Saturday, February 23, 2019

The Dark Side of Political Philosophy, and How it Led to the Growth and Development of Today’s “Political Left” Movement

I’ve been asked many times, “why do you think it’s the intellectuals who convert to Roman Catholicism, while many of those who don’t approach the topic from a so-called intellectual viewpoint tend in large measure to convert the other way, from Roman Catholicism to evangelicalism?”

It seems to me that the “intellectuals” (or those who would think of themselves in that way) are more philosophically savvy, and they tend toward logical and ordered systems such as Aristotelianism (and derivatively, Thomism). That is a definite draw.

However, I think that is wrong-headed in several important ways. To take just one example, in his “Scholastic Metaphysics: A Contemporary Introduction”, Edward Feser outlines Kant’s “naturalist” assumptions and decides simply to ignore all of Kant (and what followed). He says (and I’ve added paragraph breaks to enhance readability):

… the Scholastic simply rejects the entire rationalist/empiricist/Kantian dialectic and insists on maintaining an epistemological position that predated these views, and against which they reacted.

The Scholastic agrees with the rationalist that there are necessary metaphysical truths that we can know with certainty, but does not take them to be innate.

The Scholastic [also] agrees with the empiricist that all of our concepts must be derived from experience and that our knowledge must be grounded in experience, but he does not accept either the early modern empiricist’s desiccated notion of “experience” or his tendency to collapse intellect into sensation, as e.g. Hume does when characterizing “ideas” as faint copies of impressions …

Thus the Scholastic [metaphysicicst] does not accept the basic assumptions that made Kantianism and its contemporary “naturalized” or “descriptive” successors seem the only alternatives to a rationalist or empiricist position” (Edward Feser, “Scholastic Metaphysics: A Contemporary Introduction”, Heusenstamm, DE: editions scholasticae, 2014, p. 29).

Interestingly, though he writes about “Metaphysics”, Feser is complaining about an epistemological stream of thought that he won’t follow. (Instead, the book is about more contemporary philosophical challenges to various aspects of contemporary aspects of Thomism.)

That aside, Feser’s is just simply a “head-in-the-sand” approach, in my opinion. Feser completely builds out Thomistic “metaphysic”, but in a way that (I think) has no correspondence with today’s realities. It is one thing to reject Kant and what followed; it is quite another thing to ignore it. But there is a better way: interacting critically with it.

Whereas Feser ignores that body of work (and simply builds on Medieval Thomism as if that were the correct way to view the world – and Roman Catholic converts tend to buy into, uncritically, it seems), another work that I’ve recently completed actually interacts with “the entire rationalist/empiricist/Kantian dialectic” from an epistemological viewpoint, and it also introduces pressure points, where the “the entire rationalist/empiricist/Kantian dialectic” can be challenged.

“Explaining Postmodernism”


I’ve just finished the work “Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault (Expanded Edition)”. The book is primarily on “the history of political philosophies” that encompasses “the entire rationalist/empiricist/Kantian dialectic” and what followed.

Hicks shows how Kant (and the thinkers who followed Kant) led, first of all, to the nebulous “postmodernism” that evolved out of various streams of “Continental” philosophies, and to the growth and development of “the political left” as we see it today.

There’s an incredible amount of information to unpack in this work, and Hicks does a very fine job of structuring it and explaining it.

In comparing the “Scholastic” with “the rationalist” and “the empiricist”, Feser is comparing a medieval pre-Enlightenment way of thinking with forms of epistemology that we would think of as “enlightenment” ways of thinking. What he fails to do is to distinguish the “Kantian” portion of this “dialectic” (which was largely “anti-enlightenment) from the other two epistemologies.

I want to publish selections from Hicks’s work over time, and to comment on them, primarily for the purpose of providing a roadmap for the current political environment, and for discussing ways of addressing this overall environment of postmodernism, from a Christian perspective.

I’ve struggled with “where to jump in” to this whole discussion, but what follows is as good a place as any to start.

Here, in broad brush strokes, are where “modernism” (in the sense of the “classical liberalism” and “enlightenment thinking”) that brought about what we know as “the Enlightenment”), set in juxtaposition with where Kantian (leading to “postmodern”) thinking is taking things. I’m sure you will recognize many of these competing themes:

Postmodern cultural themes
These broad academic themes in turn inform our more specific cultural debates.
1. Whether the Western canon of great books is a distillation of the best of the West and reflective of a multi-faceted debate— or whether it is ideologically narrow, exclusive, and intolerant.

2. Whether Christopher Columbus was a modern hero, bringing two worlds together to their mutual benefit— or whether he was an insensitive, smugly superior point man for European imperialism, bringing armed force that rammed European religion and values down indigenous cultures’ throats.

3. Whether the United States of America is progressive on liberty, equalities, and opportunities for everyone— or whether it is sexist, racist, and class-bound, e.g., using its mass market pornography and glass ceilings to keep women in their place.

4. Whether our ambivalence over affirmative action programs reflects a strong desire to be fair to all parties— or whether those programs are merely a cynical bone thrown to women and minorities until they seem to be helping, at which point there is a violent reaction by the status quo.

5. Whether social conflicts should be defused by encouraging the principle that individuals should be judged according to their individual merits and not according to morally irrelevant features such as race or sex— or whether group identities should be affirmed and celebrated, and whether those who balk at doing so should be sent for mandatory sensitivity training.

6. Whether life in the West, and especially America, is improving, with average longevity and wealth increasing in each generation— or whether Amerika has abandoned its urban underclass and fostered a bland consumerist culture of shopping malls and suburban sprawl.

7. Whether the liberal West is leading the rest of the world to a freer and more prosperous future— or whether its heavy-handed intrusiveness in foreign policy and its command of the international financial markets are exporting its McJobs to non-Western nations, locking them into the System and destroying their indigenous cultures.

8. Whether science and technology are good for all, extending our knowledge of the universe and making the world healthier, cleaner, and more productive— or whether science betrays its elitism, sexism, and destructiveness by making the speed of light the fastest phenomenon, thereby unfairly privileging it over other speeds— by having chosen the phallic symbol “i” to represent the square root of negative one— by asserting its desire to “conquer” nature and “penetrate” her secrets— and, having done so, by having its technology consummate the rape by building bigger and longer missiles to blow things up.

9. And whether, in general, liberalism, free markets, technology, and cosmopolitanism are social achievements that can be enjoyed by all cultures— or whether non-Western cultures, since they live simply and in harmony with nature, are superior— and whether the West is arrogantly blind to that fact, being elitist and imperialistic, imposing its capitalism, its science and technology, and its ideology upon other cultures and an increasingly fragile ecosystem.

Hicks, Stephen R. C., Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault (Expanded Edition) (Kindle Locations 742-774). Kindle Edition.

These are all things to be discussed, to be sure, but according to Hicks, they are symptoms of a problem that has emerged, not the problem itself.

According to Hicks, “Postmodern thinking” itself is the problem in our world today. This type of thought has a definite ancestry, and throughout the book, Hicks traces the thought, both in its philosophical strains and in its political manifestations, as they’ve interacted and even collided over the years (and the decades and even the centuries).

It was a fascinating work from beginning to end, and if you’re interested in “political philosophy” at all, I’d encourage you to purchase and devour this book.

Feser’s work is a wishful thinking account of metaphysics and epistemology. Hicks’s work is definitely showing us “the dark side” of the political discussion. But it’s the very thing that we need to address, and it shows us the very places where we most need to address it that will yield the most benefit to the remaining portions of Christian culture as we know it.

Disclaimer: the links to the books given here are generated through an Amazon.com affiliate account that I have. The affiliate links won’t change the prices on any items you may purchase when you click on them, but they enable me to earn commissions on these purchases. I appreciate your support – John B.

10 comments:

  1. Here is an exceptional (and exceptionally complete) review of the Stephen Hicks book:

    https://uncouthreflections.com/2017/09/28/notes-on-stephen-hickss-explaining-postmodernism/

    One small piece (a “conspiracy theory” view to be sure):

    In the last 20-30 years, academic postmodernism indoctrinated an enormous number of people who now hold influential positions in the media, entertainment, and tech companies. It infected law schools and the social sciences, resulting in numerous people in government also holding these positions, whether in the US or Western Europe.

    The speed with which postmodern ideas have become “common sense,” particularly to cultural and media elites, the professoriate, and urban young people is breathtaking. Social media companies and the new Internet media, largely run by people subjected to postmodernist indoctrination in the universities play an enormous role here. Whatever the reason, in the last 25 years postmodernism has gone from a minor academic oddity to the fundamental thought matrix of our age.

    Most of our contemporary popular debates about race, sexuality, etc. are based on the tactics and nihilistic philosophy of postmodernism. Unable to address conventional Marxist or Leftist politics, they have turned to the cultural and social sphere. But they also have invaded legal and policy spheres and are, essentially, on a mission to destroy the West and its traditions. This is indeed nihilism. But it is targeted nihilism – focused on its enemy.

    And while Hicks thinks the target is modernism, it also includes anything left of pre-modernism or tradition. It includes not just the individual, but the family. Not just rich people, but the middle class. Not just white elites, but white proletarians. Not just parts of the West, but the entire thing.

    To save the West and its traditions, whether pre-modern or modern, postmodernism is going to have to be stopped. It is the dangerous ideology fundamentally underlying all of the lunacy and insanity we see on a daily basis today.

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  2. I think that a somewhat more rational review is available here:

    https://areomagazine.com/2018/10/17/a-review-of-explaining-postmodernism-by-stephen-hicks/

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    1. ///I think that a somewhat more rational review is available here ...///

      Not the case. Perhaps a more leftist review is available there. I'll give just a couple of examples. Your author misleadingly says:

      "The book’s problems begin on the very first page, with Hicks’ list of seminal postmodern authors. He includes obvious picks such as Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault and Jean-Francois Lyotard, three of Hicks’ four horsemen of postmodernity. But others—Richard Rorty and Jacques Lacan—have a debatable association with postmodernity and some of those included were even outright critics of postmodernism, such as the feminist legal scholar Catherine Mackinnon, author of “Points Against Postmodernism,” and Luce Irigaray, whose work is a frequent target of postmodern feminists due to its alleged essentialism.".

      First, Rorty does not associate his postmodernism with the label, because, he says, there is no reality behind the label.

      "The difficulty faced by a philosopher who, like myself, is sympathetic to this suggestion [e.g., Foucault’s]— one who thinks of himself as auxiliary to the poet rather than to the physicist— is to avoid hinting that this suggestion gets something right, that my sort of philosophy corresponds to the way things really are. For this talk of correspondence brings back just the idea my sort of philosopher wants to get rid of, the idea that the world or the self has an intrinsic nature."

      This, while eschewing the label, conforms wholly to the thought pattern of postmodernism.

      Nor does Hicks say that Mackinnon and Irigaray "have an association with postmodernism", only that their work "aids" the cause of postmodernism.

      MacKinnon's "aid" is in the form of "call[ing] for censorship of pornography on postmodern grounds": "Our social reality is constructed by the language we use, and pornography is a form of language, one that constructs a violent and domineering reality for women to submit to. Pornography, therefore, is not free speech but political oppression", and that she "writes on behalf of women as an oppressed group".

      Both of these examples rely not on traditional (modernist) morality but on grounds that are strictly articulated by postmodernists.

      It's important to note that there is no school that says "We are postmodernists", with sharply defined lines and beliefs. Postmodernism is rather a bundle of beliefs and practices (mostly associated with the deconstruction of reality, meaning, reason, and language) that generally can and do avoid any kind of labelling, including the label of "postmodern".

      But that does not mean they are not postmodern, through and through. But Hicks does provide a more thorough definition of what he considers to be "postmodern".

      The rest of the review follows suit, with similar misrepresentations. I'll discuss your author's treatment of Kant in a follow-up post.

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  3. "Perhaps a more leftist review is available there..." Well, he does explicitly identify himself as being "affiliated with the Left" (whatever that may mean) but his criticism of the book seems to be generally philosophical rather than political, if it's possible to broadly distinguish the two. I don't think it's particularly misleading to say that, for example, Rorty has a 'debatable association with postmodernism' rather than 'Rorty does not associate his postmodernism with the label because, he says, there is no reality behind the label' and it seems to me that claiming a paragraph of Rorty's writing "conforms wholly to the thought pattern of postmodernism" is perhaps begging the question.
    I think that part of the problem is in trying to be analytical of something which has arisen as a result of the 'failure' (in McIntyre's sense) of Analytical (Enlightenment) philosophy to provide the solution to all our problems that it aspired to.

    I look forward to reading your views on 'my author's' (I really can't claim him as 'my author', it was just a review I came across that seemed to make some reasonable criticisms) treatment of Kant shortly.

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    1. I wrote to Stephen Hicks -- he is very accessible, and he responded:

      Hi John:
      Yes, there are two schools of thought on Kant, one that sees him in milder terms and one in harsher. I will be responding to that review this summer I hope, but for now a couple of quick follow-ups, one on the epistemology and one on the moral-political:

      http://www.stephenhicks.org/2011/11/20/was-kant-really-that-skeptical/

      https://www.cato-unbound.org/2016/10/17/stephen-r-c-hicks/does-kant-have-place-classical-liberalism

      Hope that's helpful for now.

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    2. There is a bit more along these same lines as my latest comment, here:

      https://triablogue.blogspot.com/2019/03/a-response-from-stephen-hicks.html

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  4. Sounds good. I'll have to check it out to get the ammo to fight back.

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  5. Hicks is an Objectivist (or "Randist"). Here is a review of his book by a libertarian philosopher --

    https://mises.org/library/explaining-postmodernism-skepticism-and-socialism-rousseau-foucault-stephen-r-c-hicks

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    1. Thanks Steve. I know that Roger Scruton ("Short History of Modern Philosophy") suggests "there is a systematic ambiguity" that enables a "rival interpretation" of Kant (147). I'll have to give this a closer look.

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  6. I look forward to the later installments. Great line of inquiry.

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