Thursday, December 3, 2015

The Open Society and Its Frenemies: Karl Popper's Defense of Science and Liberalism for the Twenty-First Century

In 1919 a total eclipse of the sun provided a rare opportunity to test 
Einstein’s theory of general relativity. Arthur Eddington, a British 
astronomer and admirer of Einstein who had resisted  the  nationalist 
hatreds of the First World War, sent two teams to the mid-
Atlantic to observe Mercury during the eclipse, and test the German scientist’s theory. To the astonishment of his colleagues, and the world, Einstein was vindicated. Two centuries of orthodoxy in physics were disrupted over-night, and Einstein was catapulted into a celebrity which has never left him.
At that time much of Europe was in chaos. The Austrian and Russian Empires had collapsed under the strain of the First World War, and Marxist revolutionaries rushed to fill the void. They called for socialism in stirring public speeches, raised militias, staged coups and counter-coups, and fought their nationalist enemies in the streets and on the battlefield. Amidst this struggle all eyes turned to the Soviet Union, whose confident leader, Lenin, preached the dawn of a new era of happiness and progress. He was certain that Karl Marx had discovered a science of history, and that it was at last possible for humankind to seize control of their destiny, completely transform society – even to predict the future.
Karl Popper, soon to be one of the most famous philosophers of the twentieth-century, was a student in Vienna during these troubled but exhilarating times. He had been mightily impressed by Einstein and Marx. Both could muster impressive arguments, presented themselves as authentically scientific, and proposed revolutionary new ways of looking at the world. But the more he thought about it, the more dissatisfied he became with Marx, and the more he admired Einstein. In The Logic of Scientific Discovery (1934), he argued that the difference between authentic science and pseudo-science was falsifiability. Einstein had put his theory to the test. He had made definite predictions, and if they had proven incorrect, that would have been evidence against his theory. While no theory can be completely proven or disproven on the basis of just a handful of observations, prediction was a crucial test. Anyone could make claims, but prediction forced the issue in an unambiguous way. So, Popper concluded, the more predictions a theory makes, and the more risky they are, the more genuinely scientific it is. The more Einstein’s theory was tested, the better it looked.
Marx, too, had made predictions. He had predicted that the revolution would occur first in Germany, since it was the most heavily-industrialized; he had predicted that depressions would become more and more severe over time as the capitalists failed to find buyers for their over-produced goods; and he had predicted that the workers would become more and more miserable as the owners slashed their wages in an attempt to make up the shortfall. None of these predictions had been borne-out, yet Marxists were more numerous, more deeply-convinced, and more powerful than ever. What was happening?
The key, Popper believed, was the word “science,” for it carried then, as it does now, tremendous prestige. To speak it is to invoke the awesome technological progress of the last few centuries, the principled stand of Galileo, the towering genius of Newton and Darwin, and, in short, our highest aspirations to truth and reason. But as astute observers recognize its deep emotional resonance, they will try to claim it for all sorts of purposes – politics, ethics, ideology, beliefs about the meaning of life and our place in the cosmos, and an entire philosophy of life, can all be called science. While there is no reason, in principle, that these views cannot be scientific, they usually do not make the type of predictions that characterized Einstein’s physics. Yet people who feel they have something important to say are naturally tempted to call their ideas scientific, hoping that some of the prestige of Newton, Darwin, or Einstein will rub off. In the never ending war of ideas, invoking the symbolism of science can provide a powerful advantage.
Einstein took a risk. So, too, did Marx. According to Popper they were both scientific in that sense – but Einstein passed the test of prediction, where Marx did not. So to continue to hold to Marxism after its predictions had failed was not scientific, but ideological, and this was the reason that no amount of evidence or argument could shake a convinced Marxist. In order to protect science from ideological abuse, Popper argued, we need to keep this distinction in mind. Genuine science takes risks, and its products could be disproven. Ideology, by contrast, risks nothing, and is never wrong.
Popper published these views under the shadow of a National Socialist takeover of Austria. He fled his country shortly after he published, and ended up in New Zealand for most of the Second World War, where he wrote a classic defense of liberalism called The Open Society and Its Enemies (1945). He argued that the Open Society – the liberal, tolerant society which permits dissent, and is based on democratic institutions and values – has always faced opposition from within, even from intellectuals. Because it leaves questions of meaning and identity to the individual, rather than to the group, it also leaves the individual to fend for themselves when it comes to the most important questions they can ask about life. No one can tell us what to believe about ethics, politics, religion, science, the meaning of life, or any of the other profoundly important questions we seek answers to. We have to decide for ourselves, on the basis of reason and evidence, and that is not only a freedom, but a responsibility.
There have always been people who find that responsibility a burden, and who wanted to rid themselves of it. Others have been only too happy to take it away. Provided that the appropriate symbols were invoked, through gestures, phrases, and rituals, these people can get along nicely. In that sense it hardly matters what the phrases and gestures actually are, or where they come from. They could be the symbols of nationalism or universalism, hope for the future or veneration of the past, of religion or science, or indeed anything else. What matters is not the symbol, but the actions that follow from it, and in that sense the end result of this irresponsibility is always the same – the demand for a Closed Society, where all the answers are already known, where dissent is not permitted, and there is no greater crime than disloyalty to the group.
In Popper’s time the enemies of the Open Society were Communists and Fascists, who, however much they hated each other, agreed in their rejection of democracy. But he stressed that this was not a one-time affair. The Open Society always had enemies, and always would. In the time of the Greeks those enemies were the Platonists. They demanded the rule of an all-knowing philosopher king, whose knowledge of the invisible Forms and Essences would lift him high above the people, and whose Guardians would ruthlessly punish dissent, in order to create a utopia. In the time of the Enlightenment those enemies were the Hegelians. They rejected democracy in favor of monarchism, smothered rational inquiry beneath the fog of romanticism, and dreamed of a return to the Middle Ages. In our own time Christian, Jewish, and Islamic fundamentalists similarly reject the Open Society. Christian fundamentalists want Six-Day Creationism taught in the public schools instead of genuine science, they reject the right of gay people to adopt or marry, and are promising to build a huge and ridiculous wall on the Mexican border to keep immigrants out. Jewish Fundamentalists claim that Palestine is their holy land, promised to them by God, and gather in the streets of their cities shouting “Death to the Arabs!” while their tanks and fighter jets make their wishes a reality. And as we all know, Islamic Fundamentalists have launched dozens of attacks in their own countries and in ours – in New York, Paris, Mumbai, Beirut, Cairo, and many other places, have cruelly tortured prisoners, and terrified millions of people across the world. When asked about their goals, they say they want to destroy the mutual understanding that makes it possible for Muslims and other communities to live in peace - a strategy that is likely to succeed if we do not defend our values as well as our lives from their terror campaign.
While all the world’s attention is focused on religious Fundamentalism, there is a new tribalism, and a new revolt against reason, taking shape within liberalism. The name of this movement is New Atheism, but it would be more appropriate to call it Atheist Fundamentalism. Like their religious counterparts, these people believe they are members of a select and blessed minority – a Chosen People – and that they possess an infallible truth, called Science. Science, they say, can answer every question simply and convincingly, whether it’s about ethics, politics, the existence of God, the meaning of life, or our place in the cosmos. There are no genuine philosophical problems, no real moral dilemmas, no mysteries, and indeed not much reason to have these discussions at all. Science has spoken – your job, if you are truly rational, is to submit, and the proof of your rationality is your submission. They are terrified of much the same prospect as their Christian, Jewish, and Islamic Fundamentalist counterparts – of sharing space with people whose ideas they detest.
Atheist Fundamentalists talk about science quite a bit, but it seems to me that Popper, who understood only too-well how much was at stake in our use of that word, would have rejected them as narrow-minded ideologues. What bold, falsifiable predictions have they made? What are they really risking when they reclassify their political and philosophical opinions as science? Do their arguments really show the spirit of critical inquiry that they are always praising? Are their views genuinely scientific, or are they simply appeals to prejudice? Do they want more freedom, or less? Can they honestly claim to represent the values of science, or the Open Society?
To me science means, above all, a spirit of open-ended, critical inquiry. It means appeals to evidence rather than to prejudice, and to reason rather than to fear. To me liberalism means the plurality of a free society welded together by humanism, and that we should value and respect all human life, simply because it is human. It means that we hold people accountable for what they do, not for who they are or what they believe. When I read people argue, on the basis of science and liberalism, that we have no right to think matters through for ourselves, or that we should hate, fear, and despise people who do not share our opinions, I have to wonder what they think the words “science” and “liberalism” mean.
Fundamentalist Atheists aren’t the kind of allies we need in the struggle for reason and tolerance, for reasons Karl Popper saw only too well. Like that friend who you used to have good times with, but these days only bring you down, they aren't actually friends at all. They’re frenemies, and it’s time to cut them loose.

Monday, November 30, 2015

Carl Becker and Progressive History

"To establish the facts is always in order, and is indeed the first duty of the historian; but to suppose that the facts, once established in all their fullness, will ‘speak for themselves’ is an illusion."

Carl Becker (1873–1945) was an American intellectual historian and a member of the Progressive School in American historical thought. Along with his mentorFredrick Jackson Turner and close ally Charles Beard, Becker challenged the methods of the Scientific School, established in an earlier generation by Henry Adams, Herbert Baxter Adams, and William A. Dunning. Becker’s principle works were his presidential address to the American Historian Association, “Everyman His Own Historian” (1931), and The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth Century Philosophers (1932—a fascinating discussion of the Enlightenment that we cannot, for reasons of space, discuss here, but that may be the subject of a future article.)

The basic question in this dispute was whether the historian’s principle obligation lay to the past, or to the present. We have already seen, with Herbert Butterfield, the argument for giving priority to the past, and it must be said (not to worry) that this has always been, and remains, the majority opinion among historians, professional or otherwise. There is, however, a case to be made for giving priority to the present. We have already seen Nietzsche’s views on this, and similar opinions seem to resurface about once every other generation. They have always found a sympathetic hearing among a minority, sometimes more substantial than others, of practicing historians. Carl Becker made his case in an American context, and under very different circumstances, when an atmosphere of crisis and mass discontent had destabilized the confident assumptions of an earlier era, and paved the way for far-reaching criticism.


Part of a Series on Philosophy of History

Herbert Butterfield and the Whig Interpretation of History

"The study of the past with one eye, so to speak, upon the present is the source of all sins and sophistries in history."

Herbert Butterfield (1900–1979) was a British historian of science and religion who is probably best remembered for his essay The Whig Interpretation of History (1931). In it he made several important and closely related points about historical writing, which possess something like canonical authority within the Anglo-American profession.

According to Butterfield, throughout the nineteenth century most historical writing, at least in Britain, had been done by protestant, liberal, upper class, and, needless to say, white male scholars, such as Thomas B. Macaulay, George M. Trevelyan, Henry Thomas Buckle, and so on—the eponymous “Whig historians.” They tended to write history as if it were a grand symphony, conducted by providence or some other mysterious agency, which had been building up all along to the magnificent crescendo of the present. When they looked to the past, what they saw in it was people like themselves, “the friends of progress,” heroically struggling against people unlike themselves, its “enemies.” But this view misunderstood the past, for, although it had indeed produced the present, it had not done so through a straightforward process whereby “the children of light” triumphed over “the children of darkness.”

Rather, it was the whole of the past that had produced the whole of the present...


Part of a Series on Philosophy of History

Oswald Spengler and the Decline of the West

"One day the last portrait of Rembrandt and the last bar of Mozart will have ceased to be—though possibly a colored canvas and a sheet of notes will remain—because the last eye and the last ear accessible to their message will have gone."

Oswald Spengler (1880–1936) was one of the last great voices of literary history. Like Gibbon and Michelet, he had no formal training, but he had passion, a gift for turning a phrase, and a modest income, which afforded him time for study and reflection. And, like Gibbon and Michelet, he was the voice of an age. To understand him, we must say a few words about that age, for at the time he wrote (1919), The Decline of the West was not so much a poetic book title, but a visible and obvious fact.

From the time of its formation under Bismarck in 1871, to the armistice that ended the Great War in 1918, the German Empire was by far the strongest power in Europe. Germans were justly proud of their country, not simply for its military strength, but also for its booming economy, its magnificent music and literature, and its world-class scientists. Germans felt that they were in the vanguard of European commerce, culture, and power, and this was more or less correct. It was in this spirit that Germany went to war in 1914. After a dreadful struggle of four years, which Germany came very near to winning, the allies imposed a humiliating peace at Versailles (1919).


Part of a Series on Philosophy of History

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

The Collapse of Civilization in Europe: 1914 - 1945

If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—forever. –George Orwell
There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest. –Elie Wiesel
The principle aim of intellectual history is to show how ideas have developed over time, and how they both arise out of, and actively shape, that development. Ideas are not mere superstructure, as Karl Marx supposed; they influence people, often profoundly, and that too is a part of history. We saw earlier how the histories of Vico, Voltaire, Gibbon, and Condorcet arose out of the Enlightenment, and how they contributed to the ideology of the French Revolution. We also saw how that legacy generated new kinds of historical thought: Liberalism in Tocqueville and Conservatism in Burckhardt; Historicism in Ranke and Hegel; Romanticism in Michelet and Nietzsche, and Positivism in Marx. As our story moves into the twentieth century, we are again compelled to discuss a tremendous political and social upheaval, for the years 1914–1945 saw a series of disasters such as the world had never known, and that very nearly ended civilization in Europe.
The crisis began in 1914, with the First World War, which emerged out of circumstances too complex to be addressed even cursorily here. In the barest possible terms, the war was a consequence of German unification in 1871, which made Germany the strongest power, by far, in Europe. This imbalance tempted German leaders to aim at European hegemony, and compelled France and Russia to ally against it out of mutual fear. Austrian rivalry with Russia in the Balkans drove it to seek alliance with Germany, while Britain and the Ottoman Empire, both of which tried hard to remain neutral, were compelled to choose opposite sides in the early months of the war. The United States joined much later, and only reluctantly. As all the world knows, the war was touched off by, (in Otto von Bismarck’s memorable phrase) “some damn fool thing in the Balkans,” which, for reasons which can never quite be satisfactorily explained, compelled Germany to invade France a few months later.
Philosophy of History
Political Philosophy

What is Historicism?

Historicism is a somewhat obscure term, but one does occasionally encounter it in philosophy, and especially in discussions about the theory and nature of history, so I thought it might be worthwhile to pause for a moment and discuss it.
Historicism is the view, first advanced byGiambattista Vico, and later rediscovered (apparently independently) by German historians, that there does not exist any extra-historical perspective on which judgments about people or ideas can be grounded. Put another way, there is no such thing as a “general category,” a “universal principle,” or “human nature” inherent in reality itself—there are only individual objects, individual people, and their interpretations of reality, where reality is conceived of as one enormous, unconquerable brute fact, about which we can entertain notions, but cannot have knowledge.

Friedrich Nietzsche: History as Art

"History, in so far as it serves life, serves an unhistorical power."

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900) once wrote: “I love the great despisers, for they are the great adorers, and arrows of longing for the other shore.” He was such a despiser, and such an arrow, and he has been loved by millions for his philosophical poetry. Anyone who has stared in complete disbelief at the invincible, triumphant stupidity of mass culture, or who has longed to do something noble with their lives, will find passages in his work to move them. To long for another shore in the face of such mindlessness is only human. But Nietzsche was an adorer no less than a despiser, and we may well wonder about the aristocratic ethos he held up for our adoration. Even as he wrote, an age of warrior heroes was already beginning—an age characterized by nothing so much as the herd amorality of hundreds of thousands of Nietzschlings in high office, each privately convinced that there was no sin but stupidity, no shame but defeat, and no problem that ruthlessness couldn’t overcome. Zarathustra would have found much to admire in the men who reduced a great civilization to ashes, and bequeathed to posterity a legacy of horror that will not soon be forgotten.

The nineteenth century was a great age for history, not only in Europe, but especially in Germany, which led the world in historical research at that time. Today, history does not have anything like the prestige that it then enjoyed. Nietzsche saw in that prestige a threat to the vitality and exuberance of life—always the central concern of his philosophy—for he worried that it tempted people to live vicariously in the past, rather than struggling and striving, as they should, for great things in the present. In his essay "On the Use and Abuse of History for Life" (1874), he asked his readers to consider cows—how they exist in an eternal present, unspoiled by anxiety over the future, or memory of the past. Like children, they have no history, and for that they would be grateful, if they knew what history was. But man does have a history—an awareness that he stands at the end of a vast chain of consequence which has produced him, how he does not know, and is taking him where he cannot say—and with this knowledge, he has a burden that needs to be overcome.

Part of a Series on Philosophy of History

Karl Marx's Historical Materialism

"The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point, however, is to change it."

Karl Marx (1818–1883) was a German philosopher and sociologist whose scientific approach to history, combined with his revolutionary socialism, has made him one of the most influential, famous, and indeed infamous, intellectuals who ever lived.

His major works were The Communist Manifesto (1848) and Capital (1867). The first was written during the Revolutions of 1848, and aimed to explain the political program of the Communist Party to a popular audience. The second was much more serious. Socialists had long believed they had both morality and science on their side, but Marx seemed to prove it, for his critique of capitalism was situated within a theory that explained the entire human past, and also predicted the future. In other words, it was a genuine science of history, just as Newton had established for physics and Darwin for biology.


Part of a Series on Philosophy of History
Part of a Series on Political Philosophy

Jakob Burckhardt: Civilization, Art, and Power Politics

"I know too much of history to expect anything from the despotism of the masses but a future tyranny, which will be the end of history." –Jacob Burckhardt

Jacob Burckhardt (1818–1897) is the historian who, more than any other, is responsible for the concept of the Renaissance as a distinct historical epoch. Other historians had written about fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Italy, to be sure, but Burckhardt was the first to see the period as a unit, characterized not by the “rebirth” of antiquity, as Petrarch thought, but by the invention of something entirely new—modernity, which meant the birth of the individual and of the modern bureaucratic state.

He was born into one of the oldest and proudest families of Basel, which, with a few other families, ruled the city as a closed oligarchy until they were forced to grant a liberal constitution in 1847. This background led him, as it did many other aristocratic historians, to emphasize the role of the extraordinary individual in history, and to warn against the amorality and vulgarity of the newly enthroned “masses.” He studied underLeopold von Ranke as a young man, but his thought diverged sharply from his mentor’s. Where for Ranke the history that mattered was political history, for Burckhardt real history was the history of civilization, of high culture—compared to which politics was simply a monotonous record of crime and folly. Similarly, where for Ranke factual accuracy was everything, Burckhardt would have never dreamed of leaving out a revealing anecdote simply because it may not have actually happened. What mattered was to communicate the vital spark, the spirit of the age. And, where Ranke tried to treat the past systematically and exhaustively, Burckhardt never pretended to offer more than a general impression.


Part of a Series on Philosophy of History

Jules Michelet: Romanticism in History

"And I, who have sprung from them, I, who have lived, toiled, and suffered with them—who, more than any other have purchased the right to say that I know them—I come to establish against all mankind the personality of the people."
Leopold von Ranke famously advised his students to write impartial histories. An account of the battle of Waterloo, he said, should be agreeable to the French, Germans, and Britons alike. Jules Michelet (1798–1874) would have none of it. There was one perspective on history that interested him: the French perspective.

In this, Michelet was very much a child of his times, for nationalism was not then the quaint and suspect doctrine it often appears today, but a new and fiery religion, capable of inspiring the most ardent devotion imaginable. It was not a doctrine for conservatives and solid citizens either, as it would later become, but of liberals, reformers, radicals, and revolutionaries. In practice, nationalism almost always steamrolled aspirations for impartiality in historical study during the early nineteenth century—even Ranke, for all his prudent counsel, tended to write as if Prussia were the apex of civilization.
What Michelet wanted, above all else, was to speak a living past to living people—to make the French aware of their past, and of their identity as French—not Gascons or Normans or Burgundians, not Catholics and Protestants or rich and poor, but a family united by common feeling and necessity. “Frenchmen, of every condition, every class, every party,” he said, “remember well one thing! You have on earth but one sure friend, France!” To bring his countrymen to this awareness, Michelet wrote an immense History of France (1833–1843; 1855–1867), which explained the origins of the French nation in the Middle Ages and ended, in its first installment, with a moving portrait of Joan of Arc.
Part of a Series on Philosophy of History

Leopold von Ranke and the Origins of the Modern Historical Profession

"Only say how it essentially was."
(wie es eigentlich gewesen)

The Prussian historian Leopold von Ranke (1795–1886) probably did more than any other individual to establish history in its modern professional form. He was descended from a long line of Lutheran ministers, lived most of his life as a bachelor and (in the best Prussian tradition) a rigidly disciplined scholar, and tended to mistrust liberal reform as a French conspiracy against German institutions and values. Through nearly five decades of teaching, and particularly his seminars (a method he pioneered), he decisively influenced the first generation of professional historians, and through them (in a rather curious way—more on this later) the American historical profession as well.

Following Johann Herder, Ranke believed that each person, institution, and nation had to be understood as uniquely itself. One can hardly do without generalizations in describing them, but these should be understood as conventions, not actual things or “laws,” and should be kept to an absolute minimum. Similarly, systems of classification are always ad hoc, never real—only particular things were real. That which gives these living things their uniqueness is their idea, or as we might say, their internal logic/subjective experience, the realization of which is their natural objective. The idea is not reducible to its own internal components or to anything outside itself, and it is not bound by natural law; it is a vital, ineffable, irreducible spark, which must be apprehended through an act of imaginative sympathy aimed, not at explanation, but understanding (verstehen.)

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

GWF Hegel's Dialectic of History

"Pure Reason, incapable of any limitation, is the Deity itself."

Mark Twain is supposed to have said that a classic is a book everyone praises, and no one reads—an observation that we might apply to the works of Georg William Friedrich Hegel (1770–1831). Or perhaps we should say that many people want to read him, but few can understand him. Indeed, the obscurity of Hegel’s thought is legendary, even among philosophers, as is his passion for run-on sentences and obscure technical jargon. We shall try to reduce some of his theoretificationizing to plain English.

When an English-speaking philosopher looks out at the world, he or she usually sees a straightforward collection of objects and forces that are apprehended more or less as they are by their senses. This view stands in contrast to the typical view of German philosophers, who, following Kant, see the world as an undifferentiated and meaningless collection of who-knows-what—an impenetrable cosmic mystery—which the senses and reason conspire to impart with meaning, form, and intelligibility in general. This conspiracy is in no way arbitrary, for it resides, not in our opinions, but in the structure of the mind itself, which we cannot alter. On the first view, the object of contemplation is reality, the tool is the senses, and metaphysics, since it cannot be apprehended by the senses, is nonsense about nothing. On the second, the object of contemplation is the mind, the tool is reason, and metaphysics, defined as the necessary structure of the mind itself, is everything. The first philosophy suggests a discussion of objects and events that exist in time and space; the second a discussion of concepts that reside only within ourselves. This is the reason Hegel in particular, and German philosophy in general, makes such painfully opaque reading for English speakers. By and large, we just don’t think that way.


Part of a Series on Philosophy of History

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Voltaire and History in the Age of Reason

"History should be written as philosophy."

Voltaire, in many ways the paradigmatic Enlightenment intellectual, had a lifelong interest in history. And here, as in other fields, he was a severe critic of traditional ways of thinking.

He wrote in response to at least two important strains of pre-Enlightenment historical writing. The first was the Augustinian tradition, whose last great exponent was the Bishop Bossuet(1627–1704). In that tradition, which we first find expressed by the Old Testament prophets, the historical field is a chaos of meaningless, purposeless events; only the chosen people—first Israel, later the Church—have an intelligible history, and the reason it is intelligible is that it constitutes the ongoing revelation of God to man. For such a scholar, history moves in rhythms as well as in a linear progression. In the first instance, the chosen people are rewarded for their righteousness, and punished for their wickedness, in generational cycles; in the second, history moves inevitably toward the eschaton, where the just and the unjust will receive their final rewards, and the reign of God will be established on earth. The second tradition that Voltaire wrote against was the humanist tradition of the Renaissance, which, following Plutarch and Cicero, saw the historical field as a reservoir of moral instruction. On this model Alexander, Caesar, Pompey, etc., were worth reading about because they had set an inspiring example for future generations to imitate. This approach to history may be characterized as vaguely cyclical, in the sense that it encouraged one to re-enact the past in the present, but it was not fundamentally interested in discovering the logic of events, or how the past had been transformed into the present.

continued below

Part of a Series on the Enlightenment

Part of a Series on Philosophy of History (XIII of XXV)

Monday, July 13, 2015

Condorcet and the Progress Model of History (c. 1790)

“The time will come when the sun will shine only upon free men who know no other master but their reason; when tyrants and slaves, priests and their stupid or hypocritical instruments will exist only in works of history and on the stage; and when we shall think of them only to pity their victims and their dupes.”

Marie-Jean-Antoine-Nicolas Caritat, Marquis de Condorcet (1743 – 1794) – mathematician, social theorist, economist, and revolutionary – was the last of the philosophes, that brilliant generation which made the Enlightenment. Inspired by the American Revolution, he hoped first for the reform, and then for the overthrow, of the Bourbon Monarchy. It should be replaced, he thought, by a Republic, and ruled by Reason – the certain path to universal improvement. Though that path could only be dimly perceived at present, as the prejudice, superstition, and nonsense of the past was cleared away, its outlines would become progressively clearer. In order to demonstrate this, Condorcet turned to history, which clearly showed that men had prospered whenever they had used their reason, and had paid the price wherever they had not.

In Condorcet’s Sketch for a Historical Picture of The Progress of the Human Mind (1795), he divided the past into ten “successive advances of the human mind.” These were (1) the formation of tribes, (2) transition to pastoralism, and then to agriculture, (3) invention of writing (4) the philosophy and science of the Greeks (5) the philosophy and science of the Romans (6) decline in the Middle Ages and “restoration about the time of the Crusades,” (7) continued revival from the Renaissance to the invention of printing (8) continued revival to “the period when the sciences and philosophy threw off the yoke of authority,” (9) triumph of reason during the Enlightenment and the French Revolution (10) “future progress of mankind.”

In sum, progress had been more or less steady until the time of the Middle Ages, had suffered some retrograde motion, and then had resumed its forward march toward reason and happiness in the time of the Renaissance. Each successive era had been happier, wiser, and better than the last (though with occasional retrograde motion.) This philosophy of history, still powerful for us today, has several important consequences. The first is that society as it is now composed is the culmination of a rational and beneficent process, defined by the contest between, and eventual triumph of, reason against superstition and error. If this is so, it seems to follow that the people, societies, and actions of the past can be divided into “progressive” and “retrograde” elements, which is to say, those tending to further, and those tending to retard, forward progress toward the present. We may thus justly praise or blame what we discover in the past to the extent that it resembles, or does not resemble, ourselves. The third is that we stand in the same relation to some future, even more perfect society, that the societies of the past stand in relation to us. We should therefore strive to bring that future about, and look to it, rather than the past, for our models. Our descendants will praise or blame us to the extent that we bring about their society, just as we do our ancestors, and justly so. The morally good is therefore the morally progressive, and the highest compliment we can pay someone is to say that they were “ahead of their time.” With the Enlightenment in general, and with Condorcet in particular, a characteristic feature of modernity fell into place – that, where for the ancients the past was authoritative, hopes for the future tend to be decisive.

Condorcet believed that this improved future would consist of “the abolition of inequality between nations, the progress of equality within each nation, and the true perfection of mankind.” These in turn would be based on two mutually reinforcing developments. The first was universal and free education, free from clerical control, and having, like “all social institutions … for their aim the physical, intellectual and moral betterment of the most numerous and poorest class.” The second was more equal distribution of wealth, for people without leisure can scarcely be expected to cultivate their reason, and so tend to remain at or near the level of beasts. Is it any wonder that a world populated with such brutes is in such a condition? “With greater equality of education,” Condorcet argued, “there will be greater equality in industry and so in wealth; equality in wealth necessarily leads to equality in education and equality between the nations and equality within a single nation are mutually dependent.” Reason, education, and equality were therefore the foundations on which a rational, prosperous, and happy future had to be built. Although the First Republic was too distracted by foreign wars and internal chaos to put Condorcet’s plan into effect, when Napoleon came to power, he based his reforms of the French educational system on Condorcet’s proposals, which remain their foundation to this day.

The process of equalization and education could be further assisted by the development of what Condorcet called “the social art,” and what we call “sociology” – the science of society. Such a science, like any other, should aim at the discovery of predictive and quantifiable laws, like those of Kepler or Newton. “What we can do for the bees and beavers,” he argued, “we ought to do for men.” This was an idea with a big future ahead of it – indeed, it dominated much later thought about the man, society, and the past. Auguste Comte, Karl Marx, Henry Buckle, Ernst Haeckel, Herbert Spencer, Oswald Spengler, and Arnold Toynbee all believed they had discovered such laws, even if they could not give them quite the mathematical expression Condorcet hoped for. It possesses a great deal of intrinsic plausibility today, for the universe is law-governed, and its laws are discoverable through a process of reason. The evolution of man and society, being a part of the universe, must also be governed by such laws, and these too should be discoverable through reason. The study of the past, when properly understood, therefor reveals a future which is in some sense already-determined. That we do not understand that process, and thus the future, is to be accounted a failure of reason, explicable either on account of the tremendous complexity of social phenomena, or the failure of historians and sociologists to discover an adequate methodology. On this understanding the study of man and society awaits its Newton, Darwin, or Einstein – some towering genius who will reduce the chaos of outward appearances to the elegant clarity of essential principles. Needless to say, the discovery of such laws would be an epoch-making event.

If Condorcet’s ideas seem trite or self-evident to us today, it is only because the victory of the Enlightenment has been so complete. The world in which we live has been molded, often consciously, by its ideals, and to such an extent that we must occasionally be tempted to wonder about the sanity of people who do not share them. Condorcet never doubted – even when the revolution began to descend into bloody chaos, even when it turned on him, and even, indeed, while he was hiding from arrest. It was in those dark days after the execution of Louis XVI (which he opposed) and the ascent of Robespierre that he wrote, while hiding in a friend’s cellar, his paean to progress. When he began to fear that he was endangering her through his presence, he fled Paris, and was arrested a few days later in a nearby-suburb. 

“How consoling,” he had written, “for the philosopher – who laments the errors, the crimes, the injustices which still pollute the earth, and of which he is so often the victim – is this view of the human race, emancipated from its shackles … advancing with a firm and sure step along the path of truth, virtue, and happiness!” It was with such consolation that he met his death, probably by suicide, in a lonely cell.

“The Concept of Scientific History”, by Isaiah Berlin:
Stanford Encyclopedia on Condorcet and Feminism:
Full Text of the Sketch of Future Progress:

Part of a Series on the Enlightenment
Part of a Series on Philosophy of History (XII of XXV)

Friday, July 10, 2015

The Politics of Revolution and Enlightenment (c. 1770 - 1830)

“Reason obeys itself, and ignorance submits to whatever is dictated to it.” – Thomas Paine

“Kings will be tyrants from policy, when subjects are rebels from principle.” – Edmund Burke

Now that we’ve discussed the Revolution, let’s turn to the politics of the Enlightenment for a moment. Between them, Revolution and Enlightenment defined much European history and intellectual life throughout “the long nineteenth century” (1789 – 1917). Some of the ideas we will encounter in future articles will seem strange indeed, but we can perhaps understand them better if we keep this background in mind.

Americans typically think of the Enlightenment in terms of their own Revolution, the Constitution, and the Founders, all of whom were deeply influenced by its ideals. Because of this national self-identification, the intrinsic nobility and justice of the Enlightenment usually passes for common sense with us. How could the Enlightenment possibly be a bad thing for anyone? What could be worse than to reject it? The French perspective is very similar – it was, they believe, their unique contribution to civilization, and they are justly proud of it.

The rest of Europe had a rather different experience of the Enlightenment. For Spaniards, Prussians, Austrians, Russians, and indeed at first the French, the Enlightenment initially appeared under the protection of monarchs called the Enlightened Despots, who expected to realize economic and military advantages by carrying out rational reforms. They were aware of its potentially revolutionary implications (it’s one thing to base government on tradition, another on reason), but they were confident that these could be controlled so long as the philosophers did not do too much philosophizing in public. As we now know, ideas tend to take on a life of their own, and even for the most ruthlessly efficient state, controlling them is an extremely uncertain business.

It is almost impossible to imagine today the excitement and optimism that the French Revolution inspired in its early years (1789 – 92). People who had lived since time immemorial under the most brutal and senseless despotism suddenly felt they had a chance at a better life – not later, in heaven, if they were good, but now, in this life, if they would fight for it. The aristocracy trembled with fear and rage as revolutionaries confiscated their property, shuttered the churches, executed their King, established a Republic, and proclaimed the Universal Rights of Man and the Citizen. Everywhere they looked they saw enemies, fed on the false promises, and only too-eager to slit their throats for a little gold. But people who had been kept on the outside of the old order - the young, the poor, the merchants, the intellectuals, people with brains and ambition but no family name - were thrilled to see the corrupt old order being shaken to its foundations. A better, freer, more rational world was within reach. All things were possible.

However, as the Revolution entered its more radical phase (1793 – 95), the thrill began to wear off. It was one thing to talk about Reason in the abstract, or to cheer the Revolutionaries in Paris from the safety of Berlin or Madrid. It was quite another to watch the Terror (1793-94) and the Bonaparte dictatorship (1799) hollow out the Revolution from the inside, and still another to have French soldiers show up on your doorstep. By the time the Napoleonic tide receded (1814), the politics of God and King, Tradition and Order, had once again become the common sense of all right-thinking people. There were, it turned out, worse things than the banal stupidity and injustice of the status quo – there was war, terror, theft, and the rule of King Mob.

However, not everyone felt this way. The memory of the Revolution, despite its failures, was too powerful to be stamped out on the battlefield or abolished by royal decree. Scarred veterans, the vengeful poor, and a new generation of young people watched and waited, certain that their chance would come. But perhaps more importantly, nations the restored aristocracy itself recognized that they could not turn back the clock. In order to defeat the Revolution in France, they had been forced to revolutionize their own countries - through mass conscription, mass politics, by fostering industry and commerce, and by ceding one feudal privilege after another to draw on the military and economic power of the people. Not all of the time, but often enough, the North and the West prevailed against the East and the South, because those were the directions in which Revolution and Enlightenment tended to travel. The last hurrah for the aristocracy was the First World War. After that, the aristocracy was finished as a political power in Europe, and the "long nineteenth century" became the "short twentieth century," where totalitarianism rather than aristocracy was the principle challenge for the ideals of the Enlightenment.

The essential point, for our purposes, is that in the early days the Enlightenment was imposed on much of Europe at gun-point. Where the French quickly decided, in the following generation, that the Enlightenment and Revolution had been good things, and in general liked to see themselves as the agents of a new dispensation of universal liberty and reason, to the people beyond their borders they often looked like swaggering, shallow bullies who had to be fought to the death. Resistance to the Enlightenment became inextricably caught up with resistance to foreign occupation – which is to say, with war-heroism and patriotism. Put another way, the Enlightenment came to mean, for many Europeans, exactly the opposite of what it means for us (if we are Americans.)

This was particularly the case in Prussia, a deeply religious, militaristic, and culturally backward society with a big future ahead of it. "Germany" at this time was a geographic expression - there was no state of Germany as there was a state of France or of Britain. Rather, German-speaking Europe was divided between Prussia in the North, Austria in the South, and hundreds of statelets in between. Beginning with the career of Fredrick the Great (one of our Enlightened despots, r. 1740 - 86), Prussia began to edge out Austria, and over the course of the 19th century it became steadily larger and more powerful. Between 1866 and 1871, under “the Iron Chancellor” Otto von Bismarck, Prussia led a pan-German confederation in a series of short, sharp wars against Austria, Denmark, and France. In the exhilaration of victory, the allies declared a unified German Empire under the Prussian Monarchy, and effectively ended French domination of the continent.

If the great moment of national self-consciousness in France was the Revolution, that same moment in Prussia was resistance to the French occupation that followed. And as the Enlightenment provided the ideology of the Revolution and of France, the Counter-Enlightenment (Romanticism) provided the ideology of the Counter-Revolution and of Prussia, and indeed of German-speaking Europe. Patriotic German intellectuals began to look for a hard counter to the universal and rationalist claims of the Enlightenment - something that would defy reduction to logic and matter.

One of their answers to this challenge was history, which, they were confident, could not be reduced to a formula. It was therefore a matter of state interest to fund research into history. Germany established the first modern research-oriented universities, and the German model was gradually adopted by most other countries in the West - France in the mid-19th century, Britain and the United States in the late-19th, Russia in the early-20th. As a result, German historical thought was far in advance of that of other nations during the 19th century, and was indeed widely imitated in other countries. Thus most of our historians and philosophers of history will be German until we reach the 20th century. There was historical work being done in other countries, to be sure, but they were very frequently "playing catch up."

The central figure in this self-definition was Georg William Freidrich Hegel, who drew his inspiration from Kant and from Plato, and to whom practically all subsequent German thought was indebted in one way or another. As a result, Platonic thinking in general - which is very different than the empiricism that we typically take for granted as English-speakers -, combined with Counter-Enlightenment particularism, tended to define much of the German outlook. This accounts for much of the seeming otherworldliness of German philosophy, which deeply influenced German historical thinking, and many of the assumptions of which remain remain implicit, though usually unacknowledged, in historical methods today.

The British intellectual tradition, by comparison, has tended to define itself somewhat ambivalently toward the Enlightenment. Many of its luminaries were British (Locke, Newton, Hume) whose ideas were imported to France (largely by Voltaire), which meant that the British were in a sense its co-authors. But Britain was an implacable foe of Revolutionary France, and in consequence British intellectuals had strong reasons to distance themselves from what they regarded as the overly-theoretical and recklessly ideological aspects of the Revolution. Respect for tradition and organic, gradual development, they began to insist, was what made British government successful. They therefore tended to occupy a kind of middle ground between French and American universalism on the one hand, and German particularism on the other. Much in it is familiar to the American outlook, but the British habit of appealing to Britishness as a self-validating principle usually seems a bit odd to Americans, who, like the French, tend to think that Reason is the sole legitimate court of appeal.

Some of the ideas we will discuss in the rest of the series will seem strange indeed, and we may be tempted to wonder how anyone could have ever believed such nonsense. But if we keep these national traditions in mind, and the way they each grow out of a unique national experience of Enlightenment and Revolution, we will perhaps be able to see how these ideas might have made sense at the time – or how they might have even become the common sense of our own time and place, if things had been just a little different…

Part of a Series on the Enlightenment
Part of a Series on Philosophy of History (XIII of XXXV)

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Thomas Jefferson (1743 - 1826) and the young Republic

“We hold these Truths to be self-vident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. 

Thomas Jefferson (1743 – 1826) – revolutionary, political philosopher, author of the Declaration of Independence, Governor of Virginia, and third President of the United States – probably did as much as anyone to shape our vision of what it means to be an American.

He was born into the one of the oldest families of Virginia’s planter aristocracy, learned the Greek and Latin classics as a youth, attended William and Mary, and became one of the most successful lawyers in the Colonies. He also owned one of the largest libraries in the colonies, which eventually became the basis for the Library of Congress. In 1768 he was elected to the House of Burgesses of Virginia, at that time the largest and probably the wealthiest Colony.

There was as yet no sense of an American identity, but the British were doing much to create one. During the Seven Year’s War (1754 – 63; don’t ask) Britain pursued its traditional strategy of playing both sides against the middle on the continent, while using its superior navy to seize as much overseas territory as possible. After wrecking the French fleet at Lagos and Quiberon (1759) the British captured French Canada and Spanish islands in the Caribbean, which had been left more or less defenseless.

This strategy succeeded a little too-well – the British captured the territory, but they spent money they didn’t have doing it. When they tried to make up the difference by taxing the Colonists, the Colonists balked. Why should they pay more in taxes for military protection that they needed even less, now that the French and Spanish had been beaten? Hadn’t Colonial trade been stifled with regulations and tariffs for years? Who was representing their interests in Parliament, where these taxes were being cooked up? The Colonists listened with rising irritation as the British explained to them that they _were_ being represented – virtually. “No taxation without representation!” became their motto. The Colonists dumped some tea, Parliament sent in soldiers to restore order, and soon skirmishes at Lexington and Concord announced the end of the “discussion phase” of the conflict.

Taxes may have been the inciting cause, but a larger issue was the spread of Enlightenment ideals to the United States – particularly through men like Jefferson, who liked to keep up with the latest Parisian philosophy, and who hoped, like some of the Enlightenment’s more radical voices, for a Republic. At that time all right-thinking people were monarchists, who firmly believed that popular belief in God and King were necessary supports to the social order. Being a Republican then was a bit like being a Communist now – it was a radical, dangerous, utopian, crazy idea that would obviously never work. However, the conflict with the British tended to radicalize people, and the latest French political theories offered an attractive alternative to the God and King model of the past. Gradually the idea took hold, at least among the elite, that the self-evident truths of Reason, not the ancient authority of kings and the mumbo-jumbo of priests, provided the only genuine basis for government. When the newly-formed Continental Congress needed a spokesman to explain this to George III, Parliament, and the world, they chose Thomas Jefferson as their most eloquent spokesman. He did not disappoint.

Jefferson spent most of the war as Governor of Virginia. Like most of the founders, he had no real military experience, and could do little to assist Washington except send him provisions, money, and men – which, as it turned out, proved quite challenging. Washington’s strategy of simply avoiding defeat (the tried and true tactic of third-world revolutionaries everywhere) proved highly successful. The French, for their part, were only too happy to help the Colonists secure their independence. After all it was their ideals that the Colonists were fighting for and making their own, and the war gave them an opportunity to even the score after the humiliation of the Seven Years War. They lent the Colonists money, sent them first-rate weapons, and smashed the British fleet at Chesepeake (1781).

This proved the turning point, for it effectively knocked the British navy out of the war and stranded their army on a hostile continent, which, the last several years of fighting had shown, they did not have the manpower to control. The main British army was just-then under siege at Yorktown. Under heavy bombardment, and with no hope of rescue or relief, Cornwallis surrendered. The Treaty of Paris (1783) officially ended the war two years later.

Jefferson’s vision for the new nation was inspired largely by Rousseau (subject of an earlier article, here: ) He hoped for a “Republic of Virtue” made up of simple, honest, independent farmers, free of the artificiality and vices of the city, and the corrupting influence of finance, commerce, and money. Although, like most of the founders, he thought too much direct democracy was a bad thing, and believed that limited suffrage and breaks on the popular will were necessary for responsible government, compared to his colleagues he was a radical egalitarian democrat. This philosophy placed him in permanent opposition to Alexander Hamilton (and his later protégé, John Adams), who insisted that commerce was the lifeblood of the nation, that a strong central government was necessary to keep the conflicting ambitions of the states from tearing the Republic apart, and who didn’t see any harm in a little aristocratic display now and then, to remind people who their betters were. Much American history could be, and the Constitution was, written in terms of the struggle between their two visions.

Jefferson was an effective President. He bought the Louisiana territory – about a quarter of the future landmass of the Republic – from Napoleon at a bargain-basement price, and sent the Louis and Clark expedition to explore the newly-acquired land. He supported the French, but kept the United States out of the war, despite significant provocation from the British, whose practice of kidnapping American sailors for use in the British Navy would provoke another war in 1812. North African pirates had a similar habit with respect to American merchant shipping, which the previous administrations had managed largely by paying tribute. As President, Jefferson refused to continue the practice. He sent a squadron of frigates into the Mediterranean, sank the corsair fleet, shelled Tripoli, and negotiated the release of American hostages. After his second term as President, Jefferson retired from public life, and spent his remaining years engaged in philanthropy and philosophy. He died, perhaps fittingly, on July 4th – within a few hours of his lifelong rival, John Adams.

The Republic that Jefferson helped found was regarded for more than a century afterwards as a highly uncertain experiment. In a sense it still is, though we are perhaps not as keenly aware of this as our ancestors were. Nevertheless, history offers no guarantee that our ideals, our values, and our vision of the world will prevail. These are, rather, things that have to be fought for and recreated in each generation. Ultimately the success of our nation, and of our ideals, does not depend on allegiance to any particular doctrine, ideology, or party. It depends, as Jefferson saw, on our willingness to recognize ourselves in other Americans, to respect the desire of all people for freedom and equality, and to work out our differences through reason, discussion, and good will.

Part of a Series on the Enlightenment