Politics and Critical Philosophy

I am realizing more and more that my interest in politics is fueled by a question which is not discussed in the media or is much in the public consciousness. And that is the question: What is the relation between politics and critical philosophy?

By “critical philosophy” I mean 19th and 20th thinkers such as Kierkegaard, Marx, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, Heidegger, Dewey, Foucault and so on (a motley crew, no doubt) who were critical of modern, Enlightenment philosophy of the 17th and 18th centuries (I am avoiding “post-modern,” since it means so many different things at this point).

Modern philosophy is tied together with achievements such as the rise of democracy, modern science, capitalism and secularism. Thinkers like Descartes, Locke, Hume and Kant were philosophers who created conceptual frameworks to make sense of, strengthen and defend these achievements. And yet, as the critical philosophers suggested, there are deep problems and internal tensions within the conceptual frameworks of modern philosophy.

The question then is: Can the achievements of modernity such as democracy and secularism survive whatever flaws there are within the frameworks of modern philosophy? If so, how?

The clearest example in the 20th century of connecting critical philosophy to politics is communism. Marx’s argument was that it is not possible to retain capitalism once the alienated conceptions of freedom and individuality inherent in modern philosophy were discarded – that true freedom required that workers overthrow the capitalist system. In the Russian and Chinese revolutions, as these ideas were being implemented, it seemed that democracy and secularism as well would have to be discarded.

The most notorious example of an individual philosopher in the 20th century trying to connect critical philosophy to politics is Heidegger. His affiliation with Nazism, and his antisemitism, became inseparable for Heidegger from his philosophy, and from the sense that Western society had to break from, as he saw it, the technological and individualized alienation of modernity. Though many Heidegger scholars have worked hard to separate Heidegger’s philosophy from his Nazism (and I think a good deal of what is great in Heidegger’s thought can be conceptually separated from Nazism), nonetheless it cannot be denied that the coming together of politics and critical philosophy was what gave Heidegger himself a messianic feeling. And he falsely assumed that the Nazis would share such a feeling and treat Heidegger as its main philosophical voice. He failed to take into account that the Nazis could be satisfied with a much cruder version of critical philosophy, one which treated only Hitler as the main prophet.

I would say the ideals of democracy, secularism and pluralism are the crown jewels of Modern philosophy, but as jewels, they are buried within a great deal of the conceptual confusion and arrogance of modernity. This arrogance is evident in the lethargic and uninspired arguments of many democrats today, as if the shining ideals of democracy and pluralism are enough to justify liberalism, and as if no difficult conceptual, emotional and cultural issues remain for how to re-interpret and re-awaken the ideals of the Enlightenment for the radically different and newer times of the 21st century – a reinterpretation which takes seriously critical philosophy and incorporates its criticisms and insights.

It is amazing that a thinker such as Wittgenstein never grappled seriously with this problem: of how the core ideals of democracy and secularism of early modern philosophers could be retained and could survive the criticisms pressed by thinkers such as himself. Either Wittgenstein assumed that the criticisms of philosophical modernity could never jeopardize democracy itself, or he assumed that losing democracy would not be such a bad thing after all. I don’t know which is true, though neither seems right. The former seems naïve and the latter callous.

Nonetheless, there are two broad movements I can think of in the 20th century which aimed for precisely such a combination: to hold on to the ideals of Modern philosophy while cutting away many of modern philosophy’s confusions and blind-spots.

One movement is pragmatism very broadly understood, including thinkers like Dewey, Marcuse, Habermas and Charles Taylor. The core of Dewey’s philosophy can be put simply like this: how to foster democracy, secularism, pluralism and science without the antiquated metaphysics and epistemology of Cartesian and Kantian worldviews. It was this project of Dewey’s that Rorty was seeking to rehabilitate.

The other movement, I will call broadly, “post European-canon studies”, and includes Feminist philosophy, post-colonial studies, African-American philosophy, comparative philosophy and so on. Much of what its critics mockingly refer to as “identity studies”, as if these concern only particular groups and not the universal perspective of philosophy. Of course, this criticism uncritically presupposes an Enlightenment conception of universality as something abstract, emaciated and decontextualized, even as it ignores the deeply contextualized and power laden aspects of modern philosophy. Ultimately, the aim of post European-canon studies is not to undermine modern philosophy as nothing but the views of dead, white males, but to figure out how to truly realize the ideals of democracy and pluralism, and in what ways modern philosophy itself has to be transcended for such ideals to be realized.

In effect both of these movements – pragmatism and post European-canon studies – are premised on the hope that a critical reflection on modernity can strengthen its core values of democracy and pluralism. That we can accept that modern philosophy had serious confusions, and can seek to overcome such confusions while being true to the egalitarian ideals of modernity.

But I can understand if some people do not share this hope, and think it is naïve and confused. They might think, as Heidegger did, that it is not possible to let go of some of the confusions and blind spots of modernity without giving up on some of the ideals of modernity itself, like democracy or secularism. They might prefer instead to go back to some of the pre-modern ideals of societal organization, so as to foster older, identitarian models of coherence and social coordination.

I disagree with this view, and I hold out hope that one can be critical of modern philosophy while holding onto egalitarian ideals. Therefore I disagree both with those who think that modern philosophy is somehow the apotheosis of philosophy, and those who think that the limits of modern philosophy imply the limits of democracy and pluralism as well. But it is of the essence of the hope of egalitarianism that one is able to engage with others, no matter their views, with respect and as fellow rational inquirers. If I can’t keep this hope alive in my own actions and behavior, it will not be possible to defend the hope with others.

And as a philosopher I am convinced that these debates about modernity and its alternatives are the essence of the political events of our time. Even if politicians, media, family and neighbors don’t think of it in these philosophical terms, but only in the more prosaic terms available to them through newspapers, television, facebook and twitter. They do not realize it but their terms are but reflections of reflections, conceptual residues of earlier philosophical reflection, and what they call their “values” or “instinct” or “opinion” or “choices” are but the more surface manifestations of the deeper conceptual transformations. To affect deeper change, we have to engage with the deeper conceptual issues.

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