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Episode 141 – Transcript

This is a transcript of episode #141 on Isaiah Berlin. Check out the episode page HERE.

So if there’s a way to sum up the END of last episode… that can get us started in the right direction this episode… it’s to say that to the philosopher Isaiah Berlin: these attempts ALL throughout history… to create systems of values based on a single criteria…to synthesize multiple different systems of values into one UNIVERSAL system…these have all been grounded in an assumption spanning across the entire history of human thought…that there is a single, correct answer to any question you can ask…that there is a clear methodology we can use to get us there, usually reason or revelation…and that once we find these answers they are going to fit neatly into a single overarching system, a cohesive worldview that fits together like some sort of cosmic jigsaw puzzle.

Now ALL of this is to say that Isaiah Berlin wants to set his sights on the long tradition we have in the west of using Monism, to develop systems of thought that use a SINGLE, ULTIMATE criteria for determining the TRUTH, about political or moral values. Let me say it again because it’s important: The use of these systems to determine the truth about moral or political values is one of his primary concerns. This is a dangerous game we’ve been playing and it’s had bloody consequences in the 20th century…and his response to Monism comes from the thinkers of the Counter-Enlightenment…something he calls Pluralism, or the idea…that when it comes to values… there are multiple different ends that people can arrive at…using the EXACT SAME process of rationality…and that BOTH conclusions, can nonetheless be intelligible and rational, simultaneously.

The complexity of human experience makes questions of political or moral values destined to have blurry answers. The values of a person or culture are extremely complicated, they overlap, they contradict each other, they’re situational, inconsistent…the values of people are often what he calls incomensurable. Now…let’s talk about that big word incommensurable and give some real examples for why he thinks this is the way things are.

Classic example that’s used here to introduce this concept is the relationship between mercy and justice and how it can seem deceptively simple when we think about it. Now, there being a sense of MERCY in the world and there being a sense of JUSTICE in the world are both important values that a person or culture can prioritize…but consider the fact that in practice…these two values of mercy and justice can often butt heads competing, when trying to be considered at the same time.

Consider for a second a real world example where these values interact. The easiest is to think about a hypothetical criminal justice system. Now, there are examples out there of people that find themselves in trouble… who are otherwise good citizens… who made a fleeting poor decision in a moment…and as people we might value there being some sort of mercy exercised in this case…we don’t want the book thrown at everyone, we don’t want to bury every person under the jail that makes a mistake, and here’s the important part: for a person to come to this conclusion would be ENTIRELY rational.

Now on the OTHER hand… there are examples of people out there that are CLEARLY hurting the people around them…these are the people the criminal justice system is designed to rehabilitate…and you could EASILY find people who have a strong set of values… that think these sorts of people should be punished to the full extent of the law. There are people out there that value a strong implementation of the virtue of justice, and once again it’s important to note…this would be an entirely RATIONAL conclusion for someone to arrive at.

Well Isaiah Berlin might ask: which approach is better? Say we’re creating a hypothetical criminal justice system…should that system go for mercy at all costs? Or justice at all costs? No doubt it’s a combination of both…OK, well what criteria do we use to determine how much mercy we should use and how much justice we should use?

His whole point here is that you can never answer this question clearly with some single criterion or single maxim. The fact is the true complexity of human experience makes this impossible. Monism CANNOT EVER adequately mediate the relationship between complex human values like mercy and justice. The mistake of the thinkers of the past has been to try to try to come up with some SINGLE STANDARD that addresses all the complexities of billions of people living together…the goal of the justice system should be to MAXIMIZE FREEDOM…or BALANCE THE SCALES…these overly-ambitious GOLDEN RULES are utterly useless.. when it comes to truly sifting through the blurry, complex relationship between human values like mercy and justice. But it should be said this applies to so many other examples of human values that butt heads…for example, liberty and total equality. Because if men were wholly free, he says, then the wolves would be free to eat the sheep. How about Spontanaeity vs planning and organization, we want both of those in our lives. Knowledge and freedom. Peace and excitement. The examples he provides are endless.

But regardless of which one you’re talking about though there is no SINGLE blueprint that can ever tell us how much mercy and how much justice….to Isaiah Berlin the fact is people and cultures often have two hold two, what he calls incommensurable values, like mercy and justice, simultaneously. These values are sometimes totally incompatible. They sometimes overlap in weird ways. When you abandon the strategy of trying to find a way that billions of human beings can be fit into a neat little package governed by a SINGLE maxim…then you encounter what Isaiah Berlin sees as the true Pluralism that lies at the foundation of human values.

But just to be clear this incommensurability of values doesn’t JUST exist at a political or social level where we have to deal with lots of different people…THIS IS THE WAY our values work at an INDIVIDUAL level as well.

We know this…because when was the last time you met someone who talks about themselves like, “I am a totally MERCILESS human being towards EVERYONE.” But you’d be EQUALLY hard pressed to find someone that describes themselves like, “Well schucks I don’t care about justice at all…I think everybody should just get away with everything ALL THE TIME!” To hold the values of mercy AND justice at some level simultaneously SEEMS to be where most people live their lives. You NEED to if you’re going to have any level of nuance to your thinking at all, and the most under nuanced approach to thinking in the history of the world is Monism.

So this is why any attempt to distill the true plurality of human values down into a single maxim always fails miserably in the long run. Some ultimate RULE that everyone should follow: Do not unto others as you wouldn’t like done unto you. Or some overarching theory of billions of people…there’s winners and losers in this world. Human values, ESPECIALLY when it comes to our values in action in the political realm…are never that simple.

There is ALWAYS a balance we are finding with our values between certain polarities. And it’s important to clarify here that this is NOT JUST a problem that Isaiah Berlin had with the Enlightenment. If that were the case he might be lumped into a group with the MANY anti-Enlightenment thinkers throughout the 20th century, several of which we’ve talked about on this show. What makes Isaiah Berlin TRULY special is that his more fundamental problem was with Monism, and that was a legacy of our thought that he STILL saw all around him in the thinkers of his time…interestingly…even the ones that were railing against the Enlightenment. Perfect example of this was his early work where he took extreme issue with the Logical Positivists.

So if you remember from our episode the Logical Positivists were an early twentieth century group practically DEFINED by their opposition to Metaphysics. They were critical of the Enlightenment in the sense that they were trying to correct what they saw as the primary MISTAKE of the Enlightenment…philosophers using REASON to arrive at all sorts of conclusions in the realm of metaphysics that ultimately amounted to unverifiable speculation. To them this is how rationality could’ve ever gotten us so off track.

So their solution to this was to triple down on verificationism, or the principle of verification, or the idea: that something is meaningful or can reasonably contribute to knowledge ONLY if it is verifiable. This took the form of A priori and A posteriori propositions and we’ve explained them so many times I’m not going to waste time with an explanation here, just go back and listen to the episode if you need it.

But the larger point is this is yet another example to Isaiah Berlin of trying to come up with a single strategy for determining the validity of human thoughts or affairs. And he gives many different examples of this in his critiques of the Logical Positivists. One of the more famous ones is… let’s say that it rained yesterday. Well the fact that it rained yesterday is NOT something that is verifiable. There’s no a priori deduction we can do to prove it…and there is no way we can go outside and immediately experience the fact it rained yesterday empirically. Switch the example to it rained ten years ago if it helps.

But nonetheless the fact that it rained yesterday…is TRUE. And that information could be extremely meaningful to our lives as people and informing our decisions. The problem was Monism…the problem was the Logical Positivists trying to reduce humanity to a single principle. Had they taken a more Pluralistic approach who knows what they could have done.

Now a common rebuttal to Berlin has always been…that Pluralism…is really just relativism in disguise. Remember thinkers like Leo Strauss who talked about how because modernity focuses so hard on being value-neutral when trying to understand the world the end game every single time was going to be some form of relativism, historicism, nihilism, scientism…some way to remove values from the equation altogether or give ultimate authority to some area of society, science or economics to DETERMINE our values for us. So something people have said about Berlin is that pluralism is not anything new…just the classic, well-known rebuttal to the Enlightenment naively trying to use reason to arrive at values. But remember how we began this two parter! Berlin was setting out to find a bridge between nature and culture…BETWEEN as it were the strategy of the Enlightenment and the strategy of these early 20th century thinkers…to be able to clearly define the lines of which aspects of our values are human nature and which of them can be explained by culture or the place we happen to be living in within history.

This is why Isaiah Berlin is NOT a relativist. He believes that there are certain values that are common among all people regardless of culture.

He lays out his basic argument here in his book “The Crooked Timber of Humanity”, and he begins by referencing a couple of common passages from the history of philosophy that have been used to JUSTIFY arguments for a PURE relativism or PURE historicism…then he goes on to give a clarification that explains his position:

“It is true that a Sophist quoted by Aristotle thought that fire burns both here and in Persia, but what is thought just changes before our very eyes; and that Montesquieu thinks that one should wear warm clothes in cold climates and thin garments in hot ones, and that Persian customs would not suit the inhabitants of Paris. But what this kind of plea for variety comes to is that different means are most effective in different circumstances towards the realization of similar ends. This is true even of the notorious skeptic David Hume. None of these doubters wish to deny that the central human goals are universal and uniform, even though they may not be necessarily established a priori: all men seek food and drink, shelter and security; all men want to procreate; all men seek social intercourse, justice, a degree of liberty, means of self-expression and the like. The means towards these ends may differ from country to country, and age to age, but the ends whether alterable in principle or not, remain unaltered”

So what is he saying here? He’s saying that there may be a LOT of stuff out there that is culturally or historically determined…the specific MEANS, a particular culture might use, to get to THEIR desired ends. The way these customs look to us from culture to culture might vary enormously…but nonetheless it’s almost impossible to make a case for the fact that our cultures, aren’t, ALL AIMING for VERY similar ends. Human beings seem to generally want very similar things…we’ve just found different creative ways to get there, and those specific ways, will vary, based on the culture that you happen to be born into.

Now you may hear that and think he’s making the very basic statement that all cultures are different, and we all want to eat, sleep and have a sense of freedom in our life…but there’s actually multiple layers to what he’s saying here. This is Pluralism… applied to the relationships that exist between different cultures. The TRUE significance of what he’s saying here is that… there’s no way you can use rationality to arrive at some SUPER-CULTURE, that’s better than all the other cultures, but this is so often the subtext that’s present when people have conversations between cultures… and WITHIN cultures.

The subtext is that as long as we all appeal to rationality and have enough discussions with each other…that eventually it’s not crazy to think that we will all agree about everything…or at least every RATIONAL person will have the same opinion. Consider a few examples to compliment this point and then we’ll expand on this a lot more.

Now on one hand this is not a very controversial statement to make. Most people understand that people arrive at different sets of values when it comes to their personal lives and nobodies going on a crusade to say that one is inherently less rational than another. For example, imagine one lifestyle…imagine a person that looks out at the world and thinks of it as a very dangerous place. Well, in many ways the world IS a very dangerous place…lotta buses to get hit by…lotta diseases to contract…lotta meteors to dodge as they fall out of the sky…so this person that sees all that danger decides…that the rational conclusion they should live by is to stay inside most of the time. They enjoy their life inside…they practice enjoying a level of peace most people never get to experience that are out in the dangers of the world…they have a level of privacy to their life that is just far greater than someone who immerses themselves in the public realm. People may disagree…but hard to make a REAL case that this isn’t an intelligible, rational conclusion someone could arrive at.

Now consider another person who’s one of those energy drink wing suit people…flying through a canyon like a squirrel…puts on a go pro when they go to the gas station…this person might look out at that same dangerous world and think look…the world I was born into IS danger. What am I going to hide from it my entire life? No, I’m not going to live my life… viewing other people around me as merely catalysts of danger. Something to avoid. There is more to life than spending my life cooped up inside feeling safe just because I happen to be alive. I’m going to go out and live, and if it’s my time to go at least I can die knowing I had a good run. Now again…people may disagree…but even the extreme recluse from the previous example could look at this person…be TOLERANT of the fact that they have come to different conclusions and even have a level of respect for them accepting they just value different things.

But Isaiah Berlin would want us to juxtapose this entire line of thinking over into the political realm. How often do people engaging in a political discussion look at their political opposition…hear an argument that disagrees with them…and then act tolerant of that disagreement…respectful of the person because they see them as an intelligible, rational human being that, just has a different set of values because they come from a different set of experiences…how often does that happen, vs how often do people adopt this attitude of Monism where there is a single correct answer, a methodology they’ve arrived at to attain it, and a cohesive, sweeping worldview informed by those correct answers? How often when someone sees their political opposition do they just assume the other person can’t POSSIBLY be rational…they must be delusional, or stupid, or indoctrinated, or evil…they must be one of these things because if they were rational…they would agree with me.

Well, come on Berlin that’s obviously different. Someone wants to sit inside all day or jump out of an airplane they’re not hurting anyone but themselves…when it comes to political issues there are innocent people potentially getting hurt in the balance! NONE of this is to say that we should all be holding hands singing campfire songs together all the time. Isaiah Berlin makes it VERY CLEAR…we’re GOING to have political disagreements. Heated ones. Were GOING to embark on political campaigns to try to win the hearts and minds of people towards OUR OWN set of values. The question is not whether or not we should disagree…the question is whether or not WHEN you disagree you wouldn’t feel all that bad about putting a bike lock in a sock and beating someone over the head with it at a political rally because they’re part of some evil herd of sheep that disagrees with you.

See the change from Monism to Pluralism is subtle…it changes the way you view people who disagree with you.

Because when you recognize the pluralistic nature of human values you realize that there is no single correct answer and even if there was rationality is not the tool that is going to get us there. The idea…that if only we have more rational discussions about things eventually everybody rational will agree on the same values…is a misunderstanding of what rationality is producing for us. Rationality is just utterly incapable of SOLVING ALL THE PROBLEMS that can exist between cultures that value different things. One example Isaiah Berlin gives of this has to do with religious differences.

Just imagine a devout believer in Orphism and a devout believer in Celtic Reconstructionist Paganism going out to coffee together…and they’re going to sit down and have a rational discussion about their values and the goal of either of them is to try to convince the other of the TRUE political reality of the world. Do you think rational discussion is going to be the thing to change either of their minds about values?

Isaiah Berlin might say good on them both for trying. He wouldn’t be surprised if rational discussion wasn’t the tool that was going to convince someone that someone ELSE had the truth about things. But most of all he’d want to say that any sort of violence that may have come out of that discussion…any sort of hatred of the other…would ALWAYS COME from some attitude associated with Monism. Political violence rises proportional to the level of intolerance within a society. See tolerance and empathy are very HUMAN characteristics. Berlin goes so far as to say the people that LACK the ability to be empathetic, serial killers and the like, seem to lack something crucial about what it is to be human. We should make it a priority. And JUST as we would do well…to look at other cultures that disagree with us, have a bit of tolerance and try to relate to the common humanity that exists between us, try to understand WHY they believe what they do based on their own unique past…we would do just as well to treat fellow members of our society with that same respect…even if they disagree.

So often what SEEMS on the surface like a totally different set of rituals between cultures ends up being the same, very human, moral intuition manifesting itself in two different ways…and this even happens all the time between people of the SAME culture who claim to hold very different values.

There’s a TED talk that was done by Johnathan Haidt in 2008 where he gives an example of this. Take the very human value of purity. For some reason purity seems to matter across the board to human beings. But even within the same culture you might see one type of person that deeply values purity in a religious sense…chastity before marriage, purity from the hedonistic behaviors that might pollute your spiritual well being. But you may see another type of person that values purity by eating only organic, locally sourced, ethically produced ingredients…or purity when it comes to the environment. This is just one example of how the SAME moral intuition can manifest itself in two VERY DIFFERENT WAYS, and yet…there seems to be some common humanity underlying this value and its possible these two very different people could find some level of tolerance for the other if they took the time to try to understand. They could understand BOTH PARTS of a human being…those values determined by nature…and the ones determined by their culture.

This is the TRUE ROLE, of rationality for Isaiah Berlin. When it comes to moral and political values…we’re never going to agree on everything. Rationality cannot give us that…but what it CAN do is mediate the differences BETWEEN different moral systems and allow us to be tolerant of each other. You don’t go to war with another culture just because they value something you don’t…you can disagree, try to understand the best you can…but you don’t think they’re stupid or evil just because they don’t do everything the way you do. The same way rationality can regulate the relationships between cultures it can regulate the relationships between people.

Carl Schmitt…political philosopher and member of the third Reich from earlier in this 20th century political arc…he was famously critical of Liberalism as a massively failed experiment that leads to weak societies. For all the tolerance, multi-culturalism, and limits on government power…he saw all of these things instantly get thrown out the minute a TRUE political disagreement came to pass. People can be tolerant of insignificant things, but the minute it becomes something that they really care about even Liberal societies descend into bloodshed and violence.

Well here is Isaiah Berlin years later presenting an entirely new TYPE of Liberal thought. That is, Liberal Pluralism. Maybe its NOT a fundamental part of human nature to descend into violence whenever political differences get really serious. Maybe this is a TYPE of thinking that we’ve inherited that has been so ingrained into every theory that’s come before that even a doctrine of tolerance and multiculturalism like Liberalism was created with it in mind. Maybe Monism…and the monolithic type of thinking that comes along with it…maybe the belief that there is a single answer to every question out there has allowed people to treat their fellow human beings as the other, simply because they come from a different part of the city where different values keep them alive, or a different part of the country or a different part of the world…sometimes ideas come up at points throughout the history of human thought…ideas that practically everyone at the time is downright enamored with. THIS NEW INSIGHT is the solution to all our problems as a species. Sometimes just five, ten years later there’s a NEW set of ideas that comes along rebuking it…and as quickly as it came the idea everyone was crazy about is never heard from again. Well the Enlightenment was no doubt one of the times people were excited about an idea and it was left to play out. But what if Isaiah Berlin, as a historian of ideas, what if he was right? What if the Pluralism of the counter Enlightenment could have been a moment when we realized a HUGE ASSUMPTION we’d all been making in our thinking? What might the 20th century have looked like…if we had listened to, and been tolerant of ideas ALL THE WAY BACK THEN…that made us uneasy.

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

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Episode 143 – Transcript

This is a transcript of episode #143 on Jurgen Habermas. Check out the episode page HERE.

So for a long, long time the Enlightenment has been the whipping child paying for all the mistakes and all the transgressions of philosophers and leaders alike…and this child has taken a LOT of ABUSE over the years! First we had the counter-Enlightenment, then we had the Existentialists, then we had the beginning of the 20th century, then we had the Postmodernists…but for ALL these thinkers and ALL the different ways they thought the Enlightenment had produced practically EVERY problem we faced as a species…there were JUST as many IF NOT MORE thinkers that came back at them with a very nuanced philosophical argument that’s been used since the BEGINNING OF TIME, and the argument was this: Yeah…but still.

Yeah, turns out in retrospect we aren’t using rationality to arrive at the intrinsic structure of the Universe…but still…who really wants to throw out the entirety of what the Enlightenment has produced in the mean time? Do you really want to throw out all of the technical understanding of the universe that science has produced? Do you really want to throw out all the economic progress? Do you want to just sit here vacationing in France deconstructing grand narratives for the rest of our lives? The thinker we’re going to be talking about today: Jurgen Habermas…said no.

Habermas thought sure…the Enlightenment HAD some problems. And yes, maybe we’re not arriving at the capital T truth about anything. But maybe a better plan would be for us to take a closer look at the project of the Enlightenment, figure out what went wrong…and then try to re-work and re-imagine it so that we can PRESERVE all of the things that were so GREAT about it. Habermas called the problems produced by the Enlightenment the “pathologies of modernity”…and he thought these pathologies were not a sign that the project of modernity was a total failure…he thought they were evidence that the project was incomplete. Reason…had been looked at in such a narrow and uncharitable way by the critics of modernity that it was never given a chance to realize it’s full potential…which by the end of the episode we will understand, could be the emancipation of the entire human species.

So let’s get started anyone looking to defend the Enlightenment PROBABLY has to begin by addressing some of the most notable works criticizing the Enlightenment..and one of the most SCATHING investigations into what went wrong we talked about all the way back in our series on the Frankfurt School…one of the most famous books in the history of philosophy: The Dialectic of Enlightenment by Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer.

Should be said Habermas is ALSO a member of the Frankfurt School, ALBEIT the newly formed Frankfurt School back in Germany after the war..and while many of his ideas overlap with OTHER thinkers in the Frankfurt School… he nonetheless HAS to take this early 20th century book to task to be able to move forward adequately with HIS work.

Like we talked about last episode Adorno and Horkheimer thought that the project of the Enlightenment was destined to consume itself from the beginning, because by using reason to question the foundationalism of religion…there would be an immediate need for reason to in turn question ITSELF as a foundation, at which point we’d HAVE no clear foundations for our values and we’d open up the floodgates of totalitarianism…among many other things they thought might go wrong. Check out the series on the Frankfurt School if you want to hear more, but right now we have to move on with THIS episode. To skip ahead, they believed one of the major problems that faced modernity was that the project of the Enlightenment put FAR TOO MUCH faith in reason. But Habermas is going to say that Adorno and Horkheimer made a huge mistake. They defined reason in a very narrow way that only included two TYPES of reason and ignored other important examples of how reason presents itself in human life.

Reason during the Enlightenment was two things to Adorno and Horkheimer, one had to do with making reasonable STATEMENTS about the world…reason on one hand was the unbiased measuring tool that can supposedly get us to the truth about the universe…which…hopefully by THIS point on the show we’ve talked about enough. But number two had to do with determining which human ACTIONS were reasonable…THIS type of reason was known as Instrumental Reason, or put another way…the type of reason that helps us rationally progress from a starting point…to a conclusion. This is the type of reason that is instrumental…when it comes to providing the rational means…that can get us to certain ENDS we want to achieve. Means to an end…keep that in mind because it’s going to be important…but first let’s give some examples of why this type of reason is a PROBLEM for Adorno and Horkheimer and before them the sociologist Max Weber.

Think of how this type of reason impacts many of these Enlightenment thinkers that spend their lives trying to create ELABORATE systems that explained the way the universe is. How easy would it be…to come up with a conclusion for how you think reality is…and then use rational analysis to prove, step by step, that YOUR conclusion is correct. The very fact that so many thinkers seemingly proved things that were mutually exclusive…just goes to show WHY this could be a problem…now to show how this instrumental reason can be downright DANGEROUS…let’s consider a more extreme, everyday example.

Let’s say I have some CRAZY goal I want to achieve. Let’s say I want to stab myself in the eye with a fork…then I want to run outside and take out a pack of predatory buffalo in my front yard and THEN I’m going to take an entire pallet of Aquanet and spray it into the sky so that it rips a hole in the ozone layer, now…ridiculous goal without a doubt…but nonetheless there are completely rational steps we could plan out that would provide us the means to get closer and closer to this END we’re trying to achieve. First I go into the kitchen, open the drawer, grab a fork. Then I go out into the front yard and start tackling buffalos one by one…the DANGER of instrumental reason is that it is completely possible to mistake a process…that is ENTIRELY RATIONAL for it being something humanity should EVER want to implement.

See instrumental reason can only get us from point A to point B…but who out there gets to decide what point B should consist of? Left in the hands of the Enlightenment… many critics believed it led to the chaos of the 20th century. So this raises the question, how do we ever ensure that the ENDS we’re trying to achieve never become co-opted, as Habermas feared, by a single thinker or group that happens to captivate a particular culture with a compelling argument during their time? History has shown us this is very possible…and it should be said in THIS sense the postmodernists feared a very real threat that was looming out there. The defensive strategy of some was to deconstruct and fragment these grand narratives that SPOKE about having conclusions we should be aiming for…the goal being to show that human knowledge is ALWAYS from a particular, individual perspective…not from some privileged position.

So right now we should pause and understand that THIS is the climate that Habermas finds himself doing his work in. He wants to on one hand…acknowledge the fact that knowledge ALWAYS NEEDS to go through the filter of an individual, human perspective…but he thinks it’s possible…through inter-subjectivity…through ALL of these individual human perspectives coming together…maybe it’s possible for us to arrive at useful information ABOUT reality…that doesn’t RELY on any one, single person’s perspective. This is why near the end of the 20th century there is a resurgence in the philosophical approach of Pragmatism. Habermas being one of the greats.
See it’s from this Pragmatic perspective that Habermas sees where Adorno and Horkheimer went wrong. Reason is NOT JUST instrumental and strategic reason…one of the biggest ways reason presented itself in the world that changed the game ALL THE WAY BACK in the Enlightenment…was through the process of what he calls: Communicative Rationality . Let me explain what he means by that.

See like many philosophers throughout the 20th century Habermas was interested in linguistic analysis…but UNLIKE many philosophers Habermas developed a healthy obsession with the specific topic of communication. Language MAY shape our reality to a certain degree…but HOW WE communicate that language has a considerable effect as well. Signs and symbols may be the raw building materials, but the way they’re communicated is the construction team that puts the building together.

So while on this journey where he’s fascinated by how people communicate with each other Habermas realizes a few things. Whenever someone successfully communicates ANYTHING to another person… and that person understands what was said…that communication will NEED to have possessed four VERY important qualities. One, it needs to be intelligible. Needs to use actual words, needs to follow the rules of grammar, etc. Two, both people must accept beforehand that whatever they’re talking about is a legitimate conversation to have at all. Three, there has to be an understanding that both people BELIEVE whatever it is that they’re saying, not just trying to manipulate each other. And four, whatever REASONING is used in the conversation needs to correspond with certain values or norms that both people agree upon and understand.

Now, the exciting philosophical point that all FOUR of these criteria are basically saying here is that language is not this disinterested set of building blocks where we just describe raw, states of affairs. I’m going to deliver you the news in an unbiased way! I’m going to tell you what I think about your uncle Lou in an unbiased way. To communicate ANYTHING and for the OTHER PERSON to understand it…we have to embed our speech in normative constraints. The way that we view the world morally or otherwise HAS to be present in any successful communication we have with someone else.

Now, some of you out there might be saying, okay…Habermas. That’s all well and good…I love learning about language…but what does ANY of this have to do with political philosophy or rescuing reason from all those evil Postmodernists? Habermas is going to say that Instrumental Reason…that means to an end that we talked about…is not the only way that reason manifests in the world that’s capable of governing human actions. There is ANOTHER type of reason… grounded in our communication with other human beings… that can not only inform our political strategy, but can also provide a justification for liberal democracy that doesn’t rely on a God or appeal to anything supposedly written into the universe.

In fact, from the unique vantage point of being BOTH a sociologist AND a Pragmatic philosopher Habermas talks about how different TYPES of reason actually MIRROR the different methods of coordinating human action…hence the connection to political philosophy. Let me give you a few examples.

So one way of governing human action is to give people a set of rules or norms to live by. This is just one way, human beings, could figure out what to do next. This could be actual rules posted on a wall…this could be moral standards…this could even just be societal norms that are unspoken…for example you don’t just walk into the bank and cut in front of everybody in line…unless if you’re that one guy in crocs that actually wears a straw hat to the bank that I go to. But we don’t talk about that guy…point is you can govern human action pretty effectively by holding people to a code of conduct. Now, COMPARE this…to one TYPE of rationality that follows a set of pre-ordained rules. Think of syllogisms in formal logic…All cats are mean. Snowball is a cat. Therefore, Snowball is mean…you can have a string of propositions just as you can have a string of human actions and if any one of those propositions doesn’t follow the necessary rules, the entire string becomes invalid. This way of reason presenting in the world MIRRORS a particular method of governing human action.

Let’s talk about the one Adorno and Horkheimer were so concerned with: Instrumental Reason. The same way we can decide on a conclusion we’d like to rationally justify…and then come up with a series of actions that rationally move us closer and closer to that end…GROUP human action can ALSO be mediated by turning PEOPLE into a means to an end. We see this kind of thing in the military, or a company, or a sports team…the Army, for example, has a mission that it needs to carry out. A final goal, or an end…and each and every soldier down to the lowest rank plays a small but necessary role in accomplishing that greater overall mission. The soldiers in this case BECOME a means to an end. We can govern human action…in other words…by turning individuals into a means that is working towards some END that we’ve decided is worth pursuing.

Well Habermas is going to say a third way that human action can be coordinated and a third way that reason presents itself in human life…the type of reason Adorno and Horkheimer mistakenly left OUT and the type of reason grounded in our communication…is what he calls Communicative Rationality. Simply put…there is ANOTHER way that human beings can coordinate what they should do moving forward…and that is by coming together and having genuine, intelligible conversations starting from a premise of similar values…in other words, following those four criteria for proper communication we talked about before…people get together, communicate effectively, and rationally come to a collective agreement about how they should move forward.

So again this is not holding people to a set of rules or norms, this is NOT making people a means to an end…Communicative Rationality is a particular way of communicating that carries with it the express intent of delivering your perspective, hearing the perspectives of other people, and ultimately coming to an agreement about things. Now, Habermas would INSTANTLY want to mark a contrast between this Communicative Rationality and Strategic Rationality. Because a very important piece of these conversations where everyone is speaking their piece, debating, trying to come to an agreement is that everyone speaking actually, genuinely believes in whatever case it is that they’re trying to make. That is the ESSENCE of Communicative Rationality…but what happens when someone DOESN’T really believe in what they’re saying? Maybe they’re just arguing a particular position because they BENEFIT from people HOLDING that position. Maybe they’re just trolling. These are examples of what Habermas calls Strategic Rationality… and the best example of this is probably a classic salesman.

Picture someone at one of those kiosks at the mall trying to sell you a smartphone case. There’s a sense in which when you’re talking to that person… the entire interaction is clouded by the fact… that it’s not really a genuine conversation that you’re having. Does this person REALLY care this much about phones being protected? Do they REALLY care about your own personal level of phone safety? No, there’s a sense in which everything that they say can be taken with a grain of salt…there’s a sense in which everything they say to you about how great their phone cases are is driven by the fact that they’re going to get paid a commission if they sell you one.

Having a conversation with this person is uncomfortable and if you were the kind of person genuinely trying to develop your understanding of the world of phone cases…this would DEFINITELY not be the person you’d want to talk to. Well imagine this same kind of interaction speaking to someone about politics… where they have a similar incentive to sell you a particular idea. More on that in a second, but I want to plant a flag in the ground here and mark this as a BIG reason why it is EXTREMELY important… for everyone to genuinely believe in what it is they’re debating when engaging in Communicative Rationality within a group.

Because remember…embedded into our communication is a common set of premises and a common set of values for the people who are having the conversation. Now couple this with the fact that Habermas is a huge fan of Liberal Democracy and the Enlightenment’s attempt to try to ground its legitimacy in something GREATER than just pure relativism…and you can start to see the direction Habermas is going here. Communicative Rationality is essentially…democracy. People come together, they have conversations with each other about the best course of action and then they decide which way to go moving forward.

But let’s consider something important about democracy for a second. Democracy is just a word…its a word that denotes a particular political strategy that we’re all very familiar with. And while we should USE the word democracy so that we have something specific to reference and while the political strategy is NO DOUBT the most neatly packaged VERSION of what it is we’re talking about here…we should NEVER forget… that the PROCESS that underlies the system of democracy has applications FAR BEYOND the realm of politics. To Habermas, Communicative Rationality IS that process, and people use it all the time. They use it to have conversations trying to figure out which political candidate to choose. They use it when deciding where their group of friends should meet for dinner. They use it at their church to decide where the funds should be allocated. The process of two or more people coming together, telling each other about their own experiences, trading insights, and then using all the information at their disposal to try to come to an agreement about how to move forward…trading recipes is included in THAT process…how much butter to put in your chocolate chip cookies! The point is: this is a PROCESS that human beings generally engage in even if it’s purest expression is in the realm of politics in something we call democracy…and to Habermas as modernity has progressed over the years…gradual changes in people’s lives have made participating in this process progressively rare. There is less and less participation, BY CITIZENS, in one of the greatest things Habermas thinks the Enlightenment EVER produced to improve the lives of individuals…something he calls: The Public Sphere.

Now, to understand WHY he thinks this is happening we have to understand what the public sphere is and how it even came into existence in the first place. Let’s start with a bit of historical context.

Say you were an average citizen living in pre-Enlightenment France, which would of course be prior to the French Revolution. That would place you right in the middle of the feudal system organized by the three estates of government. First estate was the church…second estate was the nobility and the third estate was the peasantry. The peasantry…meaning EVERYBODY ELSE. When there’s political turmoil…or there is a serious situation that needs to be handled by government…the deliberation ABOUT that decision…the burden of choosing which direction to go, FALLS on the shoulders of the king or queen…MAYBE there’s consultation between the first TWO estates…maybe the church is considered in the decision making but one thing is for sure: the peasantry was NOT part of the political process at all. France would, for example, go to war with Spain…and throughout the entire process of deciding whether or not to GO to war the peasantry would never even be asked for an opinion.

So when it comes to being a politically informed member of your society up on current events…when you’re a peasant in the middle ages, not only can you probably not read, but even if you could read you probably speak a language DIFFERENT than the information is being written in at the time. When you’re having conversations with friends…you’re not having a political debate…you’re talking about famine and harvests and events happening in your local community and much of the time probably your relationship with the church.

But then the Enlightenment comes along. Governments are restructured. Economies are restructured. But maybe the BIGGEST change when it comes to political involvement is that mass print is becoming more common. There is a rapid rise of what we now know as the bourgeoisie, or the middle class…not ONLY in terms of spending power but ALSO in terms of formulating their own set of values and political attitude.

So these changes at the beginning of the Enlightenment allow for an entirely NEW kind of space to emerge, the classic coffee houses or salons of early Enlightenment France. For the first time in the history of the world a person could go down to one of these communal gathering places, pick up a mass printed journal that they were capable of reading, READ about what the king or queen was doing, the political goings on of the day…and then DISCUSS and DEBATE what was going on with their fellow citizens. These gathering places became the forum where the political VOICE of the middle class could finally be developed…and the EXISTENCE of these forums led to MASSIVE changes when it comes to how the governments of the future had to interact with the public. These public forums of discussion and the greater political VOICE that surrounded them became known to Habermas as the public sphere.

Now, the public sphere is based in the process of communicative rationality. This is a democracy of ideas. The process of coming together, giving your own individual experiences you’ve had in life and trying to discuss towards arriving at an agreement was just PART of it. But as modernity has gone on, Habermas says, people have been engaging in the public sphere less and less. More generally, with the progression of technology, people have been engaging in communicative rationality less frequently…they’re having fewer of these conversations with each other where they learn about the world around them through other human beings.

But WHY is this happening? Habermas thinks this trajectory began at the beginning of the Enlightenment. Prior to the Enlightenment major elements of society were largely determined by inherited tradition…we structured things like the economy or the government to resemble the way that things had worked for us before. But post-Enlightenment, once we’ve thrown OUT these classical traditions and are instead trying to build these systems from scratch…what happens is EACH ONE of these systems has to rebuild itself and come up with its own self reinforcing rationality that keeps it alive and moves it forward. When it comes to the economy and the government in particular…Habermas thinks what emerged at their base was a very OBVIOUS form of Instrumental Rationality. Means to an end thinking.

Makes total sense too…the government has certain ends it needs to accomplish for the maintenance of society. The economy…has certain benchmarks it needs to meet…PROFIT is almost always an end worth going for. Habermas thinks what has happened as the years have gone on is that the lines between the economy and the government have blurred beyond recognition. The two have fused together into a sort of super system…he just calls it “the system”…but the point is the two have combined into a massive, powerful means to an end machine.

We live our lives as modern people immersed in two competing worlds, to Habermas. See certain aspects of our lives are determined for us…we are given a socio-economic role to play within society by this economic/governmental system that exists…whatever person we want to be HAS to take into consideration those parameters handed down to us. But on the other hand there are MANY aspects of who we are that are determined by what he calls the “lifeworld”…or the piece of our lives that resembles the public sphere and communicative rationality…this is the portion of our lives where we exchange experiences and have discussions…this is where citizens get together, talk to each other and DECIDE on the path moving forward, rather than act like little soldiers for the economic governmental system that TELLS them how to behave as a means to make sure we can bring about certain ends.

Now, what has ALSO happened in modernity that has led to the relationship between the lifeworld and the system being even more complicated…is that the nature of media has drastically changed. By and large anymore people are not reading journals and newspapers to get their understanding of what’s going on in the world…and if they are the ownership and agenda of those newspapers and journals has completely transformed.

Remember our salesman at the kiosk in the mall trying to sell you a smartphone case? How it feels like it’s not even an authentic conversation because they’re constantly trying to SELL you something and you can leave the conversation feeling a little bit dirty. Well Habermas thinks the nature of media has changed into more something that’s looking to SELL you a candidate than to report the news. To SELL you a way to be, a system of values to believe in…rather than you participating in communicative rationality with your fellow human beings and arriving at one.

Now you might respond to that with: well, when you get around the dinner table and start talking about values…THOSE people are just trying to SELL you THEIR ideas as well! But this is why it’s so important…that to even PARTICIPATE in communicative rationality you need to genuinely believe in whatever it is you’re arguing for. Because of COURSE…Habermas thinks MOST OF THE TIME…people within these conversations are going to disagree and misunderstand each other and both sides are going to try to convince the other one of why they’re right…but the relationship BETWEEN these two parties is going to be between two REAL human beings having a conversation about something they both believe in…and NOT between a salesman and a customer.

When transnational corporations with very specific ends they’re trying to achieve OWN major media outlets. When there is so much power in controlling people’s values…Habermas thinks the economic/governmental system COLONIZES the lifeworld. Where we used to sit around the dinner table and have discussions to determine our thoughts about the world…we now turn on a screen and are SOLD ways to think about things. The further we got from the origins of the public sphere in those coffee houses back in France …the further we got away from communicative rationality. We got so far away from it we could barely SEE it anymore…to the point where brilliant thinkers like Adorno and Horkheimer wrote an entire book about rationality and didn’t even consider its existence!

But for any chains we were supposedly wrapped in by the Enlightenment, Habermas thought the key to get us out of them was built into the Enlightenment all along. We just lost sight of it. The emancipatory potential of reason…reason’s ability to direct us AWAY from treating people as a means to an end…the type of reason GROUNDED in communication…GROUNDED in the pursuit of genuinely trying to understand the other person’s perspective and then working towards agreement…the type of reason that can allow us to make our decisions about things not by buying into an endless sales pitch, but by talking to our fellow citizens in the lifeworld comparing our individual perspecitives…

True democracy, to Habermas, is when the lifeworld controls the system. Not the system controlling the lifeworld.

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

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Episode 142 – Transcript

This is a transcript of episode #142 on Richard Rorty. Check out the episode page HERE.

So if you were having a political discussion with someone…and the conversation took a turn and all of a sudden you’re talking about human rights…there’s certainly, a lot of angles you could approach that discussion from, but one of the most common ones might be what, philosophical grounding can we give to something like human rights?

I mean we all think human beings have rights, but where exactly do those rights come from? Who or what out there, GUARANTEES these rights for people? Well a common answer to this question might be that human rights are inherited…by birthright. Simply by virtue of being born every human being is entitled to certain, natural rights or inalienable rights. Rights, that protect the dignity of a human life at such a basic level…that to go against them starts to seem like you’d be going against nature.

Now as far as the philosophical grounding is concerned this is an attitude MUCH more common during the beginning of the Enlightenment than it is today…and the two MAIN thinkers that took ON this position are often cited to be John Locke and Immanuel Kant. When it comes to answering the question who or what guarantees these human rights…John Locke goes in the direction of God, you know…we are endowed by our CREATOR with certain inalienable rights…and Kant goes more in the direction of A priori facts derived from reason. But either way both these thinkers are in their own way trying to use REASON to arrive at a universal that GUARANTEES human beings are BORN with natural rights. Little did EITHER of these thinkers know that just 140 years later we would be immersed in two world wars that would make the argument for the natural rights of human beings seem about as important as neck ruffles were to them.

See as we’ve talked about on this show the early 20th century was full of thinkers dissatisfied with what the Enlightenment had produced. They even went so far as to say that the entire PROJECT of the Enlightenment…was destined to consume itself from the start. Yeah, sure at the beginning REASON calls into question much of the religious dogma of the middle ages…but what inevitably has to happen once it gets done with THAT job…is REASON has to start questioning the NEW foundations for things…reason has to start questioning…itself. Which, then leads to philosophers USING the process of rationality…to find out that rationality is not some unbiased, ahistorical measuring tool…it’s not some “neutral point” from which we can make unambiguous claims about the TRUTH about human rights or more importantly, THE UNIVERSE. To the thinker we’re going to be covering today, Richard Rorty…people like Locke and Kant were NO MORE discovering a Truth about what grounds human rights than Hammurabi was before them. But UNLIKE many of the thinkers of the early 20th century…who may have felt a bit disenfranchised by the rational process…Richard Rorty felt optimistic about rationality.

Some people called Rorty a postmodernist…which would USUALLY place him in staunch opposition to anything that even SOUNDS like the word Enlightenment. Like EXCITEMENT! But let me tell ya…Rorty was a VERY exciting man. He REJECTED the title of postmodernist and most titles for that matter. He operated in a very unique realm for a thinker where like a TYPICAL post-structuralist he didn’t believe in any sort of grand narrative that could explain away the universe…but yet he was STILL…a die hard, card carrying fan…of the PROJECT of the Enlightenment overall.

See in a world where there are so many 20th century thinkers hating on the Enlightenment…here is a guy some viewed as a post-structuralist, coming to its defense. Let me explain WHY he would DO something like this.

When Immanuel Kant in his famous essay describes the Enlightenment as “man’s removal of his self-incurred tutelage”…yeah, he’s talking about the tutelage of the religious dogma of the past…but Rorty would EXTEND that tutelage to the RATIONAL dogma that was to come in the future because of how over-ambitious we were at the BEGINNING of the Enlightenment about what rationality could produce.

The spirit of the Enlightenment, to Rorty, was not to use reason to arrive at the TRUTH about the universe…it was ultimately a call to subvert traditional forms of authority. The significance of the Enlightenment was NOT to land on new answers…it was to question old assumptions. So in that sense…yeah, the INITIAL project of the Enlightenment ultimately consumed itself, but to Richard Rorty the initial project of the Enlightenment was MEANT to consume itself.

Thinkers like Isaiah Berlin that would come along and suggest a Pluralistic vision of things…this wasn’t an anti-enlightenment idea at all…to Rorty…this WAS the project of the Enlightenment left to play itself out…thinkers like Berlin were ALWAYS going to eventually come along. See the project of the Enlightenment MATURING through people like Isaiah Berlin, taught us a couple of EXTREMELY valuable insights. One of which, was that we don’t need to try to use reason to appeal to some ultimate authority or universal to GROUND our ideas. Rationality, is not a tool that gets us to objectivity about things…but it MAY get us to a VERY EFFECTIVE mix of inter-subjectivity between cultures.

Rorty wants to offer an alternative way to look at the legacy of the Enlightenment. Maybe it IS pointless to try to do our best impressions of Locke and Kant and try to access the universe through reason…but when it comes to strictly HUMAN institutions…for example, the political realm, where we’re not trying to access “things in themselves”…we’re just trying to figure out how we can live together the best…maybe THAT is where rationality thrives as a method.

What ALL of this is alluding to is the fact that human rights are not the only things philosophers have tried to GROUND in universals in the past. The very structure of some political systems, Liberalism, has ALSO historically been grounded in universals. Once again, I just want to clarify because there are some people out there that get angry VERY QUICKLY…and they also must be part of some sort of email club…when we’re talking about Liberalism as a foundation for society we’re talking about government with a focus on individual rights, consent of the governed and an aversion to any sort of collectivist system or systems that were more popular at other points in history, maybe a caste system for example. Now, you can imagine if you’re a philosopher…and you’re trying to make a case for Liberalism being BETTER than a caste system…might be tempting to start to make an argument that human beings at the level of the universe are all equal…and therefore should not be relegated to different ranks within a society. But to Rorty, this would be making the same mistake that Locke and Kant made in our example from before about human rights.

The fact is to Rorty: we don’t need that sort of ULTIMATE FOUNDATION to be able to make a case for the fact that Liberalism is how we should be running things. For many different reasons, one as has been said, we can’t actually ACCESS the universe at that level through rationality. Two, society is just far better off when it can base public policy on the rational consensus of individual citizens rather than some philosophical theory arrived at by some guy in a tower that people might not even be able to relate to.

Think of the limitations you INSTANTLY place on yourself if you decide that every public policy or VALUE of a society needs to be grounded in some philosophical justification that tells you how human beings are AT LARGE. First of all, let’s say you decided to structure your society around the political philosophy of Plato…you’re soon going to find yourself on a constant PR campaign trying to continually SELL these ideas to a population just crossing your fingers that they go along with it. Second of all, almost always these philosophical ideas that you might structure your society around were created in an ENTIRELY different culture that emerged out of an ENTIRELY different history, which means these theories can bring a lot of baggage along with them that you may not WANT in the present culture. Thirdly, you are ALWAYS going to be fighting a sort of losing battle to Rorty, because you will ALWAYS be trying to cram ONE interpretation of how human life should be structured into the enormously complex, pluralistic maelstrom of people coexisting together.

Rorty is essentially saying maybe we don’t need the philosopher up in the tower thinking all day…telling us how to structure our societies because welp I’ve decided it shores up with how the universe is. Maybe we don’t have ACCESS to the way the universe is, but maybe that doesn’t matter. Maybe we don’t need some elaborate philosophical theory to structure our society for us…maybe a strategy is legitimate…Liberalism for instance…if the citizens of a particular culture, positioned in history at a particular time and place, all the citizens facing a very specific set of common problems that they need to solve as a society…maybe a strategy is legitimate if the people of that society decide that they have confidence in it.

One ultimate theory is not good enough. Rorty, who was a HUGE fan of Isaiah Berlin, sometimes talks in his work about the “fact of Pluralism”. This is WHAT a society is, to Rorty. We are WORSE OFF as a society if we try to use a single religious or philosophical theory to justify our political strategy. You will ALWAYS be fighting a losing battle…people will ALWAYS arrive at a BUNCH of different conclusions…so instead of embarking on a never ending sales campaign for an idea…Rorty suggests that we allow our political strategy to reflect the common values of the people that make up the culture. He writes about how if we do this, and we’re careful, eventually if you were having that same conversation at the beginning of the episode and you asked someone what GROUNDS human rights…the common tendency WON’T be to try to appeal to something written into the universe or to cite some religious or philosophical justification you read in a book…the NEW standard will be for people to see social policy as legitimate if it was approved by the people actually LIVING in the culture. When asked the question what GROUNDS this piece of social policy…the answer won’t involve pointing to some philosopher from 300 years ago…Descartes famous work: A treatise concerning why DRUGS SHOULD BE LEGALIZED and why you should be able to use your cellphone on an airplane, for instance. No, the authority lies in the hands… of the set of people positioned in history… with a very specific set of problems to solve that they care about…and once again, to Rorty, not only do we not NEED any more authority than that…we don’t have ACCESS to any authority other than that, and we’re better off this way anyway.

Should be said this is yet another way we can access an answer to the question of how we can find a bridge between nature and culture. Rorty obviously is not appealing to a single theory, but he ALSO is not appealing to pure relativism or historicism. His answers to these questions about how we can justify our political strategy place him in what I think is the most accurate category to describe some of his biggest ideas…Rorty is often thought of as a Pragmatist, and I think we can understand Rorty’s OVERALL position a little bit better if we take a second to talk about the concept of Truth…more specifically…the key differences between the traditional ways people have viewed the concept of TRUTH…and the way a Pragmatist like Rorty would’ve viewed the concept of Truth.

So let’s talk first about one of the most COMMON theories of what constitutes truth from the history of philosophy…one that Richard Rorty thought has been dominant since the very beginning of the Enlightenment…what he sometimes calls the representationalist paradigm…sometimes called by others the correspondence theory of truth…but let ME take a second to tell you what it actually is.

The most basic idea is that suppose somebody says a statement about the way that things are in the world. How do we tell if that statement is true? Well that statement is true if it REPRESENTS the way things really ARE in the world. If there is a CORRESPONDENCE between the description and reality, then we can say it’s true. Now…there is of course mountains of detail that we could talk about here but Richard Rorty disagrees with the entire PREMISE of the correspondence theory even at this basic, rudimentary level.

Whenever you try to create a bridge…between a description you have in your head…and the reality of the world that you’re looking at…the only way you can ever describe ANYTHING…is through language. Language MEDIATES our relationship with reality. You can’t access reality WITHOUT language. But to Rorty it goes even one step further than this. Not only is language a medium between us and reality…but language actually CONSTITUTES reality. Meaning that the language we use and the way we use it CHANGES the way we THINK about reality.

This could be an entire series on its own…but the point is that certain languages and the cultures that use them favor certain habits of interpreting events. These interpretations greatly determine the entire way we see reality and the WAY human beings perceive reality varies greatly from culture to culture, language to language. So the idea…that there is some sort of correspondence or representation going on… that the world out there is somehow helping us verify whether statements are true or false…that’s just wrong…because Rorty thinks it would be impossible for us to ever step outside of the parameters of language and access the world of things in themselves, things independent of this language that we use to categorize them.

He has a very famous quote that will be EXTREMELY useful for us for the remainder of the episode. He said:

“The world does not speak. only we do. the world can, once we have programmed ourselves with a language, cause us to hold beliefs. But it cannot propose a language for us to speak. Only human beings can do that.”

So it should be said, Rorty’s not talking about ordinary language when he writes that…he’s talking about something else that we’re going to get deep into here in a minute. But I want to point out that this comparison that he’s making here…between accessing “the world” vs some sort of human created tool that is deeply affected by the bonds of history and culture…this is a classic move that Rorty makes that, if you were NEW to Rorty, might help you understand an outline of some of the topics he wants to cover.

For example, language is EXTREMELY useful in human affairs…it’s just not capable of describing the world of things in themselves outside of language. Consider how this compares to the beginning of the episode. We have Locke and Kant trying to use reason to access some sort of ultimate TRUTH about the universe…but here’s Rorty saying that rationality is the MOST useful in HUMAN affairs like the realm of the political. The WORLD does not speak, only we do. Here’s another one from the Enlightenment…people like Rousseau…who believe in some sort of underlying human nature, Noble Savages as he would say…or really beyond that ANYONE that wants to take up the mantle of the common attitude that human beings at their very core DREAD seeing other human beings suffer. That’s a common one for people to hold…that NATURALLY as human beings we don’t want to see other people in pain, so we can RELY on the fact that if things ever got bad enough one culture would always come to the aid of another culture.

Rorty actually responds to this position directly in an interaction with Simon Critchley in the 90’s. So right here he is referencing the idea that there is some sort of default altruism embedded into human nature…he says:

“Maybe there is such a sentient disposition, but it is so malleable – so capable of being combined with indifference to the suffering of people of the wrong sorts – that it gives us precious little to rely on. We should just thank our lucky stars that there are quite a lot of people nowadays who are pretty consistently appalled by human beings suffering unnecessarily.”

So he’s saying MAYBE THERE IS some aspect of human nature that makes people not want to see others suffer, but if there is it’s incredibly malleable. Thank your lucky stars that there happen to be a lot of people living today who don’t want to see unnecessary suffering. But ALSO…if you’re a fan of Liberalism…there is nothing written into nature like a God or A Priori facts that say LIBERALISM is the way…but thank your lucky stars for the last couple hundred years there have been a lot of people that believe in it as a strategy. So while we can understand the MOVE that Rorty’s making here, placing a lot of authority in the hands of the people actually immersed in the culture…this may start to bring up a whole NEW set of questions. One of the most pressing might be this:

So if the authority of whether a social policy is good or not lies in the hands of the citizens…and not even a PHILOSOPHER can arrive at absolute foundations for even something as simple as human rights…don’t those criticisms just instantly extend to my beliefs as an individual? Like, how am I supposed to ground my worldview in ANYTHING that is enduring enough that I can feel confident about it?

The short answer to this question is that: you can’t. And that shouldn’t bother you. The longer answer can be found in Rorty’s lengthy exploration of the concept of irony. Let’s talk about it right now.

So a common email I get is from a person who says something to the effect of this: Hi, I’ve been listening to the show for a while, I’ve heard about a bunch of different philosophers…and I’ve gotten to a place where I feel the complexity of things makes me feel pretty uncertain about choosing a worldview…sometimes I feel agnostic about almost every issue of substance I can think of…but this creates a problem for me because I still need to operate in day to day life. How is it possible to live a life where you’re RADICALLY uncertain about things, but still capable of functioning on an every day level?

There are many answers to this question but Richard Rorty offers one of them through his discussion about living a life as an “ironist”. Now by ironist he doesn’t mean that you’re smelting metal down at the Home Depot everyday…the term ironist is a reference to irony. To fully understand the life of an ironist, though, we first need to understand the much more common almost ubiquitous way that people approach figuring things out about the world…a way of thinking deeply embedded in the history of philosophy.

Most people view their intellectual development as a person as a linear progression of moving PAST appearances…and getting to the REALITY of the world. This goes all the way back to Plato’s allegory of the Cave…shadows on a cave wall, we do the work of a philosopher and eventually can ascend OUT of the cave and see the sun, or TRUE knowledge, for what it actually is. Well this way of viewing ourselves has been a fixture in our cultures for so long that it is the way that MANY people see their process of growth when learning about the world. There’s this intuitive sense that we’re born, we’re young, dumb, naive…we get information from our teachers, parents, basic news sources and there’s a sense in which we are living in a world of appearances at that point. See it’s not until we’ve done the work of reading five newspapers a day, 1000 books, traveled to 100 countries…not until we’ve done THAT can we say that we’ve arrived at a worldview that sees reality on reality’s terms.

But just as there’s no SINGLE THEORY embedded into the universe about human rights, or political strategy or ANYTHING for that matter…there’s no single, correct view of existence that you’re somehow accessing through life experiences and reading a bunch of stuff. You may THINK that you have a rational justification for every view that you hold…you may think it’s the greatest worldview that has ever been created…but it was created…by you…BY a human being…and Rorty would say that although we often DECEIVE ourselves into THINKING it’s the truth…really what we’ve created here is what he calls a final vocabulary. More on final vocabularies in one second but first I think it would be helpful to hear Rorty talk about a key distinction between someone saying “the world is out there” and saying “the truth is out there” and how these statements ultimately relate to language.

“we need to make a distinction between the claim that the world is out there and the claim that the truth is out there. To say that the world is out there, that it is not our creation, is to say, with common sense, that most things in space and time are the effects of causes which do not include human mental states. To say that truth is not out there is simply to say that where there are no sentences there is no truth, that sentences are elements of human languages, and that human languages are human creations. Truth cannot be out there – cannot exist independently of the human mind – because sentences cannot so exist, or be out there. The world is out there, but descriptions of the world are not. Only descriptions of the world can be true or false. The world on its own – unaided by the describing activities of human beings – cannot.”

This is one of Rorty’s most famous concepts. What many refer to as the distinction between making and finding. Locke and Kant are not FINDING the truth about human rights…they are using a very human process called REASON to MAKE a truth about human rights that we’d then use to structure our societies. Liberalism was not FOUND to be the best political strategy…historical circumstances and common values among people MADE it the best political strategy for a time. When you read a thousand books you are not FINDING the truth about existence, you are MAKING a final vocabulary that allows you to interface with reality during the specific time that you happen to be living.

By final vocabulary Rorty means a collection of stories, metaphors, narratives, discourses, tons of different tools of rhetoric… that you use to make sense of the world and see your place in it. This is called a FINAL vocabulary because the things that make it up are very final…they’re probably not going to develop any further because when it comes down to it…if you were pressed hard enough to explain your worldview by somebody skilled enough at arguing, with enough time on their hands…Rorty says eventually there would be no way for you to explain why YOUR worldview is better anyone else’s in a non-circular way. It is a courageous thing to fight and die for your country…because look, fighting for your country and dying is one of the most courageous things you can do! The Bible is true, so you should trust the word of God.

When pressed hard enough to justify your worldview in a conversation these are the sorts of stories and metaphors that ground the values of someone who thinks they’ve got it all figured out. Many people spend their entire lives thinking they’ve arrived at the truth…when the more accurate description is that they’ve set up camp in an echo chamber of people that don’t call them on their mistakes…either because they only talk to people who mostly agree with them, or because the people that disagree with them lack the ability to press them further, maybe they want to just be polite, maybe they just don’t CARE enough about changing someone into a LITTLE version of them to spend their time doing it.

Rorty prescribes an antidote to this way of thinking about getting past appearances to the reality of the world. Here is a pretty famous passage from his work that describes his three criteria for living a life as an ironist:

“I shall define an ironist as someone who fulfills three conditions: 1 She has radical and continuing doubts about the final vocabulary she currently uses, because she has be impressed by other vocabularies, vocabularies taken as final by people or books she has encountered; 2 She realizes that argument phrased in her present vocabulary can neither underwrite nor dissolve these doubts. 3 insofar as she philosophizes about her situation, she does not think that her vocabulary is closer to reality than others, that it is in touch with a power not herself. Ironists who are inclined to philosophize see the choice between vocabularies as made neither within a neutral and universal meta-vocabulary not by an attempt to fight one’s way past appearances to the real, but simply by playing the new off against the old.”

So imagine living life as an ironist as opposed to this other type of person we were just talking about. You’d live your day to day life not like Phyrro in ancient athens walking in front of cars because you’re doubting whether or not they’re actually there…you’d HAVE a sort of working theory, a final vocabulary that you use to function…the DIFFERENCE would be that you would have seen OTHER final vocabularies, seen their weaknesses, and you would realize that yours is probably EQUALLY as flawed as there’s in some way. Because you don’t have SPECIAL access to the truth…you don’t have a diety backing your worldview…you don’t have some neutral point outside of culture and history that you’re doing your thinking from. You are JUST as fallible as they are and your conclusions rely on history and culture JUST as much as there’s do. You would have continuing radical doubt about your relationship with reality. You’d ALSO realize…that any attempt by you to argue that your final vocabulary is superior to others…is a pointless exercise that is ACTUALLY just an example of that circular reasoning we talked about before…because you’re arguing FOR a set of stories and narratives as being superior…but all the while you’re USING that set of stories and narratives as the premise that you’re starting your arguments from.

This is why Rorty thinks that when it comes to our final vocaublaries…ARGUING in the traditional sense is not a very effective way of making any progress. Rorty says that an ironist always realizes “that anything can be made to look good or bad by being re-described”. Because it’s not like there is some SINGLE, argumentative standard out there…winning an argument in the times of Napolean is just different than winning an argument today…because the values of the people judging have changed, the historical circumstances have changed, the story about how the world fits together has changed…different arguments are more effective in different final vocabularies. So ARGUING is ALWAYS relying on your points fitting well into the final vocabulary of whoever it is you’re talking to— which is FAR from a guarantee…and the OTHER side of that is that you may find yourself CONSTANTLY arguing against a particular, COMMON final vocabulary that happens to dominate the culture you were born into.

Better to instead LEAD by example through irony. When someone thinks they’ve lassoed the truth with their vocabulary…the far more effective method will ALWAYS be to do what Rorty calls: ironic disruption…which doesn’t mean pull our your Richard Rorty handbook and argue them down point by point until they see the world the way you do…the goal is through one method or another, usually rhetorical devices…you try to allow this person to see on their own…the perspective from OUTSIDE their single worldview…the hope being that once they’re in this place they will realize how limiting their basic way of viewing the world is because it COMPLETELY closes them off from new ways of connecting with people, ideas, and the world that is out there, once again the WORLD that is out there…not the TRUTH that is out there. To be in this place stepping outside of your worldview and seeing a COMPLETELY different way the world can be rationally justified…can be transformative. Should be said this process also benefits the ironist because they need AS MUCH experience with final vocabularies as they can get. They need to be able to spot them from a mile away.

Rorty says in a passage that an ironist is “never quite able to take themselves seriously”. Because they live their life acknowledging how much of their final vocabulary wasn’t even a choice that THEY consciously made…and that at any point some of the issues that they believe in most strongly today… might tomorrow, change in a single conversation.

This is a very different approach to your intellectual development, and a VERY different way of approaching conversations with people that disagree with you politically. This person would seem like an ALIEN in the current political landscape, but this is ultimately the TYPE of person that emerges in a Pluralistic landscape of ideas…rather than one that believes in a single, correct answer to every political question. See you may wonder why bother? Why even spend a SECOND of my life trying to talk to someone and show them how they’re limiting themselves to a single answer? Let them do whatever it is they’re gonna do. But Rorty would say that these people that truly believe they are reading books and getting past the world of appearances to the TRUE reality of things…this outdated, oversimplified attitude is responsible for SO MUCH of the CRUELTY that goes on in this world. Liberal society, in his eyes, has a constant obligation to remind ourselves of the ways that the current order of things might be hurting the people around us. Much more effective with a Pluralistic outlook.

You know, there are relativists that will try to make an argument for people to stop fighting over their petty disagreements because ultimately everything is arbitrary…there are Rationalists that will say that everyone should stop fighting because well I’ve come up with the RIGHT ANSWER, no more work to be done! The way that Richard Rorty walks the line of nature and culture is partially through his beautiful use of Pragmatism. Rorty wouldn’t say you should care less. He wouldn’t say you should care more. What he would say I think is that the substance of what we care about…LIES in solidarity amongst fellow human beings. That solidarity is what keeps us in line, not a cosmic law. That solidarity is what determines our values, not some philosopher in a tower. To understand the historical and cultural environment that you live in is only the FIRST STEP towards understanding the solidarity that holds society together. He said it well when describing his book here in one of the most famous passages from his work:

“the fundamental premise of this book is that a belief can still regulate action, can still be worth dying for among people who are quite aware that this belief is caused by nothing more than contingent historical circumstances”

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.  

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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?

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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.

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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.