31 January 2014

Schopenhauer on Hegel: "A flat-headed, insipid, nauseating, illiterate charlatan."

There's nothing like a good insult or two, and if you're looking for insults in philosophy, you need look no further than Arthur Schopenhauer's comments on his German contemporary, the much more popular and successful Friedrich Hegel. 

Schopenhauer suggested as a motto of Hegel’s philosophy some words of Shakespeare: ‘such stuff as madmen tongue and brain not’.

He added:

"Hegel, installed from above, by the powers that be, as the certified Great Philosopher, was a flat-headed, insipid, nauseating, illiterate charlatan, who reached the pinnacle of audacity in scribbling together and dishing up the craziest mystifying nonsense. This nonsense has been noisily proclaimed as immortal wisdom by mercenary followers and readily accepted as such by all fools, who thus joined into as perfect a chorus of admiration as had ever been heard before. The extensive field of spiritual influence with which Hegel was furnished by those in power has enabled him to achieve the intellectual corruption of a whole generation."

Schopenhauer, who basically regarded Hegel as a paid agent of the Prussian dictatorship of that time, wasn't exactly perfection incarnate himself, and served up some nonsense of his own. For example, his essay 'On Women' shows himself up as a pretty disgraceful misogynist (something which was apparently inspired by his relationship to his mother). He was also driven by resentment at Hegel's worldly success and his own lack of, since for most of his life his writings, and especially his great work The World as Will and Representation, were completely ignored.

Karl Popper, who invokes the above words during his own attack on Hegel in The Open Society and Its Enemies, calls Schopenhauer: "a Platonic idealist and a conservative if not a reactionary, but a man of supreme integrity who cherished truth beyond anything else. There can be no doubt that he was as competent a judge in philosophical matters as could be found at the time."

In his own attack on Hegel, Popper says:

"Hegel’s intention is to operate freely with all contradictions. ‘All things are contradictory in themselves’, he insists, in order to defend a position which means the end not only of all science, but of all rational argument. And the reason why he wishes to admit contradictions is that he wants to stop rational argument, and with it scientific and intellectual progress. By making argument and criticism impossible, he intends to make his own philosophy proof against all criticism, so that it may establish itself as a reinforced dogmatism, secure from every attack, and the insurmountable summit of all philosophical development."

Both Schopenhauer and Popper make important points which are still relevant today, with ideological politics very much retaining their allure, for example in Islamism and forms of feminism that invoke unchanging social structures (for more on this see my series on Karl Popper and the fight against ideological nonsense)

For more articles on Philosophy and Literature: click here.

29 January 2014

On land

We don’t talk about land much. We don’t talk about it enough.

For the whole of human history and indeed the history of the natural world, land has been fought over, often to the death.

But now, in our world, land is treated as a commodity to be bought and sold. For the most part its principal value is monetary value. Any meaning attached to land, place and property is subject to market values.

This way of treating the land is probably unique to our ‘Western’ civilisation that has now gone global and is impinging upon all aspects of life on our planet.

It is often assumed to be a neutral way, but this is not the case. Every way has values, and our way’s principle value is money. This value elbows out other values which attach different meanings to the land, for example those of ‘native’ tribes in the Americas who venerate the earth, in Britain with common land which became subject to ‘Enclosures’, and nowadays with the socialised provision of housing under relentless attack from those who want ‘state’ assets put on the open market as a matter of principle.

This is the way we do things. This is the value which predominates our world, which don’t forget is oriented to continuous ‘growth’, a word that encompasses expansion into new territories but also into unexploited parts of existing territories – think for example the way billboards colonise our public spaces. It also feeds off population growth, for more people means a larger market and potentially greater prices.

The idea that this is a ‘free’ way is true in a limited fashion in terms of individual rights to buy and sell. But throughout human history these rights have been subject to coercion, soft and hard; hard coercion as in the forced appropriation of land as with the Enclosures and the forced removal of Indian tribes in North America to reservations; soft coercion through simple monetary power and ‘incentives’, like for example the right to buy council homes at reduced prices and forcing public bodies to raise money through asset sales as a result of swingeing budget cuts.  

As a culture, we have countered this remorseless pressure of the market on the land in some ways, for example through the creation of National Parks, the initial drive to build council homes and, to give the present government a smidgeon of credit (perhaps the sole remaining legacy of ‘The Big Society’), the right of communities to protect local assets. But the market never stops pressing against these constraints: this is the nature of an economic system that always wants more and is never content with letting things be.

This is a much deeper issue than the boring and unending debate about state versus private ownership however. It is about what land means to us, what values we attach to it, and which of those values prevail.

The economist Karl Polanyi had some interesting thoughts on these issues.

He viewed land, which he said “is only another name for nature”, as one of the ‘fictitious commodities’ along with human labour (people), and money – because none of them had been produced for sale on a market; they each possess a separate existence.

Polanyi said: 
“The crucial point is this: labour, land and money are essential elements of industry; they also must be organized in markets; in fact, these markets form an absolutely vital part of the economic system. But labour, land and money are obviously not commodities; the postulate that anything that is bought and sold must have been produced for sale is emphatically untrue in regard to them."

The impact of man’s activity on the land (and indeed the seas and the air) under global capitalism is unprecedented in human history – to the extent that the Nobel Prize-winning scientist Paul Crutzen has decided that our present age constitutes a new geological epoch.

Crutzen has said: "I was at a conference where someone said something about the Holocene [epoch]. I suddenly thought this was wrong. The world has changed too much. So I said: 'No, we are in the Anthropocene.'

The sociologist and former ‘Third Way’ theorist Anthony Giddens, who has been working on these issues, picks up the thread:

The Anthropocene Age is an age in which human activity has so influenced the physical world around us, the world of nature, and so deeply influenced the world in which we live – the external world, the world of nature as it used to be called – that nature is no longer nature.”

“[Crutzen] argued, I think entirely correctly, that this completely re-orients and re-structures the study of geology and some of the other physical sciences because human beings, as it were, have invaded the natural world around us. A great deal of what used to be natural is natural no longer, and a lot of the ecosystems which quite rightly we worry about are no longer external to human activity; they are ecosystems operating in the context of the gigantic impact which we’ve made on the world around us."

As with most important things and big changes taking place in our hyper-globalised and economically maximised world, we have not been given any choice about this one.

Both democratic cultures and dictatorships have failed to address or respond to these bigger themes in any meaningful way. In Britain the major political parties (including my own Labour Party) are not interested for the most part. They are fixated on maximising economic performance (which many political experts decree as the only issue that matters), and of course maximising votes in marginal constituencies to get elected.

This is understandable, but it shows a desperate lack of awareness and ability to confront the really big issues.

The Indians of North America traditionally view the land as their mother, and therefore took care to look after it. 

Our way is different, and it is not all bad. But I think with the huge changes we are pressing on ourselves and the world around us that it is about time that we consider in a meaningful way whether we are happy with what we are doing, and made a decision about it as a political community - beyond the dynamics of our party political knockabout. 

It seems to me that this is precisely what democracy should be for.

13 January 2014

A note on ignorance from Kant

Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason is a hugely impressive (but fiendishly difficult) treatment of our knowledge and ignorance.

One of its more clear and plainly-written segments comes in a Note to a section entitled: ‘The Transcendental Ideal’. In this, Kant writes:

The investigations and calculations of astronomers have taught us much that is wonderful; but the most important lesson we have received from them is the discovery of the abyss of our ignorance in relation to the universe – an ignorance, the magnitude of which reason, without the information thus derived, could never have conceived. This discovery of our deficiencies must produce a great change in the determination of the aims of human reason.”

There is a crucial point here for all of us, that the deficiencies in our claims to knowledge are as much if not more important than all our achievements.

Too often we assume that our knowledge is all-pervading or at least at some point in the future will be all-pervading. But there is no reason to assume this. Kant said (in 1781) that our ignorance of the whole nature of the universe constituted an “abyss”, and this is still true today, despite all the advances in science and technology. Any belief that we do, or can, understand reality in in its totality, is an act of faith on a par with a belief in God. We may believe it, but there is no reason to believe it.

This calls for a certain humility which is not easy to retain in our ‘fast-moving’ world of growing markets, moving peoples and the progressive colonisation of the natural world.

By trying to get on, just to get by, we can’t help but be a cog in the wheel of a system whose advocates claim ultimate right on their side, but with no ultimate justification – just self-justifying ideology. We have no reason to trust them just as we have no reason to trust the Marxists and Islamists and other ideologues who claim self-righteousness and moral superiority from spurious claims to ultimate knowledge.

8 January 2014

On the Political – immigration and Chantal Mouffe’s challenge to liberal orthodoxy

I’ve found myself blathering on about immigration rather too much for my own liking lately, but it is probably the issue which best demonstrates a conceit at the core of current liberal-left politics in Britain.

We have reached a point which feels like a crescendo in the ‘debate’ on immigration, at least in terms of attention being paid, following BBC Political Editor Nick Robinson’s BBC2 programme last night, entitled 'The Truth About Immigration'.

Yet the response of mainstream liberal-left publications and their writers to this heightening of discussion and awareness has been almost universal: that we shouldn’t be having the debate at all. It is a revealing viewpoint, and offers a nice opportunity to look at the arguments of Chantal Mouffe on how liberal politics seeks to crush what she calls ‘the political’ in favour of a sort of self-styled ‘rational consensus’.

Let’s have a look at some of the arguments for suppression first.

First up is Stephen Bush, from the Labour pressure group Progress (often called the ‘Blairite’ wing of the party).

He writes: “The plain truth is that Britain needs more immigration, not less; that the coalition’s success in reducing immigration has been an utter disaster for Britain,” and “we can spend the next year and a half banging on and on about immigration. Or we can talk about the real problems that face the country.”

Then on the Guardian’s Comment Is Free, Alex Andreou makes a similar argument to Peter Wilby’s that I looked at before here. Andreou reckons opinions on immigration that aren’t based on statistical evidence are invalid: “We don't discuss immigration – because discussion would imply a factual basis and the exchange of logical arguments. We worry, we whine and we gossip about it.”

Now, in my opinion – which Andreou scorns as “idiotic” – worrying, whining and gossiping is a part of politics – and a perfectly legitimate one. If it is based on lived experience, there is nothing wrong with that either – I don’t see why we should only be allowed to discuss things by using statistical data and logic.  Feeling matters greatly, and it always will – however much the self-appointed and actual experts decry it as irrational and invalid for not fitting their own prejudices (for example that economic growth is of greater importance).

[N.B. It is not necessarily an indicator of much, but the comments to both Bush’s and Andreou’s articles (on left-wing websites) are overwhelmingly negative to their arguments.]

Phil Dore, on his blog ‘A Very Public Sociologist', brings in another conventional viewpoint that because the right-wing press and politicians talk about something, it is somehow invalid – while also making the classic error of equating concerns about immigration (which are held by 63% of long-term immigrants remember) with attacking and scapegoating immigrants themselves.

He says: “Years of scaremongering by the press, successive governments and opportunist politicians have ensured immigration has become nothing more than a fetid, toxic swamp. Its rotten stink permeates politics as it competes to scapegoat and appear "tough" on people who come to live and work here. Basically, it's who can fall furthest, fastest into a bottomless pit of amorality and wilful ignorance. But, apparently, all they want is an open and honest debate about immigration *innocent face*.”

All these articles and arguments come back to the same point: that we shouldn’t be discussing what opinion polls consistently raise as one of the most important issues for ... the people, ordinary people, from all races and even among immigrants themselves as we have already seen.

The basis of these arguments is that it is somehow illegitimate to discuss it. Reflecting on that, I find it staggering that we left-wingers have reached this point. The most dominant public sphere narrative on the left believes in suppressing and shouting down discussion among the masses of people we claim to represent, on one of the issues that is most important to them. This is not good.

This is where Chantal Mouffe, the admirably independent-minded left-wing political theorist, comes in.

In her short book, On the Political, Mouffe says:

The theorists who want to eliminate passions from politics and argue that democratic politics should be understood only in terms of reason, moderation and consensus are showing their lack of understanding of the dynamics of the political. They do not see that democratic politics needs to have a real purchase on people’s desires and fantasies and that, instead of opposing interests to sentiments and reason to passions, it should offer forms of identifications conducive to democratic practices.”

One of her major positive ideas is that of ‘agonism’.

Of this, she says: “While antagonism is a we/they relation in which the two sides are enemies who do not share any common ground, agonism is a we/they relation where the conflicting parties, although acknowledging that there is no rational solution to their conflict, nevertheless recognize the legitimacy of their opponents. They are ‘adversaries’ not enemies. This means that, while in conflict, they see themselves as belonging to the same political association, as sharing a common symbolic space within which the conflict takes place.  We could say that the task of democracy is to transform antagonism into agonism.”

An agonistic political space would have no problems discussing immigration. I think it is quite obvious though that our current democratic culture manifests itself clearly as antagonistic on this issue. People shout at each other, get angry, make accusations and deny the legitimacy of their opponents’ opinions – not just the lefties above of course but from the right wing too.

Our democracy is much weaker because of this than it otherwise would be, something I largely blame on the mainstream liberal-left for, far too willingly, engaging in antagonistic politics, with an agenda and moral compass generally set as the opposite of its enemies – not a sensible or intelligent way to go.

In her essay Artistic Activism and Agonistic Spaces, Mouffe says, “Contrary to what neo-liberal ideologists would like us to believe, political questions are not mere technical issues to be solved by experts.”

But now, from the left, we have what is an essentially neo-liberal, free market ideology of ‘immigrationism’, one that delegitimizes the views of a great body of the public for being ‘wrong’ – for being ‘irrational’ – in the way they feel. 

It is a strange state of affairs when Nigel Farage of the UK Independence Party and many Conservatives talk in concerned tones about the effects of immigration on low wage earners and young people in Britain while dominant left opinion privileges the rights of people from outside the country – privileging non-citizens over citizens.

We can perhaps see the changing make-up of leftist politics in these phenomena. After all, highly-paid and -qualified people are now twice as likely as those from middle and lower income families to view immigration in positive terms. Meanwhile, middle class people are now more likely to describe themselves as leftwing (36% according to this poll in 2012) than working class people (28%).