Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Contractualist Politics

Contractualism is probably the dominant account of political legitimacy currently. Let me sketch what it is, why I claim it is dominant, and why that is a problem.

A contractualist account of political legitimacy holds that a government is an implicit contract of all citizens to give up some rights to get others to do likewise and to gain certain rights. It supposes that there can be no (political) justice or injustice unless some entity with authority dictates laws. It also supposes that no entity can have such authority unless we the people grant it such authority. It operates with the point of view that there is a default state, or state of nature, which we are trying to avoid, and thus that we contract together to solve the problems of that default state. What the government can do, therefore, is limited by what we can suppose individuals would let it do in order to get out of the default state. If the situation in the government is worse than the default state, then the people cannot be supposed to have authorized it, and thus the government must be illegitimate.

The default state is generally viewed as a state where each person is alone, where it is one's own effort and labor by which one survives. Whether the contract is formed for security against aggressors or for the benefits of division of labor, the contract is what first brings people into communities. Even Rawls's veil of ignorance has each individual considering what the best situation would be for one, not knowing what social location or what talents or abilities one might have.

The strongest versions will form a multilayered structure where only the most basic elements rely on a contract of everyone with everyone, and thus preclude such anarchistic tendencies as suggested by "not my president." For instance, our own government relies for its authority on the constitution. Nevertheless, if we the people established the constitution, then we the people can revoke it, and secession is easier than accession. To establish the constitution one needs a critical mass of people to form a citizenry. To disestablish it, one must merely lose such a mass. Of course, what keeps a constitutionalist government going, on its own account, is that everyone hopefully prefers it to the alternative. How long one can keep that up depend on what people take the alternative to be and how people feel about how things are going under the government.

The United States is founded on contractualist political philosophy: the preamble to our constitution is explicit that "We the people of the United States...do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America." The revolution was based on the premise that the people have a right to revolt against a government which is not providing for the citizens' improvement beyond the default condition, but which is rather, as it was viewed, merely using the citizens for its own benefit. The colonists held that they could improve on the default condition better than Mother England, and so, in virtue of that fact and the failure of the existing government, held that they had a right and even a duty to rebel and instate a government which would be truly legitimate. This same attitude recurs when we hear "not my president," claims that because the taxes are unfair one needn't feel bad about cheating on them, or see individuals speeding because others are doing so and they can get away with it. If the government is not succeeding at improving on the default condition, and if it is failing to secure my rights, then the rights I gave up for that security may be retained.

There are two big problems with this view: the notion of a default state and the account of legitimacy are both problematic. They both play into an individualistic view of authority and persons.

The problem with the notion of the default state is that there is no sense that one might rightly uphold a government because it is one's own. This may be an unfair critique of Rawls, insofar as what the veil of ignorance is supposed to establish is the shape of justice, which is the end point, not where we are quite expected to be now. Rawls has been critiqued in this way before, by those who see his establishment of the goal as prior to figuring out how to get there as problematic, but that is not the present point. The present point is that contractualist views of political legitimacy encourage one to judge any present government for failing to achieve justice. They occlude the importance of our present situation for any analysis of what we should do now. Rawls can grant that the question of how to reach justice may be a difficult one requiring an analysis of present social realities. What Rawls occludes is how our view of what we would see from behind the veil of ignorance is always situated in our society. We can never get fully behind the veil, because we are already situated in some society which has formed us to value some things over others. Even our account of who goes behind the curtain or what counts as a social location is modified by who we take to count as a citizen. How disabled, how young, and how old can one be and still count?

The account of legitimacy is likewise problematic. Because we are situated already in a society, we do not, in the ordinary course of things, consider ourselves the source of the legitimacy of the government. We do not, contrary to what contract theorists originally hoped, view the government as legislating on our behalf such that the law is decreed by us by proxy. Rather, we view the government either as doing well or doing poorly, promoting the welfare of society or not. The legitimacy of the government appears to be secured by the government's attitude toward the governed. Thus, the justice of revolt arises, not because the citizenry can do better or because the default state would be better, but because the government does not take the citizenry into account in its deliberations. It is the alienation of the citizenry from the government, and not the failure of the government per se, which delegitimatizes the government. What is accurate about contractualism is that citizens ought to see their interests represented in the legislation, and not merely interests of the state as such or interests of other institutions (although such will be brought in via the interests of the citizenry). The requirement that it be an equal contract is accurate in that the interests of the whole citizenry ought to be represented in legislation, not simply the powerful citizens.

But what I am suggesting is right about the legitimation scheme of contractualism is a different account of legitimation. The source of legitimacy is no longer the consent of the citizenry, but the success of the government as a government, where a government is not defined as a group of contracting individuals, but as providing order and protection to a group of interested social agents, who are situated in a society which is already under way, in a way consonant with how those agents and that society is.

We can also view these two problems from a theological standpoint. The authority of the rulers and authorities of this world is derived from God's authority. The legitimacy of a government is ultimately a matter of its fulfilling God's purpose for government. Where contractualism makes our collective purposes the standard for good government and the source of its authority, we must affirm that, viewed theologically, it is God's purposes which matter and he is the source of all authority. Contractualism--I suggest, recognizing that there is room for push-back--is a political philosophy which views the citizenry as a god, catering to our idolatrous hearts.

Monday, April 23, 2018


The notion which provides the title for this post finds use in a rather wide spread of "western" thought. Whether or not it finds use outside of thought which the West has drawn from, I cannot say. There are two distinct sources which come into understanding this notion: one is the Aristotelian concept of the fulfillment of a telos, the other is the Biblical concept of fulfillment of a prophetic theme. These are connected concepts, but not identical.

The Aristotelian concept of fulfillment is that of satisfaction. A fulfills something (a telos or desire) B if, and only if, B had specified A, or an item with property P where A has P, as its condition of satisfaction. Thus, a desire for something sweet can be satisfied by chocolate because chocolate is sweet, although a desire for chocolate cannot be satisfied by candy corn. On this notion of fulfillment, something can only be the fulfillment of a desire or something else which has a telos, and can only do so by meeting that telos. A human can only be fulfilled, in this sense, by becoming all that a human is supposed to be, by fulfilling the human telos, by matching the goal specified by one's human nature. One cannot fulfill the telos of a being by altering the underlying nature, for then one is simply altering the being to be a different being. Turning a human into a giraffe does not change the telos of the same being, but eliminates one being and brings another into existence, and this is precisely because the telos changes so fundamentally.

The Biblical concept of fulfillment is similar, but different. It is evident that Biblical fulfillment can apply to things which do not possess inherent teloi, or can apply to things which possess inherent teloi without satisfying their surface level satisfaction conditions. Thus, Jesus can fulfill the law while, on the face of it, breaking the Sabbath. This is because the Biblical concept of fulfillment is a narrative-based concept. To fulfill something in this sense is to bring the story of which it is a part to completion in such a way that the part one is fulfilling is evidenced as important to the plot. This variety of fulfillment not only brings an underlying pervasive telos to satisfaction, but draws together the narrative threads which pointed to it and exhibits them in such a way as to accomplish their sense. The Biblical concept thus adds a narrative component which is lacking in the Aristotelian desire satisfaction account. The Biblical concept does not specify that it is the essence of a thing which specifies the telos to be satisfied, however. This is not to say that the Bible excludes that possibility, it simply does not tend to operate in terms of essences and teloi so much as narratives.

Hegel's reinterpretation of Christianity and drawing of the Creation-Fall-Redemption cycle together with an expressive account of reality brings the Biblical concept into philosophy and begins to unify the Aristotelian and Biblical concepts, but I find the existentialist account of action brings these two concepts together more clearly. Ironically, we can see this most clearly in thinkers like Sartre and Merleau-Ponty whose metaphysics generally seem opposed to Christian metaphysics. Sartre emphasizes that we lay down a past behind us, a sediment as it were, which makes us a certain way which we never at the same time are. One's past defines one, in a way, that is, one's objective being is only how one has been in appearance, yet that appearance cannot limit you. Sartre is opposed to a narrative construal of life, yet emphasizes the way that my past can only be understood in light of the future it gave rise to--if one finds oneself weeping over one's faults, this may be a moment of repentance or of weakness, depending on what one does from there. One's sincerity or insincerity can only be ascertained--only holds, even--in light of how one lives from there.

Merleau-Ponty is more sympathetic to a narrative understanding of life. His thought operates in terms of Gestalts. That is, he thinks in terms of wholes which are composed of parts in dynamic relation to each other. In this way of thinking, the whole can only be understood in terms of its parts and vice-versa. Applied to a life as a whole, then, there is a kind of unity which is to be attained, and that unity is a unity which must be constructed by living in such a way that one's life forms a narrative whole. For Merleau-Ponty as for Sartre this narrative whole does not pre-exist our construction of it, but unlike Sartre, the narrative has validity to it. One's past thus makes a certain demand on one's present and future to be such that the whole life forms a unified whole and not merely a set of moments one outside the other, as Sartre seems to claim all lives essentially are.

This narrative notion of life as being such that it ought to be unified presses us towards a Biblical concept of fulfillment. Yet Merleau-Ponty has not abandoned the Aristotelian concept, either. The essence has been replaced by a dynamic of forces which seek equilibrium and that equilibrium specifies a telos. This is a telos of self-maintenance, but self-maintenance as the kind of being one is, and thus this notion draws in the narrative concept of fulfillment because it endorses Sartre's idea of sedimentation. If we sediment ourselves, then that becomes part of who we are which must be maintained, any break with it must itself have a place in the narrative unity we are making of our lives.

From this vantage point, there is another kind of fulfillment which we can make out in the Bible. I do not think it is ever called fulfillment, but it is, itself, fulfilled in light of this concept of fulfillment I am drawing out here. Take the story of Abraham and Isaac or the story of Job, or really any of the stories which mirror Christ's cycle of life, death, and resurrection. In all of these stories, an inner reality is expressed, sedimented, proved. Abraham's faith is proven to the highest extent, it is given opportunity to express itself and sediment itself as a part of his life. Job's faith, likewise, is expressed in his life in a way it could not have been otherwise. In these stories we find God desiring to make evident what is only visible to himself. Even in Creation we see God wanting to make himself visible to others. Abraham fulfills his faith by offering his son. Job fulfills his faith by holding fast to God in suffering. In this way, we can see these events as generous gifts of God both to those who went through the trials and to us. For them, they are fulfilled by fulfilling who they have become in a hidden manner. For us, we are granted to see what only God could see before.

There is a general principle which I draw from all this: whatever exists is proven to exist in the way it exists. This can be applied as a principle of metaphysics, epistemology, or value-theory. What is good is proven good, what is real is proven real. The notion of proof here is correlative to the notion of fulfillment. I could equally say: whatever exists is fulfilled. This is a very Hegelian claim, but it does not require the rest of Hegel's metaphysics, and fits well with existentialist thought as well as Christian thought about the eschaton, when Christ will be proven Lord of all and all things will be made right.

This does not mean that it is fulfilled in the straightforward Aristotelian manner. It does not mean that everyone will one day have their telos satisfied completely. Rather, there is a narrative dimension which also applies. Those of us who have faith in Christ, who participate in his death and therefore also in his life, will be fulfilled in our narrative and fulfill the narrative which Christ has lived ahead of us. Yet this ending which we look forward to is tied to the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, and that narrative must be made our own. This is not to say that we must act perfectly like Christ or forego Christ's ending, but it does mean that we must recognize our lives as narratives in his mold. We can only claim our lives as of our own writing in ways which we also live as moments, not of sincerity, but of weakness. Our sins must take a particular role in our narratives, and Christ must take his place as Lord of our lives. The unrighteous, on the other hand, will receive their due punishment in order that their actions may form a narrative which fulfills the nature of injustice. If this attempt at explaining how this principle does not give rise to universalism makes little sense, do not worry. It is a single paragraph tackling a subject on which books are written.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Addiction, Regulation, and Social Media

This is a brief argument. Note that I mean the term "regulation" very broadly, to include "sin taxes" and other such non-regulatory pressures placed, by the government, on things because "we" disapprove of them.

Premise: we regulate (in this broad sense) addictive substances.
Premise: social media platforms are addictive.
Conclusion: we should regulate (in this broad sense) social media.

Now, there are some obvious objections. For one, we do not regulate all addictive substances, nor do we regulate them simply because they are addictive. For instance, coffee is addictive, yet basically unregulated in this way. Rather, we regulate substances which are particularly dangerous, and we particularly regulate dangerous substances which are addictive. Nevertheless, social media, at least broadly, seems to qualify. I doubt I need to link to the research on how social media tends to significantly affect markers of depression, or the ways that social media has corroded connection and aided the production of epistemic bubbles. So, the altered form of the argument goes:

P: we regulate dangerous addictive substances.
P. social media platforms are dangerous and addictive
C: we should regulate social media platforms

Now, some will object that we ought not regulate dangerous addictive substances because it infringes on the liberty of consumers. The view seems to be that consumers should be trusted to exercise their liberty according to their own views of their best interests. This view strikes me as a little bizarre in this case, since the whole point is that these substances in particular are capable of subverting what rationality we do have. It does not seem to be conducive to liberty to permit people to easily enslave themselves to dangerous addictive substances any more than it would be to permit them to easily enslave themselves to other humans. The regulation's purpose in these cases is to preserve liberty.

If one accepts this argument, then the chief puzzle is how one goes about regulating, in this sense, something like Facebook or Twitter. The kinds of regulations we have used for dangerous addictive substances in the past are not easily applicable to an ethereal substance which is accessible anywhere without paying money. Even a "no Facebook zone" would be hard to enforce. One might attempt requirements on applications designed to reduce either the harmful effects or the degree of addictiveness, although these will need to be constantly updated to keep up with new developments, making it an arms race between social media companies and regulators.

Another option might be to provide just enough nominal regulation to get the point across that social media usage is a dangerous addictive substance, and thus should be engaged in only in moderation. The aim here would be to change social attitudes toward social media usage, making it more socially acceptable to try to avoid social media usage, less socially acceptable to appear addicted to it, etc. This kind of tactic could operate without the regulation, of course, provided a sufficient number of people began expressing such views. I would almost be surprised if this is not the direction we are moving in. Social media addiction may soon be regarded similarly to alcoholism: both are addictive, correlated with depression, and isolating.

Friday, April 20, 2018

Mourning and Perspective

Bad events justify mourning. Bad events, being bad, are mourn-worthy. This seems like an accurate statement, but it must be refined. Do we mean that every bad event justifies everyone mourning forever? If not, why not? It cannot be because the proper response is not, for some people, to mourn, supposing that the mourn-worthiness is inherent in the event. Of course, we might give an account on which the mourn-worthiness of events is relative to the agent. In that case, what makes an event mourn-worthy to some but not others?

Now, there are likely some events which are mourn-worthy only for some and not for others. I would like to set those aside for now, however, and consider only those events which are mourn-worthy for anyone who hears of them. Even in such cases, the degree may vary. I want to suggest that, where the badness to the agents is the same but the mourn-worthiness differs, this is a result of how worthy those events are of consideration by the agents.

On this account, we have more reason to consider bad events the more they affect our lives and the lives of those close to us. Two equally mourn-worthy events, or the same mourn-worthy event at two different times, may rightfully elicit different degrees of mournfulness from us on account of our differing practical relations to them. The events continue to provide reasons for us to mourn, but we cease to be in a situation where those reasons warrant as much consideration.

Depending on one's conception of reasons, this may amount to the events giving less reason. That is, if a reason just is something which should be given consideration in practical reasoning, then the fact that one has reason, all things considered, not to give weight to a fact in practical reasoning entails that the fact is not a reason for one, and similarly if one merely has some reason not to give weight to a reason, then the reason is less weighty of a reason. If this is one's account of reasons, then it should be no surprise that reasons come and go over time.

If, on the other hand, we presuppose that reasons are eternal in the way that other ideal entities are supposed to be (e.g., numbers, the predicate "being red," etc.,), then the reason goes along with the event, and is just as much a reason whether or not we have reason to take it into (or exclude it from) consideration. Translated into a less Platonist idiom, this might becomes the view that an event provides a reason for action phi provided only that, were one to consider it and only it, then one would rightly reach the practical conclusion *phi*. Combinations of events will provide different reasons from their isolated parts, and might not provide a reason derivable from their parts. This conflicts with our ordinary language of "weighing reasons" which seems to suggest that distinct reasons can be placed alongside each other. Yet it is not an uncommon claim that it is only in a context that reasons exist and have force. That the light turned green is only a reason to go because of its situation in a set of laws, and it seems to provide no reason to go if the road is blocked ahead of me. Again, the reason appears to evaporate in certain contexts.

So we seem to be forced to claim that reasons are ephemeral things. Nevertheless, mourn-worthy events remain mourn-worthy. That is, they remain such that the proper reaction to them, when faced with them, is to mourn over them to an extent corresponding to their degree of mournfulness and how directly one is faced with them. The reason to mourn provided by a mourn-worthy event may evaporate, but this is not because the event ceases to be mourn-worthy, but because we lack reason to consider it. The mourn-worthy event only provided reason to mourn at all because it occurred in a context where it made it fitting for someone to mourn. If we were given fresh reason to consider the event, as on the anniversary of the event, then the reason to mourn would revive because the event retains whatever features made it a mourn-worthy event.

Thursday, April 19, 2018


When one is aware, one are aware of something. To be self-aware is to be aware of oneself. One can be aware without being aware of oneself if, for instance, one is aware of a ball in front of oneself instead. But is this right? If one is aware of a ball in front of oneself, isn't one implicitly aware of oneself? This turns on what we mean by awareness.

There are, potentially, at least two ways in which one can be aware of something. One can have the object of awareness before one, or one may have the object of awareness as an understood correlate of one's experience. When one is aware of a tree, for instance, one is aware of the part of the tree facing one, but one is also aware of the whole tree. The back and insides of the tree are merely understood as the correlate of the front of the tree. Likewise, then, one may be aware of oneself as one examines oneself or as one recognizes oneself as a correlate of one's experience as centered on a body.

When one views a tree, the existence of a front and behind, of a left and right, involves a relation to the point of view from which it is viewed, and thus the experience entails a perceiving being. This may be noted more or less. It is possible that animals might have experiences which imply their particular beings without noticing this implication. They would thus be self-aware in a very weak sense. We are able to direct our awareness to the implied particular being, ourselves, and thus shift from being aware of ourselves as an understood correlate to the direct object of awareness.

If one means by awareness only direct awareness, then one can be aware of things without being aware of oneself. If one means both varieties of awareness, then any being with awareness at all is aware of itself. I suspect that, when we are discussing self-awareness, we mean awareness of the direct kind.

We may be peculiar in being able to reflect on the perspectival nature of our engagement with the world. One can notice that One is seeing things only from one's own point of view, and one can reflect on how one's point of view may alter what one sees. One can do this at several levels, not only with perception of objects, where one can consider the possible effects of optical illusions, obstructions, and deception, but also with our thoughts. One can thus consider how ideas appear to one perspectivally, and hence how one's considerations may be being altered. One can ask, for instance, what would make one's argument stronger or weaker.

We might structure kinds of self-awareness by what elements of the self the awareness takes in. Some creatures might be self-aware in recognizing that their perceptions are perspectivally bound and might therefore engage in a particular kind of exploratory or group behavior. One might suppose that the use of lookouts hints at this degree of self-awareness in many creatures. Others may be aware that their thoughts are perspectivally bound in that they are restricted by the ideas they are aware of and their cognitive capacities. Others may recognize that their emotions are perspectivally bound, and this in one of two ways. Their emotions are perspectivally bound in being elicited by what they are aware of from their perspectival vantage point, but their emotions are also perspectivally bound by being an expression of their particular values. The former kind of self-awareness, I would suspect, would be more common, or stronger, than the latter. As humans, we are capable of all of these varieties of self-awareness. Some of these come more naturally than others. The perceptual and the first emotional kinds are likely the most straightforward, whereas those relating to thoughts and the latter emotional kind take more effort or reflection. Thus, it is incredibly difficult to genuinely wonder whether one's conclusions are accurate and whether one's emotional reactions are fitting.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Out of the Echo Chamber Wars

I noted in the previous post that our present predicament bears some similarities to Hegel's master-slave dialectic in his Phenomenology of Spirit. In this post, I want to use that as a clue to how we might expect our cultural development to go from here. However, having taken time to examine that region of the Phenomenology of Spirit a little bit more, it turns out that Hegel later discusses a phenomenon closer to our own culture, and so we will examine that discussion, not the master-slave dialectic. We will also discuss Hegel's account of the French Revolution and Terror. It is noting, however, that the feature which all of these share, that is, that of hostility between groups which each want unilateral recognition, is based, in both cases, on a desire for independence which does not permit mediated independence.

The sections we are interested in to begin with are  labeled (in my copy) The  Law of the Heart, and the Frenzy of Self-Conceit (C.V.B.b., pp.209-15) and Absolute Freedom and Terror (C.VI.III., pp.343-50). First, I want to show how this section matches our current predicament, then I want to examine whether Hegel's account of this phase's transition can be made sense of from where we are. Be warned that I find these sections difficult, and will be relying somewhat on Charles Taylor's reading in his Hegel (Ch.V.3.II., and Ch.VI.2., pp.163-7, 184-188). Even with such aid, however, I may not be able to make this as clear as I would like.

Taylor sets the stage as one where self-consciousness wants to recognize itself in the state, and believes itself to be naturally good and the world to be at its service. Thus, it wants to reform the state in its own image. This natural goodness, however, means that it thinks that the problem is law itself. Thus, it finds laws, generally, to be bad. For this reason, self-consciousness cannot, here, stop trying to reform the law and finds any law it passes to be an alien imposition upon it again. What one generation reforms the state into, the next (if both are in this stage) reforms it back out of. This comes out especially in Hegel's discussion of the French Revolution:
This process is consequently the interaction of consciousness with itself, in which it lets nothing break away and assume the shape of a determinate object standing over against it. It follows from this, that it cannot arrive at a positive accomplishment of anything, either in the way of universal works of language or of those of actual reality, either in the shape of laws and universal regulations of conscious freedom, or of deeds and works of active freedom.
Now, Hegel describes how get conflict from here:
Hence others find in this content not the law of their heart fulfilled, but rather that of someone else; and precisely in accordance with the universal law, that each is to find his own heart in what is law, they turn against that reality which he set up, just as he on his side turned against theirs. (p.212, emphasis in original)
And, in the case of the French Terror:
Universal freedom can thus produce neither o positive achievement nor a deed; there is left for it only negative action; it is merely the rage and fury of destruction. (p.346)
The government is itself nothing but the self-established focus, the individual embodiment of the universal will. ... By no manner of means, therefore, can it exhibit itself as anything but a faction. The victorious faction only is called the government; and just in that it is a faction lies the direct necessity of its overthrow; (p.347)
Because the government is a faction, it is guilty, and thus cannot prove the guilt of its opposition, thus,
Being suspected, therefore, takes the place, or has the significance and effect,  of being guilty; and the external reaction against this reality that lies in bare inward intention, consists in the arid barren destruction of this particular existent self, (ibid.)
And towards the end of Hegel's analysis (after discussing how this stage goes crazy):
The universal here presented, therefore, is only a universal resistance and struggle of all against one another. ... What appears as public ordinance is thus this state of war of each against all.  (p.215)
I have now presented the two contradictions in the opposite order to Taylor (and Hegel). Taylor follows his explanation of these two contradictions with the shift which they require:
If the world order is the law of all hearts, then it can be considered as potentially capable of expressing the universal. What it would require on this view would be simply to be purged of individual self-seeking. (pp.165-6)
Because the source of the problem here is holding to one's own individuality, the next phase is a stage of self-denial. As I cannot yet make sense of Hegel himself in this following section, we will deal with Taylor here.
The peculiar feature of this kind of phase is man's sense of his own unworthiness, his apologizing for his existence, and his attempt to suppress his particularity, and become nothing but universal will. (p.166)
If Taylor's reading of Hegel is right, and if our era is sufficiently like the previous phase, then a Hegelian prediction for our future would be that we will transition into this self-denying phase. What could this look like? I think we already see this developing in a concern with "checking one's privilege" and avoiding assimilating other cultural expressions for fear that we will do so in an offensive manner. It shows up in other ways as well, but the general direction is towards putting oneself and one's own group down. This may also account for the amount of depression if we take depression to be internalized anger, anger with oneself. This is strongest in groups which form a majority, but I suspect it spreads to other groups, and most people are part of some kind of majority.

However, this takes self-consciousness on a road to a Kantian philosophy of duty. This is a duty which can never be fulfilled, because its fulfillment would be its end. Just as our current attempts at being authentic tend to involve seeking to be different from others, this kind of duty seeks to do the duties because they are duties and not because that is how we can be true to ourselves. What is needed is an account where being true to oneself and doing one's duty, as one is called to it by one's society, can come together, and thus where one can attain both true authenticity and fulfill one's duty. The Kantian account divides happiness from duty, whereas the account Hegel is driving at has it that our ultimate fulfillment is a fulfillment of duty, happiness is found in doing what is truly one's duty.

Because of this contradiction, we come around to a Romantic notion which holds to a moral intuition which is divided into a virtue-signaling speaker and a confidently active person who fails to attain to a genuine universal, who is thus charged with hypocrisy by the virtue-signaler who is likewise a hypocrite. Each is confident that it is in harmony with the universal, but they are still operating from intuition, not reason. They hold their views as a kind of divine revelation through intuition of the divine mind, but not one which can be thought, rather, it is only felt. This phase finally ends in a reconciliation between the two parties, and seems to complete the development of political culture in Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit. Perhaps there are other hints as to directions of development elsewhere, and we should certainly be open to the possibilities that Hegel may easily have gotten things wrong, missed stages, or failed to recognize a continuation.

This is not an entirely optimistic bit of futurology, but this discussion also does not bring us to the end of the line. We can hope that it is a short lived phase, and that we get to a decent stage before too long. Or we can hope that we take a good long time getting there, for the following one appears to be coming, one of letting the intention count for everything, on the one hand, and a struggle over what our actions mean on the other, which goes along with the Romantic phase I briefly noted above. This already appears, in our development, tied up both with entitlement and with the fear of appropriation just noted. It is a long road out if Hegel is correct and if we do not speed up.

It is worth noting that this account has twists and turns. On this account, we are not doomed to go farther and farther in the direction we are now going. I have not articulated how these twists might actually impact those trends which we are currently concerned about, but there are glimpses of hope for concerns about entitlement, linguistic tyranny, and, I think, racism.

A small note on race and Hegel. Hegel can look quite racist, and I wouldn't deny that he is, in fact, racist. However, his account of slavery's position in history and the development of consciousness does not validate slavery or racism in the end, although it grants it a position in the development of a people. Hegel would say a similar thing about the French Terror. The various iterations of master-slave-type dialectics can be seen as transitions enabling a previously hierarchized relation to reach equality. This is, roughly, how I see Marx appropriating the master-slave dialectic in economic relations. Thus, our present transition through extreme opposition may be seen, from a Hegelian standpoint, as a stage in racial reconciliation.

I should also note that I am not completely sold on Hegel's philosophy. I find it intriguing, and an interesting tool for thinking through these things and gaining a new perspective on them. It is worth trying to see how well what Hegel would say fits with where we are, and how much we might be able to use to make better progress. 

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

No, We Are Not Postmodern

The notion that we live in a postmodern world is bandied about, still. Primarily, I come across it among conservatives, political and theological, who tend to mean something about our culture not caring about truth or believing that truth is relative.

Perhaps there are some circles where the concept of postmodernism is applicable. Perhaps it is even clear what postmodernism is. I doubt it holds of American culture broadly. If it does hold, it holds more among conservatives themselves than liberals.

First of all, my argument is not that we actually tend to attain truth, nor that we actually act like we care about truth, but that we would claim to care about truth and claim to aim at it. Further, there are some postmodernist claims which we completely disavow. Yet there is continuity with postmodernism. We used to be more postmodern, but things have changed. It was a phase of which we retain a residue.

The very use of the terms "Post-Truth" and "Fake News" expose, not a lack of concern with truth, but a massive concern with truth, a weaponized concern with truth. Truth cannot be relative in the stereotypical postmodern sense without making these terms incoherent. These terms do not claim that the other side's news is true for them but not for the speaker, rather, it claims that the other side's news is false and usually suggests that the news is maliciously false (whether by intending to be false or maliciously being unconcerned with whether or not it is true). What we do not do, however, is claim that this is good or right.

The use of the term "Fake News" is also incompatible with a radical postmodern take on interpretation which would hold that there are no facts, only infinitely questionable interpretations. We do not claim that the news we call fake is merely an interpretation which is equally possible if one approaches with particular presuppositions; rather, we claim that they are accounts of matters of fact which get things wrong. We object, not only to what we take to be false factual claims, but to what we take to be unjustified interpretations. The postmodern instinct, on the other hand, is suspicious of claims about facts, being extremely aware of how statistics can lie, likely to a fault.

The belief that there is a "right side of history" or that America or a particular ideology is destined for greatness collides head on with the postmodern suspicion of metanarratives. Metanarratives being just such claims about history having a purpose, an overarching structure which gives historical action meaning and our actions meaning in historical perspective.

This shift has come about gradually, and there is important continuity with postmodernism here. We are strongly aware of the sociology of knowledge, that is, how our social groups set up plausibility structures and provide claims as to what can count as knowledge. This underlies the concern with bubbles and echo chambers. We are also aware of a need to listen to and understand those who disagree with us, which at least points in the direction of needing to be aware of each others' presuppositions in order to understand and communicate with each other across ideological lines.

The shift we have undergone is one which moves us from an individualistic way of securing certainty and tolerance by blocking argument to a communal way of doing so. Instead of individually trying to hold off arguments by denying that truths of certain kinds can reasonably be argued for, we form cultures which deny the possibility of any sane argument for certain claims, and regard all arguments for such claims as insane in some form, often maliciously so. Instead of individually demanding tolerance for our views, we merely isolate ourselves to groups of people who do tolerate our views and keep at arms length those who do not tolerate our views.

This shift has occurred because we want our truth claims to be recognized--again, the sociology of knowledge ideas which postmodern theorists largely popularized. In order to gain recognition for our truths, we need groups which will recognize those truths as truths. But we have also retained the desire to avoid needing to argue carefully for our views in response to all-comers. We are uncomfortable with argument, perhaps largely because one of the things we have retained from the postmodern era is a suspicion of reason. The only way to gain recognition for truth claims and avoid argument (and thus gain something have the form of certainty but lacking its power) is to form echo chambers. The two desires of our era are, then, the recognition of our own truth claims and the avoidance of conflict. In some ways, the latter is an extreme manifestation of the former--conflict occurs where truth claims are not recognized. To sum it up in a single desire: we desire certainty. This, too, is opposed to what "postmodernism" is ordinarily used to mean. A true postmodernism is comfortable with uncertainty, indeed, would hold it to be our necessary condition.

This era, too, will give way. We all recognize that echo chambers are a problem and that we have produced a situation where ideologies routinely talk past each other. The challenge is to alter our desires and forms of life in such a way as to move beyond our current era. We must move beyond, rather than back to the "good old" days of modernism, because we cannot unlearn the ways in which our rationality is affected by more than reason, the ways that reason can be used to manipulate, and the ways in which we are situated in cultures.

In pursuing these desires, however, we have cut ourselves off from the genuine community which comes only where conflict can occur and from the pursuit of objective truth, that is, truth which can be recognized by any who genuinely and carefully seek it. We fail, then, to achieve recognition for our claims to objective truth, because our claims are recognized merely as a truth of the community we are in, not as objective truth, that is, the truth of, in principle, everyone. Hegel would claim, I think, that this kind of recognition occurs in the state, and this would account for the way in which the legal system is weaponized by all sides against their opponents in arguments about what is good.

At some point, I hope, we will recognize that we have merely substituted one kind of conflict for another. In seeking recognition for our claims to possess objective truth, we have attempted to wrest it unilaterally from each other by force of law, thus pressing us into a conflict which must end in either annihilation or subjugation of the other view. We are engaging, in other words, in something very similar to a community-level or thought-level occurrence of Hegel's master-slave dialectic. We are operating at a different level, but the same dynamics of conflict are at work, and both ordinary conclusions will be unsatisfactory because they will not prove the truth claims to be objective.

This post has gone long enough. I will end by summarizing. We are not postmodern, but are distinctly not postmodern. Nevertheless, we possess an inheritance from postmodernism which affects how we live, and casts light on our present predicament. When seen in this light, we can see that our present predicament, too, must pass on into a further stage of culture, and cannot retreat to an apparently better age.