Saturday, March 02, 2019

A Response from Stephen Hicks

A week or so ago, I posted an article entitled “The Dark Side of Political Philosophy, and How it Led to the Growth and Development of Today’s ‘Political Left’ Movement”. The blog post was largely intended to introduce a book entitled “Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault (Expanded Edition)”.

My intention was to show:

“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.… 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 also posted a link to a review, which I thought was very thorough. That reviewer said,

More importantly, Hicks hates postmodernism. This makes him ideally suited to write a book trying to explain it. Almost every other book on the topic is written either by postmodernists in their typical, obfuscatory, jargon-laden, aren’t-we-clever style or by Marxists, who like some aspects of postmodernism but dislike a lot of it because it isn’t Marxist enough.

Immediately (it seems) on the posting of this a comment appeared in which a writer posted a link to another review and the commenter had suggested that this was “a somewhat more rational review”. That review contains this charge (among others):

… [Hicks’s] reading of many of these thinkers is very shoddy. … Nowhere is this more apparent than in his treatment of Immanuel Kant, whom Hicks argues is somehow a Counter-Enlightenment thinker. This is all the more ironic, given Kant’s argument in Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals that, “man—and in general every rational being—exists as an end in himself and not merely as a means to be used by this or that will at its discretion.” Hicks makes the baffling argument that Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason is a skeptical epistemological attack on empirical realism and the possibility of true knowledge of the real world, designed to shore up Kant’s religious faith against the attacks of Enlightenment science. This is simply not true.

Back in the day when I was debating hot-and-heavy with Roman Catholics, all that a Catholic Convert apologist would have to do (he thought) to discredit what I was saying, was to hit my citations with an ad hominem in some way, and after that, any future Roman Catholic would just dismiss the whole work on those grounds.

One of the more striking cases was the William Webster, David King series “Holy Scripture”. Some Roman Catholic apologist made the claim “Webster/King is discredited because their work isn’t peer reviewed” – their thorough and extensive documentation of their subject matter notwithstanding – and so a whole generation of potential Roman Catholic readers put their heads in the sand and failed to interact directly with what Webster and King were saying. To their loss.

It seems to me that the ad hominem in this review of Hicks is the very kind of thing that these Roman Catholics were getting away with. The reviewer says as much. He says:

These interpretive problems immediately make one suspicious that this book may be less about explaining postmodernism in a liberal and charitable way and more about lumping together and dismissing all forms of left-wing criticism that may owe an intellectual debt to continental European thought.

There are, frankly, some things about which one ought not to be charitable, but which one must, instead, look at cold-eyed and discerningly. The line of thinking that started with Kant and that has led to the kind of thing we are seeing on “the political left” is one of those things.

Two centuries’-worth of political philosophy is not an easy thing to characterize in simple terms, to be sure. We are talking about dozens if not hundreds of thinkers, who have written over the course of two centuries now.

If a conservative writer chooses to focus on “this” about a particular philosopher, and not “that”, it doesn’t mean that there is any lack of charity involved. Nor that it is the case (as the Aero reviewer says) that he is making “misreadings, suppositions, rhetorical hyperbole and even flat out factual errors”. Especially about a philosopher like Kant, whose writings are voluminous, influential, and not very clear at all.

* * *

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:

Hope that's helpful for now.

In the meantime, I’m preparing a brief overview of these “two schools of thought on Kant” (I don’t imagine there is a large public clamoring for such a thing), which I hope to post in the near future.


  1. Thank you for putting in the time and effort to give space to this conversation. There is possibly a hint of conspiracy theory in your "Immediately (it seems)...a comment appeared..." which I would like to address before tackling the main subject just to clear up any potential misunderstanding. I am an elderly Englishman with no political, religious or philosophical affiliations of any sort other than, perhaps, some sympathy for the views of Burke and Oakeshott and sufficient spare time to indulge in the hobby of philosophical debate. My only 'agenda', if such it be, is trying (without any hope of succeeding) to counter what seems to me the worsening problem of polarisation in internet debating and the influence this has on public debating in general. Given this and the general political culture at the moment, a suspicion of conspiracy on your part is understandable but in this case I can assure you it's not so.

    As for ad hominem arguments, I can't really see that describing Hicks' views of Kant and other philosophers as "shoddy" amounts to ad hominem - it's the views expressed in the book that are being criticised rather than the writer. Some of the analysis Hicks provides in order to justify his conclusion does seem to me to be worryingly simplistic, especially given that he clearly has a thorough knowledge of Kant's writings in all its puzzling complexity; in another response Hicks writes: "Any reading of Kant's massive corpus of writings initially gives one a mass of conflicting liberal and anti-liberal claims." So, yes, I would be inclined to agree with you that Hicks isn't necessarily being factually incorrect about Kant in his book (unless I've missed something) but he does seem to be choosing an interpretation of views that, as you say, are "not very clear at all" which is convenient for an opinion of contemporary politics as being, seemingly, inescapably dichotomous.

    I have to say that, as someone who grew up in the extremely politically incorrect 1950s, I find large parts of current social and political ideas disconcerting to say the least but it seems to me that trying to characterise this in terms of chanting "four legs good, two legs bad" is not really going to achieve anything beneficial. This, I think, is the point of Rorty's 'continuing conversation' as something that has practical value. Certainly as far as politics on this side of the Atlantic, one of the few instances of a politician being brave enough to make use of this successfully was Margaret Thatcher in negotiating with the IRA ( )

    1. As far as the “immediately”, the time stamp on the comments tells the story! Whenever I see a name in the comments that I don’t recognize, who shows up and posts a “more rational review” that comes from someone on “the left” (that was admitted by the author of the review), I do have to keep an eye out that I’m not simply being trolled.

      But “shoddy” was almost the first thing this reviewer said of Hicks’s work (and therefore it is a comment about Hicks himself). As with the reviewer that I posted, I’m not a philosopher, and so responding with charges to the effect that Hicks’s reading “of many” “is shoddy” takes some time to look up. But when I find that something is called “shoddy” that is, in reality, questioned by many, then I take issue with that.

      I think your use of the word “politically incorrect” regarding the 1950s is somewhat anachronistic, given that “political correctness” is a later phenomenon.

      Thank you for taking the time to comment and giving a broader perspective of your point of view. Like you, I find the political discourse to be troubling ... having grown up during the Cold War, I do see echoes of Soviet propaganda in the current discussions about the wonders of socialism. I think we need to have as broad a discussion as possible about these things, and as quickly as we possibly can, in the current environment.

  2. "I think your use of the word 'politically incorrect' … is somewhat anachronistic..." I'd forgotten how much difficulty Americans have with understanding English irony...

    1. ... and if you have to explain it to me, that would ruin it, I suppose!

    2. Speaking as an Englishman, I can say that I enjoyed both of these retorts. Well played, men :)