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October 28, 2004
Fallibilist Philosophy

'He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster. When you gaze into the abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.' -- Friedrich Nietzsche

A thought thread woven through previous posts deals with the conflicting world views of those who seize upon an idea and become zealous proponents of it - taking it to extremes and so losing any value the original idea may have had - and those who maintain a critical stance, even of their own ideas, and so avoid turning them into dogma or caricature. The excitable extremists ride their notions into the ground and end up walking, or crawling, while the more critical not only keep their mounts they do better at choosing routes among the various turnings and forkings of paths. It's not just a difference in temperament. There's an element of personal integrity and intellectual honesty involved as well as courage. When uncertainty or doubt arises, as it always does when fully engaged, what is the useful response? Zealots deny and ignore it, redoubling their efforts and zeal, and so immunize themselves to knowledge, preferring belief and dogma. This isn't an innocent quirk, a charming or harmless character defect, since the end result is always blood flowing like water.

In a previous post Trick Questions current US political polarization was explored and likened to the old Whig/Jacobite polarization during the first stirrings of the enlightenment period of European history and speculated that this as yet unresolved conflict was still vital, still a component of Anglo-French conflict not only at a national level but at the philosophical level and so crossing borders as did the old Whig/Jacobite polarization.

A number of writings have been published recently that make similar arguments. Gertrude Himmelfarb's history The Roads to Modernity: The British, French and American Enlightenments contrasts the thinking and accomplishments of various schools during that era. Those most deeply skewered by her book have given unflattering reviews. 1,2 This David Denby essay Northern Lights: How modern life emerged from eighteenth-century Edinburgh makes related points and this recent column by Martin Kettle, Socialism is dead. Long live liberalism and social justice focuses on Locke. This tendency to extremism haunts the enlightenment and contributes to the current muddle. As Michael Blowhard writes:

The Enlightenment, eh? What a mixed legacy. On the one hand: clarity and progress. On the other: arrogance and the evaporation of meaning. Spin the Enlightenment's implications out, and you wind up in a tangle, wrapped up in the bind we're told we necessarily struggle with today: po-mo, deconstruction, the crisis of "liberalism," bizarre buildings ... And we're led to believe that all this is inevitable -- that we can't have the blessings of Reason without the curses and agonies that follow in its wake.

My hunch about why we feel the post-Enlightenment pinch as acutely as we do is that the Enlightenment most of us know is the French Enlightenment. And those French, forever pushing things to absurd extremes. A Frenchman is apparently incapable of saying, "Hey, cool: Reason!" and then adding it to his repertory. No, he has to believe in it, make a substitute religion of it, live it out to its logical conclusions ... And what does Reason lead to when it's pushed fanatically out as far as it can go? Barrenness, cafe existentialism, suicide, bizarre buildings, Catherine Breillat movies. (A small joke: I love many of Breillat's movies.)

Michael had a small epiphany while reading this David Denby essay Northern Lights: How modern life emerged from eighteenth-century Edinburgh and reports:
But there was another Enlightenment altogether, one that had its feet well-planted on the ground -- the Scottish Enlightenment. In 50ish years, from circa 1700 to the mid-1700s, Edinburgh transformed itself from a religion-oppressed backwater into one of the happening-ist cities in Europe. Giants walked Edinburgh's streets: Thomas Reid, Frances Hutcheson, Adam Smith, David Hume, Adam Ferguson, many others...

The Scots also maintained close connections with the French, but Scotland's Enlightenment had a very different tone than France's did. It was grounded in common sense and history, and had a modest and empirical spirit. And the Scotsmen's attitude towards Reason was very different than the froggy attitude. The Scots seemed to consider Reason to be a marvelous tool, and nothing more. Sharpen it; respect it; make much use of it -- but don't look to Reason to deliver any Final Truth. And don't expect to turn up anything of much use or interest by investigating the nature of Reason itself...

I was knocked out when I learned about the era and its thinkers. Post-Enlightenment stupid-knots in my brain relaxed their grip; sensible thoughts took the place of tormented ones. I sighed with relief and wondered: "Why didn't anyone tell me about this long ago?" I wonder if other people as puzzled by our supposedly inevitable post-Enlightenment predicament might not get as healthy a kick out of a quick visit with these Scotsmen as I did...

Why do we tend to overvalue French thought? And why do we tend to undervalue the thoughts of sensible people like this Scottish crowd? Is it the glamor factor? Radical posturing of the froggy sort often does have a certain elegance and chic. But maybe our profs and intellectuals genuinely believe that art, beauty, and decent political reform simply can't arise out of a well-grounded consciousness.

The Scottish enlightenment is often spoken of as the British enlightenment and includes the Englishman John Locke. The American thinkers, revolutionaries and politicians that founded that republic are sometimes spoken of as participants in the American enlightenment. There was also a German enlightenment which differed from the French slightly but shared the posturing, in fighting and extremist style. Fichte, Hegel and Marx emerged from this tradition. Perhaps the central insight of the Scot's enlightenment was humility, recognition that we are fallible. From Denby's essay:
Wisdom, for Hume, begins with the acknowledgment of uncertainty—of the limits of what we know. We have perceptions of the world in the form of impressions, Hume says, some of which, in recollection, become ideas—that is, the ideas have the force of impressions, without which they are meaningless. We’re able to navigate our way through the world because such impressions of it are coherent; they support one another with respect to time and space. But the power of reason to prove much of what we know is weak, and Hume denied that our beliefs about the world could be ascertained with anything like scientific certainty. Events occur in a particular sequence (a billiard ball, struck by another, moves forward), yet reason cannot establish that one event necessarily causes another. Sequence should not be confused with causality. The best we can say is that our repeated experience of the sequence allows us to believe that it will occur in the future. Hume was fascinated by what we would call consciousness, but he always leads us back to experience, which is the arena, the test, the goal.
The unreasonable adoption of reason as a replacement for religion, and the evangelical fervor with which this new religion was promoted, resulted in dogmatic and deadly public behavior. The Brits, including the Scots and the Americans, were more sensible and so managed the industrial revolution without economic, social and political collapse. Others have still not recovered.

Timothy Burke's words, also quoted in the earlier post The Bad Seed, indicate a growing comprehension on the part of those wedded to unreasonable Reason that they have, as Nitzsche warned, become monsters.

The point ought to be, and ought always have been, that we recognize with all Americans that being born again in an evangelical baptism stands equal to having sex with someone of your own gender--not in meaning, not in essence, but as manifestations of the freedom we all share. Watching The 700 Club stands equal to watching Tales of the City: we are, or ought to be, united in our freedoms... But the move that we made in the domain of culture and consciousness was a tit-for-tat strategy. We have been repressed; we cannot be free if we do not remove the repression. How do we know repression? It is that which we are not. We like diversity, as long as it's our kind of diversity... In philosophical terms, it was even worse: it was what Jonathan Rauch has argued is the classic sin of the post-1960s Western left, to choose the creation of equality over the defense of freedom.
Similarly, Nicole-Ann Boyer grapples with the consequences of her own descent into Cartesian rationalism and abyss gazing.
As these two anecdotes illustrate, adversarial politics is bugging me not just because it's annoying noise in the ether or morally worrisome at some conceptual level, but also because it's infecting me at a personal level. The moral of these stories underscores a key lesson in systemic change practice: we have to start with changing ourselves first. That a vector to macro change is clearly at the micro level.
That's perhaps the money quote from a long post that recounts personal experiences that demonstrate the narrowness of her social circle and lack of engagement with diversity of views as well as the glimmering of insight that it is a serious problem that precludes personal, business and political accomplishment. Her post was prompted by this essay by Aidan Rankin.
In their fervent embrace of adversarialism, progressive movements suffer at two levels. First, they are co-opted: they are changed by the system, rather than changing it themselves. Second, they lose their positive energy - the reason for their existence in the first place - and replace it with anger, fanaticism and personality cults. The more angry and fanatical a progressive movement is, the less likely it is to challenge the status quo. This might seem paradoxical to some activists, steeped in the new mood of militancy. However, they would do well to remember that Gandhi's satyagraha ('trust struggle') and Martin Luther King's civil rights campaign for African-Americans succeeded, and altered long-term thinking, because they were non-violent - intellectually as well as physically, and created new ways of thinking about politics. It is significant, as well, that the most successful ever left-wing newspaper in the US was called The Appeal to Reason. In the early 20th century, The Appeal's measured practical case for an American version of socialism represented the left at its best...

The game of adversarial politics creates artificial divisions that result in individual bitterness and disappointment, and the diversion of progressive movements from their original goals towards self-limiting cultural niches. At a global level, adversarialism assumes a more sinister form, fuelling the revival of ethnic and religious conflicts, masking a larger battle for control of the earth's resources and the rise of fundamentalism, whether religious or economic. The adversarial mode of politics creates increasingly extreme polarisations on cultural issues, both globally and in national life. At the same time, it obscures the lack of genuine political choice. Far from being opposites, Britain's Conservative and Labour parties compete in their obeisance to the cult of market forces, the most dangerous fundamentalism of all. Both equate progress with economic expansion and seek to impose this model on all human societies - and on the rest of nature. In obscuring the lack of choice, the adversarialists also divert us from the most important choice of all: that between pursuing economic growth as an end in itself, and so willing our own destruction, and living within limits in a sustainable world.

Rankin is only talking about small disputes, the vicious fights about the details of a settled position, but the principles generalize beyond Rankin's meager beginnings. Evangelical socialists gleefully adopt fundamentalist positions and adversarial politics against "the cult of market forces, the most dangerous fundamentalism of all".

What is missing is the fallibilist philosophy of those enlightened Scots, the acknowledgment of uncertainty, the awareness of the Knowledge Problem, and the simple humanism of those who have an unreasonable affection for their species despite its warts.

What we hear in Boyer and Rankin is the beginnings of realization that they have been somewhat blind to the reality they cherish, unreasonable though they champion Reason, and have engaged in fundamentalist evangelism though they despise it in others. I seriously doubt that they will adopt the fallibilist philosophy and intellectual humility required to actually be reasonable, this is merely a tactical retreat in service of an unreasonable strategy, but it is an indication that they recognize what is being done to them by those who do have a useful grasp of modern mental tools such as netwar. They don't yet grasp how it is being done, but they feel the effects.

These modern day Jacobite Tories, still reactionaries violently opposed to progress and change, jealously guarding the "small privileges of intimate tyrannies", find themselves increasingly aligned with their natural allies, the far right. We see it in the alliance of British and French paleo-socialists with Islamic fundamentalists and we see it in the alliance Rankin speaks of between German left-wing Greens and the smaller, conservative Ecological Democratic Party. The Greens support homosexual rights, whereas the smaller right-wing party promotes traditional family values.

The modern day Whigs, still keenly aware of their own fallibility and helplessness in light of the Knowledge Problem to effect grand designs, stick to the knitting, steal ideas and techniques from everyone, move quickly to adapt to changing circumstances, and tolerantly accept the foibles of humans so long as they don't practice their perversions in the street and frighten the horses into stampeding. They make progress in extending the franchise to an ever greater percentage of humanity and so increase the scope and scale of the social mind.

The long war isn't over, the Jacobites may still win and plunge the world into another dark age, but they are presently in retreat and experiencing some very difficult episodes of soul searching as they try to understand why their numbers are dwindling and their strategies failing. Never fear, they will endure and the long war will continue for the foreseeable future ending only when humans cease to be human.

Posted by back40 at 03:55 PM | politics

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Comments

"What we hear in Boyer and Rankin is the beginnings of realization that they have been somewhat blind to the reality they cherish, unreasonable though they champion Reason, and have engaged in fundamentalist evangelism though they despise it in others. I seriously doubt that they will adopt the fallibilist philosophy and intellectual humility required to actually be reasonable, this is merely a tactical retreat in service of an unreasonable strategy, but it is an indication that they recognize what is being done to them by those who do have a useful grasp of modern mental tools such as netwar. They don't yet grasp how it is being done, but they feel the effects."

I grasp this very well, and you judge me far too quickly. I'm no where near a Cartesian and this whole post, which you selectively quote, is about the inadequacy of just one way of knowing. If you looked at all, you'd find that my entire career is devoted to embracing uncertainty and helping others to do so. I lament extremist because it gets in the way of dialogue and praised Rankin's article. I'm also working on project right now to celebrate (rather cheekily) the death of the Enlightenment. It will be a learning journey. Wanna come? But we are all human, which is what the quote you selected was meant to imply, a model of behaviour of sorts, indeed the first step towards dialogue are gestures like this. I suggest you try some yourself.

Posted by: Nicole-Anne Boyer at October 30, 2004 06:07 AM

Hi Nicole,

Rankin's error is selective application of the insights. Demonizing markets though they are the most obvious expression of distributed intelligence and decision making, ascribing dark motives and dire consequences to their operation, IS an extremist view that precludes dialogue.

"...the adversarialists also divert us from the most important choice of all: that between pursuing economic growth as an end in itself, and so willing our own destruction, and living within limits in a sustainable world."

This is fundamentalist religion. By adopting this dogmatic position dialogue is precluded. That is the point of this post. Though such dogmatists have a glimmering of insight that they have harmed themselves and the world with their narrow mindedness they still only extend the franchise to fellow travelers. It's analagous to Catholics feeling virtuous for seeking to consider the Protestant perspective while continuing to demonize Jews, Moslems and Hindus. Dialogue is most needed with those who hold the most divergent views and it is also the most useful kind of dialogue since it exposes deeply held but unexamined biases.

Your uncritical acceptance of Rankin's position implies that you share the sentiments expressed - limited dialogue reserved for civilized people who are largely in agreement with fundamental dogmas.

Posted by: back40 at October 30, 2004 09:16 AM