‘Here perhaps lies postmodernism’s greatest failure of nerve: as Khanin puts it, where the modernist posture was one of pathfinder and conqueror, the postmodernist prefers the passive life of a voyeur. The former posture may have been presumptuous, but the latter is senseless. Why this mood of fatigue has so much current appeal in the industrialized world is, I readily admit, mysterious to me. I can only affirm my view that the Enlightenment in its modernist and postmodernist manifestations is still a vital enterprise in science, politics, and even art. Though its completion is nowhere within our sights, it demands our active engagement.’
‘You can’t keep a good idea down. You can be gently derisive and hope it will go away. You can make things hot for True Believers by exposing their ideas to ridicule and scorn. Or adopting a more serious approach, you can research and write and publish two mighty volumes of overwhelming argument printed in several editions over a period of forty years, which make vividly clear the intellectual error of Platonic politics, the practical folly of using them as a guide to action, and the numberless vices which invariably ensue.’
‘These developments owe much to the recent prominence of French postmodernist thought. Many young feminists, whatever their concrete affiliations with this or that French thinker, have been influenced by the extremely French idea that the intellectual does politics by speaking seditiously, and that this is a significant type of political action. Many have also derived from the writings of Michel Foucault (rightly or wrongly) the fatalistic idea that we are prisoners of an all-enveloping structure of power, and that real-life reform movements usually end up serving power in new and insidious ways. Such feminists therefore find comfort in the idea that the subversive use of words is still available to feminist intellectuals. Deprived of the hope of larger or more lasting changes, we can still perform our resistance by the reworking of verbal categories, and thus, at the margins, of the selves who are constituted by them.’
One major shift in my thinking occurred while reading Leo Strauss, and approaching Nature from a position where the reason/revelation distinction was suddenly in play:
‘Strauss was a Jew who promoted a pre-Christian, classical understanding of “natural right” as found in Plato and Aristotle. Yet after the publication of his Natural Right and History in 1953, Strauss was sometimes classed alongside Catholic scholars of political philosophy who aimed to revive the natural law tradition of Aquinas. Strauss recognized that these Thomists were fighting some of the same battles against historicists and philosophical modernists that he was fighting. Nonetheless, his own position was quite distinct from theirs. Natural right, unlike natural law, is changeable and dependent on circumstance for its expression, says Strauss. As he puts it: “There is a universally valid hierarchy of ends, but there are no universally valid rules of action.”
Such thinking made me question many modern epistemological foundations I had been taking for granted: Perhaps (H)istory doesn’t necessarily have a clear end, no more than does any one of our lives (other than a death forever beyond our full imagining). Perhaps (H)istory is long, often bloody, and takes a lot of work to understand.
Nature, too, in its depth and majesty, often Romanticized and Idealized by many moderns (collectivists and Hippies, especially), can be terrible, cruelly indifferent and the source of much of our suffering. These debates are old, and deep, so why not return to many original thinkers like Plato and Aristotle?
Politically and socially, I suddenly doubted that we’re necessarily heading towards knowable ends, individuals achieving a kind of virtue in declaring loyalty to the latest moral idea, protest movement, or political cause. Progress is complicated.
[Although] the (S)ciences are so successful in describing and explaining the Natural World, such knowledge can’t simply be transferred and implemented into policy and law, a bureaucracy and a technocracy [full of] of people who are often not even scientists. Perhaps there are many modern fictions abroad.
The more individuals are either liberated or freed (from tradition, from moral obligations to family and friends, from insitutions, from religious belief) it doesn’t necessarily follow such freedoms will be used wisely.
In fact, some individuals are clearly coalescing around narrow, totalitarian ideologies and failed theories of History through the road of radical chic (Marxism, Communism, Socialism). Other individuals are exploiting our current insitutional failures in favor of political extremism (alt-right and alt-left) while yet others are spending their formative years flirting with nihilism and anarchy in the postmodern soup.
Cycles of utopianism/dystopianism, and idealism don’t necessarily lead to stability, and more liberty.
Where I might agree with the moderns: I do think that Man’s reason, individual men’s use of mathematics applied to the physical world, sometimes occurring in flashes of profound insight, often after years of study and labor within and perhaps outside of a particular field, are tied to a reality which empirically exists. One could do a lot worse than the best of the Natural Philosopher.
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.
To be sure, we are undergoing a renaissance in certain fields: A technological revolution in our pockets and work lives, an explosion in space science, for starters.
As to my view of human nature, and a depressive realism, often informed by the humanites:
There’s something about Rene Girard’s work that strikes deep chords within me. I must confess, though, as a non-believer, I remain skeptical that a lot of Christianity isn’t Platonic Idealism + Synthesized Judaism + Transcendent Claims to Truth & Knowledge that gained ascendance within the Roman Empire. My ignorance shows.
A Christian and religious believer, Girard synthesizes psychology, literature, history, anthropology and philosophy along with his Christian faith into something quite profound.
Recommended. The mimetic theory of [desire] can really can change how you think about the world:
A briefer introduction here:
Girard and Libertarian thought?:
The closest I come to religious belief: Writers and musicians, at a certain point, give themselves over to their own mysterious, seemingly inexplicable, creative processes. If you practice enough (muscle memory), play your instrument alone and play with others, counting the time signature, you can makes sounds in time which express something deep about our condition, sharing it with others.
Even after the well runs dry, creative artists often go back to the bottom, finding themselves spent. The stronger the emotional loss and more real the pain; often this translates into the pleasure others take in your creation. But what is it you’re sharing exactly, from mind to mind and person to person?
This [can] produce something like a divine, God-worshipping, vulnerable state of mind and being, which is just as dangerous and corrupting as it is bonding and enriching. From Bach, to Prince, to now even Kanye West, apparently, religion can suddenly sweep into the gap.
Of course, studying and playing music is a conscious, reasoned process, more than many people know, but it also, very clearly isn’t entirely planned in the moment of its synthesis and creation.
Any thoughts and comments are welcome.
I’m missing a lot, here, folks, but doing my best with current resources. Thanks, as always, for reading.
Is modern democracy the best form of government, and if so, how did we get here? Who is ‘we’ exactly? All of Europe and the U.S.?
How do we really know that we are progressing toward some telos, or evolving our modern democracy to some point outside ourselves, and that the rest of the world ought to be doing the same?
Via Hegel, Marx and Darwin?
‘Fukuyama believes democracy is the only system of government with a long-term future, a familiar idea emerges: as societies become more prosperous, the growing global middle class will demand more political freedom and governmental accountability. Effectively a restatement of Marx’s account of the historical role of the bourgeoisie, it is an idea we have all heard many, many times before. In fact the political record of the middle classes is decidedly mixed.’
‘While the book contains some useful insights, at the most fundamental level Political Order and Political Decay remains a morass of intellectual confusion and category mistakes. Slipping insensibly from arguments about the ethical standards by which governments are to be judged to speculative claims about the moving forces of modern history, Fukuyama blurs facts, values and theories into a dense neo-Hegelian fog. Liberal democracy may be in some sense universally desirable, as he maintains. That does not mean it will always be popular, still less that it is the normal destination of modern development.’
But he does acknowledge the following, which I’ve found reading Fukuyama, is that I come away enriched in many ways:
‘In some ways Political Order and Political Decay may be Fukuyama’s most impressive work to date. The upshot of his argument is that functioning democracy is impossible wherever an effective modern state is lacking. Since fractured and failed states are embedded in many parts of the world, the unavoidable implication is that hundreds of millions or billions of people will live without democracy for the foreseeable future.’
This blog much values Gray’s thinking as he upsets the apple-cart of many an assumption found in the modern West. If you’ve ever gazed upon the secular liberal political establishment, witnessing the gap between its ideals and daily operation, its claimed moral supremacy along with a lot of foreseeable moralism and bureaucratic bloat, then you might have some sympathy for such thinking.
As previously posted:
Kelley Ross responds to a correspondent on Isaiah Berlin’s value pluralism, while discussing John Gray as well:
‘Now, I do not regard Berlin’s value pluralism as objectionable or even as wrong, except to the extend that it is irrelevant to the MORAL issue and so proves nothing for or against liberalism. Liberalism will indeed recommend itself if one wishes to have a regime that will respect, within limits, a value pluralism. I have no doubt that respecting a considerable value pluralism in society is a good thing and that a nomocratic regime that, mostly, leaves people alone is morally superior to a teleocratic regime that specifies and engineers the kinds of values that people should have. However, the project of showing that such a regime IS a good thing and IS morally superior is precisely the kind of thing that Gray decided was a failure.
Thus, I believe Gray himself sees clearly enough that a thoroughgoing “value pluralism” would mean that the regime of the Ayatollah Khomeini is just as morally justified as the regime of Thomas Jefferson. Gray prefers liberalism (or its wreckage) for the very same reason that the deconstructionist philosopher Richard Rorty prefers his leftism: it is “ours” and “we” like it better. Why Gray, or Rorty, should think that they speak for the rest of “us” is a good question. ‘
and about providing a core to liberalism:
‘Why should the state need a “sufficient rational justificaton” to impose a certain set of values? The whole project of “rational justification” is what Gray, and earlier philosophers like Hume, gave up on as hopeless. All the state need do, which it has often done, is claim that its values are favored by the majority, by the General Will, by the Blood of the Volk, or by God, and it is in business.’
And that business can quickly lead to ever-greater intrusion into our lives:
‘J.S. Mill, etc., continue to be better philosophers than Berlin or Gray because they understand that there must be an absolute moral claim in the end to fundamental rights and negative liberty, however it is thought, or not thought, to be justified. Surrendering the rational case does not even mean accepting the overall “value pluralism” thesis, since Hume himself did not do so. ‘
Are libertarians the true classical liberals? Much closer to our founding fathers?
Has John Gray turned away from value pluralism into a kind of ‘godless mysticism?’
Here’s Fukuyama summing up his book for an audience:
‘Michael Oakeshott, an under-read political thinker in the mid-20th century, remarked in his exquisite essay, “Rationalism in Politics,” that one of the more pathological notions of our age is that political life can be understood in terms of “principles” that must be applied to circumstances. Politics-as-engineering, if you will. Republicans themselves succumbed to this notion, and members of the rank and file have noticed. Republicans stood for “the principles of the constitution,” for “the principles of the free market,” etc. The problem with standing for principles is that it allows you to remain unsullied by the political fray, to stand back and wait until yet another presidential election cycle when “our principles” can perhaps be applied. And if we lose, it’s OK, because we still have “our principles.” What Trump has been able to seize upon is growing dissatisfaction with this endless deferral, the sociological arrangement for which looks like comfortable Inside-the-Beltway Republicans defending “principles” and rank-and-file Republicans far from Washington-Babylon watching in horror and disgust.’
I can understand why people want to be left out of the fray, as I mostly do, too.
Trump clearly appealed to American national greatness in order to get elected (Make America Great Again), as well as to many people who’ve seen a decline in living standards, and who are wondering just where future opportunities will come from. The lack of trust in institutions is deep and often justified in our country right now, the populist resentment wide, extending quite beyond party politics.
Trump pretty clearly saw an opening on immigration early on in the election (this blog prefers something like the melting-pot), and he pushed the immigration hot-button regularly, through countless speeches, establishing himself in the race on this issue alone.
He then broadened his appeal in attacks on other Republican candidates and the party establishment, the Democratic establishment and the Clinton machine, our top-heavy regulatory State and the current administration, as well as the media more generally. He attacked people, and personalities, often as much ideas and policies.
To my mind, the continual overreach by the Left under an activist President (identity politicking 24/7) has a lot of emperors wearing little clothing.
-Minogue, Kenneth. Politics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995. (Pg 111).
Works pretty well for me:
‘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 ideas.’
And maybe 80’s synth-funk will make a come back someday, but until that day, you can see how the stuff is made:
‘I have always liked banknotes as physical artefacts, and have kept one or two from the foreign countries that I have visited (I am not so much a collector as an accumulator). There was displayed in the window what was called “The Tyrant Collection”: six colorful banknotes marked with the portraits of various tyrants’
A surprising amount can be contained in a banknote collection.
‘Among the other lessons I learnt from banknotes is that, in modern times, only communist countries count in threes. Thus I have a Cuban three peso note (with the ghastly Che Guevara on it) and an Albenian three lek note. This in turn demonstrates that the spread of communism was also the spread of Russian cultural influence, for while the Soviet Union printed 3 Ruble notes, this was a continuation of Tsarist practice.’
‘The shifts in focus Foucault picks out here, and the concepts and methods that accompanied them, are why Becker’s influence has been so enormous, why his work has been the straw man in so many social science articles, why his methods allow for such broad application, why the imagery of choice and responsibility that so often accompanies them has proved so politically attractive, why the world is now full of economists who feel empowered to dispense advice on everything from childrearing to global climate change, and why the audience for this advice is so large.’
A final note: I’ve got a title worked-out for an upcoming Dan Brown-esque Vatican City intrigue Catho-holic mystery/thriller for any takers: “The Bergoglio Imbroglio: Papal Fire“
I’d like to see it in airport bookstores by the end of the year.
Another Addition: That’s a joke.
Also, check out Les Gelb at the American Interests on what Obama needs to change (note: he’s ideologically rather rigid and rather thin-skinned when it comes to genuine challenges and contrary points of view):
‘To his credit, he questions his subordinates with great intellectual ferocity and skill. Rarely, however, does he allow his own thinking or policies, some already packaged for public consumption, to be rigorously scrutinized beforehand. Even after a productive meeting of top senior officials in the Situation Room, President Obama is said to repair to the Oval Office with a limited group of personal advisers’
‘The renewed attention to Paul exposes the critical tension between hard-line libertarians and classical liberals. The latter are comfortable with a larger government than hard-core libertarians because they take into account three issues that libertarians like Paul tend to downplay: (1) coordination problems; (2) uncertainty; (3) and matters of institutional design.’
Epstein has a wealth of practical knowledge and theory on law and economics, especially from the libertarian point-of-view:
‘It is important to understand the differences in views between the strong libertarian and classical liberal position. Serious hard-line libertarian thinkers include Murray Rothbard and Karl Hess. Rothbard believes nonaggression is the sole requirement of a just social order. For Hess, “libertarianism is the view that each man is the absolute owner of his life, to use and dispose of as he sees fit.” There are large kernels of truth in both propositions. It is quite impossible to see how any social order could be maintained if there were no limitations against the use, or threatened use, of force to enslave or butcher other people, which Hess’s proposition of absolute self-ownership strongly counteracts.’
He finishes with:
‘As Tanenhaus and Rutenberg note, Rand Paul knows that he must move to the center to become a credible political candidate. If he embraces a classical liberal framework, he can meet the objections of his critics without abandoning the best elements of his own libertarian position. ‘
Food for thought.
From the progressive and non-classically liberal-Left, I’m guessing Rand Paul criticism could move from the typical loony-libertarian stuff, to that of a middle-ground-seeking sellout/opportunist if he’s seen as more successful, and therefore more of a threat. Typical battle-space preparation would likely ensue.
The Right has problems with Paul’s generally anti-war sympathies, and libertarian pro-individual freedom positions more broadly. Pro-pot, pro-porn, and pro-legalized prostitution talk amongst libertarian circles won’t exactly bring-out the social and religiously conservative vote. Also, it’s probably worthy of note that nationalism and patriotism have been taking big hits on longer trend lines, or at least in the current mood, it will be harder to justify military spending with a foreseeably unresponsive and bloated Federal Government (technology and globalization, Moore’s Law and the rise of Big Data are all thrown into the mix as well).
Americans are probably not going to be terribly happy with their politics for awhile, and it could be just as hard to justify high-military spending politically from the Right as it is the disastrous Obamacare and more government waste from the progressive Left.
Any thoughts and comments are welcome.
From Malcolm Greenhill: ‘I believe my good friend, Jeff Hummel, has made the best attempt so far at solving the public goods problem of national defense:’
Just as optics revolutionized the sciences and the boundaries of human knowledge, from Galileo to Newton and onwards, Tim Jenison wonders if optics may have revolutionized the arts as well.
‘But still, exactly how did Vermeer do it? One day, in the bathtub, Jenison had a eureka moment: a mirror. If the lens focused its image onto a small, angled mirror, and the mirror was placed just between the painter’s eye and the canvas, by glancing back and forth he could copy that bit of image until the color and tone precisely matched the reflected bit of reality.’
Good Vermeer page here for a refresher on the Dutch master.
Penn & Teller helped make a documentary which has gotten good reviews, entitled ‘Tim’s Vermeer.‘
They discuss the project and Tim’s theory below (perhaps only the Girl With The Pearl Earring knows for sure if the painter used such a technique):
It’s good to be suspicious of the attempt by social scientists to theorize about politics (more theory into politics, more loaded questions). Some profound silliness and interesting thoughts at the link:
‘Democrats use the language of universal entitlement, when they talk about state-supported preschool or childcare, or the language of individual autonomy, when they talk about choice or contraception, or the language of investment, when they talk about the long-term benefits of healthy and well-educated children. But none of these ways of talking about children really capture our everyday intuitions. Of course, there isn’t a good alternative conservative language for these intuitions either. The Republican language of traditional religion also doesn’t get it, which is why the celebration of Sarah Palin’s unwed daughter’s pregnancy seemed so paradoxical.’
Points taken (most people have a box to put you in, though the people around you and their political beliefs can deeply shape your thinking and your life). I don’t quite buy the moral equivalence. As for Palin, I suspect part of her appeal is the fear and contempt she draws out in her political opponents. To some, she is a representative for the Christian faith and Christian values in action; a politician who believes in limited government and who fights corruption, but is villified by many, some of whom are quite illiberal and who attack her personally. Of course, Palin is still a politician, regardless of her abilities.
And whence morality? Still a matter of deep debate.