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The Progressive Enlightened Error of the Elevation of the Human Understanding

The Progressive Enlightened Error Of The Elevation Of The Human Understanding

There are two diametrically opposed ways of viewing the social and  political tensions in the West today that are typically classified as progressive and conservative (or alt.right). Such classification conceals deep rooted philosophical issues that do not easily lend themselves to any facile political descriptions. Nevertheless, it is true that the ‘progressive’ wing of this cultural-political division is predicated upon an appeal to the idea of a better future free from the privilege and domination of systemically entrenched unfair power relations. A central feature of the progressive mind is the certitude about: its diagnosis of what fairness (and such cognates as equality or emancipation) is; who is to blame for its absence; and what to do  to fix the problem.

Then there are those who argue that fairness, equality, freedom, diversity are abstractions, which are extremely hard, if not impossible, to realize in any genuinely or completely consistent manner, and that trying to realize them may very well instantiate a far less free, equal, fair etc. order. They generally do not agree with the progressive diagnosis of why power relations are the way they are, and are critical of the progressives preliminary intellectual decisions and methods. Yet they may share little in common politically, apart from the fact that they do not find the progressive consensuses compelling, and/ or they find the progressive ‘methods’ and narratives  that have become increasingly commonplace more pernicious than the problems to be cured. These methods include censorship, de-platforming, publicly denouncing  those who do not agree with the ‘program’ and the issues and tactics that take on such moral importance that they could only be opposed by a a  privileged, bad person, hater, fool, or piece of ‘human garbage’ (as, according to Tom Bartlett in a recent essay in  The Chronicle of Higher Education  on Quillette,  one ‘tweeter’ labelled Quillette readers).

Because the progressive narrative has become so successful in the ideas brokering institutions of the West (and hence so have the afore-mentioned methods), it is important to identify the core philosophical weaknesses of the diagnosis and method. In identifying this, I do not wish to criticize each and every objective of the progressive narrative, but rather to briefly highlight the problems with how the narrative is formed and replicated. Ultimately, we all lose when discussion of political policy does not proceed on the basis of cautious consideration of all manner of ‘well argued’ perspectives (of course that is  a judgment call, but our  collective judgment can only be deformed by authoritarian positions which are based upon a group of people thinking they know everything). In this sense, then, the following is predicated upon the premise that the world is a complex place, that there are all manner of responses to our being in the world, that different people (individuals and collectives) do value different things – from the sacred to the mundane –, and that we all only see and experience a little bit of life. Dialogue and compromise are intrinsic to successful collective life – this holds as much for a couple as between peoples. Further, dialogue does not mean that there are not inimical values and life-ways, though, a successful dialogue only occurs when people are able to be transformed through their encounter, and are able to create a new kind of solidarity, a new peace. How people are transformed, though, is unpredictable. And while life itself is transformative, not all transformation is benign. (This is also why plucking a variable such as diversity out of the air and making it a good in itself is a problem – it is the qualities that accompany diversity that ultimately matter.) Pathology is also a feature of individual and collective life. The idea that we can find a form of collective life free from pathology is a kind of faith. The overtly religious form of faith places its hope in another world, the secular form places its faith  in ‘redemption’ of this world. There is, though, an insoluble problem for those who believe that they know how to redeem the world (as opposed to trying to rectify a particular pathology, or injustice).

The major problem is this: it is impossible to know the entirety of processes that are constitutive of this world. If we consider the ‘world’ as akin to a ‘system’, we have to concede that it is impossible for us to see the totality of the ‘system’. This is because the (human) world is never just an ‘object’, but is ever in process, and as participants in world-making (even observation is a kind of participation), we are implicated, inter alia, in our temporal and spatial ‘placements’. These ‘placements’ necessarily include such powers as traditions, and the carrier of tradition as well as the means of criticising, being in and making the past, present and future, viz. language.   Like language, tradition is also a process, i.e. both are transformative; they facilitate our transformation, but are themselves the outgrowth of transformation. In sum, no person can know everything, and while what we know comes from our ‘location’, our ‘location’, like ourselves, is never utterly transparent: we are never aware of everything that has made’ us who and what we are.

Hence it is also the case that the best an education can do is provide us with some knowledge, but that knowledge is, in the overall scheme of life, very limited indeed. The problem is compounded by the fact that the gathering and transmission of our knowledge is inevitably also compartmentalised into ‘disciplines’. Life, however, and hence our experience  is not a set of compartments. The best we can do is compare and associate the knowledge we assemble. In sum:  our ‘ideas’ are very partial. And, apart from the more apodictic kinds of knowing such as mathematics, and, to some extent ‘natural sciences’ such as physics, which have no equivalent when we attempt to understand human beings, our knowledge is necessarily provisional – we literally learn as we go, but our learning is retrospective, and every moment we are making the world and ourselves anew. To use a ‘theological’ term life is revelation.

If we factor in the above, then, we will inevitably be sceptical of anyone who thinks that the little they know (and we all know little) suffices to form the basis for how to transform the world in accordance with their will. Closely related to this is a matter that thinkers as diverse as J.G. Hamann, J.G. Herder, and F. W. J. Schelling (this would be decisive in his critique of J. G. Fichte) , and the late Heidegger (for all his problems) rightly recognized: viz, that the attempt to foist our ideas upon the world in the hope that it will conform to our will is a kind of madness because human responsiveness is unpredictable. Of course, this does not rule out the fact that we act on our little piece of reality, but the grander the hope, the more assured that we can be that things will not turn out as planned.

This issue is closely related to another rarely appreciated point. Of the great world-shaping transformations, it is impossible to underestimate the emergence of philosophy, and then its modern reinvigoration. Although philosophy’s emergence was not confined to the West, and preceded Plato, the Platonic turn opened up the path that we should take our bearing in the world from ideas, and ideas could be ‘known’, and defined through argumentation. Aristotle, who also trod the path opened by Plato, not only criticized  Plato’s account of ideas providing the eternal standard  and model, in so far as they existed in a separate ‘realm’ accessible to the mind, he focused upon the structure and function  of parts and wholes to be studied, and emphasized the importance of comparison when judging how we may better proceed in the world. As important as Plato and Aristotle were in the history of philosophy, philosophy’s social importance in the ancient world, was, at best, somewhat tangential. Moreover, although philosophical schools and ideas proliferated, their institutional incarnation and hence social importance was also extremely limited. When philosophy was incorporated into the Medieval university, it was primarily in an adjunct position: in particular Aristotle’s logic facilitated a more systemic means of mediating between alternative and competing (fields and traditions of) laws and legal domains (the first volume o Harold Berman’s Law and Revolution deals nicely with this), and, even more importantly (most evident in Aquinas) in resolving the theological contradictions that had amassed throughout Christendom. As rich as Medieval philosophical writings are, the fact was that philosophy did not play a decisive role in a society whose narratives of legitimation owed far more to biblical and ecclesiastical tradition, and the appeal to miracles and signs. This all changed with what we now often blithely call the modern world, a confluence of many contingencies, and, for my purpose, and more specifically, the Enlightenment.

There are three features I wish to briefly mention about the Enlightenment. The first was that it was initially a philosophical response to the religious wars that culminated in the Thirty Years War. Descartes who is invariably (and rightly) considered the founder of modern metaphysics and of the Enlightenment, believed he was able to provide a reliable philosophical method which would ostensibly provide a scientific view of the world facilitating more useful knowledge than what he saw as the useless knowledge of previous philosophies. Although Descartes’s metaphysics was  to facilitate a better grasp of the natural world,  he was aware that the implications of his philosophy would also affect the human world. While others would dispute the essential features of his metaphysics, which served as the roots of the ‘tree’ of his ‘physics,’ his ‘world picture’ was one in which the totality of nature was an assemblage of laws that could (eventually) be known by the human mind. In grounding his metaphysics, Descartes radically transformed the ideas of God and the soul: God, was no longer the creator to be worshipped, but an ‘innate idea’ whose (demonstrable) existence confirmed that the universe was law-governed (thus stabilizing the ‘world’ as an object of possible knowledge); the soul (which he claimed to have demonstrated to be immortal) was a composite of epistemic functions, and hence was equated with thinking itself. Hence Descartes’ idea of the soul bore no resemblance to the traditional religious understanding of the soul. While on the surface, Descartes’s argument for God and the soul  bore certain resemblances to the procedures of ‘scholastic’  philosophers, influenced as they were by Aristotle in particular, he decisively broke with the religious traditions and narratives that had heretofore dominated Western Europe. To see this, one only has to compare Descartes’ ‘God’ and the kinds of disputations he triggered with the kinds of religious disputations that preoccupied Luther and Calvin, and their traditional Catholic critics.  The ground had shifted from the saviour to be worshipped to the idea to be explicated: Deism was the new enlightened faith. The philosophical success of Descartes’ shift is evident in the fact the major metaphysicians, writing in the aftermath, of Descartes’ philosophy of the ‘modern mind’ were all Deists (Spinoza’s pantheistic identification of God and nature was a radicalisation of this position). Deism was ecumenical – as evident in the fact that Locke was an Anglican, Leibniz a Lutheran, Bayle a Calvinist, and Spinoza a Jew by birth). A deist God would also be ensconced in the American Declaration of Independence, just as Robespierre believed it essential for ensuring a republic of virtue.

The second feature of the Enlightenment, which is closely related to this metaphysical shift, concerns the elevation of the what was typically called the faculty of the (human) ‘understanding’ over the imagination. The general agreement (emphasized by Spinoza and Descartes’ ‘student’ Malebranche) was that the terrible plight of the world had been the product of the ravings of the imagination. The imagination was to be curbed by the understanding which would limit the use of the imagination to help in the discovery of nature’s laws. Locke would attempt to ‘pin down’ the precise nature of the human understanding in his Essay Concerning the Human Understanding. He could no more successfully achieve this than Kant could identify the source and scope of the elements of pure reason, or Hegel (well aware of the limitations of the Enlightenment’s separation of the understanding from the world it was intended to oversee) could provide the definitive account of the Absolute.

The third feature of the Enlightenment I wish to emphasize is that what had initially been an approach to a scientific understanding of nature, swiftly found application to human affairs. Spinoza’s Ethics, the Tractatus Theological-Politicus, and Tractatus Politicus, Hobbes’s Leviathan, and Locke’s Second Treatise on Government, were amongst the decisive works that set the foundations for a new way to talk about human affairs based upon reason ‘alone’. (Aesthetics would eventually follow).

That there were serious problems with taking what was essentially a method for the study of nature to human affairs was perceived by the ex-Cartesian, Vico who argued that the study of human affairs required a more philological historically grounded kind of philosophy. He would be a pioneer of what Isaiah  Berlin has designated a ‘counter-current’ to the Enlightenment. Vico is the originator of a more philosophical anthropological path that has remained tangential to the philosophical tradition, which invariably finds some ultimate source of appeal (its sovereign ideas) to which it could have people conform in order to create a better world.

Had the  new kind of narration provided by the enlightened philosophers remained the prerogative of a small group of philosophers the world would look very different. However, the circulation of the  enlightened philosophical style of narration originally  in France would be taken up by the hegemonic aspirants  seeking to politically instantiate and economically profit from their revolutionary ideas. These were  drawn from professional groups such as lawyers,  journalists, scientists, authors, merchants, artisans, teachers, even some former priests and aristocrats, and others who created the idea of ‘the people’ in their image. The new ideas-brokers would ultimately vie for, and largely succeed,  in occupying the role, previously held by the first estate, of providing social and spiritual orientation– ‘those who prayed’. The new priest was the intellectual; the new prayer  was one of hope in a future in which the enlightened mind would shape the world according to its precepts – most notably social freedom, and equality. What had become decisive in determining the legitimacy of authority were philosophical ideas. Thomas Carlyle in his colourful account of the French revolution even spoke of the revolution as being the triumph of ‘philosophism’. Of course, the ideas that gained currency during the revolution and which would be ensconced in the Declaration of the Rights of Man (and even more so the constitutions of 1791 and 1793) do not explain the roots or trajectory of the revolution, but they were a fundamental narrative component of how the revolution and its aspirations would be incorporated into the later upheavals that would define the reconfiguration of social and political relationships that were constitutive of the modern nation state. In a nut shell, the revolution decisively transformed the nature of political power, from the outmoded sacrificial order that had emerged out of a social hierarchy of crown and warriors, priests, and labourers  to an ideocratic order in which the  professional classes, spearheaded by lawyers, would generally be the leading political players representing the ‘public interest’. The representatives of the ‘pubic interest’, though, were ultimately beholden to the ideas  they had about the public interest and the nature of the political power they wielded. In other words, political power and the making, circulation and monitoring of ideas  had become essential to the modern political process. And would remain so even after the revolution had given way to a military dictatorship and subsequent restoration. The new elite could claim that its authority lay in the nature of reason itself and the quality of reason that it exhibited. That the chaos and conflict surrounding such issues as federalism, or the extent to which de-Christianisation should occur, or what political moderation meant for the revolution, or the necessity of equating virtue and terror revealed that ideas and the natural light of reason guaranteed few answers to marrying political action with virtue, or even the achievement of a fairer more peaceful society. If the French revolution had elevated philosophy as the tool of political empowerment of the professional classes, the rise of the intelligentsia and radical students would be even more decisive in the fermenting and eventual power brokering leading into the Russian revolution. In the aftermath of the French revolution those who lived and breathed ideas became ever more convinced that they knew what needed to be done to create a future society free from oppression.

What was constant from the Enlightenment through both the French and Russian revolutions was that power-brokering required narrative direction, filtering, authority and ultimately narrative control. Further, the new ‘sacred’ (inviolable or unquestionable) core of appeal was to a substance, the content of which was to be dictated to by the legislators of the new future: ‘the people’ in France were to be pitted against ‘the traitors to the people’, the ‘proletariat’ in the Soviet Union and subsequent communist states against class enemies (‘running dogs of capitalism’ as the Maoists would so colourfully put it.) That reason had only created a new abstract mythology played out just as the early critic of the Enlightenment J. G. Hamann said it would: Hamann believed, not wrongly in my view, that human beings will always require faith in something. His friend and opponent Kant had argued that morality is essentially a ‘rational faith’, because the rational elements that are constitutive of our ‘practical’ [i.e. moral] reason, cannot be disproven. Hegel rightly saw, though, that Kant could not help but smuggle worldly content [and hence social and historical elements] into what was ostensibly an appeal to the rational form of our moral imperatives.

No less than the generation of 1848 (that included the neo-Hegelians and, most significantly  Marx), the  makers of the social revolt of the 1960s were the children of the faith in the power to remake their world according to their ideas.  They were also the children of the great world-making transformations of the Enlightenment and the intellectuals whose natural lights had identified who was to blame and what is to be done (to take the titles of Herzen’s and Chernyshevsky’s popular works of the 19th century) –  the French and Russian Revolutions.  But just as neither the Enlightenment, nor the French nor the Russian revolution produced the freedom and equality they were supposed to, those committed to changing the world in light of the new emancipatory forces and narratives had to deal with the same problem: other people (including classes) rarely  respond to the sets of ideas that others have foisted upon them through their narratives. This problem of a living group not conforming to the normative framing of its essence is ubiquitous. To take one example, the  feminist movement has had to deal with the fact that ‘women’ are not ‘women’ who confirm to the ideational substance that the emancipative narrative of emancipation has required. This is most conspicuous in traditions where the cultural ideational Enlightenment / revolutionary trajectory has had little social efficacy upon peoples who have not readily ‘cashed in’ their traditional understanding of the world, which owes more to narratives drawn from ‘the figurative’ imagination, than to the enlightened ‘understanding.’  It is also the case that more traditionalist understandings of social roles and social goals are not primarily driven by the abstract appeals of moral rights, but by social roles grounded in ‘sacrificial orders’ of the sort that the Enlightened ‘understanding’ dissolved.

In the 18th century, a little remembered Scottish philosopher, Thomas Reid had provided a critique of what he (following Locke) had called ‘the way of ideas.’ His chief point was that our sociality and collective memory are never adequately grasped by ideas. He appealed to philosophy to return to common sense, though unlike Vico, Hamann, Herder, and others he did not focus upon the historical and anthropological conditions which would explain why common sense is so diverse in different times and places. The more anthropologically attenuated philosophers would ultimately make the argument that what is required for better social ‘communion’ is a more hermeneutically attuned kind of thinking, i.e. a thinking attuned to what people ‘feel’ is fundamental to their respective ‘life-worlds’

The seismic shift in which the figurative imagination is cordoned off by the understanding is not universal, but it has occurred, and become intrinsic to the West, at least in its narratives of institutional legitimacy. Thus it is that religious faith is relegated to a private matter because its appeals remain figurative rather than ‘rational’.  Nevertheless,  enlightened philosophers never compellingly demonstrated that the understanding and reason could be so easily separated from, or rule over  the imagination.  This point was well made by Hume (who whilst arguing that ‘common life’ lies outside the purview of philosophical demonstrations, remains committed to the broader Enlightenment project.) Although Kant would successfully criticize Hume’s failure to distinguish between the form of law and its content, the fact remains, that all attempts to ‘ground’ the understanding or reason in such a way that it could preside over the truth of our world-making keeps hitting against the same problem: reason (and hence the understanding) is an operation within the world, not a substance presiding over it. Which is to say that while the Enlightened philosophers were able to demonstrate there was no compelling proof for God’s existence, they fared no better at demonstrating reason’s existence.

The post-structuralists would make great play with this, demonstrating why one essence after another could not be the ultimate appeal – and yet they remain committed to the sovereign idea of ‘anti-domination’, which would also be the cornerstone of minority/identity politics. The aforementioned problem of norm dependent idea of a ‘group’ not fitting  the various values and contradictions and responses of living  group members should have made their philosophical contribution somewhat pyrrhic. But  such a blatant philosophical problem (a Phil 101 howler)  has generally been ignored by the modern radical understanding. This is because the social and political ambition (combined with a sense of economic expectancy that those who teach how the world should be should be recompensed) and self-certainty about the moral and ‘theoretical’ rectitude of the diagnosis provides a bulwark against the asking of such a simple questions as how is it possible that a substantive character is not substantive when it deviated from the norm? Were the understanding doing its job, then one would have to concede that the norm must give way to the substance, and not the other way around. But then that would require the concession that one’s normative pronouncement are not based upon knowledge of the substance, but upon the hope that the substance will not be what it actually is. Such a question about the disjuncture between substance and norm destabilizes claims  about how ideology functions, about group identification of interests (whether it be about a ‘minority’ or about capital, or whiteness), and hence threatens the very existence of the narrative that gives this idea-brokering elite its own leadership role (of to use its own language, its privilege).  Thus we find another jarringly conspicuous contradiction which only a ‘hateful’ or bad person would notice: viz. a member of an alien group is more authorized to diagnose the group’s problem and offer a remedy than members from that group who do not share the narrative that supposedly expresses the essence of the group and the road to its emancipation. Thus the non-white Thomas Sowell, Walter Williams, Candace Owens, Karen Kennedy, Kevin from Kevin’s Corner, Ryan Bomberger should not be listened to when it comes to diagnosing race in the USA because they are the dupes/ spreaders of systemically oppressive ideas about race, but the white Peggy McIntosh, Robin DiAngelo, Susan Rosenberg, or James Kilgore not only have cured themselves of systemic racism, but have the knowledge about what is wrong and how to make a good society.  The widespread  failure to register this kind of anomaly tells us something important about the weakness of identity narrative as such. Moreover while this failure is a symptom of a ‘pseudo-understanding,’ or sloppy thinking (not may more robust because it strives for virtue), it also suggests that the blindness may not  be purely a failure of the ‘understanding’ in itself, especially if we can detect (as we can) that the ‘pseudo-understanding’ or blatant contradiction tends to be more common amongst some social groups or classes (urban tertiary educated professionals and students) than others. In this case it is a symptom of how an interest dictates what the understanding will select when it already ‘knows’ the answer to the problem it is looking for. That the interest is shored up by various tacit bonds of group acceptance, and more explicit institutional rewards such as career advancement, prestige etc. affirms that placement and position do matter, not in the way that the ‘ideologist’ thinks it does. That is, it matters because the pressures of conformity and expectation feed into presumption, but that does not mean that a willingness to ask questions and think makes it impossible to think outside of these presumptions and pressures.

The world we ‘notice’ through the assemblage of our ideas is never complete; the shard-like and fragmented nature of our intelligence is in part due to our limitations of what we know through our location and attunement, but also through the compartmentalisations we deploy to understand the world better. Thus inevitably myth is also incorporated into our narratives, myth (understood as particular story) acts as a ‘gap-filler’ to help align our ideas. But the ideologist thinks that they are free from myth,  that they have the full story while others are caught up in a myth. Not surprisingly, our enlightened myths are far more ‘abstract’ than those of the pre-Enlightenment – and the role that that such abstract values as freedom and equality play in our myths was evident from the outset in the application of the natural i.e. enlightened, use of reason in the social contract theories which were deployed to found the sources of legitimacy for social and political obligation. Likewise our historical memory of events is partial and ever subject to reconfiguration due to the questions we pose, the evidence we focus upon, and the circumstances we find ourselves in, which require drawing upon the past to better participate in the future.

Our moral aspirations and personal sincerity has little to do with the adequacy of our understanding. The recognition of our limits requires that we also treat ideas with caution and provisionality, be more prone to ‘listen’ to different points of view and experience, be mistrustful of dogmatic declarations of faith which present themselves as knowledge. This is not a moral imperative, in so far as any moral imperative ultimately stands on nothing more solid than any appeal to an implacable/  divine command. But it is a heuristic that better enables us to deal with the complex flux of the world. That is, it is a better way of developing our understanding of ourselves and the world. It is not to be indifferent to suffering and appeals to justice, but it also requires more than simply the acceptance of the application of principle, or simply assuming that values as loose and murky as justice may be over-simplified and act as fetters upon our understanding  and imagination. It also means being suspicious of framing problems as simple antithesis, as if our greatest problems neatly align into one of two positions. Likewise, it should make us mistrust  anyone who would dismiss someone who is different or who sees an issue in a different way as bacteria (Hitler on the Jews), ‘insects’ (Lenin on anti-Bolsheviks), or ‘human garbage’ (an unknown tweeter on Quillette retweeters).

The institutional and political triumph of the Enlightenment has been an ideocratic triumph. That triumph has been carried by the economic agents, i.e.  the professional ideas-brokers who craft, monitor, and replicate our contemporary (enlightened Western- and Western influenced)  narratives of social re-production. But those who are engaged in this process are in the flux of the world. There is, however, no compelling reason to  assume we know what exactly is meant by emancipation, equality, identity, diversity, progress, whiteness, blackness, capitalism, conservative etc., nor to trust those who think they know how to socially reconfigure  us so that we conform to the instantiation of such ideas.  Further, there is no compelling reason whatever to think that such ideas should be invoked without our needing to explore a far more complicated tapestry of associations and experiences which have been part of the vast currents that form the lives and encounters of the human species.

Wayne CristaudoWayne Cristaudo

Wayne Cristaudo

Wayne Cristaudo is Professor of Political Science at Charles Darwin University in Australia. He is author of several books, the latest being Religion, Redemption and Revolution: The New Speech Thinking Revolution of Franz Rozenzweig and Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy (Toronto, 2012) and a Philosophical History of Love (Transaction, 2012).

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