Feyerabend: Westernization and culture

There is a short thought, quoted by Paul K. Feyerabend in “Notes on Relativism”, that I’ve been thinking about a lot recently. Paul, ever critical of Western rationalism, is commenting at length on the expansion of (Western, capitalist) industrial scientific society to the margins of the developing world and minority cultures. He quotes François Jacob from The Possible and the Actual:

In humans … natural diversity is … strengthened by cultural diversity, which allows mankind to better adapt to a variety of life conditions and to better use the resources of the world. In this area, however, we are now threatened with monotony and dullness. The extraordinary variety which humans have put into their beliefs, their customs and their institutions is dwindling every day. Whether people die out out physically or become transformed under the influence of the model provided by industrial civilization, many cultures are disappearing. If we do not want to live in a world covered with a single technological, pidgin-speaking, uniform way of life — that is, in a very boring world — we have to be careful. We have to use our imagination better.

Prima facie, I want to say, the general message is correct: the world is slowly homogenizing, and homogeneity is boring. People no longer just consult their local markets and preserve culture organically; we buy and sell all over. Although Dallas and San Francisco have very different cultures, to some extent Los Angeles looks like Seattle looks like St. Louis looks like New York City… looks like Athens looks like downtown Rome, etc. This doesn’t explain what we should do — neither Jacob as quoted, nor Feyerabend in his entire book explain how we should “use our imagination better” (which is what makes this paragraph so unsettling). Feyerabend offers some views in other writings, e.g., using the state to intervene with the success of the sciences.

Feyerabend can be interpreted in a plethora of contradictory ways. Though co-opted by the political left (perhaps to their own detriment), far-right nationalists, primitivists and humanists can all find theoretical support in his ideas. He seems to have written surprisingly little specifically about capitalism, although there are plenty of implications in his anthropology; maybe understanding his views on political economy could provide the path to extracting a substantive political philosophy. In any case, the concern of Jacob and Feyerabend is a consequence of, to a large extent, the West’s powerful free markets, globalizing trade, science and universalistic liberalism. And, I want to say, their concern is not only prima facie correct but a growing left/right critique of Western capitalism/liberalism, and therefore one worth addressing.

There may not be a market approach to preserving cultural diversity; maybe all we can say is that so long as homogeneity is a result of the free interactions of individuals it is not undesirable. Here are a few responses anyway, which may or may not be satisfying.

  1. The process of homogenization predates capitalism, and is really just a function of multicultural nations living side by side and competing and trading. Cultures grow, die and are subsumed ad nauseam, some survive well past the initial spawning phase and become hegemonic but eventually these too face extinction or subsumption.
  2. Homogenization in a free world means that the “best of the best” is accessible for societies which, though previously they may have maintained unique non-Western cultures, were far worse-off before the commercial tsunami. Firstly, the people in these societies didn’t consider the expatriate cultural elements “boring” when they arrived, and secondly, they would prefer “boring” Western/industrial culture than their previous dilapidated state. (We may want interesting tourism destinations, but does that take precedent over human well-being and free choice?)
  3. With the success of industrial, liberal society, science has grown and actually developed better preservation technology (and projection tech, like 3D modeling underground structures). Ancient artifacts from long dead cultures are able to survive longer to be appreciated, and living cultures are better able to create and preserve in the present.
  4. Globalization/Westernization means that we discover living cultures we would never have known otherwise. Under the eye of Western society they are opened up to the melting pot process, but discovery is mutual. We take and they take, and therefore,
  5. Another response could be to actually reject Jacob’s story. We are not trending toward a single McWorld, because although Starbucks can be found nearly globally, it functions alongside original cultural products and cuisine, and at the same time foreign cuisine thrives in the West and impacts our identity.

Evaluating the consolidation of cultural diversity sits at an uneasy crossroads between rights concerns, utilitarianism and aesthetics. I’m not sure these responses would be satisfying to those that buy Jacob’s argument, but it’s likely I’ll be returning to this subject at length in the future.

Defending Political Liberty in an Administered World

This is a very rough work in progress continuing on from my recent post on ‘Law, Judgement, Republicanism’.

The problems with a free and open political and judicial culture were diagnosed by Max Weber in his discussion of bureaucracy, which itself draws directly and indirectly on various accounts of the problems of bureaucratisation and administration of the social world (which itself began in the 18th century, at least in terms of explicit discussion  of bureaucracy). Wilhelm von Humboldt’s comments on bureaucracy in Limits of State Action is, as far as I can see, the first clear instance. Before that, the closest precedents are, I believe, in comments on the rigidity of Roman law in Montesquieu, which may have been at least in part against the laws and legal institutions of France in his own time.

Bureaucratisation and an administered world can themselves be seen as resting on the necessity of an integrated, hierarchical, rigid, and institutionalised legal system of a ‘Roman’ model, which is true even when thinking of ‘common law’ jurisdiction in England and its off-shoots (England, not Britain, because Scotland has its own more Roman system, and differences between English and Scottish legal institutions survived political union). This process, described in various ways by Weber, Schmitt and Foucault, Austrian school liberals and Frankfurt School Marxists, also rested on the simultaneous formation of commercial society and national economy described by Arendt. Arendt’s account is particularly enriched by comparison with Foucault on the emergence of the art of government. 

The consequences of these legal, administrative, governmental, and economic processes  is that the political sphere is deprived of content as a means for addressing the community as a community of judging, reflective individuals. Politics becomes competition for control of administration and the distribution of economic benefits that come with with this control. The political world is influenced by a drive to the kind of homogenisation favoured by the world of administration and positive law, which turns into struggles about identity and ‘political correctness’. That is, the struggle to define the dominant identity, with claims to a pluralist position still governed by the wish to establish the dominating identity as more tolerant (which can happen in a ‘progressive’ manner), as in a community seen as a community of communities or a ‘conservative’ manner, where there are distinct communities tied to nations or possibly non-interacting historical communities within nations. 

Arendt suggests a perspective aristocratic contest in politics taken from Greek antiquity, particularly Athens, as the antidote to the above. Foucault also has a perspective taken from Greek antiquity, of care of the self, which can also be understood as aesthetic techne, in which our capacity for self-affection is developed in self-creation and recreation, though not as a purely aesthetic play. Machiavelli was in some respects the advocate of the modern integrated state, of sovereignty concentrated in an individual who integrates society through the power of his political skill and creation of a dominating rhetoric or symbolism. In Machiavelli, though, we can also see much that comes from Ancient republicanism filtered through the republicanism of the late medieval city states of northern Italy.

There is not just the remnants of ancient republicanism but its transformation in a world where the state is increasingly invested in territorial control, distinct from the personalised nature of the state as understood before (either in the person of the monarch or the persons making up a republic). The ‘cynicism’ of Machiavelli has its starting point in Aristotle’s Rhetoric, where reason is applied to speech in public places, particularly the courts of law and the political assembly. Though Aristotle distinguishes between the rhetoric of courts and assemblies, he does show a commitment to the idea that they belong to a common world of persuasive speech. Rhetoric appeals to the less deductive parts of human judgement, even the parts of human judgement which come from immediate emotional reactions, but never just that.

The prince who is human and animal, moral and self interested, is also the strong lion and the cunning fox, within his animal self. There is a sense of the total possibility: symbolism and self invention of individuals engaged in the political world. The judicial connection with politics and the social world for whom law is in some sense dead, an accumulated wisdom from the ancients now codified and open to commentary, but not part of political life except in the administrative and governmental roles that Machiavelli himself had for a while on the basis of his legal training, mingled with humanistic (Latinate and literary) education.

Even so, we can see some ideas lingering in Machiavelli of the importance of law in political life, so that it is the ‘parlements’, partly independent and locally representative law courts, of France which gives its monarchy some of the liberty of a republic. In The Prince it is the case that the energy of the people defending its state and its liberties, where they have some history, outweighs the power of the princely ruler, so that classical Polybian republicanism of the Discourses is never completely absent from The Prince.

Most significantly, Machiavelli leaves a legacy which can be seen behind the 20th century attempts to find an alternative to an administered social world. There is the charismatic leader in Weber, the agonistic aspects of politics in Arendt, and the ethics of self-creation and transformation of the self in Foucault. The charismatic leader in Weber should not be understood as a dictator or a person above politics, but as the way in which legally and formally constrained politics can still engage with the social world and the free judgements of individuals. The agonistic politics in Arendt is not just nostalgia for Athens, but an account of what it is to have individual goals and public awareness in a political community. Ethics in Foucault is not just self-creation out of nothing or a non-political playfulness, it is about how we can have free judgement in politics and law. The glory the prince seeks in Machiavelli, and by the citizens of a republic, is a way of seeing that politics combines autonomy and prestige as driving forces in a historically located and contingent political community. Machiavelli anticipates the ways that Arendt understands political freedom to be related to a Homeric culture of seeking fame in public life.

The Enlightenment and the Birth of Racism

I have a new essay up at Liberal Currents in which I respond to the charge that the Enlightenment saw the birth of modern racial theorizing. Thanks go to Adam Gurri for getting me to write it and for him and others at Liberal Currents for giving plenty of comments along the way.

The piece was inspired by Jamel Bouie who on Twitter and in a longer piece claimed that

“Race as we understand it—a biological taxonomy that turns physical difference into relations of domination—is a product of the Enlightenment.

In the piece, I take issue with this claim and provide evidence both of racial theorizing predating the Enlightenment and that modern scientific racism did not fully emerge until the 19th century, when it drew less on Enlightenment ideas than on Counter-Enlightenment thought.

In their eagerness to damn the Enlightenment, modern progressives neglect the contribution to racial theorizing of numerous Counter-Enlightenment thinkers from Joseph de Maistre to Thomas Carlyle.

Of course, other pieces have responded to Bouie. Including Ben Domenech at the Federalist and Katie Kelaidis at Quillette (both excellent). Hopefully, my essay adds to this conversation.

Law, Judgement, Republicanism

Draft material for a joint conference paper/Work in Progress on a long term project

This paper comes out of a long term project to work on ideas of liberty in relation to republicanism in political thought, along with issues of law and sovereignty. The paper in question here comes out of collaborative work on questions of law, judgement, and republicanism in relation to Turkey’s history and its current politics. Though this comes from collaborative work, I take sole responsibility for this iteration of draft material towards a joint conference paper, drafted with the needs of a blog with a broad audience in mind.

The starting point is in Immanuel Kant with regard to his view of law and judgement. His jurisprudence, mostly to be found in the first part of the Metaphysics of Morals on ‘The Doctrine of Right’, is that of law based on morality, so is an alternative to legal positivism. The argument here is not to take his explicit jurisprudence as the foundation of legal philosophy. There is another way of looking at Kant’s jurisprudence which will be discussed soon. 

What is particularly valuable at this point is that Kant suggests an alternative to legal positivism and the Utilitarian ethics with which is has affinities, particularly in Jeremy Bentham. Legal positivism refers to a position in which laws are commands understood only as commands, with regard to some broader principles of justice. It is historically rooted in the idea of the political sovereign as the author of laws. Historically such a way of thinking about law was embedded in what is known to us as natural law, that is, ideas of universal rules of justice. This began with a very sacralised view of law as coming from the cosmos and divine, in which the sovereign is part of the divinely ordained laws. Over time this conception develops more into the idea of law as an autonomous institution resting on sovereign will. Positivism develops from such an idea of legal sovereignty, leaving no impediment to the sovereign will.

Kant’s understanding of morality leaves law rooted in ideas of rationality, universality, human community, autonomy, and individual ends which are central to Kant’s moral philosophy. The critique of legal positivism is necessary to understanding law in relation to politics and citizenship in ways which don’t leave a sovereign will with unlimited power over law. Kant’s view of judgement suggests a way of taking Kant’s morality and jurisprudence out of the idealist abstraction he tends towards. His philosophy of judgement can be found in the Critique of Judgement Power, divided into parts on aesthetic judgments of beauty and teleological judgments of nature.

The important aspect here is the aesthetic judgement, given political significance through the interpretation of Hannah Arendt. From Arendt we can take an understanding of Kant’s attempts at a moral basis for law, something that takes political judgement as an autonomous, though related, area. On this basis it can be said that the judgement necessary for there to be legal process, bringing particular cases under a universal rule, according to a non-deterministic subjective activity, on the model of Kant’s aesthetic judgement is at the root of politics.

Politics is a process of public judgement about particular cases in relation to the moral principles at the basis of politics. The making of laws is at the centre of the political process and the application of law in court should also have a public aspect. We can see a model of a kind in antiquity with regard to the minor citizen assembly, selected by lottery, serving as a jury in the law courts of ancient Athens. It is Roman law that tends to impose a state oriented view of law, in which the will of the sovereign is applied in a very absolutist way, so that in the end the Emperor is highest law maker and highest judge of the laws.

As Michel Foucault argues, and Montesquieu before him, the German tribes which took over Roman lands had more communal and less rigidly defined forms of court judgement, and were more concerned with negotiating social peace than applying laws rigidly to cases. Foucault showed how law always has some political significance with regard to the ways in which sovereignty works and power is felt. That is the law and the work of the courts is a demonstration of sovereignty, while punishment is concerned with the ways that sovereignty is embedded in power, and how that power is exercised on the body to form a kind of model subjugation to sovereignty. The Foucauldian perspective should not be one in which everything to do with the laws, the courts, and methods of punishment is an expression of politics narrowly understood.

The point is to understand sovereignty as whole, including the inseparability of institutions of justice from the political state. The accountability of the state and the accountability of justice must be taken together. Both should work in the context of public accessibility and public discussion. The ways in which laws, courts, and judges can be accountable to ideas of autonomy must be declared and debate. Courts should be understood as ways of addressing social harms and finding reconciliation rather than as the imposition of state-centric declarations of law.

Freedom of Religion Secures Other Rights As Well

Ethan’s post on “The Why of Religious Freedom” inspired me to add one more to his list of reasons why freedom of religion deserves special treatment and protection. The freedom of religion preserves other freedoms we hold dear. Even those who do not wish to belong to an organized religion or to hold strong religious opinions have their freedoms secured because of the protection granted to religious freedom.

Freedom of religion, the first freedom protected by the US Constitution’s First Amendment, is part of having freedom of speech. Imagine a country where you could say anything you wanted, except those ideas and principles you hold most dear to your heart. How free would you feel your speech actually is? If you have freedom of the press and can print any opinion or argument you care to, unless it is about your conscience, how free is your press? To say that you may express your political opinion and vote unless you have religious reasons for that opinion similarly denies the equal protection clause of the 14th amendment.

Freedom of religion is also a guarantor of freedom of assembly. This last weekend while in Atlanta for the Teaching Professor Conference in Atlanta, my colleagues and I toured Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s church and neighborhood. The civil rights movement for many years worked through the churches because it was the only place African Americans were freely allowed to assemble together in many areas. As they assembled, they had the freedom to speak out against the injustices and oppressions they faced and work together to overcome them.​

As Rev. King put it, “Freedom is like life. It cannot be had in installments. Freedom is indivisible – we have it all, or we are not free” (The Case Against “Tokenism”). To extend that argument, when we say ‘freedom of religion’ it is the people who are free, free to believe how they will, to speak and gather and act according to their beliefs freely. In “The Ethical Demands For Integration,” Rev. King argued:

“A denial of freedom to an individual is a denial of life itself. The very character of the life of man demands freedom. In speaking of freedom … I am not talking of the freedom of a thing called the will [or in our case, religion]. The very phrase, freedom of the will [religion], abstracts freedom from the person to make it an object; and an object almost by definition is not free. But freedom cannot thus be abstracted from the person … . So I am speaking of the freedom of man, the whole man.”

If we cannot be free in our religious thoughts and exercise – whether connected with an organized religion or not – we cannot be a free people.

Jordan Peterson’s Ignorance of Postmodern Philosophy

Up until this point, I’ve avoided talking about Jordan Peterson in any serious manner. In part because I thought (and continue to hope) that he’s the intellectual version of a fad diet who will shortly become irrelevant. My general impression of him is that when he’s right, he’s saying rather banal, cliché truisms with an undeserved bombastic air of profundity, such as his assertions that there are biological differences between men and women, that many religious myths share some similar features, or that taking personal responsibility is good. When he’s wrong, he’s talking way out of the depth of his understanding in his field (like the infamous lobster comment or this bizarre nonsense). Either way, it doesn’t make for a rather good use of time or opportunity for interesting, productive discussion—especially when his galaxy-brained cult-like fanboys are ready to pounce on anyone who criticizes their dear leader.

However, since everyone seems to be as obsessed with Jordan Peterson as he is with himself, I guess it’s finally time to talk about one example of him ignorantly bloviating that particularly annoys me as a philosophy student: his comments on postmodernism. There’s a lot one can talk about with Jordan Peterson because he says almost anything that comes to his mind about any topic, but for the present purposes you can pretend that I think everything he’s ever said that isn’t about postmodern is the deepest, most insightful thing ever said by any thinker in the history of western thought. I’m not interested in defending any overarching claims about him as a thinker. At the very least, his work on personality psychology does seem rather well respected and he surely got to his prestigious academic position with some merit, though I am not qualified to really appraise it. I am, however, more prepared to talk about his rather confused comments on philosophy which might shed light on why people are generally frustrated with his overly self-confident presence as a public intellectual.

Postmodernism, According to Peterson

Peterson often makes comments about “postmodern neo-Marxism,” which he calls a “rejection of the western tradition.” Now the very phrase “postmodern neo-Marxism” strikes anyone remotely familiar with the academic literature on postmodernism and Marxism as bizarre and confused. Postmodernism is usually characterized as skepticism towards grand general theories. Marxism is a grand general theory about how class struggle and economic conditions shape the trajectory of history. Clearly, those two views are not at all compatible. As such, much of the history of twentieth century academia is a history of Marxists and postmodernists fighting and butting heads.

Many commentators have pointed out this error, but Jordan Peterson now has a response. In it he tries to offer a more refined definition of postmodernism as two primary claims and a secondary claim:

Postmodernism is essentially the claim that (1) since there are an innumerable number of ways in which the world can be interpreted and perceived (and those are tightly associated) then (2) no canonical manner of interpretation can be reliably derived.

That’s the fundamental claim. An immediate secondary claim (and this is where the Marxism emerges) is something like “since no canonical manner of interpretation can be reliably derived, all interpretation variants are best interpreted as the struggle for different forms of power.”

He then goes on to concede to the criticism that Marxism and postmodernism can’t be described as theoretically aligned, but moves the goal posts to say that they are practically aligned in politics. Further, he contends postmodernisms’ commitment to analyze power structures is just “a rehashing of the Marxist claim of eternal and primary class warfare.”

It is worth noting that this attempt at nuance is surely an improvement at Peterson’s previous comments that postmodern a Marxism are a coherent “doctrine” that just hated logic and western values. But his attempt at a “definition” is unsatisfactorily way too restrictive for every thinker who gets called “postmodern,” and the attempt to link the politics of postmodernism up with the politics of Marxism is a complete mischaracterization. Further, his attempt to “critique” this position, whatever one wants to call it, is either (at best) vague and imprecise or (at worst) utterly fails. Finally, there really is no alliance between postmodernists and Marxists. Whether or not a thinker is called a “postmodernist” or not is not a very good predictor of their political views.

Why Peterson’s Definition isn’t what Postmodernists Believe and his Critique Fails

First of all, I am really not interested in dying on the hill of offering a better “definition” of postmodernism. Like any good Wittgensteinian, I tend to think you can’t really give a good list of necessary and sufficient conditions that perfectly captures all the subtle ways we use a word. The meaning of the word is the way it is used. Even within academia postmodernism has such broad, varied usage that I’m not sure it has a coherent meaning. Indeed, Foucault once remarked in a 1983 interview when asked about postmodernism, “What are we calling postmodernity? I’m not up to date.” The best I can give is Lyotard’s classic “incredulity toward metanarratives,” which is rather vague and oversimplified. Because this is the best I think one can do given how wildly unpredictable the usage of postmodernism is, we’re probably better off just not putting too much stock in it either as one’s own philosophical position or as the biggest existential threat to western civilization and we should talk about more substantive philosophical disagreements.

That said, Jordan Peterson’s definition is unsatisfactory and shows a poor understanding of postmodernism. While the first half of the fundamental claim is a pretty good stab at generalizing a view most philosophers who get labeled as postmodern agree with, the second half is rather unclear since it’s uncertain what Peterson means by “canonical.” If he takes this to mean that we have no determinate way of determining which interpretations are valid, then that would be a good summary of most postmodernists and an implication of Peterson’s own professed Jamesian pragmatism. If what he thinks it means is that all perspectives are as valid as any other and we have no way of deciphering which ones are better than the other, then nobody relevant believes that.

Peterson objects to is the implication “that there are an unspecifiable number of VALID interpretations.” He tries to refute this by citing Charles Pierce (who actually did not at all hold this view) and William James on the pragmatic criterion of truth to give meaning to “valid interpretations.” He says valid means “when the proposition or interpretation is acted out in the world, the desired outcome within the specific timeframe ensues.” However, it doesn’t follow from this view that you can specify the number of valid interpretations. It just begs the question of how we should understand what “the desired outcome” means, which just puts the perspectivism back a level. Even if we did agree on a determinate “desired outcome,” there are still multiple beliefs one could have to achieve a desired outcome. To put it in a pragmatically-minded cliché, there is more than one way to skin a cat. This is why, in fact, William James was a pluralist.

Perhaps by “specifiable,” he doesn’t mean we can readily quantify the number of valid interpretations, just that the number is not infinite. However, nobody believes there are an infinite number of valid perspectives we should consider. The assertion that a priori we cannot quantify the number of valid perspectives does not mean that all perspectives are equally valid or that there are an infinite number of valid perspectives. Peterson’s argument that we have limited cognitive capacities to consider all possible perspectives is true, it’s just not a refutation of anything postmodernists believe. On this point, it is worth quoting Richard Rorty—one who was both a Jamesian pragmatist and usually gets called postmodern—from Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature:

When it is said, for example, that coherentist or pragmatic “theories of truth” allow for the possibility that many incompatible theories would satisfy the conditions set for “the truth,” the coherentist or pragmatist usually replies this merely shows that we have no grounds for choice among thse candidates for “the truth.” The moral to draw is not to say they have offered inadequate analyses of “true,” but that there are some terms—for example, “the true theory,” “the right thing to do”—which are, intuitively and grammatically singular, but for which no set of necessary and sufficient conditions can be given which will pick out a unique referent. This fact, they say, should not be surprising. Nobody thinks that there are necessary and sufficient conditions which will pick out, for example, the unique referent of “the best thing for her to have done on finding herself in that rather embarrassing situation,” though plausible conditions can be given as to which will shorten a list of competing incompatible candidates. Why should it be any different for the referents of “what she should have done in that ghastly moral dilemma” or “the Good Life for man” or “what the world is really made of?” [Emphasis mine]

The fact that we cannot readily quantify a limited number of candidates for interpretations or decide between them algorithmically does not that we have absolutely no ways to tell which interpretation is valid, that all interpretations are equally valid, nor does it mean there are an infinite number of potentially valid interpretations. Really, the view that many (though not all) postmodernists actually hold under this “primary claim” is not all that substantially different from Peterson’s own Jamesian pragmatism.

As for the secondary claim, which he thinks is Marxist, that “since no canonical manner of interpretation can be reliably derived, all interpretation variants are best interpreted as the struggle for different forms of power.” This view is basically just one just Foucault might have held depending on how you read him. Some would argue this isn’t even a good reading of Foucault because such sweeping generalizations about “all interpretations” is rather uncharacteristic of a philosopher who’s skeptical of sweeping generalizations. However, you read Foucault (and I’m not really prepared to take a strong stand either way), it certainly isn’t the view of all postmodernists.  Rorty criticized this habit of Foucault (Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, p. 63), and thought that even if power does shape modern subjectivity it’s worth the tradeoff in the gains to freedom that modern liberalism has brought and thus is not the best way to view. It’s also telling that Peterson doesn’t even try to critique this claim and just dogmatically dismisses it.

Postmodernism’s Alleged Alliance with Marxism

So much for his vague, weak argument against a straw man. Now let’s see if there’s any merit to Peterson’s thought that Marxism and postmodernism have some important resemblance or philosophical alliance. Peterson says that the secondary claim of postmodernism is where the similarity to Marxism comes. However, Marx simply did not think that all theories are just attempts to grab power in the Foucauldian sense: he didn’t think that dialectical materialism the labor theory of value were just power grabs, and predicted a day when there was no competition for power in the first place at the end of history since a communist society would be classless. If anything, it’s the influence of Nietzsche’s Will to Power on Foucault, and oddly enough Peterson thinks rather highly of Nietzsche (even though Nietzsche anticipated postmodernism in rather important ways).

The only feature that they share is a narrative of one group trying to dominate another group. But if any attempt to describe oppression in society is somehow “Marxist,” that means right libertarians who talk about how the state and crony capitalist are oppressing and coercing the general public are “Marxist,” evangelicals who say Christians are oppressed by powerful liberal elites are “Marxist,” even Jordan Peterson himself is a “Marxist” when he whines about these postmodern Marxist boogeymen are trying to silence his free speech. He both defines “postmodernism” too narrowly, and then uses “Marxism” in such a loose manner that it basically means nothing.

Further, there’s Peterson’s claim that due to identity politics, postmodernists and Marxists now just have a practical political alliance even if it’s theoretically illogical. The only evidence he really gives of this alleged “alliance” is that Derrida and Foucault were Marxists when they were younger who “barely repented” from Marxism and that courses like critical theory and gender studies read Marxists and postmodernists. That they barely repented is simply a lie, Foucault left all his associations with Marxist parties and expunged his earlier works of Marxist themes. But the mere fact that someone once was a Marxist and then criticized Marxism later in their life doesn’t mean there was a continuing alliance between believers in their thought and Marxism. Alasdair MacIntyre was influenced by Marx when he was young and became a Catholic neo-Aristotelian, nobody thinks that he “barely repented” and there’s some overarching alliance between traditionalist Aristotelians and Marxists.

As for the claim that postmodernists and Marxists are read in gender studies, it’s just absurd to think that’s evidence of some menacing “practical alliance.” The reason they’re read in those is mostly courses is to provide contrast for the students of opposing perspectives. This is like saying that because Rawlsian libertarians are taken seriously by academic political philosophers there’s some massive political alliance between libertarians and progressive liberals.

Really, trying to connect postmodernism to any political ideology shows a laughably weak understanding of both postmodernism and political theory. You have postmodernists identifying as everything from far leftists (Foucault), to progressive liberals (Richard Rorty), to classical liberals (Deirdre McClosky), to anarchists (Saul Newman), to religious conservatives (like Peter Blum and James K.A. Smith). They don’t all buy identity politics uniformly, Richard Rorty criticized the left for focusing on identity issues over economic politics and was skeptical of the usefulness of a lot of critical theory. There really is no necessary connection between one’s highly theoretical views on epistemic justification, truth, and the usefulness of metaphysics or other metanarratives and one’s more concrete views on culture or politics.

Now Peterson can claim all the people I’ve listed aren’t “really” postmodern and double down on his much narrower, idiosyncratic definition of postmodernism which has very little relation to the way anyone who knows philosophy uses it. Fine, that’s a trivial semantic debate I’m not really interested in having. But it does create a problem for him: he wants to claim that postmodernism is this pernicious, all-encompassing threat that has consumed all of the humanities and social sciences which hates western civilization. He then wants to define postmodernism so narrowly that it merely describes the views of basically just Foucault. He wants to have his cake and eat it too: define postmodernism narrowly to evade criticism that he’s using it loosely, and use it as a scare term for the entire modern left.

Peterson’s Other Miscellaneous Dismissals of Postmodernism

The rest of what he has to say about postmodernism is all absurd straw men with absolutely no basis in anything anyone has ever argued. He thinks postmodernists “don’t believe in logic” when, for example, Richard Rorty was an analytic philosopher who spent the early parts of his career obsessed with the logic of language. He thinks they “don’t believe in dialogue” when Rorty’s whole aspiration was to turn all of society into one continuous dialogue and reimagine philosophy as the “conversation of culture). Or that they believe “you don’t have an individual identity” when K. Anthony Appiah, who encourages “banal ‘postmodernism’” about race, believes that the individual dimensions of identity are problematically superseded by the collective dimensions. This whole “definition and critique” of postmodernism is clearly just a post-hoc rationalization for him to continue to dishonestly straw man all leftists with an absurd monolithic conspiracy theory. The only people who are playing “crooked games” or are “neck-deep in deceit” are ignorant hucksters like Peterson bloviating about topics they clearly know nothing about with absurd levels of unmerited confidence.

Really, it’s ironic that Peterson has such irrational antipathy towards postmodernism. A ton of the views he champions (a pragmatic theory of truth, a respect for Nietzsche’s use of genealogy, a naturalist emphasis on the continuity between animals and humans, etc.) are all views that are often called “postmodern” depending on how broadly one understands “incredulity towards metanarratives,” and at the very least were extremely influential over most postmodern philosophers and echoed in their work. Maybe if Peterson showed a fraction of the openness to dialogue and debate he dishonestly pretends to have and actually read postmodernists outside of a secondary source, he’d discover a lot to agree with.

[Editors note: The last line has been changed from an earlier version with an incorrect statement about Peterson’s source Explaining Postmodernism.]

The State in education – Part I: A History

In Beyond Good and Evil, written after breaking with composer Richard Wagner and subsequently rejecting hyper-nationalism, Friedrich Nietzsche proposed the existence of a group of people who cannot abide to see others successful or happy. Appropriately, he dubbed these people and their attitude “ressentiment,” or “resentment” in French. His profile of the resentful is most unkind, bordering on the snobbish – though Nietzsche had very little personal cause to feel superior (he was part of the minor nobility but always insisted that, due to his father’s premature death and his mother’s lack of connections, his legal rank was never of much benefit to him). Insanely proud of his classical education and remarkable, even for that time, fluency in Ancient Greek and Latin, the philosopher latched onto these languages as symbolic variables in his descriptions of society and its woes.

Much like the French philosopher Simone de Beauvoir who, a century later, attempted to prove that history was made by socio-cultural gender dynamics (Le deuxième sexe), Nietzsche proposed that all of (European) history since the fall of the Roman Empire was a battle between the cosmopolitan, classically-educated aristocracy and the technician, parochial lower classes. Unlike de Beauvoir who saw the world as oppressor-oppressed, the German believed that the lower orders, motivated by jealousy and feelings of exclusion, tried to pull their superiors down, creating a peculiar situation in which those who believed themselves the oppressed engaged in oppressive behavior.

As evidence of his theory, Nietzsche suggested in The Genealogy of Morals that the Protestant Reformation was the ultimate achievement of the resentful classes; functionaries, unable to understand the Latin of the Roman liturgy, read the writings of the ancient and medieval philosophers, or participate meaningfully in the conversations and society of the Renaissance, responded by turning the Church into the personification of all they hated – not unlike a voodoo doll – and then ousted it from their lives and countries. At least, this is what Nietzsche thought had occurred, adding that the cloddish nationalism that he had rejected would not have been possible without first banishing the Catholic Church and the refinement it introduced through fostering Latin, Greek, and Classical literature and philosophy.

On the practical plane, Nietzsche’s primary concern, post-Wagner, was the advent of Prussian hegemony and the loss of autonomy among the German member states. Before his friendship with Wagner, Nietzsche gave a lecture series on education which he intended to collect and publish as a book. The book never materialized [until 2016, when the Paul Reitter compiled the notes and lecture transcripts into book form under the title Anti-Education], but the philosopher did write a preface that he gifted to Cosima Wagner under the title “Five Prefaces to Five Unwritten Books,” which helped precipitate the quarrel since Nietzsche signaled clearly that he rejected the Wagnerian philosophy of the innate nobility of the (German) savage.

Much of Anti-Education is harsh and unyielding, moreover because there is much in it that is true. In it, one can see the early kernels of Nietzsche’s identification of ressentiment and the genesis of ideas concerning individuality and nobility that he returned to later in life. There is also much that is applicable today.

Nietzsche asked,

Why does the state need such a surplus of educational institutions and teachers? Why promote popular enlightenment on such scale? Because the genuine German spirit [that of the Renaissance princes] is so hated – because they fear the aristocratic nature of true education and culture – because they are determined to drive the few that are great into self-imposed exile, so that a pretension of culture can be implanted and cultivated in the many – because they want to avoid the hard and rigorous discipline of the great leader, and convince the masses that they can find the guiding path for themselves … under the guiding star of the state! Now that is something new: the state as the guiding star of culture!

Nietzsche wrote / spoke this on the takeover by the state of the education system, also known as the Prussian public school system, which “reformer” Horace Mann promptly imported to the United States. The false promise of public education, as Nietzsche saw it, was that state schools claimed the laurels and legitimacy of private gymnasia through deceit – speaking to a university audience, he expected everyone to know that pre-state control, there were two types of secondary schools: gymnasium, where the student received a classical education and prepared to enter university, and realschule, where the student learned the three Rs, along with some science, and entered the workforce immediately after graduation. Nietzsche claimed that while the gymnasium curriculum needed a significant overhaul, the only products of the realschule were conformity, obedience, and an inflated sense of achievement. Hence, he believed, when the government took over the education system, officials chose to model the public school on the old realschule, while claiming that graduates had the knowledge and skills of the gymnasium.

It is important to note at this juncture that Nietzsche bore a very visceral hatred of the Prussians in general and of Otto von Bismarck in particular. Viewing the former as unintelligent clods whose threat lay in their stupidity, the philosopher deemed the latter and his eponymous Bismarckian welfare state a greater threat to personal freedom. From 1888 until his nervous breakdown and descent into madness in 1899, Nietzsche called for the trial of Bismarck for treason, along with the removal of Kaiser Wilhelm II, in a sequence of letters and essays which his sister and executors suppressed, both to accommodate their own agendas and to avoid the attention of the censors.

The treason of Bismarck lay in his creation of a nation whose people were unwittingly dependent on the state. The state provided education during infancy and a pension in old age. As Nietzsche correctly saw, when the state controls the beginning of the pipeline and the end, everyone is in its employ. As he also foretold, the situation would end in violence (for Germany specifically; hence his interest in preempting war by removing its figurehead king) and heartbreak for those who placed their faith in the anti-individualistic state.

At a very fundamental level, Nietzsche believed that the public school system, with is inadequate education and contempt for classical learning and languages, was a conspiracy designed to drive a wedge among the social classes, enabling the state to increase control in the ensuing vacuum. The other aspect he identified was the use of public opinion to strip the individual of drive or thirst for a better life through a mixture of flattery and subversion of ambition. The outcome would be war and resentment, he predicted, for any country foolish enough to have faith in the Prussian system. Next week, we will examine whether Nietzsche’s predictions have come true in modern American education.