Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Generational Shift, Cont'd

Expanding upon my previous posting, I want to do a bit of a thought experiment. Say that you brought Aristotle into today's intellectual scene. What would he have to conclude on the political-philosophical front? (An alternative thought-experiment is to bring a short-list of All-Time Great Philosophers into today, but I like to keep it simple with Aristotle, since his powers of assimilation [or, in alternative terminology, dialectic] would make it kinda pointless to bring in the others. And I take it more or less for granted that, to use Rand's phraseology, Aristotle is the philosophical Atlas holding up the Western intellectual tradition.)

Now, I want to first put aside one point-missing answer that inevitably comes up in connection with Aristotle, to the effect that he endorsed questionable doctrines - universal teleology, an insufficient account of universals, a measure of political authoritarianism or collectivism, and other stuff in that vein. It misses the point that Aristotle was assimilating the best ideas of his day to come to the best answers available to him. If he were around today, with the benefit of 2,500 years of philosophical hindsight, he'd have better answers on these things. For example, in light of modern political philosophy, he'd incorporate Lockean insights, as well as those of Kant, Hegel, Marx, Spencer, Mill, Rand, Hayek, Rawls, and Nozick. By "incorporate" (or assimilate) I mean the Aristotelian method of considering all the views, isolating their merits from insufficient one-sided applications in any given case, and abstracting-integrating a more complete answer without the weaknesses of the others. He'd have a way of assimilating, say, Spencer and Rawls that doesn't preserve the substantive oppositions between them (given the law of non-contradiction - e.g., either we have an extensive welfare state or we don't). (Sciabarra presents a helpful overview of this methodology originating in Aristotle - what Sciabarra calls dialectics, or what I'd call integration (horizontal and vertical) - in the first part of Total Freedom.)

Okay, let's now take the most representative figures whose ideas have been most influential on political philosophy in America over the last half-century. I don't mean the most representative figures in the academy per se, but the most representative figures in "the real world," those who have actually had the most influence on the formation of present-day political positions and oppositions in America. If it were the academy deciding on things, there would be a decidedly more left-liberal "center" in American politics today than there is now; in fact, though, the academy has influenced American politics less than its inhabitants would have liked, given a certain resistance to the academy in the real-world American populace.

Another consideration in selecting the representative figures I'm about to name is that we want figures who are plausibly referred to as political philosophers and can rightly be accorded the distinction of "philosopher," rather than, say, polemicist, pundit, commentator, propagator, intellectual (but short of "philosopher" status - the likes of Dawkins and Hitchens, to cite prominent names in recent years on non-political matters, don't qualify), etc. I make this qualification because while the likes of Buckley, Kirk, and Kristol have been influential on conservative "movement" politics, I don't think they have much in the way of philosophical chops. (Didn't want to have to knock conservative intellectuals down a notch, but the dastardly and disreputable treatment of Rand by Buckley and Kirk makes this knocking-down quite unavoidable.) I also make this qualification because I am thinking in terms of longer-term influence which comes from having philosophical-level stature. This stems from how profound and seminal a thinker is. I also do this in order to exclude political scientists, historians, and economists who haven't contributed much by way of political philosophy proper.

Through appropriate process of elimination, I come up with six most significant figures who, taken together, best define the best of what there is on offer for influential political ideology in America. They are, in order of birth date: Hayek, Rand, Rawls, Chomsky, Dworkin, and Nozick. They all have the virtue of being "big names," and the breakdown gives us, by American political standards, three "right" figures and three "left" figures. They span the range from "radical for capitalism" to "radical for anarcho-syndicalism." If there is any one figure that best defines the "center" in America, it would be Hayek, with Rawls a close second.

One thing to note about every one of these figures is the lack of a "conservative" emphasis on the centrality of religion to politics; the closest in that regard would be Hayek, an agnostic himself who acknowledges the importance of tradition (and hence, of some aspect(s) or other of religion to social ordering). Whatever any of them might say for religion, they're all really only interested in what we can know about the natural world (including the social and political world) independent of any religious or theological commitments. In that regard, they inherit an Aristotelian sensibility - and in that regard, modern theocentric conservatisms are implicitly hostile to Aristotelian sensibilities. If Aristotle were around today, I don't think he would have much to say for these conservatisms. So there you have it as far as theocentric political conservatisms go. (A much better approach for these conservatives is to invoke the natural-law tradition without a theological package-deal; that's in fact what the better ones do.)

So, taking the above six philosophical heavy-hitters, how would Aristotle do his characteristic assimilation? The answer, I think, is not one that left-liberals are going to like. Aristotle is too systematic a philosopher not to understand the priority of ethics over politics, which puts him closest to Ayn Rand among these six. Eudaemonist ethics are now, as in Aristotle's time, the best normative-ethical theory going. If you look at the contemporary scene as far as Aristotelian scholarship goes, and further narrow down that group to scholars who are familiar with Ayn Rand's ideas, you find - quite unsurprisingly, to those with so much as clue about these things - a great deal of sympathy toward her ideas. Were Aristotle around today, he couldn't help but to notice this, and to notice the affinity between his-ideas-with-2,500-years-of-hindsight and her own.

Further, it's hard to believe he would be unfamiliar with Norton's eudaemonism which is, to my knowledge, the best-developed modern text in eudaemonist ethics. He couldn't help but notice the literature on perfectionism, and make the appropriate assimilations. Further, he couldn't help but notice that an ethical program of perfectionism, as hierarchically prior to any political program, would render a lot of issues and debates in contemporary political philosophy - which take for granted widespread lack of perfectionistic virtues - moot. That's one outcome of Aristotelian-style assimilation: rendering many debates moot. In promoting a Nortonian-Randian perfectionist program, various debates among present-day left-liberals become irrelevant; obsessions with "distribution of the social product" and egalitarian ideals fall by the wayside - just as, say, debates amongst the various factions of materialists in Aristotle's day fall by the wayside under his assimilation.

(This is evidence of how removed from the real-world American mainstream the academic political-philosophical mainstream is, if we go by who occupies the top posts at the top-rated universities. Nozick's diagnosis has plenty bite to it, and it probably doesn't tell the whole story; Rand and Hayek have things to say about this as well, and one thing they do share is a criticism of tendencies toward rationalism among intellectuals. Here I can't help but think Aristotle would endorse these diagnoses and criticisms - which is why I think the second most similar to Aristotle among the six is Hayek. If Aristotelian-style philosophizing is the standard, it's just not looking too good for left-liberal academia.)

This is not to say that Aristotle wouldn't acknowledge, take into account, etc., the good points being made by the "left" figures I've mentioned; what he would oppose is incomplete and one-sided applications of the good parts. With Rawls, he might acknowledge the merits of a theory being aimed toward principles that people could, with suitably-defined impartiality, reasonably accept. The notion there is fairly vacuous on its own, though, and aside from its intuitive appealingness to a left-liberal academic audience, the contrivance that is the Original Position doesn't suitably account for your ordinary notions of justice once you take into account Rand and Norton with their eudaemonistic approach. (Norton's developmental approach to personhood, for example, makes it exceedingly silly to formulate a theory of justice based on a veil-of-ignorance model which pays no heed to the task of discovering and actualizing one's distinctive individuative potentialities. Norton gets into this in the last chapter of Personal Destinies.)

I couldn't speak for a hypothetical present-day Aristotle, but I think that of the three "left" figures, Chomsky may well be found the most sympathetic figure, given his (implicit) observations of just how devoid of virtue the present money-power-propaganda model is. (That's my spin on it, anyway; I share many of the "left-style" criticisms of today's corrupted political scene. I differ in my diagnosis and solution, while the hard-left-wing seems quite oblivious to what Ayn Rand actually has to say about power. They certainly haven't a clue as to how her views on reason and virtue hierarchically integrate with her views on political power and corruption. The characteristic blind attack on Rand I see from hard-leftists is based on the ignorant assumption that she endorses an exploitative model in virtue of her egoism and alleged "elitism." It's really very embarrassing how ignorant and oblivious to philosophy this stuff is. At least Chomsky himself has had the good sense to refrain from commenting on Rand, about whom he has no obvious qualifications to speak.) Chomsky is of the view that if people were really not so ignorant they'd embrace his social ideals, but we also run up against a limitation with Chomsky: he's not a philosopher proper. He's a political philosopher whose primary background is linguistics and social science; he isn't known for contributions in ethics or epistemology. Aristotle would supersede him. It's interesting that a primacy-of-social-sciences view seems to dominate the far-left mentality in this country.

Alright, enough for beating up on the left. I do want to now give a brief comment on what Aristotle would say about Ayn Rand, and it's probably not going to sit well with her more devoted admirers. While Aristotle would greatly admire Rand's methodological prescriptions, the integration of theoretical and practical, her substantive ethical views (eudaemonism), and quite likely her political philosophy (radical liberalism), he would not have approved of her very non-Aristotelian approach to other philosophers. In place of Rand's over-the-top caricatures and demonizations of Immanuel Kant, he'd have done something way more effective and Aristotelian: fully understand him, characterize Kant's views in his own terms, acknowledge his context, and proceed to refute him. Taking an adversarial stance carries the dangers of partisanship; Aristotle could do so without falling into partisan otherization and demonization, which we find so common in political rhetoric.

For all her methodological emphasis on integration and context, Rand's polemical style was very one-sided. That style has been insidious, a shortcoming that has fed upon itself in really nasty ways. It has been a huge impediment to her ideas taking hold in a timely fashion. It has been insidious, because it has attracted a certain kind of following consisting of adherents who emulate that style, often in increasingly offensive and bizarre ways. Some of the worst of it came out in the writings of Peter Schwartz and in other contributors to The Intellectual Activist in the '80s and '90s. It's why David Kelley, for whatever his shortcomings, couldn't stand it any longer and realized something had to get better.

What happened is that between Rand's heyday up through the 1990s, there were devoted adherents of Objectivism who best understood its methods as presented in Peikoff's courses, but who failed to consistently integrate those methods due to insidious bad practices. That's how you ended up with a movement were a Peter Schwartz was a de facto leader, while there was thorough ignorance of such magnificent ideas and sensibilities as Norton's. It's disgusting, really, that this kind of thing happened in a movement devoted to reason and reality. Not until the 2000s do we see serious attempts to repair this tendency. I think there is a lot to be learned from this problem, given all the cultural progress delayed by it. Rand was simply wrong to say things like, "Kant was the most evil man in mankind's history," and the various attempts I've seen over the years by the devout, to save Rand's condemnation of Kant, just don't hold up. She fucked up here, is all. She had shortcomings and blind spots, and of the sort that Aristotle would not have had or put up with.

But that's the genius of Aristotle. He could acknowledge where the shortcomings, fuck-ups, mistakes, personality flaws, etc. were in Rand's mode of philosophizing, and he could acknowledge and understand the context that led to these unfortunate tendencies, and still extract-and-assimilate the good stuff (of which there is a shit-ton), just as current-day Aristotle scholars like Gotthelf, Lennox, Miller, Rasmussen and Den Uyl have picked up on. And, I believe, he'd also have, Sgt. Hartmann-like, ripped the present-day academy a new gaping asshole for failing so badly to notice this good stuff. With an Aristotle-caliber philosopher, it's all about holding everyone to the highest standards. Perfectionism, you see.

[CLIFFHANGER: Will the next blog posting be that Sgt. Hartmann-like gaping-new-asshole-tearing? Stay tuned, because, whatever it'll be, you won't want to miss it!]

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