Posted on

Episode 138 – Transcript

This is a transcript of episode #138 on Robert Nozick. Check out the episode page HERE.

So obviously there are a lot of different problems political philosophers were faced with throughout the twentieth century…and we’ve talked about several of them so far, but one of the BIGGEST ones that we HAVEN’T talked about yet…specifically for political philosophers in the mid to late 20th century… one of the biggest questions facing these thinkers was this: when we are hit with problems, big problems, that we need to solve collectively as a society…should the state or the government be the primary tool that we use to solve those problems? How much responsibility is wise to give to the government? Does the government solve the problems of a society in the best manner possible…or does giving the government more responsibilities to deal with CREATE more problems than it’s worth? Another important question to consider about all this when it comes to THIS episode in particular: when you progressively give the government more jobs to do and more outcomes to guarantee for people, when you have a big, powerful government with a democracy behind it feeding it tasks to complete…does a big government plus a democracy always equal a tyranny of the majority? And do citizens that don’t necessarily agree with the majority or the people currently holding political office, do those citizens just need to resign themselves to paying into a tax pool that FUNDS all the things they don’t agree with? Maybe an over-sized government makes slaves of people whose views don’t HAPPEN to align with the current majority. To me these are some of the most important and FUN questions to think about in all of political philosophy.

But let’s take these questions on one at a time. Should the GOVERNMENT be the tool that we use to solve our problems as a society…now as you can imagine when you ask a question like this, one that’s THIS wide in scope…the ANSWERS you’re gonna get are going to vary widely as well. Last time we talked about John Rawls and his work A Theory of Justice…and Rawls would be a good example of a later 20th century thinker who is more on the side of government BEING a good solution to our problems. We saw this in his work: he lays out what he thinks is a fair and just distribution of social goods and then suggests that it’s the GOVERNMENT’S job to tax and redistribute accordingly to ensure that distribution remains JUST and is not too imbalanced in one direction or another.
But there are of course thinkers that disagree with Rawls. Maybe one of the most extreme examples of someone on the other side would be some variation of Anarchy. The exact OPPOSITE of believing that government is the best way to solve our problems. Human beings BEGAN in the state of nature…why should we believe that centralizing power into a single body we call “the government” is going to produce any better results than what we could otherwise produce with private enterprise? But we’ll save that conversation for later when we do our episodes on the Anarchist thought of the 90’s…today’s episode is on a philosopher who falls somewhere in between John Rawls and an Anarchist. His name is Robert Nozick and the book of his we’re going to be talking about today is titled Anarchy, State and Utopia. Now, just to give the following conversation a little preliminary structure…that title, Anarchy, State and Utopia is referencing the three major sections that the book is divided into. The first section would be Anarchy…where Nozick spends a considerable portion of time being understanding of the Anarchist’s aversion to government, but ultimately making a case that they go too far. The middle portion of the book, State, has Nozick laying out the TYPE of state that HE thinks is best…and in the Utopia section is where he describes WHY his version of a state is the best…Utopia is a sort of tongue in cheek musing by Nozick..he by NO MEANS thinks his system is an actual Utopia…but he thinks it’s FAR BETTER than other systems that have been tried and he argues for why he thinks that is.
See, Nozick is not a fan of there being a BIG state, with a lot of responsibilities…he’s not a fan of there being no state…so what is he a fan of? How big should the government be and what exactly should it do? Nozick is a fan of what he would call “the minimal state”. The best way to start understanding what he means by this is probably to contrast him with both the work of Rawls and the Anarchists of his time…and to get us into this mindset of Nozick let’s start with some general criticisms of Rawls and these bigger government approaches which will then LEAD us to the criticisms of Rawls detailed by Nozick himself.

The first place someone might take issue with Rawls is with his use of the maximin principle. That word maximin, as you might remember from last time, is a mixture of the words maximum and minimum. Rawls holds that rational agents… when choosing the structure of society would reliably choose the option that provided the maximum for the minimum, or the best case scenario for the least advantaged within a society. But some people would reply back to that and say, sure that sounds great. But when you REALLY look at the studies and what human beings TRULY seem to value when it comes to the role of government, they don’t want the best situation for the least advantaged…they want certain basic services guaranteed, with a satisfactory quality of life ensured…and then beyond that…they just want the government to leave them alone and let them live their life.

People don’t want the government telling them what things they should care about or how they should be living, and the larger the government gets the more they’re asked to do that. We’re going to be touching on this at multiple points in the next couple episodes, but let this be the first instance of saying… that one of the main criticisms people have here is that Rawls wants to do away with markets and instead rely on a predetermined fixed distribution of the social goods which leads some people to think that the maximin principle is not “obviously what rational agents would choose in the original position” as Rawls suggests, but instead maybe Rawls NEEDS the maximin principle for other parts of his theory to work at all, and that there are actually MANY different options we might see rational agents choose while structuring society.

Another common criticism of Rawls: he talks about the people in the original position structuring a society through a veil of ignorance, how would people structure a society if they couldn’t know their age, gender, race, income level, family, level of intelligence, etc…and there are people out there that would reply BACK to this and say once again, that SOUNDS really nice, but doesn’t that take away practically everything about what makes a person…a person? These aspects of our identity MATTER…they’re part of the composite that makes us a human being…and political institutions need to be structured to deal with the problems of human beings…not these nameless, faceless, rational agents of Rawls that don’t actually resemble a human at all.

But maybe the biggest point of departure between Nozick and Rawls comes down to the way they see rights. Nozick opens Anarchy, State and Utopia with this famous line, “Individuals have rights and there are things no person or group may do to them.”

Nozick wants to focus heavily on our rights as citizens…and the reason he wants to pay such close attention to them is because he wants to get away from what he thought was a huge misstep in the work of John Rawls. Rawls talks a lot in his work about fairness. Justice IS fairness to Rawls. When you’re born into an estate worth a billion dollars…you don’t DESERVE that billion dollars any more than you deserve the negative consequences of somebody falling in front of your car by chance. Both outcomes are morally arbitrary. But Nozick’s going to say that none of this stuff matters when it comes to the state…because Rawls is asking the wrong questions. The job of the state is not to determine what people deserve or what things are fair or not. The job of the state is to determine what people are entitled to and then to enforce that.

Let’s say your great grandma Beatrice tragically passes away. Let’s also say that throughout the last five years of her life her daughter took care of her and made sure she was safe. Grandma Beatrice in her will tries to leave everything she owns to her daughter, but makes some sort of error on the legal form and through some random sequence of events her possessions get passed on to her son, who for the sake of the example has always HATED grandma Beatrice and hasn’t spoken to her for years. The role of the state… is not to be an episode of judge judy where they sit there and reprimand Grandma Beatrice’s son for not being in her life…the role of the state is not to tell him that it’s not fair or that he doesn’t DESERVE what was left for him. The job of the state is to determine what he is entitled to and then to make sure that he gets it.

Nozick thinks there are certain rights that all human beings would agree upon whether they are in a state of nature or in the most advanced society on the planet. He calls the values that ground these rights moral side constraints and in short, they set the parameters for what can be done to a person without violating their rights. One of the most important ones for Nozick is this: that no person should be harmed without their consent. Seems pretty reasonable…but as we’ll see it’s THIS moral side constraint in particular, it’s TRULY taking the rights of people seriously that will eventually lead Nozick to unavoidable problems with the work of both the Anarchists and John Rawls.

Let’s start with the problems this leads to with the work of the Anarchists, laid out in the Anarchy section of the book. So if one thing we can all agree upon is that no human being wants to be harmed against their will…then Nozick says when you consider the hostile, dangerous environment of the state of nature, and you THINK about how human beings would behave in that scenario…what would naturally emerge are private services that provide people with protection from other people that want to hurt them. At the most basic level you’d pay a fee…and then you’d have your own personal security guard whose job it is to make sure nobody tries to hurt you or your family or take any of your stuff. But feasibly not everybody can have their own private security guard…so these guards would have to take on multiple clients, probably people that are in a similar proximity to each other.

But then another problem comes up, Nozick says. The whole thing becomes a convoluted mess. When you have hundreds or thousands of competing security guard factions all trying to enforce the rules of the people who happen to be paying for them…
there’s no codified set of rules that all the security guards are enforcing…it’s going to be a nightmare for these guards to have to figure out in real time… who’s a client of theirs vs who isn’t, which set of rules they’re enforcing today vs tomorrow, which rules correspond with which client… what happens when there’s a conflict between what two different clients want? Not to mention, Nozick says, what’s going to happen when to settle a dispute one person’s security guard has to fight another person’s security guard? Well, one of them is going to win and then everybody from the losing security guard’s detail is going to want to be protected by the OTHER security guard now.

This may seem like a weird hypothetical for Nozick to spending so much time on, but the argument that he’s ultimately making here is that what NATURALLY emerges in the state of nature is a local monopoly over the protection services of a region. Another way of putting that would be to say that what naturally emerges is a very basic kind of state that allows people to pay a fee in exchange for basic protection and the enforcement of contracts. This is one of the reasons WHY he thinks the Anarchist takes their aversion to government too far…because even WITHOUT any sort of formally organized state…this inevitable monopoly over protection services effectively creates the same thing.

This version of an extremely minimal state…one that provides basic protection for people and makes sure that contracts are enforced: this is the standard, from which any conversations about the role of government need to proceed from. So if you have any ambitions about fun or creative services that you think it’s the government’s job to provide…you’re going to have to do some major convincing to Nozick if you want to make a case for the government being the appropriate thing to carry those services out.

NOT ONLY is this not what the government is GOOD at doing…because it has a complete monopoly over the services and thus can be embarrassingly inefficient with no consequences…but this also isn’t what the government SHOULD be doing to Nozick. The more stuff we ask the government to do…the more money they’re going to need from you to inefficiently execute that plan…why is it the GOVERNMENT’S job to tell people how to live their lives outside of following the laws? Nozick thinks we need to take answering this question seriously and be very cautious of commissioning the government to solve our problems, because giving a centralized body like the government more and more power and more and more stuff to do comes with very real consequences.

This is clearly a point of disagreement between the different views of Nozick and Rawls…because Nozick thinks whenever you advocate for a state, that’s supposed to redistribute wealth from one group of people to another, you are fundamentally going against that moral side constraint, you are doing harm to someone who has not consented to be harmed. Let me explain what he means.

Nozick understands where Rawls is coming from here…he gets it…the idea is that you are part of a group… you have benefited in some way from that group…so therefore you now owe a debt TO that group that you’re obligated to pay through higher taxes.

Well Nozick gives a counter example in Anarchy, State and Utopia…bit of paraphrasing here but he would say imagine you’re at home one day…you’re cleaning your house…and it’s a nice day outside so you open up the window and from down the street you can hear your neighbor playing instruments practicing music with their band in their garage. So you sit there taking a break from cleaning and listen to the music for a while. Now imagine the next day…the person from down the street comes to your door and demands payment because you listened to their music. Would you say that you OWE this person money? Of course not, Nozick says…the only way you’d owe them money is if you CONSENTED to pay them for the music before they started playing.

Forcing somebody to pay into a system… that will then redistribute their income to whatever cause it wants regardless of whether or not the person consents to support that cause…to Nozick, is a backhanded, covert way of implementing forced labor on your citizens. For somebody paying 40% of their income in taxes…you are asking them to go to work everyday and produce value for the state for 40% of their time…for almost 3 and a half hours out of an 8 hour shift they are not working towards improving their life…they are raising funds for the government to spend on whatever vision for society they have today. The fact that this money sometimes goes towards people who are in need REALLY has nothing to do with it to Nozick, because when you truly take people’s rights seriously and don’t harm them without their consent then you realize that doing something wrong is never okay just because you think it will lead to good results.

To Nozick, you can’t just conveniently ignore one person’s rights because you think doing so will make things better for other people. This is of course in direct contrast to the long tradition of political philosophy being centered around Utilitarianism.

To illustrate his point further Nozick gives one of the most famous examples from his work. Just imagine for a second if you were a slave under the control of a brutal slave master that abuses you and treats you like dirt. Now, we would all agree this is not a way ANYBODY should be treated and we would CERTAINLY not say that this slave is a free person. But then Nozick says imagine another scenario, imagine you’re still a slave, but your slave master doesn’t abuse you. You work long hours but you’re allowed to have a family and your own modest place to live. Would THAT be an okay way to treat someone? Would we consider THAT person free? No. Well how about if you’re still a slave but your slave master doesn’t really need your help all that much? You can live on a farm out in the country, raise your kids, go to the store and buy stuff, but nonetheless you were still the property of the slave master. We would say clearly this is still wrong…this person is still OWNED by someone else, they are not a free human being in any real sense. Nozick walks this example all the way back to living a modern life under a government that taxes and redistributes…and a culture behind it that tells you what sort of job you’re going to have, what causes your tax dollars are going to go towards, how much you need to work, how many vacations you go on, what you buy…Nozick’s question here is when you are living in a society where the government has SO MANY tasks that aim at ensuring specific outcomes for people…do we really own ourselves fully? As the size of the government increases does our ability to be truly free decrease in a similar proportion? The question Nozick wants answered is at what point in his example does the slave truly experience self ownership?

This is the reason Nozick is an advocate of the minimal state…Rawls had GREAT intentions with his work. But one of his biggest problems for Nozick was that he aimed for what he called a patterned distribution of social goods. The distribution of goods MUST follow a particular PATTERN that we’ve decided is good beforehand. Philosophers of this time typically called for a patterned distribution if they were trying to get away from markets, usually because they’re trying to get away from the inequalities that are often PRODUCED by market systems. But Nozick thinks aiming for things like EQUALITY across the board…or the best for the least advantaged across the board is wrong on many different levels. Not the least of which is that let’s say that you have a certain patterned distribution that you want to achieve…TOTAL equality for the sake of the example…let’s say one day you achieve that goal…well what happens the SECOND AFTER that goal is achieved? Well, somebody sells something or gives a gift to someone or someone gets sick and can’t work…in other words…things aren’t equal across the board anymore…so what necessarily NEEDS to happen is the government has to step in and RESTORE the balance of that pattern. What you are signing yourself up for, to Nozick, is an endless spree of government coercion…where they constantly have their fingers inside your life…constantly trying to produce certain outcomes and a TYPE of citizen.

To Nozick the bigger the government the more Utilitarianism starts to creep in…the more we start ignoring the rights of the few under the assumption that it is good for the rest of the population. But Nozick wants to respect people’s rights on a level most political philosophers weren’t willing to. This is why Nozick thinks it’s none of the government’s BUSINESS what people deserve…the question they should be asking is what is legal and what are people entitled to.

So when Rawls talks about the moral arbitrariness of being born into a billion dollar estate…how if you aren’t putting that towards the least advantaged within society then we can’t consider you having that money as justice…Nozick is going to say that the only question the government should be concerned with is did you get that money in a legal way? There is a JUST way to get that money and there is a JUST way for it to be transferred from its previous owner…as long as it follows these two criteria…then the ownership of that billion dollars is just…we need to respect people’s rights and we need to respect our legal system. When someone finds a way to make a billion dollars while following all the legal parameters set up to protect people along the way…Nozick would ask how can we say that outcome is not just, when every step taken to get there WAS just under our legal system?

Nozick thinks Rawls’ big mistake here is that he’s thinking about people’s property as though when they die it enters some sort of purgatory where its not owned by anyone and then falls into someone else’s lap. But these things were already legally acquired and owned by people…and then given to someone else through a legal process. Nozick compares the way Rawls is looking at society to the way people would look at being stranded on a desert island. How do you treat the limited resources that you have once you’re stranded? You take an inventory of what you have, you, distribute it the best you can…and when Tom Hanks finds a volleyball…smears his blood all over it and names it his good pal Wilson…there is NOBODY out there
that is saying, well technically that belongs to the Wilson volleyball factory that’s not your property Tom Hanks…no, nobody would say that…but here’s the thing Nozick would say: we don’t live stranded on a desert island. This is NOT a state of emergency. People inherit things that are already owned for having produced extreme value in former societies. Say all you want as an individual about whether that’s FAIR or whether they DESERVE it…but when it comes to the state they should only go as far as asking what people are entitled to and whether they achieved it through legal means..when the path to get there was just…the outcome is just.

To Nozick the beauty of his system lies in the fact that there ISN’T some patterned distribution that the government is guaranteeing through coercion. There AREN’T a handful of specific outcomes the government is nurturing more than others with everyone’s tax dollars. The minimal state allows for a level of freedom and self ownership that a big government system can’t offer. When you don’t have a busy, powerful government with a tyranny of the majority directing it…Nozick thinks that leaves room for types of lifestyles that are incompatible with big government approaches. Because while the big government approaches have very specific outcomes they’re trying to ensure, the minimal state allows you to run any experiment you want as long as you’re not harming the people around you. So under the minimal state if you wanted to buy some land, band together with a bunch of friends and start a communist compound because it’s just the type of society you want to live in…you can do it! Think the liberals are ruining the world? Think the conservatives are ruining the world? Start a community where you cut either of them out completely and see how it goes for you! The beauty of Nozicks minimal state is that it allows the world to act as a laboratory where we can run any kind of experiment that we want…and then LEARN from the successes and failures of other strategies. This is far from a perfect system, but AT THE VERY LEAST it is a system that truly respects people’s rights…and this leads Nozick to reference Leibniz and jokingly refer to this system as “the best of all possible worlds”. From Leibniz’s Theodicy that we talked about on this show.

The book Anarchy, State and Utopia offers a unique argument in favor of Libertarianism, which at the time was in many ways a different solution to 20th century political problems that were going on. Next episode we’re going to be talking about the philosopher Friedrich Hayek…and it’s been said that while Nozick offers a defense of Libertarianism from the perspective of rights, Hayek offers a defense of Libertarianism from the perspective of markets. But BOTH of them it should be said take issue with the idea that we should be PLANNING what our society is going to look like before hand and then using the government as a tool to coerce that into existence. Whether that is a planned distribution of social goods, whether that’s a planned economic system with specific outcomes like socialism, whether that’s a planned idea of what a citizen of a particular society is going to be like (how much they’re going to work, how much they’re going to make, etc) Whatever plan you may have beforehand of how society should look, when the enforcer of that plan is a centralized monopoly of concentrated power like the government…you may be creating more problems than you’re solving.

Thank you for listening. I’ll talk to you next time.

Posted on

Episode 136 – Transcript

This is a transcript of episode #136 on Hannah Arendt. Check out the episode page HERE.

So a long time ago on this podcast we told a story about a guy named Socrates who was sentenced to death in ancient Greece. Classic story from the history of philosophy…he was accused of corrupting the youth…denying the gods of the state…he was found guilty, forced to drink hemlock, died in around 399 BC…Now, one of the people who witnessed the trial of Socrates in first person…was his student Plato…and Plato, famously, right after Socrates is put to death…LEAVES the city of Athens for years and goes on a bit of a world tour…travels all over the place, maybe as far as North Africa on some accounts…see Plato had had enough at the time…he was ANGRY that Socrates had been put to death…he had grown disillusioned with the political climate in Athens, something he thought the Athenians took foolish pride in…and when you consider the fact that his friend and mentor was put to death under what he thought were false premises…you can start to understand why he felt this way.

Well, Hannah Arendt would say that it was THIS MOMENT IN HISTORY…that may have single-handedly led to a mistake in the thinking of philosophers… for the next 2400 years. Because, she would say, when Plato leaves Athens and is so upset with the realm of the political, that event had MASSIVE effects on his thinking…he returns BACK to Athens years later, starts his school The Academy, and when he does there is a distinct turn in his philosophy inward towards the realm, of ideas. So for example, in the Allegory of the Cave…the external world, the thoughts of the public are compared to shadows on a cave wall…he talks about eventually, through the process of philosophy emerging from that cave and witnessing the sun which represented knowledge, in other words something introspective, an idea. THAT was paramount, to Plato. He talks about a WORLD of ideas. KNOWLEDGE of these higher forms can be arrived at introspectively, by philosophers THINKING about things.

Now, in terms of the big three in ancient greece…Socrates, Plato, Aristotle…Plato is very unique in this regard. Plato is an advocate of what Hannah Arendt would eventually call the contemplative life. This is the archetype of a philosopher that we’ve seen time and time again on this show…a philosopher that resigns themselves from public life…and sits around thinking about stuff in solitude. They lock themselves away in a tower, or an academic institution, or even in a secluded shack by a pond…but the point is they sit around and think about stuff. THAT’S the way progress in thinking is going to be arrived at. Put in a very general way there’s this feeling that if you want to think something that nobody’s ever thought before…talking to a bunch of people in public is just going to be a contaminating influence. Just like if you surround yourself with toxic, negative people all the time and your thinking can’t help but start to tilt in that direction…these thinkers were worried that if they had too many conversations with normal, every day thinking they might be at least, less capable of making some sort of huge breakthrough. This is the contemplative life.

But Hannah Arendt would say this isn’t the ONLY WAY philosophy has ever been done…in fact…the OTHER two of the big three in ancient greece…socrates and aristotle…they BOTH THOUGHT…that the life of a philosopher should be NOTHING like locking yourself away in some insular world. Socrates was the philosopher of the Athenian Agora…to him philosophy was engaging your fellow citizen…if philosophy was ever going to produce ANYTHING meaningful it was going to be through conversation with someone else. For Aristotle, philosophy and political engagement were two things that were inseparable. These two thinkers were fans of what Hannah Arendt would eventually call the active life. The active life vs. the contemplative life…this is a key distinction.

When Hannah Arendt was a young woman living in germany just before the outbreak of WW2…she was engaging in a life very similar to the contemplative life of someone like Plato…she was a student of philosophy…she no doubt would’ve thought of herself as a philosopher…but when the political events of WW2 began to unfold…she looked at herself and started to feel like sitting around being a philosopher was a bit naive and silly. What good is locking yourself in a closet sitting around THINKING about stuff all day…when the world around you is crumbling? Philosophers of her time were sitting on their hands living this safe, contemplative life of Plato…when what the world TRULY needed was a lot more people living the ACTIVE life of Socrates and Aristotle. This is why for the rest of her life she would whole-heartedly REJECT being labeled a political philosopher…and instead called herself a political theorist. Philosophy…practiced in the traditional, contemplative form… has failed to provide anything REMOTELY of value in the real world….because, she would say, it doesn’t take place in the real world…it denies a fundamental aspect of living as a human being on this planet…the realm of the political.

To begin making her point here…she would want to divide being a human being into three primary categories. Labor, Work and Action. Let’s talk about each one of them respectively.

Let’s start with labor. The part of being a human being that she calls Labor…are the activities we all have to do every day simply to maintain our biological existence. The kinda things we gotta do everyday or else we die. Falling into this category would be things like eating, drinking, sleeping, going to the bathroom, etc…these kinds of activities make up a piece of what it is to be a human being… and she wants to bracket them all together and put them in this category she calls Labor.

The next category of behaviors that makes up what it is to be a person…is what she calls work. Work for Arendt can be described in a number of different ways…but ONE WAY I’ve seen it described that is pretty good is that work is the production, of cultural artifacts. Now what’s MEANT by that…is look, part of being a human being is having a place to live. We all gotta live somewhere…and as human beings we always have to live in the world….another way you could DESCRIBE that state of affairs is to say that we all ULTIMATELY have to exist within…a culture. Well somebody’s gotta build that world and the cultural artifacts that make it up…the part of being a person that Hannah Arendt calls “work” is the stuff we all do every day to produce that set and setting that we all live in. Whether that’s installing windows, making cars, building bridges or skyscrapers…writing a novel…that’s a part of what makes up the world right? A symphony…mowing the grass…making a pair of sunglasses…the list goes on forever….the point is work, for Hannah Arendt, is the part of being a person that produces the world we live in.

So we have Labor, then we have work, and the last one is what she calls Action. Now action, simply put, is the realm of the political. The words and activities of equal citizens who are engaged in the public realm…that is action. This is the piece of human life that encompasses what Socrates and Aristotle found so crucial in “the active life”. This is the part of human life where every war is started, every community is governed, every relationship between human beings and the world managed. To Hannah Arendt, this action in the political realm, is the thing that imbues our world and cultural artifacts within it with their meaning. What she means is: without the realm of the political, a building would just be a building. A tree would just be a tree. It’s not until equal, free human beings decide their cultural significance in a public forum that their identity or meaning within that culture can be established. Now… let’s not gloss over just how significant of a thing to say this is… Because it may seem innocent…but beneath the surface here this may be one of the most ruthless critiques of modernity in the 20th century. Because if a common critique of modernity is that it assumes value neutrality and doesn’t adequately provide us with a way of determining the meanings or identities of things…you know as strauss would say: if modernity always leads us to relativism, historicism…ways of thinking like post-modernism…to Hannah Arendt, post modernism exists as a critique of the Enlightenment ONLY BECAUSE the Enlightenment made so many mistakes to begin with. The chief one…in her eyes…is that the Enlightenment effectively did away with the realm of the political.

To get to the bottom of how she thinks this happened…think of the spirit of the Enlightenment for a second. Think of a quintessential classical Enlightenment era philosopher…for the sake of the conversation let’s just talk about John Locke. What is the role of the political realm within the philosophy of John Locke? We engage in the realm of politics…SO THAT we can ensure life, liberty and property. In other words…POLITICS…is a means to an end….in this case politics is a means to ensuring the economic end of private property rights. But this hasn’t always been the way that we view politics…for example in the pre-Enlightenment era ACTIVE life of Socrates and Aristotle…politics wasn’t a means to an end…politics was an end in itself. In fact it was the other way around then…you completed the activities required of you in the Labor and Work categories, you COMPLETED the necessary maintenance of your life, you ENGAGED in the economic realm SO THAT you could go out and participate in the political realm. See economics was seen as a means of ensuring a political end back then, as opposed to in the Enlightenment when it’s become the other way around.

You know…this really is a hallmark of the enlightenment though, isn’t it? Like we talked about last time…when you remove the ancient idea… that there are final causes for things written into the universe…you have to structure your societies in a way where even if there AREN’T intrinsic values or virtuous people around..society still functions well anyway…well, we have a long history of people being at each other’s throats over political disputes…so these early Enlightenment thinkers proposed the idea that if you could get people to cooperate based on mutually beneficial economic exchange…they’d be much less likely to constantly be arguing about political matters.

But Hannah Arendt would say arguing about political matters, ENGAGING in the public realm… is a fundamental piece of the human experience. See because when it comes to identity…you can live the contemplative life of traditional philosophy…you can sit around and THINK about who you are all day long, but the contemplative life will NEVER provide you with a satisfying answer to the question: who am I? The answer to THAT question…is only arrived at through action. Hannah Arendt thinks the same way active engagement in the public realm imbues our cultural relics with their meaning…it’s only through our participation in the public realm that we can establish identities for ourselves. By taking action in the realm of the political you stake a claim to your own set of individual values and identity. This is her point: if it’s a common criticism of the Enlightenment that people are experiencing a crisis of identity…that the tools of Enlightenment Rationalism cannot provide us with any answers to questions about values without devolving into relativism or historicism…that’s because since the beginning of the Enlightenment there has been a systematic exclusion of the political…the only forum we’ve ever HAD for establishing our own personal identity and values.

But the Enlightenment in its endless attempt to normatavize, to create legalistic systems that run on mutual, rational self-interest…the Enlightenment subverted the political and made it a means to an end for the sake of economics. So think of Hannah Arendt’s three parts of human life again Labor, Work and Action…what the Enlightenment essentially has done then is remove the Action part of a person’s life altogether. The Enlightenment has turned us into what she calls “Economic Man”. The citizen of modernity is stuck in a perpetual loop between Labor and Work…and all the things like values and identity that are supposed to be established through participation in the public realm feel like they’re desperately missing.

Just to clarify what she’s talking about here: think of how MANY people talk about their place in the world. When you ask someone in modernity who they are…often times they’ll reply by telling you…what their job is. They’ll say I’m a plumber…but what does plumbing have to do with MOST questions about your values and who YOU are? We ask our children WHAT do you want to be when you grow up…not WHO do you want to be…there’s a sense in which the purest form of expression for someone in a post-Enlightenment world is what they do for a living…constantly cycling between the fields of Labor and Work…maintaining their biological existence during the evenings strictly so that they can go back to work the next day and engage in whatever menial level of expression their job provides. This…is what Hannah Arendt calls economic man. Think of other markers of identity in a Capitalist society…who you are…often times is only in relation to what you own. The kind of phone you use, the kind of clothes you wear…the trips you decide to go on…your transactions define your sense of identity…but the sense of identity it gives you in modernity is a cheapened version of what used to be available to people…the whole identity feels pixelated in a way. The same way Facebook gives you pixelated friends that mean just a little bit less…pixelated expressions of approval that mean less than a real thumbs up…pixelated videos that mediate your entire relationship with reality…the values of the Enlightenment were a harbinger for a world to come where people are fundamentally…a cog in an economic machine…rather than a person active in their communities. Politics…in modernity consists of turning on the TV and being spoon fed a picture of what’s going on in the world and then taking to the streets of social media and screaming into the void about it. Hannah Arendt is going to say this SUBVERSION of people’s ability to participate in politics BEGAN in the Enlightenment.

The civic republicanism that existed within many cultures of the past…citizens ACTIVELY engaging in something like the Greek Polis…this active engagement has been reduced to writing your congressperson a letter and if you get REALLY mad well then you can make a sign, wave it around in traffic, and engage in some really powerful, powerful symbolism. The Enlightenment has replaced the public realm of the political with merely a public economic game that’s being played. This isn’t JUST a criticism of Capitalism though…she is EQUALLY critical of Marxism as a system of thinking that emerged out of the Enlightenment… that views people fundamentally as things that fulfill an economic role, rather than political actors. One of the ultimate, ambitious endgames of Marxism is to create a society where engaging in things like politics being used as an instrument won’t be necessary anymore…and this classless, de-politicized society is obviously not something Hannah Arendt is a fan of…in fact she thinks BOTH Capitalism AND Marxism, by aiming to reduce everything to economics, robs people of a crucial piece of their humanity. To put it bluntly…the Enlightenment, by doing away with political engagement…dehumanizes people….now, it’s right here…that we can understand where she’s coming from when she begins her exploration into one of her most famous books: The Origins of Totalitarianism.

So if it wasn’t entirely obvious by the title of the book…this is a period in Hannah Arendt’s work where she’s looking at the poltiical situation around her in the world. Throughout WW2 and beyond she’s seeing all these new forms of Totalitarianism on the rise…and she’s trying to figure out two things 1. How do these systems ascend to power in the first place…and then 2. once they’re in power…how do they maintain power despite doing unspeakable things to their citizens.

The answer to these two questions begins with modernity’s systematic exclusion of the political realm…and she’d say it is not a coincidence that when you look at the structure of these 20th century totalitarian regimes…free political discourse among equal citizens is never even close to one of their priorities…in fact it’s the opposite. Political detractors will often mysteriously disappear…or be silenced. Things like the night of the long knives to name one example of many. The ultimate goal of these regimes being to turn entire populations of people into what she calls Animal Laborans… and what she’s referencing is actually an older idea from Marx…Marx was responding to a common question during his time, a period when Charles Darwin is ALSO doing his work…and the question is this: what is it that TRULY separates human beings from all the other animals in the animal kingdom? Well, there were a LOT of people that loved to answer that question with…human beings just THINK in a far superior way than all the other animals…but Marx with this concept of Animal Laborans is going to say that yes, there are differences in our brains, but what fundamentally separates us is not so much our ability to think better…but the roles we play within societies as laborers. In other words, we LABOR better than other animals.

For all of the attempts by Karl Marx to remove people from what he saw as the chains of Capitalism, from the alienation of the self that’s caused by Capitalism …Hannah Arendt is going to say that even if he successfully removes the chains of Capitalism…he still leaves people and the rest of his thinking locked in the chains of the entire economic task of the Enlightenment. She takes the term Animal Laborans and repurposes it to point out what she sees as a flaw in Marx’s thinking:

“A mass society of laborers, such as Marx had in mind when he spoke of “socialized mankind” consists of worldless specimens of the species mankind, whether they are household slaves, driven into their predicament by the violence of others, or free, performing their functions willingly”.

What she’s saying here is when you are a person living in modernity…and the primary function of your life is to fulfill some sort of economic role…when your life is reduced to work and labor and the ACTION of the political realm is taken out of the equation…you are left to feel like what she calls a “worldless specimen”. She says the common criticism of the Enlightenment that it alienates the self is not going far enough. This is a case of WORLD alienation. By subverting the political…the Enlightenment has produced a world where we can no longer imbue our cultural artifacts or our world with meaning. What we’re left with, she thinks, are mass societies of laborers that feel constantly, and utterly disconnected from the world that they live in.

She goes on in her book The Human Condition:

“This worldlessness of the animal laborans, to be sure, is entirely different from the active flight from the publicity of the world which we found inherent in the activity of “good works”. The animal laborans does not flee the world, but is ejected from it in so far as he is imprisoned in the privacy of his own body, caught in the fulfillment of needs in which nobody can share and which nobody can fully communicate.”

What she’s saying is that modernity has produced a world where there is no actual public realm for people to engage in anymore. We are imprisoned in our own private lives of labor and work. We are ALIENATED from the public world in this regard. Through this long process of the emancipation of labor we have convinced the citizens of modernity that the ACTION portion of their life…where they get their sense of identity…is through their jobs or how they contribute to the most IMPORTANT thing: a public economy. We’ve traded a public realm of political engagement for a public economy and mistakenly concluded that they’re producing the same thing for people.

We don’t have a public realm anymore…what we have, she says, are “private acts out in the open” and a mass society of laborers that see themselves in terms of a role they play in an economy…and she says when you do this…this inevitably leads us to this outcome:

“The outcome is what is euphemistically called mass culture, and its deep-rooted trouble is a universal unhappiness, due on one side to the troubled balance between laboring and consumption and, on the other, to the persistent demands of the animal laborans to obtain a happiness which can be acheived only where life’s processes of exhaustion and regeneration, of pain and release from pain, strike a perfect balance.”

This picture of the average citizen of modernity…a worldless, alienated economic cog immersed in a culture they have no real recourse to change…this is the type of rootless person that needs to exist en masse if you want to explain the rise of totalitarianism in the 20th century. People live their lives in a state of malaise…starving for a sense of identity or meaning beyond what they do for a living and how that contributes to a global economy…but then while they’re starving for this identity, post treaty of Versailles feeling disenfranchised, this political group comes along in Germany and gives people something meaningful to feel a part of. This is the horror of what modernity can produce…a society of economic cogs that lack a political voice and are just dying to move on behalf of SOMETHING…and a political group with evil intentions pulling the levers of the machine.

See after World War Two Hannah Arendt, like everyone else is trying to get to the bottom of what exactly happened in Germany that allowed for the rise of the Third Reich. How could something like this happen? Again, how did this Totalitarian regime ascend to power and how did they maintain power once they got there? Well a common explanation that was being given by commentators during the time of Hannah Arendt is that the events in Germany were some sort of historical anomaly.

That a bunch of the most evil people who ever lived got together, co-opted the national socialist party and carried out their evil plan of world domination. They commissioned the most evil people they could find to head up the different parts of their regime…the vindictive German people post WW1 were disproportionately filled with soldiers that were willing to do unspeakable things to innocent people. The Third Reich was an evil death cult that seized power and through some perfect confluence of events were able to carry out their plan.

Hannah Arendt takes an extremely controversial position at the time and disagrees with this synopsis. First of all, she’d probably want to say: let’s not give the Nazis credit where credit isn’t due. The Third Reich wasn’t the result of some evil genius formulating the perfect plan and executing it. What happened in Germany can be easily explained by the situation that modernity has produced in the world, and there probably isn’t a more straightforward example of this than the scene she describes in her work Eichmann in Jeruselum.

Shortly after WW2 Nazis were being put on trial for war crimes. One such person was a man by the name of Adolf Eichmann. Now Eichmann’s primary job during the war was behind a desk…his job has been described by many as a “desk murderer” because he would essentially sit behind a desk, look at names and numbers on a piece of paper, and then send people to Auschwitz, prisons or other horrible fates where they would often go on to die. When Adolf Eichmann was put on trial…he was presented to the public inside of a glass booth. When people showed up to see him testify…they were expecting to see evil incarnate, a DEMON encased in a glass booth justifying what he did for the Nazis.

What they actually got, from the perspective of Hannah Arendt…was something much, much scarier than that. What they got…is what seemed like an ordinary guy. He wasn’t an evil genius. In fact, as far as Hannah Arendt could tell, he wasn’t really that smart at all. He often spoke using tired cliches. He wasn’t original. He wasn’t witty. He wasn’t charismatic. More relevant than anything else though: he wasn’t filled with hate towards the people he was sending to their deaths. The scariest part of the trial of Adolf Eichmann was the realization that these unthinkable crimes against innocent people were committed by someone who was an average person, just following orders. This was not a man motivated to do what he did because of a racist ideology…this was a man motivated because he was trying to get a promotion. This is a concept Hannah Arendt would later call The Banality of Evil. When an evil act is committed it is RARELY carried out by some dastardly villain with bad intentions twirling his mustache like in the cartoons. TRUE EVIL…can be carried out by ordinary, non-hateful people who are just doing their jobs or abiding by the laws of their country… ALL THAT IT TAKES…to Hannah Arendt, for someone to go from an average citizen to a hatchetman for an evil regime…that transformation occurs when people decide they are going to stop thinking for themselves and get their identity and values from some other group that is handing them out.

The subversion of the political realm, our inability to create our own identity and values, has created a world where this transformation is a much easier process to fall into.
When people looked into the past of Adolf Eichmann…they didn’t see some long list of evil causes he supported trying to find some way he could murder people…what they saw was a long list of him being what they called a “joiner”…someone who all throughout his life has joined group after group in the interest of SOMEONE TELLING HIM, who he should be. He says it in his own words at the trial:

“I sensed I would have to live a leaderless and difficult individual life, I would receive no directives from anybody, no orders and commands would any longer be issued to me, no pertinent ordinances would be there to consult—in brief, a life never known before lay ahead of me.”

To Hannah Arendt, this is not an evil genius talking…this is a man who chose the path of not-thinking. This is how you can explain how a German population of people not filled with hate towards anybody can carry out the kinds of things they did. Hannah Arendt would say when looking for an answer to her first question of how totalitarian regimes ascend to power…it is absolutely CRUCIAL that we understand that the Nazis DID NOT seize power in Germany. They were elected. Because a worldless, alienated population of economic cogs dying to move for something, devoid of a political realm where they could establish their own values…they were given something to move for. THAT is the banality of evil as it TRULY presents itself in the world.

This is a good time to underscore just how important the realm of the political IS for Hannah Arendt. Because when it comes to answering her SECOND question of how regimes maintain power once they acquire it…modernity’s exclusion of the political realm and the active life of the individual is a big part of it. See, Totalitarianism NEEDS a unified, homogeneous, simple message to ever get off the ground. Because of this…the GOAL of Totalitarianism is always to lump the entire population into one giant, terrified voice that lacks diversity. This is why they often don’t allow for political dissent…this is why they don’t like the idea of equal citizens engaging in an open forum of discussion…Hannah Arendt would say the enemy of Totalitarianism is plurality. The political realm…is the only place where a plurality of voices can be heard. Totalitarianism can only subsist by reducing people to what she calls “a bundle of reflexes”. What she means is: merely a bundle of reflexes…because they’ve been dehumanized by their lack of a political voice…and constantly on edge because of the threat of violence from the group in power. Hannah Arendt calls this process systematic terrorism…and the scariest part about it is that in so many ways it resembles exactly what you’d expect to see if Enlightenment philosophy is left to play out to its endgame.

To not be engaged in the active life…is a mistake to Hannah Arendt. But she’d want us to understand that not living the active life can take on many forms. You could surrender your responsibility to think…fall into an identity given to you by someone else…the mistake made by people like Adolf Eichmann. But you could JUST AS EASILY become an accessory to evil being carried out in the world by sitting around, thinking about stuff all day like so many traditional philosophers have done. This is why she doesn’t want to be thought of as a political philosopher…because so many philosophers SHE’S seen lead by the example of sitting queitly in an academic institution theorizing about abstract concepts all day long…but never taking action on anything. She’d want us to relaize that this contemplative lifestyle has REAL consequences in the world, you can’t innocently and benignly theorize about things by yourself and expect things to end there. The sad reality of living the contemplative life is that this passive, inactive approach almost always leads to your ideas being coopted and used by people that are ACTUALLY engaging in the active life. Philosophy and politics will always be closely connected to each other, and to deny that fact is to be willfully complacent so that you can sit in a tower alone where it is safe. Safe at least for now. Friedrich Nietzsche is a great example of someone whose work was misinterpreted, misappropriated and then used as a philosophical justification of the Third Reich. Hannah Arendt would want us to realize that when you resign yourself from public life…you resign yourself from the process of determining the cultural significance of things in the world…and if you’re a philosopher…that includes every piece of philosophy that you will ever write. Because if there’s ANYTHING the banality of evil can show us…it’s that it only takes an ABSENCE of active, equal citizens engaged in the public realm for Totalitarianism to flourish.

Thank you for listening. I’ll talk to you next time.

Posted on

Episode 137 – Transcript

This is a transcript of episode #137 on John Rawls. Check out the episode page HERE.

So if you looked at every philosopher that we’ve covered so far on this show it’d be very easy to describe the DIFFERENCES between each of their works…but a much more difficult and illuminating question to ask is whether or not the works of all these very different philosophers have among them any root similarities. Now…of course you could say things like they all made some sort of contribution to human thought. You could say they all used language to express their big ideas. But another way to think about the answer to this question is to say that every, great philosopher in their own way…QUESTIONED the fundamental assumptions that were present in the thinking of their time. THAT is a hallmark of a great philosopher…because when seeking solutions to philosophical problems…casting aside the cultural or linguistic assumptions of a particular snapshot in time…very often leads philosophers of the next generation to understand how those assumptions have been limiting our ways of thinking about things.

The philosopher we’re going to talk about today falls into this category…and he’s going to question an assumption that seemed to others as radical as it was dangerous. His name was John Rawls…and this was the assumption that he questioned: Can human beings ACTUALLY LIVE and flourish for any extended period of time in liberal democratic societies?

The political paradigm of the Enlightenment…liberal democratic societies. A government BY the many. Democracy. Liberal in the sense that there is a STRONG focus on rational discourse, the acceptance of outside ideas… the legitimacy of political ideas being decided by having conversations between competing ideas, let the best ideas rise to the top and direct the future of society for the time being, and if those prevailing ideas don’t happen to be the ones you believe in, you’re supposed to ACCEPT those ideas as part of the greater political process and work to defend your positions better the NEXT time we’re having a conversation.

This was a brand new way of conducting politics when it was proposed in the Enightenment, and the assumption over the years by so MANY in the west has been…that NOT ONLY is this one of our greatest inheritances from the Enlightenment, but not to mention they would say: this is the absolute GREATEST, political system, that has EVER been devised. John Rawls is going to question those assumptions. He’s going to ask whether or not liberal democratic societies might ONLY be the greatest political system ever devised ON PAPER. You might think of OTHER political or economic theories that SOUND GREAT on paper, but when actually put into practice, when you consider the nature of how human beings REALLY behave…they fail time and time again. Well are liberal democratic societies just another example of a delusional, naive Enlightenment era ideal that can never actually work for any real length of time?

What Rawls is referencing is the long history of this type of society descending into various types of chaos. Civil wars, Fascism, class warfare, extreme violence between different groups, extreme wealth inequality, dozens of more examples and the ultimate question Rawls is getting to is this: When you consider the track record of liberal democratic societies, no matter HOW GOOD they sound on paper, maybe there is something about our nature as human beings that makes us EFFECTIVELY incapable of existing in this type of society for any real length of time…we can play nice for a while. We can shake hands and disagree up to a point. But are we just temporarily kidding ourselves? Will there always be a point of disagreement where human beings are willing to subvert the rational conversation in favor of using FORCE to implement their ideas? Maybe this is just HOW human beings engage with each other politically. Maybe the last few hundred years has consisted of us having a bunch of mostly pointless conversations, punctuated by moments of chaos whenever a truly important political issue comes up where human beings have to actually act, and THAT is how they choose to act.

Generations from now will people look back on the way we’re conducting politics today and think of us all as naive? Look at them believing they can just talk things through. Clinging to this ideal from the Enlightenment that makes us feel really good, but doesn’t ever actually work in practice. Can human beings only exist for any real length of time in a more tribal, most of the time, Nationalist political setting?

So it should be said that John Rawls’ answer to whether we can actually live for any length of time in these societies…is yes. He is EXTREMELY optimistic about the future of liberal democratic society, he does NOT think that we’re all being naive, but despite him ultimately defending liberal democracy, as we’ll see… his willingness… to ask these tough questions about the assumptions we’re making politically…like so many OTHER great philosophers…will cement his place in history.

So this becomes the first MAJOR problem Rawls is faced with in his work…he’s presented with the long history of failures in liberal democratic society, and yet he remains extremely OPTIMISTIC about liberal democratic society. Well the next question any reasonable person has to ask is, why has there been such a history of failure if liberal democracy is so great?

Rawls’ answer to this question is that it’s largely been a misplacement of priorities. We CLAIM to be creating societies that are just, ones that wont lead to outcomes like these extreme tensions between groups… but we’ve never really had a truly substantive conversation about what we really mean when we say that, you know we say things like “liberty and justice for all”…but what EXACTLY do we mean when we say society should be ensuring justice?

This is not just an IMPORTANT question to Rawls, this is THE question…he has a very famous quote where he says:

“Justice…is the first virtue of social institutions, as truth is to systems of thought.” What he means there is that in the same way you would judge the legitimacy of a system of ideas based on how TRUE it is…we should judge the legitimacy of our social institutions based on how JUST they are, now…what is Rawls talking about when he references justice?

Well in a lesser sense he’s certainly talking about things like the criminal justice system, or the balancing of the scales within a society, but if you wanted to understand the scope of Rawls’ work the the far more CRUCIAL version of justice that he’s talking about is what he calls “Distributive Justice”.

The idea is this: we as individuals gather together and form groups that we call societies. We do this because it benefits us to…when we work together in groups we are just far more efficient than as mere individuals…and BECAUSE of this there’s a lot of surplus VALUE created that really, ONLY exists because we’re working together. The question becomes how does this surplus value get allocated, or how should it be DISTRIBUTED, as in distributive justice.

Another name for this surplus value is what Rawls calls “Primary Social Goods”…and these social goods certainly include obvious things like income, power and wealth…but Rawls would want to point out that our teamwork as a society produces value in other areas that are a lot less intuitive, and yet these areas STILL need to be considered in this discussion. Things like rights, liberties, opportunities, etc.

These things, these primary social goods, are the building blocks that Rawls is going use to make his case in his 1971 work A Theory of Justice. Kind of right there in the title. He’s constructing a theory of how a we should distribute these trappings of society in the most just manner possible. Rawls thinks that justice can be created by making sure that we have just institutions, in other words, if the STRUCTURE of our society is just, including our constitution and laws, then we will have a just society. So a bit of important context to understand where Rawls is coming from with all this is that he’s doing his work in the modern United States. Rawls is a statistician and he’s looking at the numbers and he sees a huge disparity in the United States in terms of income inequality. To him this is a failure of the liberal democratic societies of the past and their silence on the topic of distributive justice. He wants to actually start HAVING this conversation…and he wants to begin at one of the most simple questions you could possibly ask about justice…the question is: should inequalities exist within a just society? and…sure…there are people out there that would say everyone should have the exact same thing no matter how hard they work or what choices they make…equality of outcome is often a desirable end to a person that holds this position. But Rawls would say no. The fact is these inequalities DO exist within societies, in fact their existence is inevitable. The REAL interesting philosophical discussion begins when we ask ourselves, what type of inequality is just, what makes these inequalities just, and what criteria do we use to determine that?

Rawls is looking at the numbers in the late 60’s United States and what he sees is that there are actual billionaires and multi- millionaires simultaneously existing in a society with people who are homeless or in extreme poverty. Again he wants to ask how JUST is this society…the same way someone else might want to ask how TRUE is a particular system of ideas? Can we say this is a just society with these two very different outcomes being possible?

What’s immediately evident when you start thinking about this question is that there are a lot of different ways you could answer it. For example somebody more on the Libertarian side of things could look at the homeless person next to the billionaire and they might say, “Yes, this IS a just state of affairs…because these two people have made very different choices to get to where they are in life…and ultimately… that’s a GOOD thing for society.” They may say look it’s not the government’s JOB to tell you how to live your life…that you need to be making THIS much money per year or working THIS many hours or else the world is an unjust place…the government’s job is to set the rules of the game and enforce them…your job is to learn how to play the game and then figure out how you want to play it…if someone wants to be a street drifter more power to them…if someone wants to sacrifice every second of their life otherwise so they can see one billion dollars in the bank more power to them. We can’t use INCOME as a direct measurement of equality, because the more relevant difference here is in how these two are using their liberty.

Rawls might ask this person: what if the billionaire got all their money by going door to door with an army and saying give me all your money or I’ll kill you, until they got a billion dollars. Certainly we wouldn’t see THAT as an example of justice just because it hinged on free choice…and what Rawls would want to do here is just call for a more nuanced definition of what exactly justifies this inequality? Remember…his biggest concern is that he doesn’t want to stop short here. To Rawls, Liberal democracy IS the best system and CAN work, but for it to work we NEED an exhaustive answer to this question, and maybe a good clarification to start with is to say that perhaps an inequality is just as long as its based on some sort of work or effort that somebody has put in.

Rawls would agree with this. The question now becomes how do we identify the instances where the inequality is based on effort…and the ones where it’s made possible only by some sort of unfair advantage? This becomes a major question in A Theory of Justice.

There’s an interesting metaphor for unfair advantages in the modern world that one of Rawls’ colleagues named Cohen offers and it goes like this: Say humanity reaches a point where we have a level of technology where we can travel vast distances through space and colonize other planets. One day an astronaut lands on one of these earth like planets, plants a flag in the ground and says this one’s mine. Now let’s say a couple years later astronaut 2 comes along and their ship breaks down, they need to find a way to survive on the planet…the planet’s completely empty except for astronaut one and their little house…for astronaut two to ever be able to carve off even a SLIVER of an existence on this planet…they will ALWAYS be at the mercy of astronaut one. The first astronaut will dictate all the terms of the agreements, the deals will almost certainly always favor the first astronaut, SIMPLY BECAUSE the first astronaut happened to get there first. Well this is a metaphor for how everybody enters into the world who wasn’t born into inherited wealth, power or opportunity. By complete chance… their lives are at the mercy of someone else who was born into THEIR place by complete chance.

So you can see why it’s important to Rawls to further delineate between inequalities that were arrived at because of work or effort and those made possible by essentially winning the lottery…and that winning the lottery…that moral arbitrariness…is what makes it unfair to Rawls. See, to Rawls you’re not entitled to things that are morally arbitrary. Best way to explain WHY he feels this way is to give the opposite example.

Let’s say you’re driving down the road obeying all the traffic laws. There’s a cafe coming up on your right and through some random confluence of events some guy trips over a dog and spills a glass of water on the floor at which point a woman slips on the water and bumps into a chair that trips a server and they go flying into the street at the exact wrong time and tragically, you hit the server and they die. Now as a society…we would NEVER think of you as a bad person if that sort of thing happened. The justice system would NEVER TAKE a consequentialist route there and throw you in prison for the rest of your life, technically somebody died! Bad luck!

In other words it would be wrong for ANYONE to think it was just for you to OWN the consequences of something that is in your life solely because of a horrible stroke of luck. Rawls would say that when you’re born into an estate worth a billion dollars…you are equally not in complete ownership of things that are only in your life because of a good stroke of luck. But as we’ll see later that DOESN’T mean it’s necessarily the job of the government to TAKE it from you for Rawls. To be clear: you’re not a BAD person for having the billion dollars…just as you’re not a BAD person because a waiter fell in front of your car. The point is when things are morally arbitrary you can’t have all the good and none of the bad, or in other words what this MEANS for Rawls’ philosophy is that we need to decide on further criteria that determine how much of that inequality is just and why.

Probably a good point to state for the record that these inequalities extend far beyond just money that you’re born into. People are born with all sorts of inequalities. You could be born really smart. You could be born into a family that doesn’t care about you. You could be born a really attractive person. You could be born into an area that has horrible resources for public schools and you have virtually no chance of excelling. You could be born into a family business where you’re the heir apparent to taking over when mom retires. You could have so much crime in the area you live that leaving the house and trying to do ANYTHING with your life is terrifying. We are born holding the Rstubs to this genetic and cultural lottery that will dictate the parameters of our existence…and Rawls would say that if we TRULY want the inequalities of our society to be based solely on a difference in work or effort, we need to be willing to not ask people to own the bad or good circumstances they happened to be born into.

Now the problem with actually implementing anything along these lines should be obvious: Nobody that was born into a great situation is going to vote for a policy that makes them give up the fruits of their advantages…and nobody born into a bad situation is going to vote for a policy that makes them live out the rest of their life accepting the consequences of what is essentially a server falling into the road in front of their car. This touches on a larger problem of passing ANY kind of meaningful social reform: most of the time…people are going to vote for what benefits THEIR particular demographic. Rich people vote the interests of the rich, poor the interests of the poor…and again this fact extends to every advantage someone might have been born with as it is reflected in the political process. So Rawls is faced with another problem in his work: even if we could figure out which of these birthright advantages are just or unjust…how would we ever pass something like this in a Liberal Democracy?

To solve this problem Rawls creates one of the most influential thought experiments of the 20th century. His goal with the experiment is to show that the massive levels of inequality exist in the modern United States simply, and for no better reason than because the society already exists in that way, powerful interests are already invested in the way that things are, and meaningful social change is very difficult to actually carry out with the system being the way that it is…BUT, he would ask, what would society look like if we had to start all over again? Would we structure society in the exact same way? Would things play out exactly in the same way that they are now? What if our position when formulating this new society was not that of Astronaut two, from our example before…but instead what if we were all simultaneously designing a society from the position of Astronaut one that first day they landed on the planet?

This is what Rawls refers to as the Original Position..basically it’s HIS version of the state of nature…now imagine we’re all standing around on this new planet, formulating how a society should be structured. Rawls wants us to imagine a few other things as part of this thought experiment: imagine you are structuring this society through what he calls a “veil of ignorance”. You are asked to decide HOW THIS SOCIETY will be structured without knowing ANYTHING ABOUT your POSITION in that society once it’s founded. You can’t know whether you’re going to be living in Beverley Hills or the projects in New York City. You can’t know your age, gender, race, sexual orientation…you can’t know your IQ, your athletic ability, your charisma…you can’t know the family you will be born into or whether you’ll have some mental illness that makes every day miserable. Human beings have the capacity to be rational…Rawls wants to ask: how would rational beings WITHOUT a vested interest in one group or another create a society?

Well one thing’s for sure, Rawls thinks, it wouldn’t look ANTHING LIKE the modern United States. No rational being would look at the statistics and choose that structure…because it is much more likely for you to be born one of the many millions that struggle vs one of the handful of people with power and resources. In fact, Rawls thinks that when people consider the lives that some people in the inner cities are forced to live in parts of the United States, the very fact you could POSSIBLY get unlucky and be living one of those lives is enough to make rational people want to restructure society.

So how would rational beings structure it? They would follow what is known as the “Maximin Rule” or the idea that we would pick the structure of a society that provides the best situation for the least advantaged WITHIN that society in comparison to all other potential societies. Put another way: we pick the structure where the worst case scenario for a person is the best out of all the other possible worst case scenarios in other strategies. Rational beings would do this because they don’t know whether they’re going to be the ONE…the ACTUAL LEAST ADVANTAGED person in the entire society.

There’s a lot of metaphors about this but there’s a particularly common one and I guess I’ll just lay it out here…imagine you’re having a pizza party…and you’re ASKED by the people at the party to cut up the pizza however you want. The catch is…you can’t know which piece of pizza is going to be yours until AFTER you cut the pizza. Now you may cut up the pizza into bigger pieces and smaller pieces if that’s what you chose to do…but one things for sure here: you’re going to cut the pizza in a way where if you were to get the smallest piece…it’s still something you’d be satisfied receiving.

Somebody might ask at this point: well why isn’t the obvious choice here to just cut every piece of pizza to be the exact same size, a type of socialist pizza cutting. Rawls is not a fan of Socialism. He respects what it’s trying to do…but he thinks it achieves equality at the expense of everyone. Yeah, sure we’re all equal under Socialism…but we’re all equal at a lower standard of living than is possible in a restructured Capitalist system. Remember this is adhering to the Maximin Rule…what system produces a worst case scenario for a citizen that is the best? To Rawls the SMALLEST piece of pizza in a revised capitalist structure is BIGGER than the equal pieces provided by Socialism…it’s just a bigger pizza. But on the other hand, to Rawls, we can’t just have laissez faire free market Capitalism because THAT doesn’t take into account the moral arbitrariness of unfair inherited advantages like intelligence, status or wealth. The question for Rawls is this: how do we structure Capitalism in a way where it is TRULY a rising tide that is raising all the ships, as opposed to just a few of them.

Well we can start by laying out the criteria John Rawls prescribes for determining which of these inherited inequalities are just or “fair”. In fact, that’s the way he describes it… flying in the face of thousands of years of moral philosophy: Justice is not an eye for an eye, justice is not total equality…Justice is fairness, to Rawls. What’s an example of an inequality that exists that is fair? Well first it must adhere to two strict rules:

Social and economic inequalities must first be to everyone’s advantage
Such social and economic inequalities must be attached to positions that are equally open to all.

So with this second rule Rawls is trying to protect against any sort of system with different classes people are born into, or even figurative classes…no positions in society reserved for a specific person or type of person even if you’re the least advantaged person you can still apply for the position…doesn’t mean you’re gonna get it…just means that if there is an unequal position available, if we’re going to ACCEPT that inequality as part of the structure of our society, it should be open to everyone to apply. What Rawls is referencing is that…historically there have three primary ways people are blocked from prestigious positions in a society: one is legal, where there are actual legal barriers precluding a person from holding a position. One is by your birth status, which would make you disqualified from holding a position because of something about how you were born. And the third roadblock is having the talent or effort to be able to excel at the position. Rawls thinks a just society will stick to this third one and he says only one that DOES can be said to have true equality of opportunity.

Now, the FIRST rule…that these inequalities must first be to everyone’s advantage…this really is the cornerstone of what Rawls would eventually call his “system of liberal equality”.

Let’s go back to our person that inherited a billion dollars to illustrate what he means. Let’s say this person inherits a billion dollars…and then spends their life investing and reinvesting that money to improve the world around them. They create tons of jobs for the less advantaged, they innovate technologies that improve the lives of the rest of the world, they may offer scholarships to people that couldn’t otherwise afford school to recruit them to work for their companies, they build storefronts that improve communities…this is an example of an inequality that may exist that truly is to everyone’s advantage. So it is possible to inherit vast sums of money and still use it in a way that benefits others and makes it fair or just. Now on the other hand if this same person…took that billion dollars and just let it sit under a very large mattress for their whole life…well that WOULDN’T be to everyone’s advantage…and at this point Rawls would be a fan of some type of heavy tax to penalize the inaction, probably followed by some type of government redistrubution to the lesser advantaged.

But this extends beyond just inherited money…when Lebron James wins the genetic lottery and is born with athleticism and talent that warrants him making 10’s of millions of dollars a year…he uses his athleticism to achieve an exalted status as a cultural icon…that inequality is an example of justice… because his abilities go on display and provide entertainment for millions of people. When someone’s born with extreme intelligence and they go on to graduate from a prestigious school and become the tip of the spear in some new research program…their unequal position within society as a thought leader is justified… because their research will likely go on to improve the lives of the aggregate.

This way of thinking about inequalities in society is known more broadly as “the difference principle”…or that we should remove inequalities within society as much as we can until the REMOVAL of further inequalities would cause harm to the least advantaged. Now, this is in contrast to the way we’ve often thought about things before, sometimes called part of the “efficiency principle”, the idea that we should find people in society that need help…and help them as much as we can until HELPING them would cause harm to someone else. This is a completely different area of focus, the focus for Rawls is always on ensuring the most we can for the least advantaged person among us, as long as that insurance doesn’t prevent US from contributing to society.

Based on that last sentence it shouldn’t be too far of a leap to reveal that what Rawls is ultimately doing with all this is providing a philosophical justification for a modern progressive income tax. We all have different talents and abilities. Take an example…the people who were lucky enough to be born with extreme intelligence…who were also lucky enough to be born into a family that nurtured that intelligence…who were also lucky enough to be born into an area where they had low crime and decent public schools, who also had the money and freedom to go to college, who were also healthy enough to not be in and out of the hospital their whole life…this person…who would be without a doubt an extremely impressive individual, is standing on the shoulders of giants. The contribution of EVERYONE in society has made anything that they ever accomplish… possible. Think of how much LESS this person could’ve accomplished if they had to grow all their own food, or didn’t have roads to efficiently travel on, or had constantly keep watch to fend of criminals. Through our own individual skillsets…we all look after each other in a way. This is why we WANT to incentivize people to become as talented as they possibly can…to Rawls we want to ALLOW for unequal positions of pay or status, but the difference in money or status is ONLY justifiable if that difference is used to BENEFIT the least advantaged among us or people like them. The Difference Principle.

So these two rules that we talked about for what makes an inequality just…that it must be to everyone’s advantage and be available in a position open to all…what these two things ultimately boil down to is equality of opportunity…and the difference principle. These two things combined make up the test that we have to run inequalities through to make sure the inequality is just…and Rawls thinks the actionable way to apply this is simply to start looking around at society, find examples of inequalities, and put them to the test.

The FEELING I get from reading A Theory of Justice is that we shouldn’t be thinking of the least advantaged within society as this annoying, faceless pest that’s just sucking out a disproportionate amount of resources. The sense that I get from reading Rawls is that he wants us to be thinking about members of our society more like we’d think about members of our family. Because maybe in your family you have some variation of a tradition…where the whole family gets together and goes over to grandma Beatrice’s house for the holidays. Now, grandma’s getting older these days….she’s 127 years old…she doesn’t get around as well as she used to. She can’t spend 15 hours toiling over a hot stove anymore…so the kids all get together and cook the meal for her these days. And when it comes time for dinner and everyone’s sitting at the table there’s an unspoken agreement that everybody in the family gets firsts before anyone gets seconds. You wouldn’t give grandma table scraps that she could barely survive on, and why? Well, i’d imagine it has something to do with the fact that…she had one of my parents…my parents had me…in a strange way nothing that I have ever done in my life would be even POSSIBLE without this woman and the contribution she has made. Rawls might say so too, with every member of our society…even the least advantaged.

Thank you for listening. I’ll talk to you next time.

Posted on

Episode 135 – Transcript

This is a transcript of episode #135 on Leo Strauss. Check out the episode page HERE.

So picking up from where we left off last episode…there’s a strong contingency of philosophers living in the early 20th century that have grown increasingly dissatisfied with rationality as a guide for arriving at certainty about things. They feel this way for a number of different reasons… but it should be emphasized that their critique of rationality was not the only side of the story here. Like any good philosophical critique… sometimes questioning something can’t offer a sense of clarity for any real length of time…sometimes when the critique is good enough…when we ask questions…it just leads us to more questions.


This was definitely the case in the early 20th century…you know…speaking of strong contingencies there’s ALSO gotta be a strong contingency of people listening to the last episode of the show…living as the beneficiaries of the last 100 years of human thought…who found themselves a little frustrated with the critique of rational analysis overall. There must be some people out there who are willing to ask the extremely VALID question: what are we even supposed to DO with any of this information.


This person might say: Look, I hear all your criticisms of rationality, and lets SAY, for the sake of the conversation, let’s say that EVERYTHING you’re saying is an amazing point that needs to be taken into consideration…well don’t we still need to have a working arrangement with the reality we live in? Don’t we still need SOME METHOD of determining what’s going on vs what’s NOT going on? What’s the plan? I mean, what are we supposed to do? Are we supposed to throw out rationalism now? Buy everyone a magic 8 ball and say “start shakin’ everybody!” What’s the plan here?


Not to mention, let’s look at the entire basis of your critique of rationality for a second here…uh, Got a few problems…I mean, for one…you’re USING rational analysis…to critique…rational analysis. How you gonna reconcile that?


Because that’s the thing: maybe we DO run into problems the minute we try to use rationality as a tool to arrive at certainty, but none of these criticisms has adequately made a case that reason isn’t the best thing we have going for us….and they CERTAINLY haven’t made a case for some alternative that’s better. See if rationality is a tool that we have in our toolbox, the early 20th century wants to show us that it’s not the only tool we have and it’s not a universal tool that you should use for every task you have. But none of that is to say that there aren’t specific areas where rational analysis isn’t the best type of analysis.


For example, some thinkers would come to say that maybe the most effective setting for the usage of rational analysis is at the sort of macro level of navigating the world. That in the same way in the quantum world there is a different set of rules that things seem to play by, and in response we need a different set of assumptions we proceed from in our analysis…maybe at a societal level or at points in our internal experience of things rational analysis is less useful… but it is by far the best tool we have in the middle territory between those two extremes.


Here’s the point: this is a baby bathwater situation here. We can’t do away with reason entirely…it’s proven far too effective at producing SOMETHING that’s extremely useful to us. The question is what exactly is that SOMETHING it’s producing and how does its production fit into discourse at large?


Another problem someone might have with this whole critique is that the unintended flip side of critiquing reason… is that the enemy of my enemy unintentionally becomes my friend. What I mean is: showing the limitations of reason was for these philosophers in the early 20th century an attempt to dispel dogma…but as you can imagine… these arguments can easily become ammunition for any extremist group to drum up support for their cause, all the while not having to conform to the bounds of reason.


When thinkers in the early 20th century were faced with all these questions…There were a lot of different responses. But it’s important to note that virtually NONE of these responses had anything to do with throwing out reason in its entirety. When someone says something like, Rational analysis doesn’t produce certainty…so let’s throw it out and find something to replace it with…that person is making the SAME MISTAKE the thinkers did at the beginning of the Enlightenment when they replaced faith based certainty with rational certainty. Remember…these early 20th century thinkers weren’t opponents of reason…they were opponents of dogma…and nothing showcases that fact better than considering how hard these thinkers worked to preserve reason moving forward…and there may be NO philosopher MORE emblematic of this approach…than the early 20th century thinker… Leo Strauss.


Leo Strauss was a huge fan of rational analysis…so it may seem contradictory to say that he also thought that the entire project of modernity was doomed to failure from the start. This may SEEM contradictory…but let me explain why it’s not…and the story begins with his response to one of those critiques of rational analysis that we talked about last episode: the cultural contingency of reason.


When people say that reason is relative to the culture that’s doing the reasoning…limited to the cultural biases, limitations, the perspective of the observer, etc…when people are making that case: a common thing they’ll say is, well, look at ancient Greece. What was “reasonable” in ancient Greece is MASSIVELY different that what we’d call reasonable today. Their point being that clearly rationality is not some ahistorical, acultural tool for arriving at the objective truth about things…what was rational in ancient Greece was relative to their own biases and limitations as a culture…the ultimate point being that: we’re no different.


Now as a fan of rational analysis, Strauss doesn’t REJECT that point…instead he accepts it and he asks the question: well then what, does, that, mean… for how we should be using reason in our societies moving forward?


So, a concise way to sum up Strauss’s answer to this question is: the fact that reason is relative to the culture it was produced in…is not a WEAKNESS of reason at all…it’s actually a strength in his eyes. Strauss thinks: Rationality is not a lost cause just because it doesn’t produce certainty…what we should be doing…he thinks is using the limitations of reason to the benefit of our societies…because here’s the thing, he would say: there are many…MANY different elements to building and maintaining a society, and a SINGLE approach to rationality…. may not be able to deal with all of them…different societies have different strengths and weaknesses…the rational approach of one society is going to be good at some things and bad at others…another society’s approach might be good and bad at other things. He thinks our rationality…the rationality of the Enlightenment…did a lot of good… but it also has produced a lot of problems that are proving very difficult to solve simply with OUR VERSION of rationality…Here’s his idea: what if we used the societies of the past as a guide…and returned to a different TYPE of rationality that can help us solve the problems that Enlightenment rationality has produced?


To start building his case here…what he’d want us to do is consider the fact that there’s a lot of people in our modern world that carry some pretty over-simplified views when it comes to the idea of progress, throughout history. There’s this very popular idea…that the entire history of the western world has been some sort of linear, constant progression that all culminates in this moment, right here. Societies have all built on the mistakes of the societies before them… and we are currently living in the PINNACLE of what humanity has ever achieved, now…Strauss would say: that is absolutely TRUE… when you look at it in terms of a few specific, narrow markers. For instance, and for the sake of argument, modern medicine is just far more advanced than the medicine developed during the time of the ancient Greeks. The technology we have today…is just far more advanced…the level to which we can harness and manipulate the natural world to our benefit…is just more advanced than back then. But Strauss would say if you ONLY looked at the idea of progress based on these criteria…then you’re putting a very charitable, modern bias on what the word PROGRESS really means. Progress…he’s going to say…is a far more complex idea than just whether you have rocket ships and stem cells.


Strauss would ask do you think there are any areas of society where the rationality of Ancient Greece produced better results than our modern rationality? Well just to throw one out there to get the conversation started: how about the fact that ancient Greece produced a society… where there weren’t masses of people desperately trying to find meaning? A society where it wasn’t downright impossible for reasonable people to believe that their life had any sort of natural purpose that belonged to them? To feel any sort of connection to the universe or some grand design. Think of the tragic ways that people often cope with this alienation of modernity…and then Strauss would want us to consider that progress is not something that can be quantified by looking at just a few points of flourishing. Progress may be something with thousands of different components, cultures throughout the years ebbing and flowing, progressing and regressing in different ways based on what each individual culture decided to focus their efforts on. The question Strauss would want to ask is: what has modernity focused its efforts upon…what areas are we great at, what areas are we lacking in…how did it get this way, and how might the cultures of the past help us understand ourselves better? This whole line of investigation that we’re talking about…Strauss often refers to it as thinking of history in terms of a contrast between the different approaches utilized by the ancients…vs the moderns. Ancients vs. Moderns…OR another way of thinking of that same distinction that’s going to be very useful to us is to think about the Ancients vs the Moderns as the IDEAL vs the REAL. Let me explain what Strauss means.


When the project of modernity began…our scientific method ASSUMED value-neutrality. In other words, we assumed NOTHING about things like the origins of the universe…the purposes of things…you know, WHY a volcano is what it is doesn’t really matter when conducting modern science…the job of modern science is to observe and describe WHAT there is…not why it’s there…now contrast that with the ancient Greeks… who used the Aristotelean scientific method…a scientific method that assumes the existence of final causes. In other words when conducting science, and doing ANY sort of rational analysis for that matter…the ancient Greeks proceeded from the assumption that there ARE purposes to things in the universe, and that they must fit together in some sort of orderly way. Another way of putting this would be to say that the scientific method of modernity concerns itself with the REAL…it tries to assume no values and get to the bottom of the true nature of reality…whereas the scientific method of the Ancient Greeks concerns itself with accessing the IDEAL…or finding the different categories of existence and how they relate to teleologies that exist in a larger ordered universe. Moderns focused on the REAL the ancients on the IDEAL.


Let’s look at another example of the ancients moderns ideal real situation here… we’ll start with the ancient Greeks this time. When the ancient Greeks apply their culture’s version of rationality to the task of building a state…living in a universe that assumes the existence of final causes and teleologies…the RATIONAL thing to assume at that point becomes that there must be some sort of IDEAL version of a state that we can arrive at if only we reason about it long enough. From there, it’s reasonable to assume, there must be some sort of ideal STRUCTURE to that state. From there there’s an ideal way to be a ruler…a government official, a warrior, an artisan…from there there’s an ideal way to be a citizen of a state more generally…there’s an ideal way to be a friend, to be a partner, to be a sister, there’s an ideal way to be a person beyond that, if only we use rational analysis to look at it closely enough.


Now, when someone is BORN into one of these societies…when they’re growing up and learn about the way the universe is…they INSTANTLY have a couple dozen ideals of purpose that they can be striving towards…and by ideal the Greeks didn’t mean some sort of transcendent thing where you’ll start glowing once you finally reach it…no, you’re NEVER going to reach these ideals…and that’s not the point anyway…the point of these ideals was to serve as moral sages for people and societies to strive towards. So even though they talked about things like ideal societies, or rulers or even something like being an ideal friend…nobody REALLY thought they were ever going to achieve the IDEAL society one day….the point… was that society itself… was structured around virtue. We have these ideals that we will never actually reach, but we will nonetheless try our best every day to get as close as we possibly can to them. The point of these ideals, Strauss tells us, was the process…and this process was in many ways a governing influence for ancient Greece.


Contrast this with the value-neutrality of modernity. When the project of modernity begins and the gauntlet of the Enlightenment is thrown down…we start structuring our societies around the idea of rational individual self-interest. In other words..once modernity comes around…we are no longer gonna be structuring our societies around virtue…we’re no longer aiming for some ideal society or some ideal citizen OF that society. We don’t believe in final causes anymore…so instead of trying to construct an ideal state…we decide we want to create what you could call a “REAL” state…REAL in the sense that it’s something we can ACTUALLY design and implement…and then put systems in place that ensure it will stay that way. When you have people constantly striving to be the best ruler or citizen they possibly can…things can take care of themselves most of the time…but modernity didn’t have that luxury…when you assume no values written into the universe and then build your political system from there…you need to construct safeguards like the legal system and constitutions to ensure that even when you DON’T have a virtuous ruler or citizenry…the society still will exist at a certain standard.


To create things like a legal system or a constitution without assuming any values written into the cosmos required modernity to base this new political tradition on the rational, self-interest of the individual. People no longer fall into a clear role or ideal within the structure of a society…no, people are individuals now…when I decide to participate as a citizen in a society… I’m not doing that because, you know, man is a political animal at the level of the universe..when I decide to be in coalition with other individuals I do so solely because it benefits me to, it is in my rational self-interest to be a part of society.


Strauss would say that this political strategy of modernity has proven to be a giant mistake for western civilization. Because the problem with assuming value-neutrality…and then building an entire political tradition on top of it…is that the political realm NEEDS VALUES to be able to make decisions about things…things like how should our society be? How should we treat our citizens? Where is our society headed? Strauss thinks the Enlightenment leaves us with no real answers to these questions…and what eventually happens is we’re left with no values and the entire project of modernity begins to consume itself. The modern political tradition cannot work the way it was designed to work if its left to play out long enough…left to play out to its natural ends…modernity will always, and unavoidably lead us to Strauss’s collection of a bunch of really bad isms that we ultimately need to look to for our values.

Modernity eventually always leads to either relativism…or meaning being something that is entirely relative, which doesn’t give political institutions much guidance…historicism…or meaning being derived from whatever historical context we happen to be in…scientism or meaning being deferred to the sciences…economism or meaning coming from economic matters…or lastly Nihilism…which in casual conversation may look like someone drinking themselves to sleep every night…in THIS context it just goes one step further…if there is no intrinsic meaning to anything in the universe…then hings STILL seem to have meaning to us in the world…where does that meaning come from? Power dynamics for Nihilism…when you control the discourse surrounding a topic you control the meaning that surrounds that topic.


These five things: relativism, historicism, scientism, economism and nihilism are the endgame for modernity…every single time for Strauss. When you try to build a political tradition on top of a foundation where you’ve tried to be entirely value neutral…the Enlightenment political tradition eventually HAS TO consume itself. Which can make you wonder why this new political tradition has lasted as long as it has without devolving into relativism all the way back in the 1700s….Strauss would say the only reason it’s lasted THIS long…is because we initially carried over an enormous amount of baggage from the days where we believed in teleologies and final causes, from the days when values were POSSIBLE in a political tradition…but if you leave modernity to it’s own devices…given enough time to play out…these five isms and all of the political turmoil that spawned out of them in the early 20th century was ALWAYS going to be the outcome.


See, to Strauss, even things that masquerade as enlightenment political values always lead to this outcome…take Enlightenment era Liberalism for instance….Strauss would say it is no coincidence…that modern liberalism has an ethos where it aims towards multiculturalism and acceptance of all ideas no matter how outside the box they are…and the fact that relativism was the ultimate destination for the modern political process. The liberalism of the Enlightenment, to Strauss, inextricably LEADS to relativism…which then leads to different forms of Nihilism…not the least of which may in some extreme cases lead to Tyranny. He makes a case that the agenda of the Third Reich in Nazi Germany in many ways is an expression of the thought of the Enlightenment…because similar TO the Enlightenment their chief aim was to do away with the existing traditions and values and replace them instead with a power structure under which the universe could be controlled…or at least SEEM to be controlled.


The ultimate point is that political institutions NEED values in order to make decisions…and because of this fact…to Strauss, the relativism of modernity can not ever last for very long, or else that relativistic void where there are no values…will come to be replaced by something. Whether that something is Nazi Germany or a value system that WE decide to implement…is really up to us. This is WHY Strauss thinks the solution is to return to a political process that more resembles the one devised by the ancient Greeks…a political process embedded with values that can actually inform us as to how society should be structured…and how citizens should fit into that society. This is an example, Strauss thinks, of how the rational approach of the ancients did something a LOT MORE EFFECTIVELY than the rational approach of the moderns. Maybe it’s time we start looking at OTHER FORMS of rationality to find solutions to the problems OUR VERSION of rationality has caused.


Strauss talks at one point about how in one reading of Plato…the Greeks seem to have been fully aware of the possibility of the experiment of the Enlightenment…and they seem to have been fully aware as to how it would all play out…he says at one point Plato seriously considers implementing something extremely similar to our modern scientific method…but ultimately decides against it because the end result would be that it would rob human beings of their identity and values. The trade off just wasn’t worth it to Plato.


The most important question we need to answer at the beginning of the 20th century…is what do we base the values of our political system upon….what Leo Strauss is ultimately saying is: when you pay attention to answers Modernity is ACTUALLY giving us to this question…the silence is deafening. We may have made tons of progress in Agricultural science so that far fewer people need to go hungry…but we shouldn’t stand by satisfied with scientific progress… while the entire western world lives through the greatest famine to date when it comes to meaning and values.


More generally than that though…what good is having all the bombs, tanks and artillery in the world if you have no values to direct how they should be used? You’re just waiting for a third party to step in and impose it’s values and use that destructive power however they deem fit. Strauss would say this political landscape at the beginning of the 20th century, the situation modernity has created for us…is primed for nationalism. We’ll see how that plays out.


But at the center of this whole discussion is this classic Strauss divide between the ancients and the moderns. Societies focused on the ideal…vs societies focused on the real. You may wonder why someone so interested in the political realm spent so much of his time engaging in philosophy. Well if you asked Strauss what the value of philosophy was…like a lot of his world view, he’s wouldn’t be satisfied by the answers that have been given to us by modernity…and he thinks there is a lot of clarity to be found by going back and seeing how the ancients would have answered that same question.


Philosophy, during the time of the ancients, was not seen as an academic institution. There were no multi-volume sets to be read…there were no terms to memorize…philosophy all the way back then…was a way of life. Philosophy was an attitude towards your disposition as a human being. Being a philosopher wasn’t about the degrees hanging on your wall or sounding smart at parties…being a philosopher was about a quest that you were on. Strauss wants us to consider…what exactly was that quest that philosophers used to be on? What were they trying to accomplish by conducting philosophy?


The answer Strauss gives is that during the time of the ancients philosophers used to be on a quest to discover knowledge…of the whole…as opposed to knowledge of individual particular things. Philosophers don’t much care about particulars…they care about categories of things and how those categories relate to the whole. Now…as we talked about…the Greeks…were extremely skeptical of humanities ability to ever be able to arrive at knowledge of the whole. Knowledge of the whole is the ideal that they’re striving towards that they’re never going to get to…modern science…while nobody’s saying that we’re for sure ever going to get there…the AMBITION of modern science requires, and believes at least in theory…that knowledge of the whole is something we might just arrive at one day. This difference is in MANY WAYS THE DIFFERENCE between the ancient focus on the ideal and the modern focus on the real.


The value of philosophy, to Strauss, is in the pursuit towards an ideal. In the same way other professions may strive for perfection, but have to come to accept that they will never actually reach it…philosophers live their lives in pursuit of knowledge of the whole, but to Strauss, what they will have to come to accept is that the understanding of the universe, the clarity that they want so badly…is just always going to elude them. But that shouldn’t matter…says Strauss. The value of philosophy doesn’t lie in the results it produces…but in the process you’re engaging in. Philosophy is valuable as a way of life…because unlike every other way of life out there it requires you to resist that all too human tendency…to oversimplify, lie to yourself, make excuses, whatever you have to do to convince yourself that you’ve arrived at a solution about things. Solutions…don’t exist except in the minds of people that are hungry for them. Philosophy as a way of life…doesn’t allow for this level of dishonesty…and to Strauss that is a big part of it’s value. He says be a philosopher. Live philosophy as a way of life…but understand when it comes down to it all that really means, to live life as a philosopher, is to have a genuine awareness of the problems that surround you. But THEN what’s gonna happen, he says, once you’re aware of the problems…is you’re naturally going to be inclined towards finding a SOLUTION to those problems. But beware of this place, he would say…because the moment you decide that your “solutions” to the problems become more real to you than your awareness of how problematic the idea of a solution REALLY IS…THAT is when you cease to be a philosopher…that’s when THIS happens

as he puts it:


“Yet as long as there is no wisdom but only quest for wisdom, the evidence of all solutions is necessarily smaller than the evidence of the problems. Therefore the philosopher ceases to be a philosopher at the moment at which the ‘subjective certainty’ [quoting M. Alexandre Kojève] of a solution becomes stronger than his awareness of the problematic character of that solution. At that moment the sectarian is born.  

Posted on

Episode 134 – Transcript

This is a transcript of episode #134 on The Consequences of Reason. Check out the episode page HERE.

So this disagreement that defines the state of the philosophical landscape in the early 20th century: we’ve called it a lot of different things on this show. Nature vs Culture. Modernity vs Postmodernity. Objectivity vs inter-subjectivity….Well one thing about this debate if it’s not entirely obvious by this point on this show is that understanding the perspectives that are positioned on either side of this debate is absolutely crucial not only for understanding 20th century political philosophy, but even for understanding the world you’re living in today…for understanding the smallest things…the philosophical underpinnings for many of the arguments you might see when you turn on the news.

We’ve talked about bits and pieces of this debate for a long time on this show and it’s high time there’s an episode you can point people to that goes into a bit of detail about this aspect of modern discourse…something that talks about WHY the climate of the early 20th century was filled with philosophers that had such a strong level of dissatisfaction with the legacy of the Enlightenment. That is: rationality, individualism and the scientific method as THE primary way of arriving at truth about things.

Because this whole state of affairs can start to seem pretty confusing to reasonable people…I mean, how could any serious person ever be anti-science? Look at the understanding of the natural world science has produced. Look at how it’s let us manipulate and wield the otherwise chaos of the natural world to the benefit of human beings. Look at all the different ways every day that you USE the great things science has produced…and what you’re just against that system…you’re dissatisfied with the thing that made those things possible?

Look at all the things rationality has produced…I mean open up a history book. Thousands of years of religious dogma gone…to be anti science and rationality can seem to some like you’re being anti human. Or just pro- some other dogma that you want to impose on people. But an interesting place to get started with this conversation is that the OTHER side of the debate, the ones skeptical of the tasks of the Enlightenment…they would ALSO see themselves as pro-science and anti dogma.

There’s of course an end to this story we’re telling today about our history of using rationality as our guide, but this is the place I want to begin and the story starts in the late 19th century with the philosopher Nietzsche and some things he had to say about what the attitudes of philosophers were at the founding of the Enlightenment.

So…some quick historical context: the beginning of the Enlightenment is often cited as the moment when Kant releases his famous essay titled What is Enlightenment? We have an episode on it…Kan’t famously describes Enlightenment as man’s removal of his self incurred tutelage. What he’s referring to is the tutelage of thousands of years of religious dogma. Later on in the essay he CHALLENGES the thinkers of his time to “dare to know” or “dare to think for yourselves” for once…in other words, we need another way OTHER than religious faith to be able to arrive at the truth about things, because faith, from these thinker’s perspectives has caused us a lot of problems historically . Well the thinkers of the time take a look around them, look at all the available options and collectively decide to double down on reason instead of faith. This is the age of reason. This is the use of rational categories to make sense of things, proportioning our belief to the evidence, the political systems of the time take a strong turn towards the individual subject and mutually beneficial social contracts as opposed to teleologies or strict “roles” that people are supposed to play in a society.

This whole strategy seemed extremely reasonable at the time. Ironically later philosophers would lament that that was EXACTLY what was wrong with the strategy…that it seemed reasonable at the time. But we’ll get to that. Nietzsche looks back on this moment in history and sees what the philosophers of the time did as an absolutely giant missed opportunity. Because, he says, hypothetically this was a moment when philosophers could have realized that one of the biggest problems with those faith based views of the world centered around the idea of religious certainty…was certainty.

What these thinkers DID, Nietzsche says, is throw out the religious certainty that caused them so many problems in the past and just changed the criteria for what makes something certain. RATIONALITY is now our path to certainty. They replaced one dogma with another dogma. So what happened was with each progressive classical rationalist philosopher doing their work… we seemed to be coming to terms with how everything in the universe fit neatly into rational categories. We were FINALLY understanding the truth after all those years. With every progressive scientific experiment that was UNDENIABLY bringing us an understanding of the natural world that improved the lives of people…how could any reasonable person say that the process of science wasn’t accessing something of the TRUTH about reality.
But then hundreds of years go by…and as the goals of the Enlightenment are played out, problems start to arise and this dynamic starts to produce philosophers that want to understand the limitations of classical rational thought. One of the first major ones that gives rise to this trend was Kierkegaard.

Kierkegaard has a quote and I’m paraphrasing here, but he says here are all these philosophers and scientists of his time that understand the deepest levels of reality and existence…and here he is and he can’t even understand Abraham. What he’s saying is science and rationality during his time is supposedly producing some of the most comprehensive understanding of reality that we’ve ever had…but when it comes to certain aspects of what it means to be a human being…rationality just can not help you, it’s not a useful tool in that context. So many things about your life on an every day level…human existence is FILLED with paradox. There are times in our lives, and he gives examples from the life of Abraham, there are times when continuing to live in the FACE of that paradox…REQUIRES irrationality. Kierkegaard thinks this irrationality is an important part of our existence…JUST AS IMPORTANT as rationality…and if you ever tried to swear off irrationality completely and make purely rational choices all the time…you’d be left in a state of total paralysis.

Maybe a good metaphor for this is to think what it would be like to look at the contents of a book that tried to tell you in 300 pages… how to be a person…a field manual for life. Better yet, picture having a book that is supposed to tell you how to raise a child…right? You open it up… and it’s filled with math equations, syllogisms, geometric breakdowns of the nursery…for anyone that’s ever actually raised a child before…you know how tremendously oversimplified something like that would HAVE to be. Now, the intent of the author may have been to arrive at a NEW level of certainty about raising our children…you know, let’s dare to think for ourselves! Remove ourselves from the tutelage of the parenting dogma of the past…but the best intentions in the world don’t change the fact that there is something missing there. There is something about being a human being that’s lost when we’re using purely using rational analysis to try to explain it. More than that…no matter how much scientific progress we are making…the tools we use to catalog that scientific data…the means of analysis aren’t even remotely similar to the way we experience reality.

Perfect example to describe this phenomena used in the work of Professor Lloyd Kramer. So take time for example. There’s this thing about the universe that we call time. We want to use rational analysis to understand it better. So we measure it, record and study it through the use of tools of rational analysis called clocks. Now for a clock…seconds are uniform. 60 seconds in a minute. 60 minutes in an hour. So on and so forth. Time…when viewed purely through the lens of rational analysis…looks like that. But what is our actual, human experience of time? Well sometimes… time flies. Sometimes a few seconds of something agonizing can feel like an hour. The point is: when it comes to understanding the universe clocks might be the ultimate tool, but when it comes to understanding aspects of our human experience of the universe…the tool of rational analysis just cannot tell the full story.

So Kierkegaard becomes a symbol for a fracture in this idea…that starts to seem like a pretty extreme idea that rationality is going to be able to provide us with an exhaustive understanding of everything, but people might argue back to that…look, maybe there are things about being a person that aren’t entirely rational…but informing every decision you make shouldn’t be the GOAL of rationality anyway. The truth that science gives us about the natural world…THAT’S the goal here. THAT’S the thing we have certain access to through reason. Rationality is going to give you the most accurate information about how things are that’s available…and then it’s YOUR job to go out and actually DO something with that information.

Well Kierkegaard was just the beginning. This critical look at reason that would eventually lead to the malaise of the early 20th century began to be critical of the scientific method as well…more specifically a few important questions…when we arrive at a scientific understanding about something…and that understanding allows us to manipulate the natural world to benefit people…can we say that science is accessing the objective, TRUTH of reality? What I mean is: can we say… that science is at least IN SOME WAY communicating with SOME intrinsic structure of the universe? After all, why would it be so repeatable in a lab setting if it weren’t? Sure, maybe our understanding of it isn’t exhaustive, we still have many more years ahead of us to conduct more science…but there must at least be SOMETHING about the truth that we’re touching there.

But on the other hand when philosophers started asking these questions about what we’re REALLY doing when we conduct science…what they started to realize is that there are aspects of science that are inextricably relative to the culture the science is produced in.

The best way I’ve ever seen this dynamic explained is by the philosopher Richard Rorty…so I’ll try to summarize his main points the best I can: think of the birth, existence and reproduction of scientific ideas the same way you would think about the birth, existence and reproduction of species in terms of Natural Selection.

So for thousands of years it was believed that the universe was designed by a Grand Designer…and there were many arguments philosophers had for this…not the least of which was just LOOK AROUND. How convenient that I drink water and there’s water around. That I exist in this very small range of temperatures and weather patterns, and that’s exactly what the world is around me. The point was: How could you NOT THINK this was a celestial hamster cage designed with your survival in mind? For thousands of years THAT WAS THE DEFAULT…sure, you had the sporadic thinker that came along and questioned it, but the onus was on THEM to prove why this theory had any merit that was so contrary to our deepest intuitions about reality.

Well you know the story: Natural Selection offered an alternative…this was a theory that explained how things could SEEM perfectly designed for the environments they were in, but the reality was just that all the beings that DIDN’T correspond with the environment died before reproducing.

Well scientific ideas exist in an environment as well. That is, the set of scientific and cultural biases that they were produced in. The scientific theories that correspond with these biases subsist, they’re rewarded with tenure, they may manage to reproduce.

There’s a sense in which if a slightly different culture had come to pass…the way we scientifically understand things would change as well. There’s a sense in which if a COMPLETELY different culture had come to pass…just as different creatures would have been able to gain tenure in a changed environment…a completely different way of scientifically categorizing the world could have emerged. So this in no way takes away from the utility of scientific ideas, but this does start to raise a very important question to the thinkers during the late 19th century…Rorty puts it this way:

“Are the longest lasting and most frequently relied upon theories stable because they match a stable reality? Or because scientists get together to keep them stable, as politicians get together to keep existing political arrangements intact?”

The answer to this question makes a giant difference when it comes to how you view the findings of science. The difference the answer to this question makes is actually very similar to the way postmodernity looked at the history of philosophy in our series on Gilles Deleuze. What is philosophy? Well it’s not an act of discovery…it’s an act of creation. In other words, philosophers when doing their work are not discovering the intrinsic structure of the universe…reality is far too chaotic to ever be able to do that…the more accurate analysis of what’s going on would be that philosophy is an act of creation…philosophers create systems of concepts to give us one VERSION of reality…one perspective that might be useful.

Well a very similar charge is being leveled here about the history of science. Science is not DISCOVERING and ACCESSING the intrinsic structure of the universe…science is CREATING one version of understanding what we have access to…and this understanding is ALWAYS relative to the perspective of the observer which is ALWAYS a person… who is also embedded in a set of cultural biases and a current set of presuppositions that the science of their time accepts and proceeds from.

So if you’re a philosopher in the early 20th century that happens to see science in this way…the impact this has on how you view essentially the last 200 years of western democracy becomes horrifying. Because they instantly realize that this problem they have with science is in actuality a problem with reason itself.

So at this point in the story Rationality itself starts comes under fire…and some of these critiques are actually reworkings of OLDER critiques of reason…for example Edmund Burke spoke several times about how when it comes to the progression of human thought, but more specifically when it comes to how we should structure societies…you never want to fully commit your strategy to Rational analysis. He gives many reasons not to but one of the big ones he would say is that…look, when you decide you’re going to determine which thoughts are legitimate or not based on purely rational analysis…what you see when you actually put that into practice is that you can basically find a way to rationalize anything.

Look no further than your own personal life for proof of this fact. How many times have you reasoned to a conclusion about something and still been wrong? Maybe you know somebody who made a big mistake in their life and after the fact they thought about what happened and they’ve found a million ways to rationalize it to themselves and others and it all makes perfect sense to everyone…but nonetheless its obvious to everyone that they’ve still made a huge mistake.

See this is an important distinction to draw about rational analysis. When it comes to your personal life if you decide to take a purely rational approach to something and end up with problems it’s no big deal. You’re only hurting yourself. But on a societal level SHOULD we be using a purely rational approach when it comes to determining the legitimacy of thoughts? The bigger question that concerns this debate between these two groups: should thoughts be considered to be accessing the intrinsic structure of the universe simply because they correspond with human reason?

Human reason is always doing its work within the parameters of human ignorance. And that, human…that’s omnipresent throughout this whole process…is always subject… to cultural limitations. Just like we experience time and it’s not like we’re a bunch of giant clocks walking around…our experience of time is relative to the perspective of the observer…here are philosophers in the early 20th century saying that reason…and the criteria for what makes something reasonable or not are ALSO relative to the observer.

Now it should be said: NOBODY…not EITHER SIDE…is trying to do away with reason. Nobody’s trying to do away with science. They’re trying to do away with what they see as dogma or the idea that what reason and science provides is access to certainty. This is why Nietzsche thought people like Kant at the beginning of the Enlightenment missed a big opportunity…that could’ve been the moment… when they realized that certainty about things… shouldn’t have ever been the goal in the first place. We should VALUE reason, we should VALUE science…but not deify them…we should understand them for what they are: they’re not discovering anything…they’re CREATING something. That subtle distinction may not seem like much, but it actually has massive effects on how things play out in the world…and this is ultimately why people CARE so much.

Because if you’re one of the philosophers in the early 20th century that thinks reason and science are relative to the culture they are conducted in and NOT objectivity…then one of the first critiques you have to have about the Enlightenment is that the Age of Reason might have been a horrifying period in history where we used Reason to justify cultural imperialism.

Because when reason becomes something that’s capitalized…then it becomes the standard against which every society is judged. See, to these critics…what happened at the beginning of the Enlightenment is we made this bold proclamation that the way to organize the relationship between government and citizen should be determined by reason. This marks a major shift not only in the way the western world typically structured their states, but also in how the citizen saw their role in the political process. This is the birth of the individual in modern western culture. We’ll talk about it more on next episode when we go deeper into the work of Leo Struass, but essentially this is the moment when societies in the west move away from teleologies and societal roles and move instead towards rational individualism. This is yet ANOTHER criticism of the Age of Reason from around this time period…that Rationalism when applied to the political process necessarily moves thinking towards a focus on the individual…and that it’s THIS SHIFT towards the individual person as the focal point that’s responsible for a centuries long progression of people becoming more and more narcissistic and self centered…but again, we’ll talk more about that next episode.

Back to the primary point though: Rationality, to these critics, LEADS to cultural imperialism when applied at a societal level. Because if rationality is relative to the culture it’s being used in…and things like rational debates are the way that we determine political legitimacy…then what the goals of the Enlightenment produce are societies that appoint themselves as judge, jury and executioner of the rest of the world based on narrow parameters. Think about it: THEY get to decide the definition of what’s “rational” or “irrational” based on their own cultural makeup…and THEN they get to slap on their world police badge and be the moral arbiter of everyone else. The rest of the world constantly under this magnifying glass of their version of Rationality…the default way to view all other cultures becomes comparing them to this Rational ideal…how much do they deviate from the ideal society that WE’VE determined the values of? THAT becomes the new question when dealing with other cultures…knowing that if any point a culture becomes TOO “irrational” in how they set up their society…Rationality can ALSO become the justification for invading.

See… that’s ALSO one of the problems early 20th century thinkers were starting to have with Reason. Reason as it turns out is not this sort of ahistorical, acultural objective tool Youfor arriving at facts about things. The results of rational analysis were varying to such a large extent…societies were using the guise of reason to justify such massively different conclusions…these philosophers started to realize that David Hume may have been right all along: Hume’s Fork, Hume’s Guillotine as it’s often called…the central thesis being that you cannot possibly derive an ought from an is.

No matter how optimistic thinkers were at the beginning of the Enlightnment…no matter how much they thought Reason could eventually provide us with Objective Morality…the more that science and rationality were left to do their work…the more it became clear to these thinkers in the early 20th century that it was never going to happen. The more the political process focused on the individual and tried to use the results of science to arrive at values about how to structure our societies and how people fit into them…the more the goals of the Enlightenment were left to play out the more it became clear that when you force reason to try to come up with objective values about ANYTHING…you’re doomed to failure. Because, to these thinkers, that’s just not what rational analysis is capable of doing.

See that’s the problem here…Rational analysis can CREATE values…because rational analysis always has cultural values embedded into it…but in order to justify any sort of values it needs to use the results of science…and modern science HAS to assume value neutrality. This became a big problem for modernity. This became the fate of science in the early 20th century political landscape. Science cannot provide us with any values on its own…the only thing it can do is serve as a tool… to justify values that are smuggled into it by culture…all while wearing that costume of value neutrality.
This will be another thing we expand on moving forward with our series on 20th century political philosophy…the goal of this episode is to put you in the shoes of one of these early 20th century political thinkers and understand WHY so many of them were having such a problem with the legacy of the Enlightenment. Despite having not put out an episode in a while…I’m actually pretty deep into the writing phase of this entire series…that front loaded work is actually WHY I haven’t put something out for a while; not my health for once. So that’s good news, I guess. But I just wanted to say that when I considered trying to tie together a cohesive story of where we’re going over the century…I felt this episode was necessary.

Maybe the best place to end today is back in Ancient Greece. You know…this tension between postmodernity and modernity just saturates our modern discourse. Seems like you can’t turn on any form of media for more than five minutes without being faced with some reminder of this battle that’s going on. It’s actually pretty amazing to see…think of how lucky you are that at any moment you can turn on a screen and watch two people argue with each other that are living in completely different universes. Pretty cool stuff, and this battle is often cited by people in the media as a bad thing for society. They say this is a sign we’re living in some pretty dark times. Some people go so far as to say this is a catastrophe…the likes of which the world has never seen. When people can’t even agree on some of the most basic ideas that make up their world views…how can we even have a conversation with each other? Could this series of disagreements spell the end of Western Civilization?
Some people may say yes. There are a lot of philosophers out there who would say no. This isn’t the end of the world. This isn’t some unprecedented existential threat…this isn’t even a new disagreement between people.

Remember in Plato’s dialogues back in the Athenian Agora…this battle was going on between heavyweights in the western world all the way back then. One corner you had Protagoras, Godfather of relativism, Man is the measure of all things, the other corner you had Socrates, largely a mouthpiece for Plato’s ideas but him arguing for the idea that No, there MUST BE some sort of intrinsic structure to the universe that we can access…and rational debate is the absolute best tool we have to get there.

Some philosophers would say that this argument is nothing new…this has been going on for thousands of years. This very well may be one of those debates that will NEVER have a winner. This may be one of those questions that causes arguments on the news for as long as humanity’s around to have news programs to argue on.

Cultures will ebb and flow with any one time period’s answer to this question. One side of this may win out for a while…we may have a long period where we believe in the power of FAITH to arrive at the objective truth…or the power of REASON to arrive at the objective. The OTHER side may win out for a while…we may have long periods of historicism, relativism, nihilism. Some philosophers would say there are pros and cons to EITHER side gaining a greater level of cultural control and that we should just try to understand the times we’re living in. The point is: some would say that there are many things that may sink the ship of Western Civilization…but this is not going to be it. People have been arguing about this stuff in one form or another for thousands of years…maybe cultures DO ebb and flow in their answers to this question…and maybe if the popular view is that we are currently embroiled in a culture of rampant subjectivity and relativism…maybe the thing we should all be looking out for is: what will be the NEXT THING to stake its claim to the objective truth?

Posted on

Episode 133 – Transcript

This is a transcript of episode #133 on Carl Schmitt. Check out the episode page HERE.

So for anybody not listening to these two episodes back to back I want to briefly remind everyone of the end of last episode because the discussion on this episode jumps right in immediately where the last episode ended. Real quick, the last episode ended talking about the ambitions of normativism:


“the hope of Liberalism was to get rid of the sovereign…the reality of the world is that we have long periods of normalcy where the government does almost nothing…punctuated by rare moments of extreme action whenever things ACTUALLY need to get done. Liberalism hasn’t REMOVED the sovereign and the only time pieces of paper like the constitution prevent the sovereign from acting are during periods of normalcy when the sovereign wouldn’t be exercising authoritarian power anyway…to Carl Schmitt the biggest difference between our modern societies and the ones that existed in the pre-liberal world is that the pre-liberal societies were just a lot more honest about the authoritarianism that was going on. Nowadays we have this grand illusion of Liberalism that puts a bunch of window dressing on it and pretends the world is something that it’s not.”


So maybe the best place to begin our discussion today is just to say that the fact that the sovereign still exists at some level in our Liberal societies shouldn’t come as an enormous surprise to people. I mean, after all what exactly are systems of norms like the constitution trying to normalize? Carl Schmitt would ask if the constitution is a regulatory document…what exactly is it regulating? He would say that what it is regulating is the more fundamental, underlying political process that has been going on since the dawn of civilization. Liberalism’s been tacked on after the fact…makes us feel good…helps us FEEL like the world is a lot more peaceful and tolerant than its ever been…but once again, the reality of the world to Carl Schmitt, the reason we haven’t seen a respite from dictatorships, bloodshed and political instability is because we are still engaged in the exact same political process we’ve always been engaged in…one ROOTED in intolerance…to Carl Schmitt the foundation of the political lies in a distinction between friend and enemy.


The friend enemy, self/other, us vs them distinction is probably nothing new to anybody listening to this…and to be fair it wasn’t new during the time of Carl Schmitt…but the level to which Carl Schmitt defends this as the forge in which political identities are cast in makes for an extremely interesting take on what exactly is going on whenever we engage in politics. To Carl Schmitt whenever you are engaging in politics…whether you realize it or not you are necessarily positioning yourself on one side of a duality which from your perspective will always look like your friends vs your enemies. Carl Schmitt famously said show me who your enemies are and I’ll show you who you are.


This is actually a reference to Hegel’s views on identity. The idea is that categories of identity can’t exist unless if they have an opposite that they can be contrasted with. So the way this manifests in the political realm is that you only think of your political views and your political identity in terms of how it relates to political views that are the opposite of yours. Your enemies in the friend/enemy distinction. So an example just to illustrate this concept is…you know…nobody listening to this thinks of themselves as a person that is pro-oxygen. I mean why would you. You’d be an absolute weirdo to cordon off your political identity there…I mean who thinks of themselves as a person in favor of people being able to breathe? THAT IS until a group emerges in the political landscape that holds positions that make them ANTI-oxygen. Then and only then does it become a relevant piece of your political identity to think of yourself as a pro-oxygen kind of person. To hold a political position of any type IMPLIES the existence of a group that disagrees with you. To Carl Schmitt to engage in the political at all implies this friend/enemy distinction. The philosopher Leo Strauss summarized his views in a way that Schmitt approved of…he said:


“Because man is by nature evil, he therefore needs dominion. But dominion can be established, that is, men can be unified only in a unity against—against other men. Every association of men is necessarily a separation from other men … the political thus understood is not the constitutive principle of the state, of order, but a condition of the state.”


When you look at politics in this way it makes the Liberal political process start to seem kind of silly…and this is another hallmark of Liberal thinking that Carl Schmitt thinks is a utopian fantasy world. The hope of Liberalism is a world of internationalism, acceptance of the other, toleration of different cultures, shaking hands and agreeing to disagree. Schmitt says no…Liberalism and democracy directly contradict each other…because unless if you are actually somebody that’s calling for the formation of a one world government…you are at some level making a distinction between friend and enemy. Look at your views closely enough…there is some group of people who’s interests, if it came down to it, matter more to you than some other group’s interests. You can’t have a democracy grounded in the idea that the citizens are going to vote along the lines that are best for their society without at some level making a friend/enemy distinction. To Carl Schmitt this is the essence of the political. The political realm is a violent ongoing process of friends banding together and going to war with their enemies capturing territory…whether that war is on a physical battlefield or in the halls of parliament…whether that territory that’s captured is earth and water or control over the state…Liberalism allows for the illusion of multiculturalism and tolerance…when the reality of the world is that we’re only going to be multicultural and tolerant as long as you mostly agree with us. Because when faced with enough difference from Liberal ideas…when faced with the TRUE essence of the political…when it REALLY COMES DOWN TO IT…Liberalism gets thrown out the window as well.


This is why Carl Schmitt thinks Liberalism doesn’t do what it claims to do. Liberalism doesn’t provide an alternative, more peaceful way of engaging in the political process…Liberalism allows people to AVOID the political process altogether and further allows the political to operate covertly behind the scenes while politicians galavant around in the political theater of rational debate without really ever solving anything.


See this is the other side of this that we still need to talk about…because for all the analysis of Liberalism that Carl Schmitt has offered so far…what we really haven’t talked about yet is: why is any of this stuff a bad thing? The political process is still going on in spite of Liberalism. I mean, let’s say Liberalism failed at what it set out to do…let’s say it is not an alternative political process but just a bunch of window dressing that makes us feel good…well, it still makes us feel good right? What’s so wrong about that?


To Carl Schmitt if you were making a list of all the failures of Liberalism…this may be the biggest one of all. Liberalism allows people to feel good about the political process when the world around them may actually be burning to the ground. Liberalism has created a world where more so than at any other point in history people can be completely apathetic about the political reality that they live in. See at many other points in history if there was a political situation going on in the world that was unfavorable for you… there was at LEAST a sense of obligation you were going to feel for finding some manner of recourse. For Carl Schmitt what Liberalism DOES is give people the ability to disconnect themselves from the political, oh politics? Well that’s something that goes on in that creepy building way on the other side of town…I don’t really get involved in all that. What I’m going to do is just live my life and leave all the debating about politics to the politicians…to Carl Schmitt the grand illusion of Liberalism, that politics is a normitivized, peaceful process of finding ways to compromise with each other…that illusion gives people the luxury of being able to not pay attention to or care about politics at all…when in reality this isn’t a luxury at all…and they are just as much at the mercy of the political as they ever have been.


Carl Schmitt would want us to consider just what type of person this level of political apathy creates. He says that for someone that has voluntarily removed themselves from the political process…life in one of our modern societies sort of defaults to a life of being a passive spectator that just consumes stuff. With no political cause to feel a part of…when you’re not part of the process of CREATING the political reality you’re living in your life becomes that of a spectator…watching the world pass you by on TV screens…spending all day watching TV shows, movies and video games of fantasy worlds while you live in a fantasy world of your own…watching the Liberal soap opera of people in suits arguing about mostly insignificant issues buying IN to the story that you’re told that this is all working really well…that you should feel GRATEFUL for your life as a passive spectator…that in the name of Liberal multiculturalism and tolerance you should not feel so connected to a strong political identity, religious identity or national identity…you should think of yourself MORE in terms of your identity as a global consumer…the reality of who you are in modern Liberal societies is actually more connected to BUYING stuff than DOING stuff.


To Carl Schmitt the promises of Liberalism often ROB people of their political identity. This crisis of identity is in many ways the political equivalent of Nietzsche’s famous claim God is Dead. So as most people listening to this already know when Nietzsche writes those words God is Dead he is referring to an emerging world… where there is going to be a crisis of identity because people are no longer going to have automatic access to a strong religious identity that they can feel connected to. Now when Nietzsche writes this he is saying it with a bit of an ominous tone…because he realized that when this extremely important piece of people’s identity was no longer going to be in the picture…that void within people that religious identity used to occupy was not just going to disappear. How were people going to respond? Carl Schmitt would want us to consider what it was like to be a citizen of one of these modern Liberal societies in the early 20th century…Liberalism in his view has asked people to give up their political, religious and national identities and replace them instead with the Liberal identity of multicultural globalism. Much like Nietzche, Carl Schmitt would talk about this phenomena with an ominous tone…because he understood how important these types of identity can be to people. Part of living a fulfilling life as a human being is feeling like you’re a part of something…feeling like you have some say in the way the world is unfolding around you. The founders of Liberalism saw that it was often THESE points of identity that led to wars and instability, so in the interest of making a better world they set up a blockade to make it more difficult for people to take these traditional paths to feeling part of something greater than themselves. But Carl Schmitt would say this is a tragic mistake by Liberalism…to deny these aspects of existence is to deny something extremely important about what it even is to be human. Just like in the time of Nietzsche…this crisis of identity is not just going to disappear…people are going to fill it in with something. The question becomes: what will that something be that people can feel like they’re a part of?


Nietzsche actually explicitly predicts a massive increase in political and nationalist fanaticism to come onto the scene at the beginning of the 20th century…which was precisely the story that unfolded during the early 20th century. This is in many ways the story of Carl Schmitt. Carl Schmitt was an unapologetic, anti-semitic Nazi who supported fascism. Carl Schmitt believed Fascism could be a prudent and intelligent political strategy given the right circumstances…he felt this way for many different reasons and understanding his rationale for supporting Fascism will be necessary knowledge to have if we want to understand the philosophical underpinnings of people’s political moves all the way up to the present day.


See it’s easy to assume that anyone and everyone who could possibly support a fascist approach to political strategy must have been evil beyond all comprehension. But the more inconvenient and unnerving reality is that there are actually reasons Fascism emerged at the time that it did in the western world…there’s a reason why early 20th century political discussions are centered around three primary approaches: democracy, Marxism and Fascism. Why did people living during this time think that Fascism was not only a viable political strategy, but the future of political philosophy?


The answer to this question comes only after understanding Carl Schmitt’s critiques of Liberalism that have been laid out so far. For all of the reasons already expressed and more…the bottom line is Carl Schmitt believes that Liberalism just produces weak societies. Liberal societies lack identity and thus are far weaker than societies that HAVE a strong sense of identity. We can at least understand how Carl Schmitt sees this happening…remember in his view Liberalism incentivizes inaction and complacency…Liberalism produces weak people that generally tend to be more politically uninformed or apathetic simply because they CAN be…Liberalism produces a world where even for the people that WANT to be involved in politics…there cannot be legitimate markers of political communities because within Liberal societies everybody is supposed to be holding hands in a circle singing songs of acceptance with their political opposition.


Remember to be engaged in the political for Schmitt is to stand on one side of a friend enemy distinction…well if the whole goal of your society is multiculturalism and tolerance…that makes it EXTREMELY difficult if not impossible to really ever make a substantive friend/enemy distinction. Liberalism in this way undermines the formation of political communities and this dynamic when played out over the course of decades and centuries eventually produces societies that to Carl Schmitt…really don’t stand for anything. See historically countries would have something that they STOOD for…the citizens of those countries when faced with something that threatened what they believed in they would defend themselves…they’d be willing to fight and die for the cause. The natural endgame for Liberal societies is a population of people that are faced with a political enemy and are like eh, I disagree…but I’m not ready to go and get on a boat and die for something like this…Game of Thrones season 12 starts next week.

This is the archetype of what a human being looks like in a modern liberal society. Devoid of any strong religious, political or national identity surrounded by a society that is terrified of the reality of the political process and so as to avoid the political denies the existence of any political identity as it goes around shaking hands with all the other countries telling everyone how super duper tolerant they are hoping nobody sees through that thin veneer to the intolerance just under the surface. This is a weak society in the eyes of Carl Schmitt filled with citizens who cannot be effectively emboldened towards political action because they are so disconnected from what is going on in the world they don’t know who THEY are…they don’t even know who their ENEMIES are.


This is a sentiment expressed in Hobbes’s Leviathan. When carrying out their end of the bargain in a Social Contract part of the job of the sovereign, part of what makes a state legitimate at all is when the sovereign has the ability to protect the members of the state and their political identities. When a sovereign can no longer do that…the social contract is void. But what if the members of a state don’t HAVE a political identity to protect? What happens…what does the sovereign protect? This is what Carl Schmitt is worried about…Liberalism for its own reasons wants to do away with the sovereign and rob people of their political identity…what does this mean for the future of our modern liberal societies?


Well there’s the old cliche…if you don’t stand for something you fall for anything. To Carl Schmitt…these weak Liberal societies that lack a sovereign and lack an identity to protect are essentially just sitting on their hands waiting around for a group that HAS a strong sense of identity to come along and impose THEIR will and identity onto the people with their anemic sense of purpose. This group that HAS a strong sense of identity could accomplish this in a number of different ways…they could insinuate themselves into the Liberal political process, get elected to office and slowly use the tools at their disposal to fundamentally change the country…they could invade militarily…though that’s probably a little old fashioned…think about it: if any group could manage to get elected to a high level of political office…the only thing it would really take is a state of emergency for that group to be able to assume the role of the sovereign in the name of protecting the constitution. Well imagine you’re one of these groups…you want to go full authoritarian on everybody…what if you could just CONVINCE the population that there was an emergency going on? There really doesn’t even need to BE an emergency if you are persuasive enough.


Carl Schmitt thought that people living in liberal societies are sitting ducks just waiting around for things like this to occur. Carl Schmitt thought an extremely under-developed portion of political philosophy was who gets to decide one of these states of exception and why. Who gets to decide when a leader can make an exception when it comes to the rule of law and the constitution and on what grounds do they make that decision? This is a question that political philosophy has been oddly silent about since the formation of Liberalism…probably because we didn’t even want to entertain the possibility that a dictator would ever be able to transcend these norms and rules we were trying to hold them to…but taboo towards the idea of a dictator or not, Carl Schmitt thinks they are all around us in hiding…some in plain sight…and we should be having a more serious conversation in our modern world about who or what gets to decide the exception.


But anyway the possibility of an authoritarian group co-opting a weakened Liberal society and imposing their will was practically an inevitability to Carl Schmitt. Societies that refuse to acknowledge the essence of the political as friend/enemy distinctions will never know who their friends or their enemies are and are destined to get taken over politically. This is the set of assumptions that serve as a foundation when political philosophers start making a case for Fascism. So if you’re someone that doesn’t care about Liberal values…Fascism starts to seem like it’s that far of a stretch. The idea is that societies ALWAYS have an authoritarian element to them or else they’re too weak to handle real any problems…societies NEED something that they stand for or else they’ll fall for anything…societies that don’t avoid the political process and KNOW who their friends and enemies are don’t waste a bunch of time in gridlock debating the issues. When you reject Liberal principles…Fascism just becomes what a lot of different groups land on…the strategy basically being that the best defense is a good offense. Because if you are the group that is imposing your will on the groups around you…then at least you know you’re not the group that’s getting imposed upon.


There are a lot of different theories for why Fascism emerged during the time that it did in the early 20th century…but at least when it comes to Carl Schmitt’s brand of support many would say this level of skepticism towards the gospel of Liberalism comes as a reaction to the litany of promises that the enlightenment has failed to make into a reality. Liberalism becomes a mangled form of political theology. Their blind faith in normative parameters like the constitution when these parameters don’t actually remove our need for a sovereign…blind faith in an open forum of rational discussion when in practice major decisions are always made by a handful of people…committees comprised of senior members of political parties…Carl Schmitt would say that when you truly consider the level of variance between the promises of Liberalism and the reality of the political landscape…how can anyone take it seriously when Liberalism promises to produce a more peaceful world for people? When it really comes down to it how is Liberalism any different than most other aggressive, alternative takes on how we should all be doing things?


One really interesting thing that political philosophers have talked about over the years is the possibility that Liberalism if it were to achieve a level of total global cultural hegemony would eventually eliminate Fascism, remove the need for friend enemy distinctions altogether and make going to war for political or religious reasons an incredibly rare thing, almost non-existent. Then again how would it be different if we forcefully imposed ANY homogenous system of thought? Some would say that the world uniting under the flag of Liberalism, tolerance, multiculturalism…this would usher in an unprecedented era of world peace and economic prosperity. Some would say that is the VERY DEFINITION of Fascism. To say that the path to world peace is we just gotta get everybody to just with me! Then we’ll be fiine!


Whether there’s a right or wrong way of looking at a global hegemony of Liberalism, Carl Schmitt would say it really doesn’t matter…because you don’t want to be living in that world anyway. Might seem like a luxury at first to never have to engage in politics…but he would say really play your life out as one of those rootless, ever-consuming spectators…really think about how it would feel to live every day of your life utterly disconnected from the creation of the world you live in and ask yourself if that is really the kind of world that you want to be living in.


Thank you for listening. I’ll talk to you next time.

Posted on

Episode 132 – Transcript

This is a transcript of episode #132 on Carl Schmitt. Check out the episode page HERE.

So we’re three episodes into this new arc of the show and as you know we’re talking about the early 20th century here. Once again it’s important to keep in mind what is going on during this time. Political philosophy is going through a serious transition phase…the WORLD is going through a serious transition phase…revolutions are taking place, world wars are on the horizon, the rise of fascism, authoritarianism, the entire legacy of the Enlightenment is being called into question…and what this means for the world of philosophy is that the thinkers doing their work during this time are very quickly coming face to face with the realization… that in this post-nuclear world… where for the first time the consequences of war could threaten the entire existence of the human race…THEY are the people… that are going to have to figure this all out. Think of the pressure these thinkers were faced with at the time…To be a thinker born in the early 20th century is to be born into a world…where the strength of your ideas is going to be tested in real time while the fate of the world hangs in the balance…being born into this time period is like the forces of history commandeering you for one of the most stressful jobs in the history of the world. Imagine your first day at a new job and the orientation is: here’s the entire history of western civilization…and day one at the new job is: time for you to fix it all…get to work.


Now this job would be difficult enough if we were looking back at a history of total chaos in the west…but keep in mind the western world at this time is the self-proclaimed center of political thought…the self-proclaimed most advanced collection of societies that have ever existed in history. So if this really is such an advanced, developed environment that the rest of the world should draw inspiration from…why do we have such a rich history of things failing miserably? Think of the history this world is emerging out of:


The age of reason and the political thought of the enlightenment produced for us what we’ve long considered to be the greatest political strategy in existence: Liberal Capitalist Democracy. By this time for over a hundred years Liberal Capitalist Democracy has been the gold standard in the west when it comes to how we should be structuring our societies. The problem facing political philosophers at the beginning of the twentieth century is this: what exactly is it about our long-standing strategy of Liberal Capitalist Democracy that seems to invariably lead society into an endgame of dictatorship, bloodshed and political instability.



When John Dewey and Antonio Gramsci show up with their lunchbox the first day at the new job…this is the first order of business that people like them are going to have to deal with. Now, it’s right here that we can understand why the two of them went in the respective directions they did…because like we talked about the beginning of the 20th century can be broadly understood in terms of three major branches of political discussion, three primary conversations…that are going on…we’ve already talked about two of them and understanding all three of them is absolutely crucial because the contents OF these conversations is going to go on to dictate the direction of almost all subsequent political philosophy all the way up to the present day…when a philosopher sets out to contribute something to the political discussion of the 20th century they are almost without exception doing so in consideration to one of these three major critiques of the way we’ve done things in the past. Once again, what we’ve done in the past is Liberal Capitalist Democracy…the three major critiques are going to be John Dewey and his critique of traditional Democracy…Antonio Gramsci and his critique of Capitalism…and the guy we’re going to be talking about today…the philosopher Carl Schmitt and his critique of Liberalism.


But where’s the best place to begin explaining one of the most scathing critiques of Liberalism in existence…maybe the best thing to preface this with just given the demographics of this show is that when Carl Schmitt sets out to critique the doctrine of Liberalism…he is not setting out to critique Liberalism in the context that some living in the modern United States may think of Liberalism…that it is one end of a political spectrum diametrically opposed to conservatism with these two poles being defined by the current state of the US political landscape. That’s not the Liberalism he’s talking about here…Carl Schmitt is not setting out in his work to critique some modern political cliche…some pro-choice Greenpeace platinum member who rollerblades to work and thinks healthcare should be a human right.


Let’s talk about what the word Liberalism is actually referring to in the context of this broader philosophical discussion. The term Liberalism is referring to a political philosophy and method of determining political legitimacy that emerged out of the beginning of the Enlightenment. Modern historians when looking back at history often describe Liberalism as the dominant political strategy of the Enlightenment era that should be contrasted with the methods of determining political legitimacy before the Enlightenment– which historians sometimes just group altogether and refer to as “pre-Liberal thought”. So we have the Liberalism of the Enlightenment…that is to be contrasted with the pre-liberal thought which is the way we did things before the Enlightenment. To put all this in a very Philosophize This way…look, people form into societies…those societies have problems that need to get solved…the people that make up those societies have to figure out the answer to several basic but very important questions: what kind of society do we want to produce? what sort values do we want to uphold when engaging in our political process? what makes something a legitimate political problem at all? how do we solve these problems? specifically what is having a political disagreement even going to look like in our society…because that’s a very important distinction that might not immediately seem like something our political process defines the parameters of…but keep in mind political disagreements of today look nothing like the political disagreements of a thousand years ago…and this is a big reason why Liberalism is often contrasted with pre-Liberalism. Before Liberalism burst onto the scene societies determined levels of political legitimacy with very different methods than we do today. Pre-liberal societies often informed their political process through things like divine revelation, tradition, ritual, pure authoritarianism, theological scholarship, the interpretation of scripture was an important part of the process…pre-liberal societies relied on these methods and these methods reliably produced a certain type of society…people got fed up with this type of society and put their heads together in the Enlightenment to try to come up with better criteria to base our political decisions on. These criteria and the positions they naturally arrive at have come to be known as Liberalism.


Now what this transition LOOKS LIKE…in keeping with the theme of the Enlightenment overall…political strategy starts to move away from revelation and instead is beginning to rely a lot more on reason. From pre-liberal to Liberal. When making political decisions…there’s a turn away from pre-liberal methods of theological scholarship and a turn towards a new Liberal focus on secular scholarship. There is a turn away from political decisions based on divine intervention towards a new confidence in decisions that are hashed out through rational debate. The pre-liberal standard of there being some single, anointed authoritarian leader that has ultimate say over the political process is quickly being replaced by parliamentary politics, separation of powers, democracy, civil and human rights, there’s a new focus on issues regarding equality…Capitalism starts to become the dominant economic approach…Liberal Capitalist Democracies as opposed to Feudal Aristocracies. Liberalism primarily aims to do away with the authoritarianism and divine revelation of the past and replace it instead with things like limited government, equality, freedom of expression, secular science and rational debate. Now…somebody born into our modern world that’s largely grounded in Liberal principles might be confused as to how anybody in their right mind could ever possibly disagree with this method of doing things politically. This episode is not talking about the merits of Liberalism but Carl Schmitt’s critique of Liberalism. Might think…look I know we’ve had our problems in the west, but this stuff all just seems like common sense…I mean back to the modern United States…Liberalism seems to be the foundation of BOTH political parties… how could anybody possibly think that Liberalism is the problem with our long time strategy of Liberal Capitalist Democracy? Carl Schmitt would probably say to this person that the most dangerous political ideology is the ideology that’s currently popular. The kind of ideological assumptions you make about the political process that are so engrained, so steeped in tradition that you don’t even think twice about them. Because if we should regard the thinking before the Enlightenment as pre-liberal and the thinking during the Enlightenment as Liberal…then Carl Schmitt can be regarded as someone trying to bring about a NEW post-Liberal way of thinking politically– modern anti-liberal is how he’s often described.


So for the sake of understanding where Carl Schmitt is coming from…the important thing to keep in mind here right at the beginning is that when there is this shift towards Liberal principles during the Enlightenment… what comes along with that is a promise from the thinkers of the time that this new strategy is going to bring about a better world for us. One of the dominant theories among the thinkers of the Enlightenment was that if we let these Liberal values play out and allow them to reach their natural conclusions…we will be the architects of a brand new, cosmopolitan, peaceful world the likes of which we’ve never seen.


To understand Carl Schmitt this is the perspective from which we need to VIEW liberalism. Liberalism was CREATED as an alternative political philosophy that was supposed to be a solution to many of the political problems of the past. These thinkers are looking back at history, seeing the pattern of dictators, bloodshed and political instability… and they’re trying to come up with a NEW way of conducting politics where these things aren’t going to happen anymore. This is actually a really good way to understand it: You can see why many of the hallmarks of Liberalism are what they are when you think about them in relation to some historical problem they were trying to solve. History of dictatorships and authoritarianism? Let’s introduce separation of powers, checks and balances on the executive branch. History of sprawling empires and rigid national and religious identities? Well, we’re ALL members of a global economy…let’s have political and religious identities take a back seat for now and instead unite the world under the flag of mutually beneficial consumerism. History of political and religious wars? Well, let’s not fight on the actual battlefield…let’s instead hash out our political differences in the battlefield of rational debate…where people can still be at odds with each other and go to war…but this way nobody has to die.


This was the hope and ambition of Liberalism as a political philosophy. Liberalism was supposed to be an alternative way of doing stuff that solved these problems of the past but Carl Schmitt is going to say this is no where near what actually happened…try to put yourself in the shoes of Carl Schmitt…try to see Liberalism through the eyes of a philosopher in the early 20th century…similar to the early Liberal thinkers…Carl Schmitt is looking back at history…he too sees the pre-liberal world of dictatorships, bloodshed and political instability…then along comes Liberalism to save the day…and what he sees is really not much changing at all…what he sees is that throughout the entire tenure of Liberalism things continue to descend into dictatorships, bloodshed and political instability all the way up to the present day and he thinks the only reasonable thing to conclude from this state of affairs is that there is a big difference… between the hopes and ambitions of Liberalism…and how things actually play out in the world. Liberalism, to Carl Schmitt, doesn’t produce the world that it claims to produce.


Throughout several years of his career Carl Schmitt attacked Liberalism from so many different angles that there really isn’t a clear starting point here…so I want to just jump right in to some different examples of hallmarks of Liberal thinking that Carl Schmitt takes issue with, use that as a skeleton and then try to flesh out the rest of his position from there.



So just to get us started…one of the biggest delusions of Liberal thought in the eyes of Carl Schmitt is the expectation… that it is possible for us to produce a society where people can have extreme political differences…and by adhering to the tenants of Liberalism they can co-exist, live peacefully amongst each other and just agree to disagree…put in the words of political philosophy this is the toleration of difference. We see this kind of thinking in western Liberal democracies every second of every day… You’ll often hear people talk about political discussion with the expectation that this sort of thing is possible…you know we may be totally different people…we may disagree on every element of how a society should be structured…but at the end of the day we can shake hands, live and let live and go on about our lives…Carl Schmitt would say that this is a Liberal fantasy world. That if you pay attention to what is actually going on in the real world of the political…this is not the way extreme political differences interact with each other in our societies. Liberalism just creates the illusion that they do.


To Carl Schmitt…this expectation… that we’re going to be able to co-exist tolerant of extreme political differences comes from the more fundamental Liberal belief that there is no political difference so extreme that there can’t be some sort of solution eventually arrived at in an open forum of rational debate…that there is no chasm between worldviews that is so un-bridgable that there can’t be some sort of reasonable compromise that is arrived at by both parties. This is a hallmark of Liberal thought and a cornerstone of the Liberal political process. Now, Carl Schmitt would say…this idea…just in theory…no doubt SOUNDS really great. Who doesn’t want a world where we can always just talk things through politically…who wouldn’t want a world where we never have to implement political policy by force? The problem for Carl Schmitt is that this isn’t how the world works.


Liberalism is marketed to people as an alternative, more peaceful way of engaging in the political…but Carl Schmitt believes all that Liberalism REALLY does is allow people to AVOID engaging in the political. Rational debate puts on a good show…but it’s mostly political theater. There are long periods of normalcy where a bunch of people get dressed up in suits and go to a building downtown and scream at each other about issues that are almost entirely inconsequential…this all provides a nice soap opera to watch that is supposed to be evidence of the Liberal political process in action. Look at how peaceful we’ve all learned to be! Hooray for Liberalism.


But Carl Schmitt would say look at history…what happens every single time there is a truly serious political issue where the differences between parties are irreconcilable? What happens when you try to have a rational debate with someone who’s political beliefs are that I should be king of the world and you should all be my slaves? Well, there’s no REASONING with that person…you wouldn’t try to SOLVE that difference of opinion with rational debate. You’d tell that person to sit down and be quiet or else they’ll be thrown in jail. So it’s at least POSSIBLE to have a political situation that all the debating in the world isn’t going to solve…okay, now think of all the political differences that can possibly present themselves that are less of a cartoon.


Carl Schmitt would start by saying look, there are going to be groups that emerge in the political landscape whose entire existence is predicated on the destruction of another group. The reality of the world is that there ARE political differences that are irreconcilable…and these differences are not all that uncommon…to Carl Schmitt this is one of the failures of Liberal political philosophy…no matter how good it feels to tell ourselves we’re going to be open to outsiders and just talk things out when we disagree…rational debate CAN NOT SOLVE political problems of this magnitude. No matter how much of a poster child you are for Liberalism…faced with political beliefs sufficiently hostile to Liberalism, faced with, for example, an authoritarian regime that wants to ascend to power…you are eventually going to have to do one of two things: choice number one…be willing to accept the destruction of Liberalism simply because something else was popular…choice number two…use the power of the state to silence opposition…or in other words temporarily behave like what we would otherwise call a dictator by using the sovereign authority that to Schmitt is intrinsically embedded into the political process.


Choice number two is something Liberals are absolutely terrified of…and for good reason. Remember they’re looking to societies of the past structured around social contract theory. Society is an agreement between the citizenry and the sovereign. The citizen’s job is to serve the sovereign, the sovereign’s job is to ensure the security of the citizen…sometimes in order to do this effectively the sovereign needs to wield an authoritarian level of power. To political philosophers in the days of pre-liberalism…having a designated sovereign body (like a king) that has the ability to maintain certain elements of society unincumbered by the political process was absolutely crucial. During the formation of liberalism people looked back at our history of doing things this way and realized many of the downfalls of great societies occurred when in this volatile place of a sovereign body seizing control. Liberal philosophers tried to do away with the concept of a sovereign…they saw it an outdated and dangerous idea. Carl Schmitt makes the case that this is why once Liberalism comes onto the scene…the thinkers at the time become absolutely obsessed with finding any possible way they can to make it so that we don’t have to have a “sovereign” anymore.


The idea of a dictatorship, which at the time was historically the most common structure of a successful society, dictatorships become unthinkable. Carl Schmitt wants to mark another distinction between Liberal theory and the reality of the world here. The reality of the world is that societies sometimes need the ability to make swift and decisive decisions and in the post-Enlightenment world this reality gets swept under the rug for the sake of pandering to the Liberal fear of authoritarianism. He thinks this taboo towards dictatorships certainly makes us FEEL good…but it simultaneously ignores capabilities that healthy societies require. To Carl Schmitt this is yet another failure of the Liberal political process…not ONLY does it ignore society’s ocassional need for a sovereign but even if it WANTED to get rid of it altogether…Liberalism doesn’t actually REMOVE the sovereign from the political process…once again it just creates the illusion that there isn’t a sovereign until we actually NEED one. Liberalism performs this illusion by engaging in various different types of what Carl Schmitt refers to as: normativism.


To put it bluntly: Carl Schmitt is saying that Liberalism is terrified of the idea of a sovereign dictator holding power, so to safeguard against that possibility they’ve come up with all these different attempts to hold political power to a set of predefined norms and rules. Liberals are obsessed with this process of normativism…this is the rise of constitutional democracies in the west. Consitutions are designed to be safeguards against the swift and decisive action of authoritarianism. Normativism is sold as an incredible feature of Liberalism that protects the will of the people.


Now, Carl Schmitt uses this term of normativism in a way that is mostly intended to poke fun at the hopes of Liberalism…because like I just alluded to, normitivism is an illusion to Carl Schmitt. The hope and ambition of Liberalism is that by coming up with these norms that political leaders have to follow…whenever somebody comes along that starts to look like one of these sovereign dictators we’ve seen throughout history…we’ll just wave the constitution in their face and they’ll just burst into flames and we’ll never have to hear from them again. But Carl Schmitt is going to say this is yet another delusion of Liberalism that doesn’t shore up with the reality of the world.


First of all…it doesn’t matter how long you sit down and talk about what the parameters should be for someone holding a position of power…you are NEVER going to be able to come up with a set of rules that accounts for every contingency given how many moving parts are involved when making decisions that affect this many people. To Carl Schmitt trying to normitivize these highly volatile moments is at best drastically oversimplifying how complex the world can be and at worst severely weakening your society and its ability to adapt and defend itself.


Here’s the good news though: to Carl Schmitt…this isn’t ACTUALLY how things ever play out in Liberal societies anyway…because even the most Liberal society in existence eventually recognizes how necessary temporary extra-constitutional power is given the right circumstances. Carl Schmitt is saying that even in Liberal societies whenever it really comes down to it and they’re faced with some sort of existential crisis the constitution goes out the window anyway. You know, citizens of Liberal Constitutional Democracies often have this expectation of…well the government can’t just go rogue and do whatever they want…they’re held to the constitution, there are checks and balances they gotta to get permission to do something, right?…but what happens whenever there’s an emergency and something needs to get done? Oh, well they just take action. In other words, to Carl Schmitt…Liberalism claims to have gotten rid of the sovereign from the political process…but what happens in these societies whenever something ACTUALLY has to get done and we need a sovereign…abracadabra! Poof! The Sovereign was there the whole time. This is a great magic trick…and to Carl Schmitt the misdirection was performed by the Liberal political process.


This is another liberal theory vs reality thing to him: the hope of Liberalism was to get rid of the sovereign…the reality of the world is that we have long periods of normalcy where the government does almost nothing…punctuated by rare moments of extreme action whenever things ACTUALLY need to get done. Liberalism hasn’t REMOVED the sovereign and the only time pieces of paper like the constitution prevent the sovereign from acting are during periods of normalcy when the sovereign wouldn’t be exercising authoritarian power anyway…to Carl Schmitt the biggest difference between our modern societies and the ones that existed in the pre-liberal world is that the pre-liberal societies were just a lot more honest about the authoritarianism that was going on. Nowadays we have this grand illusion of Liberalism that puts a bunch of window dressing on it and pretends the world is something that it’s not. Liberalism is in many ways a utopian fantasy in the eyes of Carl Schmitt.


There is a lot more to talk about and in many ways we’ve just started getting into the main section of the ideas…please if you have the time listen to the next episode while this stuff is still fresh in your brain…it’s released for your listening enjoyment right now. Thank you for listening. I’ll talk to you next time.

Posted on

Episode 131 – Transcript

This is a transcript of episode #131 on Antonio Gramsci. Check out the episode page HERE.

So imagine you’re at a dinner party. Nice enough person comes up to you…starts talking to you…let’s say the conversation starts to go in the direction of politics…you talk for a while…some point in the conversation you decide to ask this person, so… what are YOUR particular feelings about politics…where do you land on the whole political spectrum…magine the person replies with…well, I’m a Communist! Communism is the solution…to all of our political problems. Now, to us, being people living in the 21st century that have seen history play out the way that it has, no matter WHAT you think about Communism, we would INSTANTLY have a lot of thoughts about this person and probably a few questions that we wanted to ask them. See because the word Communism carries with it an enormous amount of baggage to us in the 21st century…baggage, it’s important to note, that just didn’t exist when people were having political discussions at the beginning of the 20th century.

That’s what I want us to consider here at the beginning of this episode. Just how much has changed, just how much has transpired since philosophers were having political discussions at the beginning of the 20th century. What I want to do is try to take a step outside of our 21st century biases and try to do our best to put ourselves in the shoes of someone viewing the political landscape back when Communism was first being proposed as a potential solution. See because when you do that you can start to see the political philosophy of the time within its proper context…you can start to see…how in many ways the goals of the reformed democracy that we talked about last time and the goals of the Communism that was being proposed back then were actually incredibly similar. Remember at this point in the timeline of discussion about political philosophy, there were three major conversations that were going on that were all trying to solve the same general problems that existed in the political philosophy of the time. One was democracy, one was Communism and the general problem they were both trying to solve was: how do we ensure that in the future society doesn’t devolve into a situation where a relative handful of people have an inordinate amount of control over the lives of the majority of the population. This had been a serious problem in the past. Democracies of the past had produced this situation time and time again, which was why there was a discussion about a reformation of democracy that would preserve the true essence of a democracy which was a government by the many, not a handful of people. Well Communism was very similar in terms of what it was aiming to do.

Like we talked about when we did the series on the Frankfurt School, for neo-Marxist thinkers at the beginning of the 20th century there was a short period of confusion when it came to what exactly was going on. See, Marx prophesized that very soon the proletariat would realize that all they had to lose were their chains and that inevitably, they would rise up, they would overthrow the bougousie and implement a new system of economic order, let anyone who agrees with Marx cross their fingers and hope that it ends up being Communism. But this Communist revolution just wasn’t happening in almost every case. So what was going on? Neo-Marxist thinkers went back to the drawing board: why does it make ANY sense that people living in these abject conditions, working jobs that were in many cases COMPLETELY brutal…why would those people stand for it? Why didn’t Marx’s prophesy come true?

Well, very quickly the trend that emerged in neo-Marxist thought of the time was that control over a population of people extends far beyond the halls of congress or the ballot box. Political control is almost always dictated by cultural control. This is why the italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci spends a considerable amount of his work exploring the concept of political control and more specifically the very important question of: when there is a dominant social group or a dominant class within a society…how exactly does that group ascend to power and then beyond that…how do they MAINTAIN that power once they’ve gotten it…especially when the social order that they promote WITH that position of power often times is at odds with the wellbeing of the average person? The fact is that sometimes when a leader is elected…they don’t try to pass policy that’s necessarily good for the majority of the population…sometimes they support policy that really only benefits them or friends of theirs that are members of a dominant social class. Gramsci wants to find out: why is it that these leaders are sometimes capable of getting massive support from the people for policies that are actually hurting the average citizen more than helping them. How is it possible that the proletariat can feel so comfortable participating in a system that keeps them in chains, in the eyes of a neo-Marxist thinker.

Gramsci begins his explanation by evoking and repurposing a word that had been thrown around all throughout human history but it was a word that he thought in recent years was starting to take on an entirely new meaning. The thing that was responsible for allowing a particular social class to ascend to power and then maintain a privileged status…was what he called Cultural Hegemony. This concept of hegemony is going to become massively important to the political conversation of the 20th and 21st centuries and by the end of this arc of the show we’re going to have looked at it from a lot of different perspectives. Maybe we should start from the origins of the word…the word hegemony originates in ancient Greece…the root of the word comes from the greek word meaning “to lead”, some translators say it’s closer to “to rule over”…but either way during antiquity there were things called hegemons…now in the context of ancient Greece a hegemon was typically a state that had a significant military advantage over another state…the arrangement being that if the weaker state didn’t comply with certain demands from the hegemon they would be annexed or dominated militarily or burned to the ground, take your pick. The term hegemony implied the threat of physical dominance over a population of people…this was the case all throughout human history.

But Gramsci is going to say that in our modern world the definition of the word hegemony needs to evolve with the political reality we are living in. We are no longer living in a world where most political control is exercised by military dominance over a population of people. Since the advent of mass media people in positions of power have realized that a much more effective way of controlling populations is by manipulating the cultural parameters that citizens have to navigate. The general idea is this: to be a human being living a life in our modern world…you always HAVE to be living that life immersed within a particular culture. But what IS a culture other than an elaborate collection of norms, rules, structures, mores, taboos, rituals, values, symbolic gestures…these things are not exactly abstract concepts…they are acute. They are visible. This is the cultural custom of a handshake to pay deference to someone else. This is not talking with your mouth full. This is the sum total of every ritual we engage in on a daily basis that all come together to create a cohesive society. But what Gramsci is going to ask is: who exactly created all of these norms and taboos that we abide by?

We can easily look at different cultures around the world and all throughout history and see that a culture can function and flourish when doing things completely differently. The norms and taboos of a culture can be completely alien from the modern world that we’re living in, and yet things still somehow managed to stay held together…so it makes Gramsci wonder: to what extent is the current set of norms and taboos serving to reinforce itself? To what extent are the citizens seeing the current set of norms and taboos not as an instantiation of culture, but as…just the way the world is?

Once again this is another example of this classic debate that is going to become increasingly relevant: how much of the reality of the world can be explained by nature, how much of the world can be explained by culture?

This is extremely important because to Gramsci if you can control the narrative and you can convince the average citizen that the current set of cultural norms is just the way the world is then there’s not going to be much complaining, there’s not going to be much in the way of seeking justice and trying to change things…this is similar to a point we discussed from Simone De Beauvoir and The Ethics of Ambiguity…we don’t get mad at hurricanes. When a hurricane comes along and devastates multiple cities…people die, homes are destroyed, billions of dollars in damages…thousands of families displaced every one of those cases a tragedy in its own right…but as human beings what do we do? We accept it. Why? Because there’s no sense in getting mad at a hurricane. There’s no human intent or will behind a giant storm, nobody can be held morally culpable, so we chalk it up as an unfortunate series of events. Hurricanes are part of nature. There was nothing we could really do to stop it. Sometimes the world’s at large and I just have to deal with that the best way I can and accept it.

To Gramsci, this is the old switcheroo that’s going on with cultural hegemony. Dominant social classes have the ability to dictate cultural norms, these cultural norms often times serve to reinforce themselves and people born into these cultures often times view the normalized state of the world around them as nature rather than culture…Gramsci thinks this is a cultural story that is being told…so often citizens see it as just the way the world is and something they need to just accept.

To Gramsci, this is why Marx’s prophesy hasn’t come true. This is why the proletariat continues to live in chains…because they’ve come to accept those chains as the natural state of the world that they need to come to terms with. Cultural norms become to the average person what Gramsci calls the “common sense” that they use to make sense of their place in the world. When the common sense of your world serves to legitimize the dominance of a particular class of people and tells you that anything you don’t like about your socio-economic situation is just the natural order of things…then your very existence becomes reinforcing of cultural hegemony…you are reinforcing the political status quo simply by participating in the culture that you were born into. This is why people that would otherwise never stand for getting pushed around can find themselves getting worked into the ground in a factory during the time of Gramsci only to accept their place in the world as a necessary part of how the world works. Parts of my life may be hard…but you know what…that’s life.

But look it’s not like Gramsci’s saying that life should never be hard. The more accurate question is probably: how hard does life NEED to be and how many hard aspects of life have been made into a normalized part of our modern world that we just accept that disproportionately serve to benefit a dominant group within society?

Being a neo-Marxist you can no doubt guess what his first and most commonly used target is throughout his work: Capitalism. So to Gramsci even people that are struggling within a Capitalist system have often times lived their entire lives immersed in a culture that promotes the merits of Capitalism…this, in turn, creates a sort of economic Stockholm Syndrome, where despite the fact they are struggling, the citizens identify themselves and their place in the world in relation to Capitalist ideology. When the entire way that you view the world has been given to you by a culture that benefits from maintaining capitalism, Gramsci would say don’t be surprised if that education produces a few blind spots.

These blind spots are the point. Cultural Hegemony in many ways is accomplished by getting consent from the population to keep things the way that they are by making sure people are blind to other options at their disposal. Keep in mind as we continue talking about cultural hegemony that this isn’t always accomplished by an organized group of people that are actively trying to control things. Cultural Hegemony can exist and people can be a part of perpetuating the status quo just simply by acting out of their own self interest, see because their self interest is always considered in relation to how the CURRENT system can help them…they unintentionally support things staying the same.

What Gramsci is getting at is that for any single person or any social institution… to appeal to groups in positions of power for the sake of your own self interest you must…in some capacity…go along with the way things are currently structured. So for example if you’re an aspiring politician or social commentator that wants to make the world a better place…the only way you are EVER going to be able to get your message across is by participating in the existing culture and using the tools at your disposal. This is an ideal situation for cultural hegemony and one of the goals of its final stages: to make the values of a particular culture seem so a part of nature and so in line with “common sense”…that the members of that culture don’t even question them. To get people completely entrenched in this world where they mistake the reality of their culture for the reality of the universe. To think the reason things are staying the way that they are is because people are weighing all the options at their disposal and making the best choice, not complying with the demands of a cultural hegemon.

Just like the militaristic hegemon of ancient Greece…the goal of cultural hegemoney is to stay in power. Now over time dominant groups realized that the most efficient way of doing this is by controlling people’s systems of values. Gramsci thinks by and large people acquire their systems of values by listening to and studying voices within a culture that to him are massively important: public intellectuals. Gramsci makes an important distinction here between two very different types of public intellectuals. There are ruling intellectuals and organic intellectuals. Now, the ruling intellectuals are going to be the sort of foot soldiers for the dominant set of cultural norms that are currently in place…these are the people whose commentary on the world is going to reinforce the status quo. Keep in mind that this in no way is saying that these are BAD people necessarily…most of them may not even realize that they’re doing it. But Gramsci wants to shine a light on the insular, often times self-reinforcing world that many of these intellectuals come from. So often it’s from academia. So often these people are completely out of touch when it comes to what life is even like for most people in a culture.

Think about the common archetype of a philosopher throughout history. Philosopher decides they’re going to resign themselves from public life, lock themselves away in a tower and think about stuff really, really hard…THAT’S the path to creating better philosophy…the last thing you’d EVER want to do is have the basic thoughts of a normal everyday person corrupting your genius. Gramsci thinks this is completely ridiculous. Not only is this elitist…and making tons of value judgments about how certain human experiences of the world are inherently better and can even be corrupted by other people’s experiences of the world…but aside from all of that…Gramsci thinks this approach actually prevents you from ever being able to participate in discussions about politics at all…because political discussions BEGIN from the starting point of self-awareness and self-reflection while considering how that self relates to all the other people around you…and how could anybody locking themselves away in a closet thinking about stuff ever hope to contribute to that conversation?

But nonetheless these ruling intellectuals often times dominate the ideas that are available to citizens of a society. So often these intellectuals are the ones that write the articles, they’re the ones published in journals, they conduct the studies, they write the textbooks…so often these intellectuals control the education of the next generation of citizens when so much of their prominence as an intellectual was only given to them simply because their ideas corresponded with the existing social order.

Here’s what Gramsci is saying: cultural hegemony is established by taking control of three things. The intellectuals of a society, the education within a society and the philosophy that drives people to political action. So in other words if you’re someone that came up through the education system of an advanced capitalist society…Gramsci would say don’t be surprised if there are some pretty glaring holes in your understanding of Capitalism…because just statistically…most pieces of information you’ve ever had access to have been written by people that reached that level of social influence by participating in a Capitalist system that benefits them. Your high school or university wasn’t taught by unbiased monks.

That most likely, once again just statistically, you have come up in a world where you are far more likely to hear about the merits of Capitalism and all the good that it is doing for people in the world. When conversations about the downsides of Capitalism come up you are far more likely to hear them glossed over by other people…you’re less likely to have someone call you out for glossing over them, and the conversation is likely to go in the direction of how the good of Capitalism drastically outweighs the bad. When you hear people talking about Socialism…when coming up in an advanced Capitalist culture you’re far more likely to have run into conversations about the horrors of Socialism, how it’s failed everywhere it’s been tried and if anyone brings up something good that Socialism has done it’s written off as a broken clock is right twice a day sort of thing.

Now here’s the really interesting part: this view of economics and how it plays out in the world may be absolutely true. Capitalism could just be BETTER than Socialism. But how would you ever know for sure? Because if you’re an intellectually honest person you’d at least for a second have to consider that maybe your entire understanding of Capitalism and Socialism has been given to you by a handful of intellectuals you’ve entrusted your worldview to…that are intellectuals and gained their credibility simply because their view of the way the world is corresponds with a dominant cultural narrative that keeps the status quo going…whether maintaining the status quo is good for a particular social group that’s pulling the puppet strings or whether it’s good for just keeping society stable…what if you’ve lived your life learning from a lot of really smart people that are all just telling the same side of the story?

Now Gramsci would say this is not just limited to Capitalist societies…that it’s entirely possible to come up in a society that unfairly promotes the merits of socialism and creates the same sort of echochamber of ideas. Gramsci’s goal was not to replace a western world dominated by Capitalist ideology with one dominated by Marxist ideology. His goal was to replace both of these narrow approaches with an ideology where the public has a general and intense level of skepticism about the status quo, no matter WHAT the status quo looks like. The biggest mistake we can make is to see these ideologies as nature or the way that things are. We should ALWAYS be critical of the status quo…the fact he’s so critical of Capitalism is just him following his own advice about the status quo of the world he happened to live in.

To make a long story short: Gramsci thought that Marx and so many other Marxist thinkers that came after were putting the cart before the horse. They were all so wrapped up in the possibility…the inevitability of a Communist revolution in the west. They were so wrapped up in waiting to see Capitalism destroy itself that they completely missed the fact that different methods of cultural control could fragment a population to the point that a revolution could never take place. Gramsci makes another important distinction in his work to these people that were calling for revolution…that for any meaningful social change to take place, regardless of what it is, there needs to be two wars that are fought and won: first a war of position…then a war of manuevre. These orthodox Marxists of his time were far too focused on the war of maneuvre…which was the actual Communist revolution that they wanted to bring about. But Gramsci says before that can ever happen you need to defeat the cultural hegemon in a war of position. Remember a cultural hegemon will have control over the intellectuals, the education and the philosophy of a society. The goal of anyone trying to bring about any kind of social change should be to provide alternatives in all three of these areas…they should create a counterculture…an alternative set of cultural norms and taboos reinforced by intellectuals whose job it is to actively CHALLENGE the status quo. He called this other type of intellectuals “organic” intellectuals and it was their job to be skeptical of the existing order of things…provide an alternative means of education that took cues from the counterculture that was created and to embolden the average citizen to take political action by giving them a philosophical outlook that changes the way they see themselves and how they fit into the world. This is why so many attempts at revolution have failed in the past to Gramsci…the orthodox Marxists that tried to organize it didn’t understand the “common sense” of the workers that needed to carry out the revolution. These workers saw themselves and their place in the world solely in terms of how they relate to Capitalist ideology…the ONLY WAY to shift their perspective enough to see the other side would be to fundamentally change the way they look at the world philosophically.

See an extremely important term in the work of Karl Marx that was used to describe the way he saw things was “historical materialism”. Gramsci was a neo-Marxist. When it came to these orthodox Marxists we’re talking about…he distanced himself considerably from them and a big reason why was because he thought they were paying way too much attention to the “materialism” part of “historical materialism” and not enough attention to the historical part of it. Gramsci may have supported Communism and Communism may have played out in a particular way throughout the 20th century…but Gramsci hated Stalin. He would have hated Mao. He would’ve hated Pol Pot…he saw people like these as opportunistic dictators that took what would otherwise have been a revolutionary political philosophy and they used it to create dictatorships where the population was forced to deify and worship the state…when to Gramsci a much more accurate reading of the work of Marx would produce the true essence of his work: the spirit of revolution among common people united under the desire to never again allow a handful of people to dominate and control the population. To those living at the time of Gramsci…Communism and Democracy seemed to be two extremely different approaches to trying to solve the same general problem.

See as we already know from earlier episodes the feeling around this time in the world of philosophy is an intense skepticism towards reason. The Enlightenment gave us hope that science was the answer. Science when given enough time to develop was capable of giving us answers to problems that throughout history have seemed completely unsolvable. When applied to the realm of political philosophy for over a hundred years it seemed totally plausible that something like science…something as unbiased and without an agenda as science could eventually study the way that people are and the way that people work together in a society and it didn’t seem crazy to think that science could eventually give us answers to some of these questions in political philosophy that seemed so difficult to answer.

But along came Friedrich Nietzsche. Philosophizing with a hammer. Because at the end of the 19th century he asks the question: what if the very act of conducting science at all carries with it cultural values that narrow and distort its findings? We know there are many different ways of conducting science depending on the specific field you are in…we know that scientific revolutions have occurred where there have been wholesale transformations of the methods and assumptions that science is conducted through. What if these limitations and the unavoidable narrow scope that categorizing the universe must be viewed through is missing out on something crucial about what it is to be a human being? What if science, useful as it is, was never the savior that everyone thought it was?

More on next episode. Thank you for listening. I’ll talk to you next time.

Posted on

Episode 130 – Transcript

This is a transcript of episode #130 on Democracy. Check out the episode page HERE.

So just thinking ahead…I think it’s going to be extremely valuable for us to spend a little bit of time on 20th century political philosophy…and that’s what we’re going to do right now. See, there’s a lot of conversations in the REALM of 20th century political philosophy that…NOT ONLY are going to be useful for us, and the future of this show…but the 20th century is just FILLED… with famous political debates that end up being INCREDIBLY fruitful for the societies they were conducted in…these debates in many cases, you could argue…did more for their societies in the 20th century, than ANY OTHER century of political debates… did for theirs, ever…even though…to philosophers at the BEGINNING of the 20th century…it really didn’t seem like it was going to be that way at first.

See there’s this conversation going on at the end of the 19th century heading IN to the 20th century…. about whether it’s a good idea to even be TALKING about political philosophy anymore. Where this is coming from… are the same conversations that eventually give rise to Structuralism. Remember, Structuralism…one of its main tenants is to talk about how the ideas that we’ve come up with over the years… haven’t been some ongoing progression towards some ultimate Truth as we may have thought in the past…when it comes to your subjectivity…you are not some free acting agent just disinterestedly navigating the universe. That everything that you DO think and CAN POSSIBLY think is ultimately dictated by the narrow historical, cultural and biological parameters that you were born into, the ideas that you have EQUALLY narrow and subject to an arbitrary historical context.

Well the problems people are having at the end of the 19th century with the idea of engaging in political philosophy stem from this… they were saying, you know, if the essence of political philosophy is to ask questions like what is it to be a citizen, what is the role of government, how should power be delegated and regulated, how do we best live TOGETHER in communities of different types of people…if these are the questions we’re trying to answer…and the ideas you have about the ANSWERS to those questions ultimately are products of the time and culture you were born into…then when it comes to the task of trying to find THE BEST political philosophy out there…when we have these discussions, what are we even talking about? Because if this stuff is true, can’t we never arrive at any sort of satisfying answers to these questions? Well then is political philosophy something we should even be DOING anymore?

Nonetheless…even if there WERE these reservations at the time…political philosophy still went on…and if you were to dissect the conversation that was going on at the time, there were three major branches of the conversation going on, we’re going to talk about all three of them…but one of the branches would have been philosophers taking a much closer look at the subject of Democracy…and one of the biggest, if not THE biggest, conversations ABOUT Democracy that’s going on during this time…is between the famous political commentator Walter Lippmann, and the American Pragmatist philosopher John Dewey.

Probably the best place to insert ourselves into their debate, and start to uncover the position that Walter Lippmann held about Democracy…is to talk about an old criticism of Democracy that probably initially stems from Plato’s Republic…the paraphrased version of this question would be something like: “Is the average citizen of a society…the right person to be making the decisions about who should be making the decisions for a society?” Now, the implication there is that they clearly are not, and just to move us along so that we can save some time another way of PUTTING that would be to say…that we all need to be willing to consider…that a fundamental flaw…in the way a Democracy functions…is that any political action carried OUT by that democracy…is ultimately going to heavily rely on public opinion. Which is the name of Walter Lippmann’s famous 1922 critique of Democracy. This critique of Democracy…John Dewey would later say is the GREATEST critique of Democracy that was around at the time…and John Dewey, if you don’t already know, is the POSTER BOY for a person in support of Democracy.

But more on him later…let’s talk about Walter Lippmann. Lippmann’s main point, when it comes to the first half of his book Public Opinion, is that there are several, fundamental problems with the structure of Democracies that have existed in the past… that are going to lead to a LOT of serious problems for societies of the future if we don’t all get serious and DO something about them. The place a lot of these problems stem from: Democracy’s reliance on Public Opinion. Lippmann would say that public opinion being the driving force behind political action in a society SOUNDS great in theory, but in practice…things just didn’t work out the way the founders of our modern democracies had in mind. He references the founders of the United States: he talks about how back then, things were different. Back then…not everybody could vote…the people that COULD vote were relatively wealthy landowners that had a vested interest in understanding their local communities because it directly affected their land. The expectations of the founders were that yes, things would change. The country may grow exponentially. The lives of people may change dramatically, but no matter what happened with the country the PRIMARY focus for a citizen politically…would BE these immediate subcommunities that they were the closest to.

The reason this was a check mark in favor of democracy was that if the scope of the world you’re thinking about politically is limited just to your local community, and likely the place you’ve spent you’re entire life, it’s going to be a lot easier for you to be qualified to make intelligent decisions about the FUTURE of that community.

But as we know and Walter Lippmann knew in 1922…this just isn’t the way the world has shaken out. The scope of the world we’re expected to have thoughts on politically is global. When you really take a step back…and LOOK, at all of the enormously complex systems you are expected to have intelligent thoughts about as a modern member of a democracy…fields with THOUSANDS of years of work done, fields people dedicate their ENTIRE LIVES to and don’t even come CLOSE to understanding fully…the world is NOT like the subcommunities that the founders thought were going to keep going…the world is as Lippmann says, “too big, too complex, and too fleeting for direct acquaintance. We are not equipped to deal with so much subtlety, so much variety, so many permutations and combinations. And although we have to act in that environment, we have to reconstruct it on a simpler model before we can manage it.”

What he’s talking about is that as people when we’re face to face with the unbridled complexity and nuance of the political world, that almost as a DEFENSE mechanism we construct a simpler, alternative model of the world that is more managable…he calls these models of the world that we construct of the ACTUAL environment…pseudo-environments.

To construct one of these pseudo-environments, what we do is we take a look around us…and create a collection…of stereotypes. Not just stereotypes about people or cultures, he’s speaking more broadly than that. Stereotypes about the environment. Stereotypes about medicine. Stereotypes about the government. Whenever we’re prompted to give our intelligent thoughts about a particular subject as a member of a democracy, we look to our pseudo-environment, go into our grab bag of stereotypes and pull one out to do battle with the stereotypes of everyone else. When you combine the pseudo-environments and stereotypes of each and every member of a particular democracy, the sum total of them to Lippmann “crystallize into what we call public opinion”. To Lippmann in other words, what WE refer to as public opinion and the resource we use to drive our democracies forward, is nothing more than the crystallized version of everyone’s collective pseudo takes on the world based on stereotypes.

But if that fact wasn’t bad enough…Lippmann would want us to consider where we even GET these narrow pseudo-collections of stereotypes.

See to Lippman if you’re somebody trying to create one of these pseudo-environments…in other words: if you’re someone interested in having an opinion on the world, or forming a political stance all…what you NECESSARILY HAVE to do in order to do that is hear about events that you don’t experience, have never seen, yesterday you had no idea this thing even EXISTED, this thing is usually happening so far away from you that you couldn’t POSSIBLY understand its proper context, and YOUR JOB…is to form emotional responses to these events.

Not just that…these emotional responses are ALWAYS based on the moral intuitions of the pseudo-environment the person has already created in their head…in other words…the events of the world are ALWAYS filtered through this preset collection of stereotypes the person had that helped them create a vision of the world up until that point!

Now if THAT weren’t bad enough…Lippmann would want to ask where we even GET these events of the world that it’s our job to form emotional responses to? The media!

We are living in a world where media products are the best tools the average citizen has to create one of these pseudo-environments. Media products created by people with their OWN set of stereotypes they use to chop up the world. Media products delivered through extremely narrow mediums…through the moving images on a TV screen…through the limitations of an existing format of a podcast…through the extremely narrow metric of what it is to “report” on something. Not to mention the profit motive of media outlets which is driven by consumer decisions, not by how accurate the media is…Lippmann has a quote:

“For a dollar, you may not even get an armful of candy, but for a dollar or less people expect reality/representations of truth to fall into their laps.”

But if even THIS weren’t bad enough, consider all of the OTHER obstacles in the way of getting to even these MEDIA sources. Consider that the media itself is ALWAYS delivered by the vehicle of language, which is itself an extremely crude and narrow thing. Consider the socio-economic limitations that face the average citizen when constructing this pseudo-environment. For example, most people work 40 hours a week, they have families and lives to maintain, they have recreation time to tend to so they don’t burn out of the whole process…how much time is there really at the end of it all to educate yourself on all of these extremely complex systems so you can be some sort of weekend warrior road scholar?

You know, the prominent idea for a long time was that access to information was going to be an extremely good thing for political discourse. The more information people had the smarter they were going to be, the smarter they were the more complex their ideas and discussions would become…the one dimensional political fanaticism of the past was a result of the ignorance of the populations. This is why a lot of people were extremely optimistic when the internet first came along…you want to talk access to information…the internet is like throwing gunpowder on that fire. So why does it seem like it has simultaneously thrown gunpowder on one-dimensional political fanaticism?

Walter Lippmann saw this coming. Because he knew that when people seek information they are not seeking truth. They’re seeking to reinforce a pseudo-environment of stereotypes they already believe in, and even if they’re not…the whole process of seeking information is filtered through their EXISTING set of stereotypes…and it sabotages the whole process. Lippmann says so often what we think of as developing our understanding of politics and the world…is really just us choosing between which of the handful of existing authorities and thought leaders we’re going to entrust our worldview to. There’s no question as to why Lippmann would have had a problem with using Public Opinion as a means of directing society.

Now, let’s switch sides of the argument here and talk about the position of the philosopher John Dewey. You know….there’s that classic way of breaking down the two different ways people see themselves as citizens within a society. They either see themselves as in competition with the other people around them…or they see themselves in cooperation with the other people around them. The idea is…you know…when you go down to the Farmer’s Market and you see the dude getting the avocados…when you look at that guy do you see it like I am an individual…he is an individual…and we are two individuals embarking on two separate journeys within the same society. Or…do you look at the guy and see him as a team member, and the two of you are part of a team in cooperation towards a common goal? One certainly isn’t inherently better than the other…the philosophical question that’s being asked here is do you look at your place in society through the lens of the classical liberal tradition of individualism or the progressive liberal tradition ala John Dewey?

Now this contrast between competition and cooperation is going to be important when it comes to explaining Dewey’s positions on Democracy. See, because John Dewey…would no doubt give credit where credit’s due. He would say Walter Lippmann makes some very strong points about Democracy in Public Opinion…that is IF you are looking at Democracy as a system of government. Looking at Democracy as MERELY…a system of government as Plato did in the Republic.

John Dewey tears into Plato. See, it was the ancient greeks…in their pursuit to try to uncover the “best form of government” in their form of political philosophy…that initially included democracy in their discussion. We had the monarchy government by the one. The aristocracy government by the few. Democracy government by the many. But here’s where the shift happens. John Dewey is going to ask: what if Democracy…is not JUST a form of government? What if what we think of as society is an organism…and government is merely something produced by that organism, like a bird produces a nest?

First question first: what if democracy is not just a form of government. John Dewey thinks this shouldn’t really be THAT HARD of an idea to wrap our heads around. I mean, Democracy is something you see across almost ALL LEVELS of society, not JUST in Washington DC he says. Democracy is present in corporations, families, churches, groups of friends tons of other examples…you even see democracy present in the behavior of groups of animals in the animal kingdom. Democracy is CLEARLY not JUST a form of government, so what would be a more accurate way to classify it?

John Dewey calls Democracy a lot of different things…he calls it a way of life. He sees it as tantamount to freedom, but probably the most important way that he classifies it if you want to understand his arguments against Walter Lippman is that he says Democracy is an ethical ideal, not just a form of governement. This takes democracy as not just the result of some political discussion about forms of government and reframes it as an ethical imperative.

Democracy is a tool for social unification that we all have an ethical obligation to maintain, and there’s a lot of reasons why. First, John Dewey sees a fundamental problem when it comes to looking at society through the lens of individualism. Very short excerpt from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy that uses multiple John Dewey quotes just to illustrate what he means here:

“men are not isolated non-social atoms, but are men only when in intrinsic relations” to one another, and the state in turn only represents them “so far as they have become organically related to one another, or are possessed of unity of purpose and interest”

This is why democracy is such an effective and STABLE form of social unification for Dewey. Society is an organism, and the individual and society are what he refers to as “organically” connected to each other. So in this sense: within a TRUE democracy… the individuals are always able to CONTRIBUTE to and own part of the society, because they’re participating in it… and the society is always able to CONTRIBUTE to and own part of the individuals because they are always a person ENGAGED in the issues OF that society.

This is a major shift of perspective: instead of looking at this as a society with a government keeping it in order…Dewey is seeing this more as an “ethical community” of citizens, society…an organism comprised of them…that none of us would ever have been able to survive or flourish except through our participation within this organism…this is part of the reason why, to Dewey, it is much more accurate to view others around you as team members in cooperation than to view yourself as an individual doing their own thing. In other words: yes, democracy is a form of government, but the only reason its a form of government is because it is also a deeper form of social unification. And not only is Democracy the most stable form of government because of this symbiotic relationship between the two organisms of the individual and society, but it’s also the most stable because its the best at safeguarding against potential authoritarian systems taking control of the organism. He says in a famous passage:

“…every authoritarian scheme, … assumes that its value may be assessed by some prior principle, if not of family and birth or race and color or possession of material wealth, then by the position and rank the person occupies in the existing social scheme. The democratic faith in equality is the faith that each individual shall have the chance and opportunity to contribute whatever he is capable of contributing, and that the value of his contribution be decided by its place and function in the organized total of similar contributions: – not on the basis of prior status of any kind whatever.”

What he’s saying is that if you look at every brand of authoritarianism that ever rears its head…one similarity you will always find is that it tries to use some birthright, some aspect of “nature”, to justify it’s power. Remember that these authoritarian regimes try to use “the natural order of things” because it’s going to come up later, but think about it: the divine right of kings, being a ruler because you’re part of the right bloodline, ruling over others because they’re the wrong race, even down to ruling over others simply because people that came before you were high ranking in the social structure of THEIR time…Dewey is saying that authoritarian regimes all use this same trick. They justify their ability to rule based on some prior principle as he says. But Dewey is going to say this is yet another strength of democracy as a method of social unification, because it’s the ONLY system where prior status doesn’t really matter. Every person has the ability to contribute something to society if they have something valuable to say. To John Dewey, each and every person is unique and thus brings a unique perspective to the problems society is facing. Don’t we want as many good ideas as we can possibly get as a society? Then why would we EVER limit ourselves to a panel of oligarchs or a single dictator? This is part of the reason why John Dewey is such a huge advocate of education and its reform. When you consider that our society hinges on the ideas of the citizens that make it up…why WOULDN’T we do as much as we can to ensure that people are not only as educated as possible, but also are taught HOW to think and adapt with changing environments. True democracy SHOULDN’T just be a form of government…it shouldn’t be DEFINED by just a bunch of people voting for what they want…Democracy is MORE than that to John Dewey…see a TRUE democracy should allow every citizen within it to realize their full potential, the good news being that allowing people to realize their potential helps society immensely as well.

Yes, certain people are going to go down rabbit holes of information and become enraged political zealots, but that shouldn’t discourage us when it comes to democracy, to John Dewey, it should cause us to re-up on our commitment to education and teaching the citizens the skills to be able to not fall into those traps of simplified thinking. Remember, society is an organism and government is part of what that organism produces, like bees produce a hive. THIS is the much more accurate way of looking at society…which is why he takes extreme issue with many earlier political philosophers that approach questions of government from the perspective of a “social contract” that is automatically signed at birth somehow. First of all, the idea that you’re just born into a society and you are automatically enrolled in some subscription TO that society is just wrong to John Dewey. This is nothing more than yet another example of philosophers trying to use “the natural order of things” or “human nature” as a means of pretending they know a lot more about the way societies work than they actually do. The world is no where near that simple, in his view. And as we continue on talking about 20th century political philosophy this dichotomy between nature and culture is going to become more and more relevant. Whether you attribute to the behavior of human beings some aspect of their “nature” or whether you think cultural influence has much more of an effect on political matters will ultimately dictate a lot of things about which side of the political spectrum you fall on. For example, do you think that climate change is a byproduct of NATURAL processes that we have very little control over, or do you think it is highly influenced by humans and that we should do something about it. Do you think that gun violence is the byproduct of a certain NATURAL percentage of people that are mentally ill, or do you think something about the way we structure our societies is causing gun violence. There are TONS of examples of this that you could point to and in many ways these disagreements come down to this distinction between nature and culture that flourished during the 20th century. Look forward to exploring it further with you…thank you for listening…i’ll talk to you next time.

Posted on

Episode 129 – Transcript

This is a transcript of episode #129 on Gilles Deleuze. Check out the episode page HERE.

So we ended last episode with a passage from Nietzsche and I want to re-read it for anyone that may not be listening to parts four and five back to back…Nietzsche asks us to consider how we might view our lives differently if THIS was the case:

“What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: ‘This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more’ … and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unutterably small or great in your life will have to return to you, all in the same succession and sequence—even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned upside down again and again, and you with it, speck of dust!’ Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: ‘You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine.”

Now, this passage was the first time Nietzsche ever talked about the eternal return, or eternal recurrence…this was in his book The Gay Science in 1882…and it was just one year later in 1883 that he expands on the concept some more when he releases one of the most revolutionary books in the history of the world: Thus Spoke Zarathustra. But this time, he talks about the eternal recurrence through the voice of a group of animals that are yelling at and taunting Zarathustra. They say:

“Behold, we know what you teach: that all things recur eternally, and we ourselves too; and that we have already existed an eternal number of times, and all things with us. . . .I come again, with this sun, with this earth, with this eagle, with this serpent –not to a new life or a better life or a similar life: I come back eternally to this same self same life . . .”

So already just a year later we see Nietzsche developing the concept into something that isn’t merely some practical way of looking at your life…but in this second passage there starts to be a level of metaphysical baggage that’s being smuggled in…that ALL THINGS recur eternally. The significance of this change is Deleuze’s interpretation of Nietzsche. He believes that Nietzsche is ultimately making a pretty profound statement here about the long tradition in philosophy of being vs becoming. What he means is…you know, many philosophers throughout history…have divided up existence in terms of being and becoming. Traditionally the category of “being” has always referred to things within our perception of reality that are constant. Some philosophers say it’s things that are unchanging. Some say things that are ENDURING. Generally speaking “being” has always been the things about reality that act as a solid foundation, things that aren’t going to change. Depending on the philosopher, we’ve heard this expressed in a number of different ways on this show: God is being. Nature is being. etc. Now this concept of “being” is always contrasted with a concept that philosophers have called “becoming”…which as you might be able to guess are all the things about existence that are constantly changing, or in flux…or you could say, in reference to this picture of the world Deleuze is painting, the parts of the world traditional philosophy has seen as “in motion”. The thinking has always been that there is something more real, more foundational about being…than becoming. Becoming…is just in motion…it’s always changing…it’s contingent, surface level appearances…you want to get to the bottom of things as a philosopher…understand being. Understand the foundation that everything that is becoming relies upon.

But Deleuze is going to question this…and he finds inspiration in several passages of Nietzsche’s work on eternal recurrence. Nietzsche says:

“If the world had a goal, it must have been reached. If there were for it some unintended final state, this also must have been reached. If it were capable of pausing and becoming fixed, of ‘being,’ if in the whole course of its becoming it possessed even for a moment this capability of ‘being,’ then all becoming would long since have come to an end . . .”

What Deleuze takes from this reading of Nietzsche is that in the same way he thinks identity is a derivative of difference, not the other way around. The appearance of being, or what we’ve mistaken as constants of the universe, are only possible to categorize as a result of us seeing what is TRULY fundamental…the constant process of becoming. See, to Deleuze, there IS nothing foundational in the classic way philosophers have talked about it…the closest thing you could ever get to it would be the process of the world in motion, that process of becoming, from our episode on ontology: that unfolding of immanence, from our episode on politics: that desire-production and machines seeking connections…ALL OF THESE THINGS…this WORLD IN MOTION…BECOMING is the foundation. Being, identity, any static system of thought…these are just attempts by people to grow roots into the ground and reduce the rootless, complexity of the rhizome to the rooted simplicity of a hierarchical tree.

The fact is, to Deleuze, that identity is just not this simple of a concept…and thinking about identity this simply only leads to problems when we try to impose these old, enlightenment era ideas on building the world we live in. For example, in professor Todd May’s analysis of Deleuze he gives an example of this by talking about the movement in the 50’s and 60’s of the urban renewal of cities in the United States. This is a perfect example of us imposing this naive picture of identity onto entire cities of people. The idea was that during the decades following world war two there seemed to be an uptick in the amount of crime, poverty, unemployment and generally anti-social behavior that was going on in big cities around the country. The THINKING was that the reason for this was because cities, and city life were just too chaotic and unpredictable to ever produce a functioning situation. There were too many people, or too many different walks of life, or too much of a variance in income levels…the solution, people thought at the time, would be to get things organized…and so began a multi decade effort to cordon off different areas of the city and designate them as THE AREA where certain activities were going to take place. There was the shopping district where people would go to buy things. The business district where people would go during the work day. The living district where they’d make new, efficient high rise apartment buildings that would be more affordable for lower incomes than when living situations are more spread out.

We identified all of the different elements of city life, cordoned them off into their own little sections and expected everything to run a lot more smoothly. What really happened was the opposite. Things fell apart. What happened was that now nobody could get anywhere because the flow of traffic was always to one section of town at one particular time…the whole city is trying to going to work in one district…they’re all going to the entertainment district at the same time after work. The high rise, low income apartment buildings just corralled lower income people into one small area even more, which had the opposite of the intended effect: it concentrated and worsened the ghetto. More than that…when it came to the reduction of crime that was expected…it turned out by funneling the vast majority of people into different sections of town at specific times of the day…this just created a HOTBED for crime. For example, when the entire section of town that people LIVE in is empty because everyone’s in the work section of town…how much easier is it to break into a home with confidence? This dividing of the town had the same worsening effect on relations between people of different walks of life. People felt MORE isolated and separated, and it would be far less likely for someone from two different walks of life to run into each other and have a conversation.

Professor Todd May cites the work of Jane Jacobs in her book The Death and Life of Great American Cities. The problem with city planning of the type that went on in the urban renewal of the 50’s and 60’s is that cities just don’t work in the same way that suburbs work. Put more in the language of Deleuze and Guattari…city life, is a rhizome, cities themselves, are machines…and when you try to impose rigid identities and static rooted structure onto them you’re left with a lot of unintended consequences like they were in the 60’s. Remember machines don’t HAVE a rigid identity that they’re beholden to…their identity within a given moment is defined by the connections and relationships to difference around them WITHIN that moment. Well isn’t this a much more accurate description of how a city works? See, from the outside looking in…if you were to analyze a city and try to identify all the different parts that make it up…a city might seem to be pretty chaotic…city planners may come along and think they know how a city works and try to impose order onto what seems to be chaos…but the reality, to Deleuze, is that it is NOT chaos. The city is a machine seeking connections…the connections that it makes: a rhizome. The fact is there IS an order to cities and city life that unfolds. The problem for city planners or anyone trying to assign rigid identities to the way the city functions is that there is no template for a city. There is no cookie cutter way that order emerges. The order doesn’t come from the outside…the order emerges or unfolds from the diverse connections made within the city. Think of the similarities to ontology here: substance doesn’t come from something transcendent from the outside, substance is immanently unfolding from within. Think of the similarities to identity vs difference or being vs becoming…notions of identity or order unfold out of difference or the world in motion. When things within a city are not cordoned off from each other, unable to make new connections…when workplaces and residential areas and restaurants and theatres and low income and high income when everything is all mixed together…it turns out cities just function way better that way. There’s less isolation. Machines make connections that are more diverse and thus have a less compartmentalized view of the world. There’s never areas of town that are completely empty where crime can flourish, there’s always eyes on the street, people feel more safe, people feel a sense of community as a member of the city as opposed to just a member of their neighborhood.

To Deleuze and Guattari: the mistake we’re making is we cannot think of the needs or identity of a city as something that can be pre-planned and executed…the reality is there is NO SUCH THING as “the identity of a city” because its identity is not static…its identity will always be determined by the connections that make it up in a given moment which no city planner could ever possibly plan for without the help of miss cleo. When you try to impose rigid identities onto a rhizome, you will ALWAYS run into problems.

Another example Todd May gives when talking about this clear departure from traditional ways of thinking about identity. Picture a guy…that several times a week goes into a music store…and in between looking for whatever it is he wants to buy, being a single man, he comes to realize that he is extremely attracted to the woman working behind the counter. Now, he ALSO notices…that every time he’s IN the music shop when she’s working she’s always playing jazz music that features the trumpet. So this guy decides that what he’s going to do is start playing the trumpet so that she might like him more, he might have something to talk to her about that isn’t painfully forced and awkward, regardless of the reason: he picks up the trumpet.

Now technically…if we wanted to assign an identity to this man after this moment, as he’s practicing the trumpet…he would be a trumpet player. But where exactly did that piece of his identity come from? Was there some sort of latent trumpet player identity hidden inside of him since birth? If two weeks from now both his arms get ripped off by a passing trolley and he quits the trumpet…is there a trumpet player identity lying dormant inside of him that can just never be expressed? Deleuze would say no. The fact that man decided to be a trumpet player in a given succession of moments was entirely contingent on his open-ended identity as a machine seeking connections, and then the connections that he sought to make as that machine. Also, consider the fact that the only thing that’s going to determine whether in five years this guy is still a trumpet player or not is ALSO entirely contingent on the connections he makes. Will he watch a documentary on Winton Marsalis that inspires him to be the greatest trumpet player ever? Will there be a welcoming jazz community in his neighborhood that invites him to come play with them every week. When he goes into the music store and casually brings up how he was playing his trumpet the other day…does the woman behind the counter seem to be more interested in him. The point is: there wasn’t some static pre-planned identity that determined that this guy was a trumpet player, only the connections made when interacting with a world that is constantly becoming, unfolding and in motion…and this SAME dynamic applies when it comes to all other aspects of the identity of a machine…whether that’s a person in a music store, a city being organized and planned out or a movement of thought that becomes the voice of a generation.

See this is the mistake that so many people make when it comes to trying to understand their own personal identity. So often people run into the trap of just conforming to the identities handed down to them by their parents. Or doing their best impression of some character they like on a TV show. Or if they WERE to do something like pick up the trumpet… to just completely copy the way trumpet players have always played the trumpet that came before them…just parroting the people that came before you the same notes, the same scales, the same riffs and transitions…what happens when you live your life in the same safe, pre-planned way so many people play music when they pick up an instrument? What happens is: your life becomes a blocked rhizome. The possibility of a random root shooting off and making a new, exciting connection with another network becomes impossible. The possibility of playing new music with your life becomes impossible. You turn yourself into a tree, rooted in one place, restricted to the same riffs and transitions for the rest of your life unable to see new possibilities.

But this is what so many people do, to Deleuze. They want an identity given to them by some third party, outside of them that tells them how to live…a city planner for their own identity, someone to answer the question for them: what does it mean to be me? This is why it’s so common for people to want answers to these old questions from philosophy that we began this series with. People desperately want an answer to the question: how should one live? How should one act? As though being a human being could ever be marginalized to questions that simple. As though there IS some sort of human nature, some constant of the universe…some essence where if only the right philosopher comes along and identifies it for us…THEN I’ll have the answers. Then we can rest easy knowing that some transcendent body prescribed a way that I “should” be. The same way the entire history of philosophy has tried to explain ontology in relation to transcendence. The same way psychoanalysis has tried to explain away desire by relating it to something transcendent. The same way people watch the news, read a few books, hyper focus on one little tree sized section of the rhizome and then spend the rest of their life looking at things from their narrow, one dimensional, hierarchical world view making declarations about the way that things are.

So what should be completely obvious by this point is that when it comes to the question of “how should a person live?”, the kind of question that dominated the ethics of people like Plato and Aristotle…Deleuze, would never even THINK to try to answer a question like that. This is why, knowing what we know now, the question that’s far more relevant to Deleuze is the question “How MIGHT a person live?” What possibilities exist, what connections can potentially be made?

Remember in the first episode of the series we talked about his answer to the question What is Philosophy? The conclusion being that when you’re engaging in philosophy you’re not looking for the “truth” or some set of objectives or identities about “the way that things are”…but instead, you engage in philosophy to hopefully arrive at the interesting, the remarkable, the useful. There are parallels when it comes to approaching life: we shouldn’t engage in living with the expectation that there is some way that we “should” be living that we’re going to arrive at.

See because again the world is fundamentally a world in motion. Constantly emerging, or becoming or in flux. But this picture of the world that Deleuze is painting goes far beyond just metaphysics…this entire worldview is in many ways a call to action…a gauntlet being thrown down, challenging anyone who hears it to rip off the shackles of a rigid identity that’s been given to you and to engage in a process of becoming. To allow your identity to emerge immanently, from inside of you rather than accepting it as a gift from someone else. But it goes beyond just you…his work is a call to embrace seeing the entire world in terms of difference rather than identity. Because if the world is fundamentally immanent and in motion and rhizomatic…then to embrace that immanence and motion and the enormous, fractal complexity and interconnectedness of the rhizome is to affirm existence…rather than negate existence and hide behind identities and hierarchical systems of thought.

To affirm existence is to embrace difference. To seek out different people, different cultures, different ideas, different answers to the question “how might a person live?”…which could include different jobs, different relationships, different lifestyles…to spend your time engaging in different activities, maybe this year it’s the trumpet, maybe next year it’s archery…the point is with ALL of these that you are a single perspective when it comes to making sense of all this. When I say all this I mean the universe…you are one perspective. Nothing more, nothing less. And as tempting as it is to cling to one of those hierarchical tree-like systems of ideas like you’re a koala baby…to Deleuze, the ONLY way to take a step back and see the interconnectedness and complexity of the world around you is to embrace difference and like the world, stay constantly in motion yourself, having new experiences. Doing things. There is always more to be done. You’ve never seen it all, and Deleuze thinks if you’re telling yourself that you have you should examine what it is you’re REALLY saying about yourself.

That is the call to action. Let’s embrace the world that’s spontaneously unfolding and in motion by ourselves remaining in motion, and part of living our lives that way is going to include being okay with not knowing how things are going to play out. See if you had some transcendent answer to how you SHOULD be living your life…you’d basically know exactly how your life was going to play out. If you had some static identity of exactly who you are, some dormant trumpet player that lives inside of you then it wouldn’t be a surprise at all when you decide to start playing the trumpet one day. But this isn’t reality to Deleuze…when you’re affirming existence you can’t know how your life is going to play out until you’re actually doing it…and you can’t know exactly what kind of person you’re going to be until you’re actually living as a machine and see the connections around you. To truly affirm existence is to seek difference while also understanding that there IS no cookie cutter template of identity to follow and to accept the fact that when it comes down to it: the universe doesn’t owe you anything. There are no guarantees. To affirm life and to truly embrace immanence and a world in motion is to accept that the universe is going to play out the way it’s going to play out and to get attached to any single outcome, good or bad, is to deny the way that reality is unfolding.

Now, Deleuze is not saying that you shouldn’t try…or that you should resign yourself to total acceptance of whatever comes your way…try your hardest, have a plan, stay in motion, but understand and find peace with the fact that you can’t ever really know ahead of time where that motion is going to take you. For this reason Deleuze is a really big fan of looking at life almost as a series of experiments. Because an experiment is always in some way seeking something new, but you can’t ever know the outcome of the experiment until you actually run the experiment. This is a worldview that can start to sound a lot like Nietzsche, and it’s no coincidence that both Nietzsche AND Deleuze talk a lot about this process of living by affirming life, rather than negating life. But maybe if there’s one thing that both of them have in common is that they both despise conformity…and the idea that the person that stays in motion, embraces difference, creates their own values and identity, makes connections, experiments…the idea that THIS is the person that owes the world an explanation rather than the person conforming to the safety of the systems of thought around them…they’ll often spend their entire lives never seeing enough of the rhizome to even ` know how small of a vine they’re conforming to. But regardless…in closing…when it comes to living life, maybe the best advice is from Deleuze and Guattari themselves,

“This is how it should be done: Lodge yourself on a stratum, experiment with the opportunities it offers, find an advantageous place on it, find potential movements of deterritorialization, possible lines of flight, experience them, produce flow conjunctions here and there, try out continuums of intensities segment by segment, have a small plot of new land at all times.”

Thank you for listening. I’ll talk to you next time.