- Essential essay on Sino-American relations since Nixon Orville Schell, The Wire China
- Does capitalist democracy have a problem with public health? Blake Smith, Age of Revolutions
- Is birthright citizenship the foundation of American democracy? Nathan Perl-Rosenthal, Nation
- Nobody tell Joakim about this (our bookless future) Mark Bauerlein, Claremont Review of Books
It’s been a heck of a year. Thanks for plugging along with Notes On Liberty. Like the world around me, NOL keeps getting better and better. Traffic in 2019 came from all over the place, but the usual suspects didn’t disappoint: the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, India, and Australia (in that order) supplied the most readers, again.
As far as most popular posts, I’ll list the top 10 below, but such a list doesn’t do justice to NOL and the Notewriters’ contribution to the Great Conversation, nor will the list reflect the fact that some of NOL‘s classic pieces from years ago were also popular again.
Nick’s “One weird old tax could slash wealth inequality (NIMBYs, don’t click!)” was in the top ten for most of this year, and his posts on John Rawls, The Joker film, Dominic Cummings, and the UK’s pornographer & puritan coalition are all worth reading again (and again). The Financial Times, RealClearPolicy, 3 Quarks Daily, and RealClearWorld all featured Nick’s stuff throughout 2019.
Joakim had a banner year at NOL, and four of his posts made the top 10. He got love from the left, right, and everything in between this year. “Elite Anxiety: Paul Collier’s ‘Future of Capitalism’” (#9), “In Defense of Not Having a Clue” (#8), and “You’re Not Worth My Time” (#7) all caused havoc on the internet and in coffee shops around the world. Joakim’s piece on Mr Darcy from Pride and Prejudice (#2) broke – no shattered – NOL‘s records. Aside from shattering NOL‘s records, Joakim also had excellent stuff on financial history, Richard Davies, and Nassim Taleb. He is also beginning to bud as a cultural commentator, too, as you can probably tell from his sporadic notes on opinions. Joakim wants a more rational, more internationalist, and more skeptical world to live in. He’s doing everything he can to make that happen. And don’t forget this one: “Economists, Economic History, and Theory.”
Tridivesh had an excellent third year at NOL. His most popular piece was “Italy and the Belt and Road Initiative,” and most of his other notes have been featured on RealClearWorld‘s front page. Tridivesh has also been working with me behind the scenes to unveil a new feature at NOL in 2020, and I couldn’t be more humbled about working with him.
Bill had a slower year here at NOL, as he’s been working in the real world, but he still managed to put out some bangers. “Epistemological anarchism to anarchism” kicked off a Feyerabendian buzz at NOL, and he put together well-argued pieces on psychedelics, abortion, and the alt-right. His short 2017 note on left-libertarianism has quietly become a NOL classic.
Mary had a phenomenal year at NOL, which was capped off with some love from RealClearPolicy for her “Contempt for Capitalism” piece. She kicked off the year with a sharp piece on semiotics in national dialogue, before then producing a four-part essay on bourgeois culture. Mary also savaged privileged hypocrisy and took a cultural tour through the early 20th century. Oh, and she did all this while doing doctoral work at Oxford. I can’t wait to see what she comes up with in 2020.
Aris’ debut year at NOL was phenomenal. Reread “Rawls, Antigone and the tragic irony of norms” and you’ll know what I’m talking about. I am looking forward to Dr Trantidis’ first full year at NOL in 2020.
Rick continues to be my favorite blogger. His pieces on pollution taxes (here and here) stirred up the libertarian faithful, and he is at his Niskanenian best on bullshit jobs and property rights. His notes on Paul Feyerabend, which I hope he’ll continue throughout 2020, were the centerpiece of NOL‘s spontaneity this year.
Vincent only had two posts at NOL in 2019, but boy were they good: “Interwar US inequality data are deeply flawed” and “Not all GDP measurement errors are greater than zero!” Dr Geloso focused most of his time on publishing academic work.
Alexander instituted the “Sunday Poetry” series at NOL this year and I couldn’t be happier about it. I look forward to reading NOL every day, but especially on Sundays now thanks to his new series. Alex also put out the popular essay “Libertarianism and Neoliberalism – A difference that matters?” (#10), which I suspect will one day grow to be a classic. That wasn’t all. Alex was the author of a number of my personal faves at NOL this year, including pieces about the Austro-Hungarian Empire, constructivism in international relations (part 1 and part 2), and some of the more difficult challenges facing diplomacy today.
Edwin ground out a number of posts in 2019 and, true to character, they challenged orthodoxy and widely-held (by libertarians) opinions. He said “no” to military intervention in Venezuela, though not for the reasons you may think, and that free immigration cannot be classified as a right under classical liberalism. He also poured cold water on Hong Kong’s protests and recommended some good reads on various topics (namely, Robert Nozick and The Troubles). Edwin has several essays on liberalism at NOL that are now bona fide classics.
Federico produced a number of longform essays this year, including “Institutions, Machines, and Complex Orders” and “Three Lessons on Institutions and Incentives” (the latter went on to be featured in the Financial Times and led to at least one formal talk on the subject in Buenos Aires). He also contributed to NOL‘s longstanding position as a bulwark against libertarian dogma with “There is no such thing as a sunk cost fallacy.”
Jacques had a number of hits this year, including “Poverty Under Democratic Socialism” and “Mass shootings in perspective.” His notes on the problems with higher education, aka the university system, also garnered plenty of eyeballs.
Michelangelo, Lode, Zak, and Shree were all working on their PhDs this year, so we didn’t hear from them much, if at all. Hopefully, 2020 will give them a bit more freedom to expand their thoughts. Lucas was not able to contribute anything this year either, but I am confident that 2020 will be the year he reenters the public fray.
Mark spent the year promoting his new book (co-authored by Noel Johnson) Persecution & Toleration. Out of this work arose one of the more popular posts at NOL earlier in the year: “The Institutional Foundations of Antisemitism.” Hopefully Mark will have a little less on his plate in 2020, so he can hang out at NOL more often.
Derrill’s “Romance Econometrics” generated buzz in the left-wing econ blogosphere, and his “Watson my mind today” series began to take flight in 2019. Dr Watson is a true teacher, and I am hoping 2020 is the year he can start dedicating more time to the NOL project, first with his “Watson my mind today” series and second with more insights into thinking like an economist.
Kevin’s “Hyperinflation and trust in ancient Rome” (#6) took the internet by storm, and his 2017 posts on paradoxical geniuses and the deleted slavery clause in the US constitution both received renewed and much deserved interest. But it was his “The Myth of the Nazi War Machine” (#1) that catapulted NOL into its best year yet. I have no idea what Kevin will write about in 2020, but I do know that it’ll be great stuff.
Bruno, one of NOL’s most consistent bloggers and one of its two representatives from Brazil, did not disappoint. His “Liberalism in International Relations” did exceptionally well, as did his post on the differences between conservatives, liberals, and libertarians. Bruno also pitched in on Brazilian politics and Christianity as a global and political phenomenon. His postmodernism posts from years past continue to do well.
Andrei, after several years of gentle prodding, finally got on the board at NOL and his thoughts on Foucault and his libertarian temptation late in life (#5) did much better than predicted. I am hoping to get him more involved in 2020. You can do your part by engaging him in the ‘comments’ threads.
Chhay Lin kept us all abreast of the situation in Hong Kong this year. Ash honed in on housing economics, Barry chimed in on EU elections, and Adrián teased us all in January with his “Selective Moral Argumentation.” Hopefully these four can find a way to fire on all cylinders at NOL in 2020, because they have a lot of cool stuff on their minds (including, but not limited to, bitcoin, language, elections in dictatorships, literature, and YIMBYism).
Ethan crushed it this year, with most of his posts ending up on the front page of RealClearPolicy. More importantly, though, was his commitment to the Tocquevillian idea that lawyers are responsible for education in democratic societies. For that, I am grateful, and I hope he can continue the pace he set during the first half of the year. His most popular piece, by the way, was “Spaghetti Monsters and Free Exercise.” Read it again!
I had a good year here, too. My pieces on federation (#3) and American literature (#4) did waaaaaay better than expected, and my nightcaps continue to pick up readers and push the conversation. I launched the “Be Our Guest” feature here at NOL, too, and it has been a mild success.
Thank you, readers, for a great 2019 and I hope you stick around for what’s in store during 2020. It might be good, it might be bad, and it might be ugly, but isn’t that what spontaneous thoughts on a humble creed are all about? Keep leaving comments, too. The conversation can’t move (forward or backward) without your voice.
- “To speak on everything in the world, including everyone’s elections” Robin Hanson, Overcoming Bias
- Foucault on the courageous practice of speaking truth to power Deborah Clark, Footnotes to Plato
- The idea of Global Britain ignores reality (and an imperial past) Robert Saunders, New Statesman
- “No nation in Europe today is as good at self-deprecation as the Slovaks” Donald Rayfield, Literary Review
I'm no prophet. My job is making windows where there were once walls. ― Michel Foucault
Martin Luther, a German Augustinian monk, is credited with triggering a profound spiritual movement in the minds of early modern Europeans. Luther, who was an extremely pious Catholic, eventually became a reluctant rebel by channeling the frustrations of the faithful over their inability to reach out directly to God within the then existing church matrix. The Protestant Reformation, which he helped unleash, developed in opposition to the powerful institutions and guidelines of the Roman Catholic Church that acted as a gatekeeper to the sacred knowledge. The reformation movement decentered and fragmented the once powerful Catholic ideology and bureaucracy, eventually shifting the minds of people toward the individual interpretation of Scripture.
In its condemnation of Luther, the papal court compared his heresy with that of Jan Hus. One hundred years prior to Luther, this religious dissenter from Bohemia had been burned at the stake for essentially advocating the same things that were later ushered in by the Protestants. Puzzled by the comparison, Luther, who had never heard about Hus, went to a library to research what the Bohemian had been up to. Stunned by the obvious similarities between Hus’s and his own ideas, the rebellious German monk allegedly exclaimed, “Yes, I am a Hussite.” This historical anecdote was on my mind while I was following a recent debate about how and why, at the end of his life, Michel Foucault (1926-1984) – a 20th-century philosophical giant of a French-Jewish extraction and, simultaneously, one of the intellectual gurus of the modern left – became interested in “neoliberalism.”
Foucault’s intention to explore the ideas of individual liberty and free enterprise – the process which led him to discovering for himself the writings of modern libertarian and libertarian-leaning thinkers, particularly F. A. Hayek (1899-1992), Ludwig von Mises (1881-1973), Wilhelm Röpke (1899-1966), Milton Freedman (1912-2006), and Gary Becker (1930-2014). As the intellectual historian James Miller has informed us, the outcome of those insights was that Foucault implicitly came to defend “the value of a libertarian kind of liberalism.” Continue reading
- Law, Judgement, Republicanism Barry Stocker, NOL
- Economics in the ancient world? Lucas G Freire, NOL
- Auftragstaktik: Decentralization in military command Kevin Kallmes, NOL
- Burn the Witch Michelangelo Landgrave, NOL
Bruno (responding to this and your previous linked post), I’m delighted to be assured that Bolsonaro is not a homophobe, misogynist, a racist or a fascist (an absurdly over used term anyway). However, you offer no evidence to counter the impression that Bolsanaro has leanings in these directions in the Anglophone media, and not just the left-wing media.
Can you deal more precisely with some well known claims about Bolsanoro: he has praised at least one military officer who was a notorious torturer under the last dictatorship, he has praised the dictatorship. I’ve just checked your previous contributions on Brazilian politics and you seem to be in favour of the dictatorship as a agent of struggle against Marxism. I agree that marxism is a bad thing, but it’s not clear to me that means supporting rightist dictatorship.
You say that Bolsanaro understands the need for ‘order’ in Brazilian society. I’m sure we can all agree that Brazil would benefit from more rule of law, but calling for ‘order’ has a rather unpleasant ring to it. The ‘party of order’ has rarely been good for liberty. Can you identify some restrictions on liberty in Brazil that Bolsanaro would remove? Don’t you think there is the slightest risk his attitude to ‘order’ might lead the police to act with more violence? Do you deny that the police sometimes act with excessive violence in Brazil? Do you have any expectation that Bolsanaro will do anything to resolve this or the evident failings of the judicial system?
Do you deny that Bolsanaro said he would prefer his son to be gay rather than die? Don’t you think this gives gays good reason to fear Bolsanaro? I have had a message from a gay American friend who says he is afraid of what will happen and may have to flee the country? Do you understand and care why he is afraid? Do you have any words I can pass onto my friend to reassure him? Preferably not angry words about Gramsci, ‘cultural Marxism’ and ‘gender theory’. Could you actually explain what this ‘gender theory’ in schools is that it i so terrible and apparently justifies Bolsanaro’s crude language? Do you deny that he said a congress woman was too ugly to rape? Can you explain how someone can be fit to hold the highest office in Brazil who makes such a comment?
It’s nice of course that Bolsanaro says now he is favour of free market economics, but isn’t he now back pedalling on this and promising to preserve PT ‘reforms’? Exactly what free market policies do you expect him to introduce and what do you think about the rowing back even before he is in office? Could you say more about which parties and personalities represent classical liberalism now in Congress? If Lula and other leftist politicians (who of course I don’t support at all) have used worse language than Bolsonaro, could you please give examples?
On more theoretical matters
‘Cultural marxism’ to my mind is not an excuse for Bolsanaro’s words and behaviour, or what I know about them. Your account of cultural Marxism anyway strikes me as fuzzy. I very much doubt that Gramsci would recognise himself amongst current ‘cultural Marxists’ and the topics that concern them. I can assure you that a lot of people labelled ‘cultural Marxists’ would not recognise themselves as Marxist or as followers of Marcuse or Gramsci.
The politics of Michel Foucault are a rather complicated and controversial matter but lumping him with some Marxist bloc is hopeless. This isn’t the place to say much about Foucault, but try reading say: *Fearless Speech*, *Society Must Be Defended*, or *Birth of Biopolitics* then see if you think that Foucault belongs with some Marxist or cultural Marxist bloc. The claim that relativism about truth is something to do with Marxism and the anti-liberal left is absurd, all kinds of people with all kinds of politics have had all kinds of views about the status of truth over history. Jürgen Habermas who is an Enlightenment universalist is an influence on the intellectual left, as is Noam Chomsky, a belief in innate knowledge in the form of the universal grammar of languages and associated logical capacity.
Conservatism has often resorted to relativism about the unique values of different countries. Do you think the ancient Sceptics and Sophists have something to do with cultural Marxism? You are referring to these phenomena in a series of familiar talking points from conservative pundits which do not make sense when applied to rather disparate people with different kinds of leftism, of course I have criticisms of them but different kinds of criticisms respecting differences between groups, in which I try to understand their arguments and recognise that sometimes they have arguments worth taking seriously, not a series of angry talking points.
I look forward to being educated by your reply. Please do give us detail and write at length. I write at length, so does Jacques, so there is no reason why you should not.
Again, Barry’s arguments are a good indication of how many in the libertarian movement, worldwide, view Bolsonaro (and others like him, such as Trump), but, while I eagerly await Bruno’s thoughts on Barry’s questions, I have my own to add:
Bolosonaro got 55% of the vote in Brazil. How long can leftists continue to keep calling him a “fascist” or on the “far-right” of the Brazilian political spectrum, especially given Brazil’s cultural and intellectual diversity? Leftists are, by and large, liars. They lie to themselves and to others, and maybe Bruno’s excitement over Bolsonaro’s popularity has more to do with the cultural rebuke of leftist politics in Brazil than to Bolsonaro himself; he’s well-aware, after all, that Brazil’s problems run deeper than socialism.
Bolsonaro’s vulgar, dangerous language might be entertaining, and Brazil’s rebuke of socialist politics is surely encouraging, but it can be easy to “take your eye off the ball,” as we say in the States. Brazil has a long way to go, especially if, like me, you think Brazilians have elected yet another father figure rather than a president tasked with running the executive branch of the federal government.
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.
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.
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.
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.]
“In so far as their only recourse to that world is through what they see and do, we may want to say that after a revolution scientists are responding to a different world.”
Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions p. 111
I can remember arguing with my cousin right after Michael Brown was shot. “It’s still unclear what happened,” I said, “based soley on testimony” — at that point, we were still waiting on the federal autopsy report by the Department of Justice. He said that in the video, you can clearly see Brown, back to the officer and with his hands up, as he is shot up to eight times.
My cousin doesn’t like police. I’m more ambivalent, but I’ve studied criminal justice for a few years now, and I thought that if both of us watched this video (no such video actually existed), it was probably I who would have the more nuanced grasp of what happened. So I said: “Well, I will look up this video, try and get a less biased take and get back to you.” He replied, sarcastically, “You can’t watch it without bias. We all have biases.”
And that seems to be the sentiment of the times: bias encompasses the human experience, it subsumes all judgments and perceptions. Biases are so rampant, in fact, that no objective analysis is possible. These biases may be cognitive, like confirmation bias, emotional fallacies or that phenomenon of constructive memory; or inductive, like selectivity or ignoring base probability; or, as has been common to think, ingrained into experience itself.
The thing about biases is that they are open to psychological evaluation. There are precedents for eliminating them. For instance, one common explanation of racism is that familiarity breeds acceptance, and infamiliarity breeds intolerance (as Reason points out, people further from fracking sites have more negative opinions on the practice than people closer). So to curb racism (a sort of bias), children should interact with people outside of their singular ethnic group. More clinical methodology seeks to transform mental functions that are automatic to controlled, and thereby enter reflective measures into perception, reducing bias. Apart from these, there is that ancient Greek practice of reasoning, wherein patterns and evidence are used to generate logical conclusions.
If it were true that human bias is all-encompassing, and essentially insurmountable, the whole concept of critical thinking goes out the window. Not only do we lose the critical-rationalist, Popperian mode of discovery, but also Socratic dialectic, as essentially “higher truths” disappear from human lexicon.
The belief that biases are intrinsic to human judgment ignores psychological or philosophical methods to counter prejudice because it posits that objectivity itself is impossible. This viewpoint has been associated with “postmodern” schools of philosophy, such as those Dr. Rosi commented on (e.g., those of Derrida, Lacan, Foucault, Butler), although it’s worth pointing out that the analytic tradition, with its origins in Frege, Russell and Moore represents a far greater break from the previous, modern tradition of Descartes and Kant, and often reached similar conclusions as the Continentals.
Although theorists of the “postmodern” clique produced diverse claims about knowledge, society, and politics, the most famous figures are nearly almost always associated or incorporated into the political left. To make a useful simplification of viewpoints: it would seem that progressives have generally accepted Butlerian non-essentialism about gender and Foucauldian terminology (discourse and institutions). Derrida’s poststructuralist critique noted dichotomies and also claimed that the philosophical search for Logos has been patriarchal, almost neoreactionary. (The month before Donald Trump’s victory, the word patriarchy had an all-time high at Google search.) It is not a far right conspiracy that European philosophers with strange theories have influenced and sought to influence American society; it is patent in the new political language.
Some people think of the postmodernists as all social constructivists, holding the theory that many of the categories and identifications we use in the world are social constructs without a human-independent nature (e.g., not natural kinds). Disciplines like anthropology and sociology have long since dipped their toes, and the broader academic community, too, relates that things like gender and race are social constructs. But the ideas can and do go further: “facts” themselves are open to interpretation on this view: to even assert a “fact” is just to affirm power of some sort. This worldview subsequently degrades the status of science into an extended apparatus for confirmation-bias, filling out the details of a committed ideology rather than providing us with new facts about the world. There can be no objectivity outside of a worldview.
Even though philosophy took a naturalistic turn with the philosopher W. V. O. Quine, seeing itself as integrating with and working alongside science, the criticisms of science as an establishment that emerged in the 1950s and 60s (and earlier) often disturbed its unique epistemic privilege in society: ideas that theory is underdetermined by evidence, that scientific progress is nonrational, that unconfirmed auxiliary hypotheses are required to conduct experiments and form theories, and that social norms play a large role in the process of justification all damaged the mythos of science as an exemplar of human rationality.
But once we have dismantled Science, what do we do next? Some critics have held up Nazi German eugenics and phrenology as examples of the damage that science can do to society (nevermind that we now consider them pseudoscience). Yet Lysenkoism and the history of astronomy and cosmology indicate that suppressing scientific discovery can too be deleterious. Austrian physicist and philosopher Paul Feyerabend instead wanted a free society — one where science had equal power as older, more spiritual forms of knowledge. He thought the model of rational science exemplified in Sir Karl Popper was inapplicable to the real machinery of scientific discovery, and the only methodological rule we could impose on science was: “anything goes.”
Feyerabend’s views are almost a caricature of postmodernism, although he denied the label “relativist,” opting instead for philosophical Dadaist. In his pluralism, there is no hierarchy of knowledge, and state power can even be introduced when necessary to break up scientific monopoly. Feyerabend, contra scientists like Richard Dawkins, thought that science was like an organized religion and therefore supported a separation of church and state as well as a separation of state and science. Here is a move forward for a society that has started distrusting the scientific method… but if this is what we should do post-science, it’s still unclear how to proceed. There are still queries for anyone who loathes the hegemony of science in the Western world.
For example, how does the investigation of crimes proceed without strict adherence to the latest scientific protocol? Presumably, Feyerabend didn’t want to privatize law enforcement, but science and the state are very intricately connected. In 2005, Congress authorized the National Academy of Sciences to form a committee and conduct a comprehensive study on contemporary legal science to identify community needs, evaluating laboratory executives, medical examiners, coroners, anthropologists, entomologists, ontologists, and various legal experts. Forensic science — scientific procedure applied to the field of law — exists for two practical goals: exoneration and prosecution. However, the Forensic Science Committee revealed that severe issues riddle forensics (e.g., bite mark analysis), and in their list of recommendations the top priority is establishing an independent federal entity to devise consistent standards and enforce regular practice.
For top scientists, this sort of centralized authority seems necessary to produce reliable work, and it entirely disagrees with Feyerabend’s emphasis on methodological pluralism. Barack Obama formed the National Commission on Forensic Science in 2013 to further investigate problems in the field, and only recently Attorney General Jeff Sessions said the Department of Justice will not renew the committee. It’s unclear now what forensic science will do to resolve its ongoing problems, but what is clear is that the American court system would fall apart without the possibility of appealing to scientific consensus (especially forensics), and that the only foreseeable way to solve the existing issues is through stricter methodology. (Just like with McDonalds, there are enforced standards so that the product is consistent wherever one orders.) More on this later.
So it doesn’t seem to be in the interest of things like due process to abandon science or completely separate it from state power. (It does, however, make sense to move forensic laboratories out from under direct administrative control, as the NAS report notes in Recommendation 4. This is, however, specifically to reduce bias.) In a culture where science is viewed as irrational, Eurocentric, ad hoc, and polluted with ideological motivations — or where Reason itself is seen as a particular hegemonic, imperial device to suppress different cultures — not only do we not know what to do, when we try to do things we lose elements of our civilization that everyone agrees are valuable.
Although Aristotle separated pathos, ethos and logos (adding that all informed each other), later philosophers like Feyerabend thought of reason as a sort of “practice,” with history and connotations like any other human activity, falling far short of sublime. One could no more justify reason outside of its European cosmology than the sacrificial rituals of the Aztecs outside of theirs. To communicate across paradigms, participants have to understand each other on a deep level, even becoming entirely new persons. When debates happen, they must happen on a principle of mutual respect and curiosity.
From this one can detect a bold argument for tolerance. Indeed, Feyerabend was heavily influenced by John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty. Maybe, in a world disillusioned with scientism and objective standards, the next cultural move is multilateral acceptance and tolerance for each others’ ideas.
This has not been the result of postmodern revelations, though. The 2016 election featured the victory of one psychopath over another, from two camps utterly consumed with vitriol for each other. Between Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, Americans drifted toward radicalization as the only establishment candidate seemed to offer the same noxious, warmongering mess of the previous few decades of administration. Politics has only polarized further since the inauguration. The alt-right, a nearly perfect symbol of cultural intolerance, is regular news for mainstream media. Trump acolytes physically brawl with black bloc Antifa in the same city of the 1960s Free Speech Movement. It seems to be the worst at universities. Analytic feminist philosophers asked for the retraction of a controversial paper, seemingly without reading it. Professors even get involved in student disputes, at Berkeley and more recently Evergreen. The names each side uses to attack each other (“fascist,” most prominently) — sometimes accurate, usually not — display a political divide with groups that increasingly refuse to argue their own side and prefer silencing their opposition.
There is not a tolerant left or tolerant right any longer, in the mainstream. We are witnessing only shades of authoritarianism, eager to destroy each other. And what is obvious is that the theories and tools of the postmodernists (post-structuralism, social constructivism, deconstruction, critical theory, relativism) are as useful for reactionary praxis as their usual role in left-wing circles. Says Casey Williams in the New York Times: “Trump’s playbook should be familiar to any student of critical theory and philosophy. It often feels like Trump has stolen our ideas and weaponized them.” The idea of the “post-truth” world originated in postmodern academia. It is the monster turning against Doctor Frankenstein.
Moral (cultural) relativism in particular only promises rejecting our shared humanity. It paralyzes our judgment on female genital mutilation, flogging, stoning, human and animal sacrifice, honor killing, Caste, underground sex trade. The afterbirth of Protagoras, cruelly resurrected once again, does not promise trials at Nuremberg, where the Allied powers appealed to something above and beyond written law to exact judgment on mass murderers. It does not promise justice for the ethnic cleansers in Srebrenica, as the United Nations is helpless to impose a tribunal from outside Bosnia-Herzegovina. Today, this moral pessimism laughs at the phrase “humanitarian crisis,” and Western efforts to change the material conditions of fleeing Iraqis, Afghans, Libyans, Syrians, Venezuelans, North Koreans…
In the absence of universal morality, and the introduction of subjective reality, the vacuum will be filled with something much more awful. And we should be afraid of this because tolerance has not emerged as a replacement. When Harry Potter first encounters Voldemort face-to-scalp, the Dark Lord tells the boy “There is no good and evil. There is only power… and those too weak to seek it.” With the breakdown of concrete moral categories, Feyerabend’s motto — anything goes — is perverted. Voldemort has been compared to Plato’s archetype of the tyrant from the Republic: “It will commit any foul murder, and there is no food it refuses to eat. In a word, it omits no act of folly or shamelessness” … “he is purged of self-discipline and is filled with self-imposed madness.”
Voldemort is the Platonic appetite in the same way he is the psychoanalytic id. Freud’s das Es is able to admit of contradictions, to violate Aristotle’s fundamental laws of logic. It is so base, and removed from the ordinary world of reason, that it follows its own rules we would find utterly abhorrent or impossible. But it is not difficult to imagine that the murder of evidence-based reasoning will result in Death Eater politics. The ego is our rational faculty, adapted to deal with reality; with the death of reason, all that exists is vicious criticism and unfettered libertinism.
Plato predicts Voldemort with the image of the tyrant, and also with one of his primary interlocutors, Thrasymachus, when the sophist opens with “justice is nothing other than the advantage of the stronger.” The one thing Voldemort admires about The Boy Who Lived is his bravery, the trait they share in common. This trait is missing in his Death Eaters. In the fourth novel the Dark Lord is cruel to his reunited followers for abandoning him and losing faith; their cowardice reveals the fundamental logic of his power: his disciples are not true devotees, but opportunists, weak on their own merit and drawn like moths to every Avada Kedavra. Likewise students flock to postmodern relativism to justify their own beliefs when the evidence is an obstacle.
Relativism gives us moral paralysis, allowing in darkness. Another possible move after relativism is supremacy. One look at Richard Spencer’s Twitter demonstrates the incorrigible tenet of the alt-right: the alleged incompatibility of cultures, ethnicities, races: that different groups of humans simply can not get along together. The Final Solution is not about extermination anymore but segregated nationalism. Spencer’s audience is almost entirely men who loathe the current state of things, who share far-reaching conspiracy theories, and despise globalism.
The left, too, creates conspiracies, imagining a bourgeois corporate conglomerate that enlists economists and brainwashes through history books to normalize capitalism; for this reason they despise globalism as well, saying it impoverishes other countries or destroys cultural autonomy. For the alt-right, it is the Jews, and George Soros, who control us; for the burgeoning socialist left, it is the elites, the one-percent. Our minds are not free; fortunately, they will happily supply Übermenschen, in the form of statesmen or critical theorists, to save us from our degeneracy or our false consciousness.
Without the commitment to reasoned debate, tribalism has continued the polarization and inhumility. Each side also accepts science selectively, if they do not question its very justification. The privileged status that the “scientific method” maintains in polite society is denied when convenient; whether it is climate science, evolutionary psychology, sociology, genetics, biology, anatomy or, especially, economics: one side is outright rejecting it, without studying the material enough to immerse oneself in what could be promising knowledge (as Feyerabend urged, and the breakdown of rationality could have encouraged). And ultimately, equal protection, one tenet of individualist thought that allows for multiplicity, is entirely rejected by both: we should be treated differently as humans, often because of the color of our skin.
Relativism and carelessness for standards and communication has given us supremacy and tribalism. It has divided rather than united. Voldemort’s chaotic violence is one possible outcome of rejecting reason as an institution, and it beckons to either political alliance. Are there any examples in Harry Potter of the alternative, Feyerabendian tolerance? Not quite. However, Hermione Granger serves as the Dark Lord’s foil, and gives us a model of reason that is not as archaic as the enemies of rationality would like to suggest. In Against Method (1975), Feyerabend compares different ways rationality has been interpreted alongside practice: in an idealist way, in which reason “completely governs” research, or a naturalist way, in which reason is “completely determined by” research. Taking elements of each, he arrives at an intersection in which one can change the other, both “parts of a single dialectical process.”
“The suggestion can be illustrated by the relation between a map and the adventures of a person using it or by the relation between an artisan and his instruments. Originally maps were constructed as images of and guides to reality and so, presumably, was reason. But maps, like reason, contain idealizations (Hecataeus of Miletus, for examples, imposed the general outlines of Anaximander’s cosmology on his account of the occupied world and represented continents by geometrical figures). The wanderer uses the map to find his way but he also corrects it as he proceeds, removing old idealizations and introducing new ones. Using the map no matter what will soon get him into trouble. But it is better to have maps than to proceed without them. In the same way, the example says, reason without the guidance of a practice will lead us astray while a practice is vastly improved by the addition of reason.” p. 233
Christopher Hitchens pointed out that Granger sounds like Bertrand Russell at times, like this quote about the Resurrection Stone: “You can claim that anything is real if the only basis for believing in it is that nobody has proven it doesn’t exist.” Granger is often the embodiment of anemic analytic philosophy, the institution of order, a disciple for the Ministry of Magic. However, though initially law-abiding, she quickly learns with Potter and Weasley the pleasures of rule-breaking. From the first book onward, she is constantly at odds with the de facto norms of the university, becoming more rebellious as time goes on. It is her levelheaded foundation, but ability to transgress rules, that gives her an astute semi-deontological, semi-utilitarian calculus capable of saving the lives of her friends from the dark arts, and helping to defeat the tyranny of Voldemort foretold by Socrates.
Granger presents a model of reason like Feyerabend’s map analogy. Although pure reason gives us an outline of how to think about things, it is not a static or complete blueprint, and it must be fleshed out with experience, risk-taking, discovery, failure, loss, trauma, pleasure, offense, criticism, and occasional transgressions past the foreseeable limits. Adding these addenda to our heuristics means that we explore a more diverse account of thinking about things and moving around in the world.
When reason is increasingly seen as patriarchal, Western, and imperialist, the only thing consistently offered as a replacement is something like lived experience. Some form of this idea is at least a century old, with Husserl, still modest by reason’s Greco-Roman standards. Yet lived experience has always been pivotal to reason; we only need adjust our popular model. And we can see that we need not reject one or the other entirely. Another critique of reason says it is fool-hardy, limiting, antiquated; this is a perversion of its abilities, and plays to justify the first criticism. We can see that there is room within reason for other pursuits and virtues, picked up along the way.
The emphasis on lived experience, which predominantly comes from the political left, is also antithetical for the cause of “social progress.” Those sympathetic to social theory, particularly the cultural leakage of the strong programme, are constantly torn between claiming (a) science is irrational, and can thus be countered by lived experience (or whatnot) or (b) science may be rational but reason itself is a tool of patriarchy and white supremacy and cannot be universal. (If you haven’t seen either of these claims very frequently, and think them a strawman, you have not been following university protests and editorials. Or radical Twitter: ex., ex., ex., ex.) Of course, as in Freud, this is an example of kettle-logic: the signal of a very strong resistance. We see, though, that we need not accept nor deny these claims and lose anything. Reason need not be stagnant nor all-pervasive, and indeed we’ve been critiquing its limits since 1781.
Outright denying the process of science — whether the model is conjectures and refutations or something less stale — ignores that there is no single uniform body of science. Denial also dismisses the most powerful tool for making difficult empirical decisions. Michael Brown’s death was instantly a political affair, with implications for broader social life. The event has completely changed the face of American social issues. The first autopsy report, from St. Louis County, indicated that Brown was shot at close range in the hand, during an encounter with Officer Darren Wilson. The second independent report commissioned by the family concluded the first shot had not in fact been at close range. After the disagreement with my cousin, the Department of Justice released the final investigation report, and determined that material in the hand wound was consistent with gun residue from an up-close encounter.
Prior to the report, the best evidence available as to what happened in Missouri on August 9, 2014, was the ground footage after the shooting and testimonies from the officer and Ferguson residents at the scene. There are two ways to approach the incident: reason or lived experience. The latter route will lead to ambiguities. Brown’s friend Dorian Johnson and another witness reported that Officer Wilson fired his weapon first at range, under no threat, then pursued Brown out of his vehicle, until Brown turned with his hands in the air to surrender. However, in the St. Louis grand jury half a dozen (African-American) eyewitnesses corroborated Wilson’s account: that Brown did not have his hands raised and was moving toward Wilson. In which direction does “lived experience” tell us to go, then? A new moral maxim — the duty to believe people — will lead to no non-arbitrary conclusion. (And a duty to “always believe x,” where x is a closed group, e.g. victims, will put the cart before the horse.) It appears that, in a case like this, treating evidence as objective is the only solution.
Introducing ad hoc hypotheses, e.g., the Justice Department and the county examiner are corrupt, shifts the approach into one that uses induction, and leaves behind lived experience (and also ignores how forensic anthropology is actually done). This is the introduction of, indeed, scientific standards. (By looking at incentives for lying it might also employ findings from public choice theory, psychology, behavioral economics, etc.) So the personal experience method creates unresolvable ambiguities, and presumably will eventually grant some allowance to scientific procedure.
If we don’t posit a baseline-rationality — Hermione Granger pre-Hogwarts — our ability to critique things at all disappears. Utterly rejecting science and reason, denying objective analysis in the presumption of overriding biases, breaking down naïve universalism into naïve relativism — these are paths to paralysis on their own. More than that, they are hysterical symptoms, because they often create problems out of thin air. Recently, a philosopher and mathematician submitted a hoax paper, Sokal-style, to a peer-reviewed gender studies journal in an attempt to demonstrate what they see as a problem “at the heart of academic fields like gender studies.” The idea was to write a nonsensical, postmodernish essay, and if the journal accepted it, that would indicate the field is intellectually bankrupt. Andrew Smart at Psychology Today instead wrote of the prank: “In many ways this academic hoax validates many of postmodernism’s main arguments.” And although Smart makes some informed points about problems in scientific rigor as a whole, he doesn’t hint at what the validation of postmodernism entails: should we abandon standards in journalism and scholarly integrity? Is the whole process of peer-review functionally untenable? Should we start embracing papers written without any intention of making sense, to look at knowledge concealed below the surface of jargon? The paper, “The conceptual penis,” doesn’t necessarily condemn the whole of gender studies; but, against Smart’s reasoning, we do in fact know that counterintuitive or highly heterodox theory is considered perfectly average.
There were other attacks on the hoax, from Slate, Salon and elsewhere. Criticisms, often valid for the particular essay, typically didn’t move the conversation far enough. There is much more for this discussion. A 2006 paper from the International Journal of Evidence Based Healthcare, “Deconstructing the evidence-based discourse in health sciences,” called the use of scientific evidence “fascist.” In the abstract the authors state their allegiance to the work of Deleuze and Guattari. Real Peer Review, a Twitter account that collects abstracts from scholarly articles, regulary features essays from the departments of women and gender studies, including a recent one from a Ph. D student wherein the author identifies as a hippopotamus. Sure, the recent hoax paper doesn’t really say anything. but it intensifies this much-needed debate. It brings out these two currents — reason and the rejection of reason — and demands a solution. And we know that lived experience is going to be often inconclusive.
Opening up lines of communication is a solution. One valid complaint is that gender studies seems too insulated, in a way in which chemistry, for instance, is not. Critiquing a whole field does ask us to genuinely immerse ourselves first, and this is a step toward tolerance: it is a step past the death of reason and the denial of science. It is a step that requires opening the bubble.
The modern infatuation with human biases as well as Feyerabend’s epistemological anarchism upset our faith in prevailing theories, and the idea that our policies and opinions should be guided by the latest discoveries from an anonymous laboratory. Putting politics first and assuming subjectivity is all-encompassing, we move past objective measures to compare belief systems and theories. However, isn’t the whole operation of modern science designed to work within our means? The system by Kant set limits on humanity rationality, and most science is aligned with an acceptance of fallibility. As Harvard cognitive scientist Steven Pinker says, “to understand the world, we must cultivate work-arounds for our cognitive limitations, including skepticism, open debate, formal precision, and empirical tests, often requiring feats of ingenuity.”
Pinker goes for far as to advocate for scientism. Others need not; but we must understand an academic field before utterly rejecting it. We must think we can understand each other, and live with each other. We must think there is a baseline framework that allows permanent cross-cultural correspondence — a shared form of life which means a Ukrainian can interpret a Russian and a Cuban an American. The rejection of Homo Sapiens commensurability, championed by people like Richard Spencer and those in identity politics, is a path to segregation and supremacy. We must reject Gorgian nihilism about communication, and the Presocratic relativism that camps our moral judgments in inert subjectivity. From one Weltanschauung to the next, our common humanity — which endures class, ethnicity, sex, gender — allows open debate across paradigms.
In the face of relativism, there is room for a nuanced middleground between Pinker’s scientism and the rising anti-science, anti-reason philosophy; Paul Feyerabend has sketched out a basic blueprint. Rather than condemning reason as a Hellenic germ of Western cultural supremacy, we need only adjust the theoretical model to incorporate the “new America of knowledge” into our critical faculty. It is the raison d’être of philosophers to present complicated things in a more digestible form; to “put everything before us,” so says Wittgenstein. Hopefully, people can reach their own conclusions, and embrace the communal human spirit as they do.
However, this may not be so convincing. It might be true that we have a competition of cosmologies: one that believes in reason and objectivity, one that thinks reason is callow and all things are subjective.These two perspectives may well be incommensurable. If I try to defend reason, I invariably must appeal to reasons, and thus argue circularly. If I try to claim “everything is subjective,” I make a universal statement, and simultaneously contradict myself. Between begging the question and contradicting oneself, there is not much indication of where to go. Perhaps we just have to look at history and note the results of either course when it has been applied, and take it as a rhetorical move for which path this points us toward.
Postmodernism has been defined as “unbelief about metanarratives.” Metanarratives are great narratives or great stories; comprehensive explanations of the reality around us. Christianity and other religions are examples of metanarratives, but so are scientism and especially the positivism of more recent intellectual history. More specifically, postmodernism questions that there is a truth out there that can be objectively found by the researcher. In other words, postmodernism questions the existence of an objective external reality, as well as the distinction between the subject who studies this reality and object of study (reality itself), and consequently the possibility of a social science free of values, assumptions, or neutrality.
One of the main theorists of postmodernism (or of deconstructionism, to be more exact) was Jacques Derrida (1930-2004). Derrida noted that Western intellectual history has been, since ancient times, a constant search for a Logos. The Logos is a concept of classical philosophy from which we derive the word logic. It concerns an order, or logic, behind the universe, bringing order (cosmos) to what would otherwise be chaos. The concept of Logos was even appropriated by Christianity when the evangelist John stated that “In the beginning was the Logos, and the Logos was with God and the Logos was God,” identifying the Logos with Jesus Christ. In this way, this concept is undoubtedly one of the most influential in the intellectual history of the West.
Derrida, however, noted that this search for identifying a logos (whether it be an abstract spiritual principle, the person of Jesus Christ, or reason itself) implies the formation of dichotomies, or binary oppositions, where one of the elements of the binary opposition is closer to the Logos than the other, but with the two cancelling each other out in the last instance. In this way, Western culture tended to value masculine over feminine, adult over child, and reason over emotion, among other examples. However, as Derrida observes, these preferences are random choices, coupled with the fact that it is not possible to conceive the masculine without the feminine, the adult without the child, and so on. Derrida’s proposal is to identify and deconstruct these binaries, demonstrating how our conceptions are random.
Michel Foucault (1926-1984) developed a philosophical system similar to that of Derrida. At the beginning of his career he was inserted into the post-WWII French intellectual environment, deeply influenced by existentialists. Eventually Foucault sought to differentiate himself from these thinkers, although Nietzsche’s influence can be seen throughout his career. One of the recurring themes in Foucault’s literary production is the link between knowledge and power. Initially identified as a medical historian (and more precisely of psychoanalysis), he sought to demonstrate how behaviors identified as pathologies by psychiatrists were simply what deviated from accepted societal standards. In this way, Foucault tried to demonstrate how the scientific truths elaborated by the doctors were only authoritarian impositions. In a broader sphere he has identified how the knowledge produced by individuals and institutions clothed with power become true and define the structures in which the other individuals must insert themselves. At this point the same hermeneutic of the suspicion that appears in Nietzsche can be observed in Foucault: distrust of the intentions of the one who makes an assertion. The intentions behind an assertion are not always the explicit ones. Foucault’s other contribution was his discussion of the pan-optic, a kind of prison originally envisioned by the English utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) in which the incarcerated are never sure whether they are being watched or not. The consequence is that the incarcerated need to behave as if they are constantly being watched. Foucault imagined this as a control mechanism applied to everyone in modern society. We are constantly being watched, and charged to suit our standards.
In short, postmodernism questions Metanarratives and our ability to identify absolute truths. Truth becomes relative and any attempt to identify truth becomes an imposition of power over others. In this sense the foundations of modern science, especially in its positivist sense, are questioned. Postmodernism further states that “there is nothing outside the text,” that is, our language has no objective relation to a reality external to itself. Similarly, there is a “death of the author” after the enunciation of a discourse: it is impossible to identify the meaning of a discourse by the intention of the author in writing it, since the text refers only to itself, and is not capable of carrying any sense present in the intention of its author. In this way, discourses should be analyzed not by their relation to a reality external to them or by the intention of the author, but rather in their intertextuality.