to modernity: to liberalism in politics, individualism in moral practice, and the market in economics.’
‘So here’s a second opinion on Kronman’s diagnosis: The disease that afflicts the American academy is not caused by the pathogen of egalitarianism from without. It is a cancer produced by the excesses of analytic philosophy and structuralist thinking within.’
I really like this line (could be more of a writer problem…writers can become reclusive weirdos, but still telling nonetheless):
‘It says something that the most normal professor I encountered in graduate school was the extremely odd and reclusive aesthetician and novelist William H. Gass.’
Here’s a somewhat similar vein of thought. From friesian.com:
Although Anglo-American philosophy tended to worship at the feet of science, the drift of academia to the left has led to characteristically totalitarian political attacks on science itself — this despite the leftist program to use “climate science” to impose a Sovietized command economy on energy and the tactic to smear climate skeptics, i.e. “Deniers,” through associaton with Creationism or Neo-Nazi Holocaust denial. None of that has stopped the “post-modern” move…’
I’ve often thought that many New Atheists, liberal idealists, progressives and radicals overlook the inherent dangers of human ignorance, the need to believe and the semi-permanence of people committed to radical ideology. The sciences and social sciences are being asked to bear a tremendous pressure as a result. Sure, religious believers disagree with, and have a long record of persecuting free-thinkers, scientists and natural philosophers, but actual terrorists and radicals are being normalized under the banner of liberal idealism. I doubt this bodes well.
Both men are plugged-in to mathematics, the mathematical sciences, technology, tech investment, and to some extent, the political economy. The genuine, and most rapid, progress affecting all of our lives tends to come out of such knowledge.
I appreciate the depth, breadth and openness both offer. Perhaps both also see themselves as outside much mainstream thought, and somewhat iconoclastic, if the substance of their thinking and insight does, in fact, place them ahead of one or many curves.
This blog has accepted the deeper critique that without limiting principles against violence, one can not simply dine ‘a la carte’ at the buffet of radical change.
Human nature, whether understood through the lens of Christian faith, the humanities, our founders’ framing, the social sciences and even the mathematical sciences, is inherently corruptible by ideas many modern, radical and historically revisonary doctrines promote.
In other words, I’m much closer to Thiel’s commitment to the classical liberal/libertarian approach, and perhaps even a bit more conservative, but always open to revision.
As posted on this site. The Oakeshottian/Minogue critique of ideology:
The discussion hinges on the idea of whether or not you and I are already free, and whether or not we somehow need liberating from something. The world and society are full of injustices, and discontents, and inequalities. Sure, we needed liberating from King George III for various reasons during our revolution, but not in the radical, ideological, rationalist sense (addition: a reader points out John Locke’s right of revolution…duly noted).
Black folks in America certainly needed liberating, held under the laws and subject to extreme injustice. But how?
In Marxist ideology, this liberating hinges on a form of revolutionary praxis, according to Minogue. It operates as a closed system of ‘first principles’ which goes deep and purports to function as a science and claims to undercut the sciences, philosophy, capitalism and theology in order to liberate. This is why it lives on, and on, and on. Despite its failures it remains ultimately untestable, neither proved nor disproved, not being a form of knowledge we’ll know ever lines up with reality, or that can be falsifiable, a la Karl Popper.
In the video, liberation theology is briefly discussed as well, described by Buckley as a kind of ‘baptised Marxism.’ In it, we see a charged movement against the injustices of slavery moving towards ideas of liberation (think Rev. Wright’s church). I’ll put up a quote from a few posts ago by Cornel West.:
‘Being a leftist is a calling, not a career; it’s a vocation not a profession. It means you are concerned about structural violence, you are concerned about exploitation at the work place, you are concerned about institutionalized contempt against gay brothers and lesbian sisters, hatred against peoples of color, and the subordination of women.’
‘Here our account of the disposition to be conservative and its current fortunes might be expected to end, with the man in whom this disposition is strong, last seen swimming against the tide, disregarded not because what he has to say is necessarily false but because it has become irrelevant; outmanoeuvred, not on account of any intrinsic demerit but merely by the flow of circumstance; a faded, timid, nostalgic character, provoking pity as an outcast and contempt as a reactionary. Nevertheless, I think there is something more to be said. Even in these circumstances, when a conservative disposition in respect of things in general is unmistakably at a discount, there are occasions when this disposition remains not only appropriate, but supremely so; and there are connections in which we are unavoidably disposed in a conservative direction.’
Oakeshott, Michael. Rationalism In Politics And Other Essays. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1991. Print.
Lately, when I can manage an hour or two of unbothered attention, I’ve been having a dialogue with a rather deep 20th-century Englishman. This gentleman sees the divorce of technique from practical knowledge, and the over-reliance on technique, as one of the deepest epistemological mistakes of modern man:
‘…modern rationalism is what commonplace minds made out of the inspiration of men of discrimination and genius.’
Oakeshott, Michael. Rationalism In Politics And Other Essays. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1991. Print. Pg 6.
You can’t just toss direct experience, long history, developed traditions and deep practice into a pot, can you? Were you just going to bring your pot to a rolling boil, skim the top, bottle it up and sell it as the ‘Last Cookbook You’ll Ever Need’?
Who is Oakeshott’s Rationalist? Perhaps nearly all of us:
‘At bottom, he stands (he always stands) for independence of mind on all occasions, for thought free from obligation to any authority save the authority of ‘reason.’ His circumstances in the modern world have made him contentious: He is the enemy of authority, of prejudice, of the merely traditional, customary or habitual. His mental attitude is at once sceptical and optimistic: sceptical, because there is no opinion, no habit, no belief, nothing so firmly rooted or so widely held that he hesitates to question it and judge it by what he calls his ‘reason:’ optimistic because the rationalist never doubts the power of his ‘reason’ (when properly applied) to determine the worth of a thing, the truth of an opinion or the propiety of an action. Moreover, he is fortified by a belief in a ‘reason’ common to all mankind…’
‘He is not devoid of humility; he can imagine a problem which would remain impervious to the onslaught of his own reason. But what he can not imagine is politics which do not consist of solving problems, or a political problem of which there is no ‘rational’ solution at all.’
We Americans are Rationalists, to some extent, with our founding documents kept under glass:
“When in the course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation…”
‘Long before the Revolution, then, the disposition of mind of the American colonists, the prevailing intellectual character and habit of politics, were rationalistic. And this is clearly reflected in the constitutional documents and history of the individual colonies. And when these colonies came ‘to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another,’ and to declare their independence, the only fresh inspiration that this habit of politics received from the outside was one which confirmed its native character in every particular. For the inspiration of Jefferson and the other founders of American independence was the ideology which Locke had distilled from the English political tradition.’
I have trouble imagining Oakeshott having much sympathy with our founders’ direct experience and developing practice alongside and against King George III and the Redcoats; the slow-rolling revolution these men found themselves within.
What should ‘common men’ have done with relatively limited experience and practice of their own, but such a long and mixed inheritance to draw upon?
Hasn’t our American solution (posing admitted cultural threats to established English traditions) helped ameliorate the effects of long-stratified classes, resentments, and bitternesses which have allowed a much deeper Marxism (ideology par excellence) to flourish in the U.K?
Has the American influence made them worse?
Perhaps if long history and deep practice have helped organically produce Monarchy, Aristocracy, landed gentry and unlanded serfs; a country where an accent can immediately rank order one’s class and status, then America’s rationalist common man has gotten some things right?
Food for thought.
Is that the sight of tweed moving amongst the trees upon the horizon?
I must say Oakeshott offers refreshing critique of thinkers from Descartes to Bacon and Marx to Hayek, and I imagine he can easily be applied to Rawls, Nozick and any other very bright, systemizing thinkers of the 20th century.
Often times, brilliance and genius in the mathematical sciences can help reformulate and solve some of the deeper problems of the Natural World, but such thinking doesn’t necessarily travel well beyond these spheres.
‘There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your Philosophy’
Thinking of politics as just a ‘science,’ can obviously be a problem, for example. Thinking all the reasons for deep disagreement between people (religion, belief, habit, custom) are going to be solved with the latest theory or a new politico-managment style is full of obvious problems.
Rationalism, on this view, decays frequently into ideology, as well, and there’s no shortage of ideological doctrines nor ideologues and narrow, doctrinal sorts this past century.
On that note, please let me know what I’ve gotten wrong, or missing thus far.
***Dear Reader, I beseech you to recall that I’m full-time employed elsewhere and this blog is a labor of love; a means to keep learning. Please send $1,000,000+ checks discreetly in the mail.